Saturday, 15 November 2014

An Evening with Aleksandar Gatalica and the Nottingham Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies

This week I sneaked my way into an evening organised by the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies at the University of Nottingham, where the new novel by Serbian author Aleksandar Gatalica was discussed. This novel is The Great War, which narrates the First World War.

'The Great War' is a novel that comprehensively and passionately narrates a number of stories covering the duration of World War One, starting with the year 1914 - the year that truly marked the beginning of the twentieth century. Following the destinies of over seventy characters, on all warring sides, Gatalica depicts the experiences of winners and losers, generals and opera singers, soldiers and spies; managing to grasp the atmosphere of the entire epoch, not only of these crucial four and a half bloody years, but also in the innocent decades that preceded the war, and the poisoned ones that followed. The stories themselves are various but equally important: here we find joyful as well as tragic destinies, along with examples of exceptional heroism. Yet 'The Great War' never becomes a chronicle, nor a typical historical novel; above all it is a work of art that uses historic events as means to tell many fantastic stories, with unbelievable and unthinkable convolutions. It is commendable in its breadth, its vision and its relevance to modern history.
The evening started off with a reading from the novel, both in its original language, Serbian, and the translation into English which came out this week. Although I didn't understand a word of the Serbian reading I really enjoyed hearing the novel in its original. A novel always changes in translation and hearing the way it was "supposed" to sound was a real treat, especially since Gatalica himself did the Serbian reading. When the translation was read I got a real taste of the kind of writing I could find in The Great War. It was a beautiful excerpt which managed to capture both something of the reality of war while not losing itself in detailed descriptions of costumes, weapons etc. The approach Gatalica took to this novel was to not have it be another retelling of what happened during the First World War but to infuse it with a sense of magic, almost, and definitely humanity. By choosing to follow over 70 characters, he makes sure that every side gets to tell part of the story of the First World War.

The readings from The Great War were followed by some of the students of the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies reading their translations of Gatalica's short stories from Vek, or in English The Century: 101 Stories of a Century. Apart from the amazing work done by the students in translating these Serbian stories, which had never before been translated into English, it was great to see the different style Gatalica chose for these stories. Some of them have a slight Absurdist tone to them, whereas others seem to revel in the author's ironic tone. What was almost sad about this was the realization for me that due to language differences there are stories and books I will never be able to read, unless they are translated. This was one of my reasons for attending this evening, because I think it's important to spread your literary wings, so to say, and see what the world has to offer you.

The evening ended with a general Q&A, which was extremely interesting. One of the topics discussed was translation. Gatalica himself translates Ancient Greek plays into Serbian and is therefore highly aware of the process. Besides just translating, a translator also has to bring something to the novel in order to make it speak the way it does in its original language. This is why translators should get more credit than they do because it is an extremely difficult job. Also discussed was the position of writers within Serbia, where they are often asked to comment on the political and cultural climate. I thought the ensuing conversation was really interesting because it highlighted the role writers used to have as critics of government and society. That position has become a lot less serious these days, for a good reason most likely, but I enjoyed touching upon that point.

Overall, I had a great evening and I want to take the time here to thank the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies for letting me into their evening despite studying English and to Aleksandar Gatalica for taking the time out of his busy schedule. It definitely pays of to spend some time investigating the literary culture of other countries because there are some real gems to be found!


  1. This sounds like a really great event; it makes me long to live in a country where there is at least one department of Slavonic studies. It's always interesting to discuss the issue of translation and writers' relationship/position in relation to politics.

    1. It was really fun and I really hope you'll get to one as well sometime soon :)