Ognjen Spahić, All of that (Review)

Regulars here know that I enjoy short stories, and that I review them regularly. Most of these reviews, though, are of Australian writers. I was therefore pleased when blogger roughghosts, in his review of a novel by Ognjen Spahić, provided a link to a Spahić short story titled “All of that”. As I haven’t reviewed many Balkan writers here, and definitely no Montenegrin writers, I grabbed the opportunity to read this story.

According to the biography provided by the online journal BODY, Spahić “is the best-known member of the young generation of Montenegrin writers to have emerged since the collapse of former Yugoslavia”. He’s published two collections of short stories and his novel Hansen’s Children (the one reviewed by roughghosts) won the 2005 Meša Selimović Prize for the best new novel from Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Elsewhere I read that he’s been a resident writer at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and won, in 2011, Romania’s Ovid Festival Prize for a prominent young talent. Have you heard of him? I hadn’t. Another win for litbloggers, methinks.

“All of that”, which I suspect comes from his first short story collection, All that, published in 2001, is a first person story by a father concerned about his son Danilo’s ability to cope with the death of a schoolfriend and with attending her funeral. Most of the story takes place on a father-son fishing trip in which the father plans to take his son’s mind off the death, but the son has other plans:

‘Dad, have you ever been to the cemetery?’ he asked as we were driving.

And so starts a conversation … I loved the writing (albeit I read a translation). The dialogue, which constitutes much of the story, is simple, direct, and true, but it is in the father’s reflections that the truth of the matter comes out. It’s the father who has problems with death. He’d lost his father (car-crash) when he was 6 years old and his mother (illness) when he was thirteen. “It’s difficult to talk about death”, he says

And even more difficult to explain to a child the ceremony and rituals which go with it in this rotten country.

“This rotten country” is alludes to something wider than the story at hand, and suggests to me there may be another level on which the story might be read. Interestingly too, as the father and son are rowing, the son says he doesn’t like fog though it doesn’t bother him. This surprises the father, but he suggests:

‘OK Danilo, Strange Prince of Darkness. Let’s row a little bit faster to that deserted island.’

Strange Prince of Darkness? Why does he call his son that? It seems affectionate. Other religious references, on the other hand, are more direct, such as “Deformed quotes from the Bible”.

Anyhow, the fog returns a few times in the story. At one time the father says it “creeps like a python after the slow process of digesting its prey”. It lifts towards the end, suggesting some resolution for the father/narrator’s anxieties.

What I enjoyed was the way Spahić slowly teases out the father’s feelings – through the dialogue, his reflections, the style (particularly the use of repetition), and the language and imagery – because in the end the story is more about the father’s feelings. Just after the “strange Prince of Darkness” comment, the father talks of making “a pretence at adventure, a small harmless attempt to escape from reality”. And yet, the son gives no sense of needing to escape from reality. It’s the father.

I’m not going to write more about this story. It would certainly bear multiple readings, but is powerful enough on the first reading to give a sense of yet another writer I’d like to get to know more. I might read Hansen’s children yet.

Ongjen Spahić
“All of that” in BODY, June 30, 2013
(Trans. by SD Curtis)
Available online at BODY

12 thoughts on “Ognjen Spahić, All of that (Review)

    • It is, roughghosts, isn’t it, which is understandable and a shame. And then getting people to read translated works when there’s so much in one’s own language to read can be a challenge – and harder when the authors aren’t know because there aren’t many translations!!

  1. It is a bit dark, but it does leaves an impression. I don’t know if it is meant to be dark, but I did go to a funeral this week. I like to read the next chapter.

    • Thanks Meg … it’s a little mysterious. I think there’s intended to be some light at the end but I think there are a lot of allusions and careful use of words that really make one think aren’t there?

      • It is great to tip a toe into another culture with something like this short story. Perhaps short stories are particularly good ways into another literature? Have you seen Reading the World by Ann Morgan? The author, aware of how monocultural her reading has been, sets up a blog with the intention of reading a novel/work of fiction from every country in the world. Its an interesting book.

        • Thanks Ian … I’ve heard of that book, but nit read it. But yes, I’ve been seeing short stories for some time as a way into other cultures or as intros to other authors that I haven’t read yet. The trick is finding the short stories sometimes. Short stories fill so many bills.

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