by Asja Bakić
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Asja Bakić is a Bosnian poet, essayist, literary translator, and short story writer. Her first story collection, Mars, previously published in Croatia in 2015, will get a US release next month (March 12, 2019), with translation by Jennifer Zoble. I received a free e-book ARC from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The stories range from contemporary mainstream, to ghost stories and other fantasies, to science fiction, although only one has scenes on Mars. In an afterword, it is said that Mars is used in a metaphorical way in Slavic cultures, with the phrase "as if he came down from Mars" used to describe an outsider, or a mysterious person.
Her fantasies are more like traditional folklore, and her science fiction could easily be adapted to Twilight Zone or Black Mirror episodes. Several even had me seeing similarities to Philip K. Dick, where the reality of the situation is always suspect. Some could be dreams, such as the first story, "Day Trip to Durmitor," wherein a woman is told she is dead, and the afterlife is shaped by her consciousness, yet where she finds herself is like nothing she's ever imagined. Both "Buried Treasure" and "The Talus of Madame Liken" are probably based on traditional stories. The former may be about an ogre from the mountain forest, or it could just be the active imagination of a group of children. If they are right, I have a good idea what he's throwing into the dried up wells. "Abby" may or may not be an android, and it's possible "Asja 5.0" is one of a group of clones. I was also confused as to whom "Carnivore" referred, was it the man, or one or both of the women? "Passions" concerns a writer whose memories may be suspect. She wants to identify the author of an anonymously published novel, while her publisher thinks she's joking since he thought it was her. Or is it an old friend (lover?) back in town after many years, whose memory of their relationship seems to be different than her own? Maybe someone else altogether? More confusion in "The Guest," with a journalist visiting a mysterious cult enclave. Was it her idea to investigate, or was she lured there? Is the cult leader an alien? Is she?
I read an online interview where Bakić says the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars will always be a permanent part of her memory, and she has written about them on her blog and in magazine articles, but wasn't interested in incorporating it into her fiction. If that is the case, I'm not sure where the refugees in "Heading West" are running from, although their eventual destination is somewhere in Africa, with one of their ports of call Ancona, on the east coast of Italy directly across the Adriatic from the former Yugoslavia. The final story is the one set on Mars, although that's not its title. "The Underworld" posits a future in which literature has been banned on Earth, with any writer who would not renounce their craft being exiled to Mars. There is still a black market for books, proceeds from which the protagonist uses to finance occasional return trips to Earth. There's also a mystery surrounding a duology of books, one of which she found on Mars, the other a friend says is on Earth. If they can bring them together it might lead to an Earth shattering discovery.
Quite a few of the stories revolve around books, or a journal, or a mysterious message, and even though I implied confusion or uncertainty concerning some of them, I did not mean that in a negative way. Bakić knows that the best writers leave some things for the reader to figure out on their own, or to discover on rereading. I will be reading this again, not just to clear up the confusion, but to relish a very talented writer. Even though many of her characters have trouble figuring out their situation or making connections with others, it's clear Bakić uses her art to make connections to the mind of the reader. It's a short book, just ten stories, the longest of which is only 24 pages. I don't know if she's published any other stories since these, whether there's another collection on the horizon, but I hope so.
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