When I was in college, I found myself in a Balkan Folklore course. It would change my regional focus — I would end up writing my senior thesis about a book by Milorad Pavić, and the professor of that course became my advisor. So I was particularly excited to read the stack of books I brought home for consideration for this list. I dug deep into my research, and ended up with 13 amazing reads for your consideration — and discovered a few new all-time favorites.
I used the definition of Southeastern Europe as: Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Moldova, and Slovenia. I tried to make sure that each country was represented in the list below.
Many of these countries have been through turmoil in the past century. After Yugoslavia broke up in 1991, new borders were drawn and secessions, violence, and new political regimes criss-crossed the region. The shift into nation-building, into questions of language and memory, into trying to make sense of violence and politics, sparked a new push in national literature, a resurgence that led to new novels in Croatian, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and more.
These countries (of about 12.5 million people) are connected by region, but they’re made up of a huge mosaic of cultures, ethnicities, languages, and, of course, literatures. Yet many of the modern authors from these countries remain relatively unknown, and too few books from the region made their way to us in English translation. In addition, not nearly enough authors of color from the region have been translated.
I also want to take a moment to mention that the Romani oral and written traditions are vital for understanding the literature of the Balkan region. But in all my research, I wasn’t able to find available English translations of Balkan Romani works, despite the work of authors such as Jovan Nikolić, Alija Krasnići, Lilyana Kovatcheva, Akile Eminova, and Georgi Parushev. There are translated versions of these works, just not yet into English, or not available in English.
Please note that while I took great care to list content warnings where I could, sometimes things fall through the cracks. Please do additional research on the recommended titles if needed.
Catherine the Great and the Small by Olja Knežević, Translated from Croatian by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursač
This novel focuses on a close sisterhood and friendship, often destructive. Catherine is coming of age in 1970s Titograd alongside her dear friend Milica, a talented, bold aspiring actress, and her crush, a future football star. But as they grow up, things change. Milica falls into the wrong habits. Her crush is long gone. Catherine is trying to stay afloat as she grows, as trauma and bitterness inflect the edges of who she is. It’s a compelling novel about motherhood, pain, and a close friendship that reminded me of the fraught dynamic between Elena and Lila in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.
Content warnings for terminal illness and parental death, G-slur, sexual harassment and assault, toxic relationships, substance abuse, alcoholism, suicidal ideation.
Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, Translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford
On the eve of her grandfather’s death, in a desperate attempt to retain her autonomy amidst the strict gender essentialism of northern Albania, Hana takes advantage of an ancient and rare custom: she will become a man, with all of its privileges, rights, and protection. In exchange, she must remain a virgin, or her rights are revoked. Now, Hana is moving to the U.S. to start over in the house of her cousin, but she has a complicated relationship with her gender and body after years of living as a man. This novel is a brilliant satire that uses absurd contradictions to poke holes in the gender essentialism and heteronormativity of our world.
Content warnings for gender essentialism and sexism, fatphobic and ableist language, and rape attempt.
A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska, Translated from Macedonian by Christina E. Kramer
Zlata and Srebra are conjoined twins, connected at their heads. Their life in Skopje is often difficult — they are treated poorly, isolated, and their family doesn’t have much. The two girls have very different hopes for the future, and both often dream about the day that they’ll somehow find the money that could allow them to get surgery to be separated. The older they grow, the more they despair of the possibility — and when Srebra decides she wants to get married, it threatens their already fragile stability. In this metaphor for the transformation of Macedonia, Dimkovska writes a long, tightly woven story about identity and what it means to have independence.
Content warnings for alcoholism, ableism, sexual harassment, R-slur, G-slur and anti-Romani sentiment, suicide, and young death.
