by Goce Smilevski
One of the negative consequences of the so-called “period of transition” in Macedonia which started, as in most Eastern European countries, at the beginning of the 1990s, and which is still going on in the Balkans, was the closing of a large number of bookstores. The privatization of the publishing industry during the transition period as well as the desire of the new owners to get rid of large unprofitable spaces—a result of the significant drop in book demand which in turn was the result of the dramatically decreased purchasing power of the population— were the reasons why a large number of bookstores had to close down. Today, a decade and a half later, things are moving in a different direction: new bookshops are being opened and most of them function as cafés/bookshops. A few of them, like the bookshop at the “Tochka” (Dot) Cultural Center, are only one part of a much wider concept of exhibition spaces which host debates and symposiums dedicated to the work of artists from Macedonia and around the world. Dubravka Ugresic and Guyatri Chakravorty Spivak, the world-famous writer and theoretician, have been among the participants at these symposiums. These are sure signs that the previously frozen Macedonian cultural life is experiencing a thaw of revival.
The above-mentioned bookstore initiatives have coincided with the initiatives of several funding agencies interested in investing in arts and culture. Included among their beneficiaries have been the weekly teenage magazine Tea, the first to start the “cultural development” campaign when it included a free CD with each purchased copy of the magazine. This initiative was carried out in three cycles: the first was dedicated to classical music, the second to jazz, and the third to Macedonian folk music. Soon to follow was the “Best of World Literature” series of books that you could buy at a very reasonable price with a copy of Dnevnik and Utrinski vesnik, Macedonian dailies. A different title would accompany the daily every Thursday. Similar editions came out in Croatia, where the books were sold with copies of Jutarnji list, and also in Serbia, where they came with copies of the daily Politika (similar editions of these books were sold with the daily Vecernje novosti as well). “The Best of World Literature” series was comprised of a couple dozen books written by world-famous authors and of five books written by Macedonian authors. In Croatia and Serbia, the same series also included books written by local authors.
As with most other countries that went through a transition period during the 1990s, Macedonia saw a change of theme selection in its novels. If, in the past, the Macedonian historical novel typically had World War II and the period of Ottoman rule as its background, the present era is witnessing a change of chronotopes: nowadays, the action of historical novels is taking place during the Middle Ages, or Byzantine rule, or elsewhere in Europe during different historical periods. In addition, the past obsession with rural themes has given way to urban topics.
These changes are visible in the literary works that have recently received some of the most important prizes for prose writing in Macedonia. The recent recipients of “Racin’s Recognition” (part of “Racin’s Meetings,” a conference dedicated to the promotion of Balkan authors and literature) for the best novel published in Macedonia in the Macedonian language were the following novels: Zaharij i drugi raskazi (Zacharij and Other Stories) by Mihail Rendzov, Kamenot od Tvojot den (The Stone of Your Day) by Jagoda Mihajlovska-Georgieva, Drugata (The Other Woman) by Liljana Eftimova, and Ubavicata i maroderot (The Beauty and the Marauder) by Bozin Pavlovski. The “Stale Popov” award, given by the Macedonian Writers’ Association for the best prose novel published by a member of the Association, has honored the following works in recent years: Opishuvach (Describer) by Ermis Lafazanovski, Smrtta na dijakot (The Death of the Diac) by Dragi Mihajlovski, Spleteni raskazi (Plaited Stories) by Olivera Korverziroska, Skriena kamera (Hidden Camera) by Lidija Dimkovska (whose poetry collection Don’t Awaken Them with Hammers was published by Ugly Duckling Press in the U.S. this year) and Ervehe (Ervehe) by Luan Starova. Seven years ago, the Macedonian daily newspaper Utrinski vestnik, at the initiative of its Arts and Culture editor, Zvezdan Georgievski, created the award for the Macedonian Novel of the Year. A fair amount of publicity always surrounds this event, and it is not uncommon for the awarded novel to achieve three or more editions. The recipients of this award so far have been: Slobodan Mickovic for his Kukata na mazarena (Mazarena’s House), Venko Andonovski for Papokot na svetot (The Navel of the World), Dimitar Bashevski for Bunar (A Well), Goce Smilevski for Razgovori so Spinoza (Conversations with Spinoza), Milovan Stefanovski for Izgubeniot Zhegol (Lost Zhegol), Olivera Nikolova for Kuklite na Rosica (Rositsa’s Dolls), and Pajo Avirovic for Dzahiz i istrebuvachite na kuchinja (Dzahiz and the Dog Euthanizers).
