So said E., my neighbor back in the day—we're talking mid-80s—of my instructor T., who lived next door to her with his bewitching wife, K. Both from Belgrade, they'd often take meals on their front porch, and would call me over to join them.
T. was my teacher for a summer night class on eastern European fiction. One hot, bright evening when I'd guzzled white wine while making dinner, I felt I'd embarrassed myself later in seminar by blurting out, of Witold Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke, "It's like an exploding series of babushka dolls!" He didn't bat an eye. In fact, he seemed to concur.
It wasn't just T. who had drawn me toward eastern European works. My old boss Jim Harris, at Prairie Lights Bookstore, had loaned me his two-volume hardbound edition of Rebecca West's amazing Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a chronicle of her tour through the then-Yugoslavia on the cusp of World War II. I ate it up, though given more recent history, I find even her dedication chilling: "To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are all now dead or enslaved."
The Tiger's Wife, by Téa Obreht, has been much praised this year, and in my view, deservedly so—I enjoyed and admired it a lot more than Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, which won a Pulitzer (Egan interviews Obreht in the reader's guide at the back of the volume). Set in Baltic states unnamed (though clearly Serbia and Croatia after the Balkan war had smashed the former Yugoslavia), it's the best thing I've read in months. Earlier this year, after the New York Times deemed it the best novel about food, I read Zola's In the Belly of Paris, but if you ask me, it has nothing on the following passage:
Nada had fried up sardines and two squid, and grilled a few fish that were about the size of a man's hand, and there was nothing to do but accept her hospitality and cluster around the square table in the kitchen while Barba Ivan poured us two mugs of homemade red wine. . . . Nada served us black bread, chopped green peppers, boiled potatoes with chard and garlic. She had made a massive effort, arranged everything carefully on blue china that was chipped, but lovingly wiped down after probably spending years in a basement, hidden from looters. The cool evening air came in off the sea from the lower balcony; there were sardines piled high and caked with salt, two charred bass shining with olive oil—'From our own olives,' Barba Ivan said, tipping the bottle so that I could smell the lip.
That flair for concreteness, for specificity of detail, is one of the things that keeps Obreht's tale grounded despite its animating legends—one of a deathless man, the other of the title character, a brutalized child bride. Then there are the back stories, which humanize even the brute. And then there's its earthiness: when the narrator, Natalia, relates her grandfather's reaction upon seeing his cancer scan: "Fuck. You go looking for a gnat and you find a donkey."