Everything Happens as It Does by Albena Stambolova, Translated from Bulgarian by Olga NIkolova
In this strange, surreal novel, a twisting family story unfolds in a web of stories and timelines. Boris is a young, strange boy in the Bulgarian countryside who feels most at home coated in bees; Phillip is a pathologist who stumbles one day on Maria, an enigmatic woman with fog in her eyes; Valentin and Margarita are their twins, both identical and eerily different. Out of them all, Stambolova weaves a story of images and surrealist strangeness, with Maria and her magic at its center. People who can’t stand to see loose ends dangle will be driven wild by this book — people who enjoy a healthy dollop of ambiguity and implied supernatural-ness will fall in love.
Content warnings for child death, parental death, G-slur.
Chronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare, Translated from Albanian by Arshi Pipa
A young boy grows up in Gijrokastër, Albania, a steep stony city that was under Italian or Greek control — often changing hands — and eventually occupied by Germans, all between 1939 and 1944. The novel by Albanian novelist Kadare is a beautiful, often funny, surreal book about years of life in the city as told by a child. He doesn’t understand much of what he hears and sees, which adds an ironic gloss to it all: from the coded language around gender and sexual subversion to the old-fashioned town’s fears of magic to the way he falls in love with the airplanes, not understanding why the adults discourage his love for the aerodrome. It’s a very well-written historical fiction novel with a lot of heart — a novel where the city itself is alive.
Content warnings for violence, homophobia, sex shaming, murder, fatphobia.
18% Gray by Zachary Karabashiliev, Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
This Bulgarian bestseller was finally translated into English in 2013. In Karabashiliev’s novel, Bulgarian émigré Zack goes to Tijuana after the sudden and distressing disappearance of his wife. In the city, he tries to intervene to save a stranger’s life, only to end up fleeing to the U.S. in a van that apparently is carrying quite a bit of weed. This event jumpstarts a road trip across the U.S., as Zack flees his own past. He photographs the U.S., speed-bumps over unexpected, often dangerous detours, and endures flashbacks as he has conversations with his missing, beloved Stella.
Content warnings for violence, paranoia, shooting, xenophobia.
My Heart by Semezdin Mehmedinovič, Translated from Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth
In this autobiographical novel, Bosnian author Mehmedinović writes about the events that unspool after his first heart attack, up until and continuing after his wife’s stroke. What might sound bleak is actually rich with love: it’s a story about memory and the way the two support and hold up each other through their times of need. He also takes a chance to highlight the painful inadequacy of hospitals and the impersonal care they give that too often neglects the emotional and mental needs of their patients.
Content warnings for passing suicide mention, heart attack/stroke, hospitalization, Islamophobia / xenophobia, PTSD and trauma.
The Appointment by Herta Müller, Translated by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm
Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009 for her books on life in Romania under dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. In The Appointment, a young girl working in a clothing factory in Bucharest is called in for questioning: she has been sewing notes into the linings of men’s suits, asking the far-off men to marry her so she can escape the country. As she heads to her interrogation, her mind drifts. The stream-of-consciousness story and its beautiful prose richly paint a world of fear and constant dread, touching on the people in her life who have been damaged or killed by the regime.
Content warnings for alcoholism, sexual harassment, deportation, grooming, violence.
Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić, Translated from the Serbian by Christina Pribićević-Zorić
This one might not be for the faint of heart. I wrote my thesis on this strange, wild story: a book about the lost people the Khazars, who may have converted to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam — at the point of their conversion, the story breaks into three books, expressing different stories and opinions representing each religion’s sources and stories. The novel is packed with magic, mysticism, dreams, and destiny — it denies us explanations and challenges what it even means to try and create a single history of a people who were dispersed out into the world, whose own viewpoints have been, perhaps irreparably, lost. There are countless things to discover in its pages.
Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danilo Kiš, Translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Michael Henry Heim
This collection of short stories will appeal to fans of Jorge Luis Borges and other fantastic authors of surreal and fabulist tales. In his haunting, eerie stories, a woman sees her family’s future murder in a dusty mirror; a woman learns about her father from an encyclopedia in the Royal Library of Sweden that chronicles the lives of all everyday people in order to battle inequality; a fictional history of an antisemitic book is outlined, its threats and its power made very clear. The stories are strange and rich.