Many of these novels explore in close detail what it means to live during a turbulent period in a particular place. The past is reflected through the prism of the present, and it frequently happens that the period of transition becomes a point where the hopes of the revolution, disappointments of the post-revolutionary period, and living and surviving during the Socialist era combine and intersect.
One of the main problems of Macedonian publishers in a country of two million people is how to come up with the money to cover printing costs, the author’s royalties, and also bring profit to the publisher so that they can continue to exist. The yearly subsidies of the Publishing Sector of the Macedonian Ministry of Culture support thirty percent of all titles applied for each year. The rest of the publications are published with the publishers’ own funds, through various grants and sponsorships, or with the help of organizations such as Soros Open Society, Pro Helvetia, and the Next Page Foundation. The result of this is that three groups of publishers have differentiated themselves in Macedonia: the first group depends largely on Ministry of Culture subventions, and its catalogues typically include a significant number of books written by Macedonian writers. The second group relies on foreign donations and grants with which they develop their Science and Literature in Translation Series, and the third, for the most part, is a self-supporting group which has to sell high print runs in order to stay in business. In an attempt to “play it safe” and have their own solid financial base, the publishers are turning more and more to publishing bestsellers—and not only those from the American Top 150, but also books that have sold many copies in neighboring countries. So, at kiosk stands, you can buy daily newspapers, cigarettes, condoms, and the translations of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and the novel Eragon written by American teenage author Christopher Paolini. But another trend is visible too: a publisher might announce a book as an American bestseller, while the book was never on any bestseller list, a marketing trick that still manages to significantly increase the sales of the book.
In this context, the following question imposes itself: how much of Macedonian literature is translated into other languages? To be translated into a foreign language means to exist on the world literature map. One of the biggest problems of Macedonian literature has always been that it is almost invisible on this map, with only a few books translated per decade. One of the reasons for this is that the government has never really built a strategy for support and training of quality translators from the Macedonian language and the result is that there is not even one translator who translates from Macedonian into any other major language. Another reason is that, unlike many other countries that have their own funds, organizations and strategies for promoting their own literature and creating interest in translating domestic writers into foreign languages, Macedonia has never had any fund that would support the translation of Macedonian books into foreign languages or that would build a strategy for presenting Macedonian literature to foreign publishers. Given the current state of the economy, we cannot, of course, afford to establish a fund similar to those that exist in Slovenia and Denmark (Denmark has recently allocated a budget of more than $1.5 million for artistic—including literary—collaborative exchanges between artists in Denmark and New York City), but even with a more modest budget, certain improvements could be made and several important books could be translated into two or three major languages, then later offered to foreign publishers specializing in foreign literature.
The current situation will probably see some improvement with a new initiative started by the recently formed Forum for Slavic Cultures. Pen Centers from eleven Slavic countries selected 110 novels from these countries written from 1989 to the present (ten novels from each country), in October 2006. Each country will publish one novel from each of the other ten countries and, in that way, each of the selected 110 novels will come out in one Slavic language. If all goes according to plan, the whole action should be carried out through 2007 and all of these novels will later be translated into English and offered to publishers in the United States and Great Britain. This will be a significant step in opening up the possibilities for more intensive circulation of literary works that are important and valuable in different languages and cultures. It will also be a chance for Macedonian literature to make its way onto the world literature map.
Translated by Ana Lucic