Content warnings for antisemitism, violence, use of the G-slur.
Farewell, Cowboy by Olja Savičević, Translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth
Farewell, Cowboy features a young woman named Rusty who returns to her bleak Croatian childhood neighborhood to care for her mother, who is dependent on substance abuse. She has to cope with leaving her life behind and face her past. The book is one of disillusionment and pain. Rusty unpacks the stories behind her brother’s death by suicide at 18, a death caught up in the violence and anger of the youth in town, which connects back to old obsessions with “cowboys and Indians” and a modern-day western being filmed in town. The translator really worked to keep the slang feel of a lot of the dialogue, and it’s effective.
Content warnings for substance abuse, sexual assault, suicide, grief, anti-Indigenous stereotypes, racist terms and slurs, mental illness, homophobia.
The Cyclist Conspiracy by Svetislav Basara, Translated from the Serbian by Randall A. Major
This strange novel is told completely through fictional historical documents, everything from blue prints to letters to maps. It tells the story of a secret Brotherhood that meets in dreams, contemplating bicycles in order to gain esoteric knowledge. They work to influence world events in ways that are so deeply secret that sometimes they aren’t even certain they’re involved. It’s absurd and wild, a vivid satire of conspiracy theory and secret society stories, and readers who enjoy these sorts of reads that function as both puzzle and self-discovery will love this one. It’s especially relevant as the group questions reality itself, and argues over truth and facts, something that will read frustratingly true.
Bolla by Pajtim Statovci, Translated from the Finnish by David Hackston
Arsim is a young married man in Kosovo who falls hard for a young Serbian man named Miloš, who he meets in a café. The problem: Arsim cannot possibly be with Miloš, not for real. And when war breaks out, he and his growing family have to leave Kosovo, propelling him to a new level of darkness. Arsim is not a likable character: in fact, he’s awful, irresponsible and bad to his wife. But it’s a well-written novel, a story about repressed desire, about trauma, homophobia, and its impact. Arsim’s scars reverberate and damage him again and again as he tries to find his way back to Kosovo.
Content warnings for ethnic prejudice, homophobia, xenophobia, domestic violence and abuse, suicidal ideation, rape, ableism, mental illness, and fatphobia.
Before Brezhnev Died by Iulian Ciocan, Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth
These short stories, some interconnected, take place in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia. In the tales, families struggle with housing crises and deadening poverty in a society that preaches that everyone is doing well and living for their honest work. A pensioner seeks justice for his dead wife, who was crushed by a falling crane. A veteran grates after a kid throws a tomato at his head from above. Country and urban life clash. Cicocan, a novelist and presenter of a Radio Free Europe broadcast about current affairs in the Republic of Moldova, included this book in his trilogy of Moldova, with The Realm of Sasha Kozak and In the Morning the Russians Will Arrive.
Content warnings for suicide, alcoholism, sex shaming, abortion, domestic violence.
The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnovič, Translated from the Slovene by Olivia Hellewell
The Fig Tree is one of my new favorite novels: a rich intergenerational story rooted by Jadran, a man trying to find his own way in the midst of a family with complicated, tangled roots that extend particularly between Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. As he tells the story of his family and tries to figure out the circumstances of his grandfather’s death, Jadran has to confront the legacy of anger and loss that he’s inherited, the role of memory (is it cruel and bleak, or soft and hazy?), and grapple with whether freedom, in all its solitude and independence, is worth the loneliness that accompanies it. It’s a rich story about love and the stories we tell, that made me tear up more than once.
Content warnings for family death, memory loss / dementia, suicide, alcoholism, fatphobia.
Want more books in translation content? I have lists for you of books in translation from Catalonia, Argentina, France, Mexico, Central Africa, and Japan. If you have recommendations or requests for future lists of books in translation, or if you want me to know about a book I might have missed, let me know on Twitter.