I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal (Czech Republic, 1983)
The Czech sense of humor is renowned in literature for both its hilarity and its biting darkness – and with Hrabal, you get both. This novel in particular uses the story of one unimpressive man, a waiter who, in progressing through his career, takes the reader through 20th century Czech history. Hrabal weaves humor, poignancy, and sharp observations of both people and his own country in this Czech classic.
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov (Russia, 1967)
During the Communist era, there was an outpouring of literature critiquing the often-oppressive regimes. At the top of this list is Bulgakov’s classic, a religious-themed novel that rebelled against the forced atheism of the Soviets. In one of the novel’s threads, Satan comes to Moscow with a gaggle of sidekicks, including a particularly entertaining talking black cat, to stir up trouble. In the other, Pontius Pilate ruminates on his reluctance to send Jesus to his death.
The Pyramid, by Ismail Kadare (Albania, 1995)
Great writers speak not only for themselves, but also for their nations. Kadare is exactly that for Albanians, playing the same role as Vaclav Havel did for the Czechs: a dissident, writing for freedom. The Pyramid, written in 1995, is dissidence in retrospect. It uses the building of the great pyramids in Ancient Egypt as a metaphor to capture the oppressive nature of the communist regime.
18% Gray, by Zachary Karabashliev (Bulgaria, 2008)
18% Gray, which won the Bulgarian Novel of the Year award when it was released in 2008, would seem at first glance to be completely unrelated to Eastern Europe. It is a story of the American Dream – of a man who, after his wife suddenly disappears, travels from Mexico to New York City in a mission to set his life back on track. However, there are flashbacks of communist Bulgaria throughout.
Celestial Harmonies, by Péter Esterházy (Hungary, 2000)
Another combined country and family history, Celestial Harmonies chronicles the author’s once-noble family first through the Hapsburg period in grand fashion, and then as they lose everything when the Communists take over. In it, though, the chronicle takes on a more magical feel, as the characters mentioned throughout are both one man and many, much like the country itself was in all of its various iterations.
The Good Life Elsewhere, By Vladimir Lorchenkov (Moldova, 2014)
The overarching idea of this comic novel is that all Moldovans want to leave this life for a better one – as workers in Italy. The humor, though, is typical of the region in its dark, biting tone. Lorchenkov, though a native Moldovan, grew up in various countries in the former Eastern bloc and writes in Russian; and so his writing encompasses more than just the Moldovan experience.
House of Day, House of Night, by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland, 2003)
Extraordinarily, a person born in Silesia in the early 20th century could have lived there his whole life and yet still lived in up to four different countries. Tokarczuk’s novel delves into the stories of one Silesian town, Nowa Ruda, which, because of border changes, has been a part of Poland, Germany, and the former Czechoslovakia. Yet history isn’t just history – intertwined with it are the lives of the people who lived it.
The Feline Plague, by Maja Novak (Slovenia, 2009)
Slovenia, a tiny mountainous country wedged between Croatia, Italy, and Austria, inhabits a sort of liminal space between southern and central Europe, so The Feline Plague is particularly fitting to represent it. Not quite magical, not quite real, it tells a coming of age story of a girl struggling to find happiness even as she begins to recognize and deal with the cruel coldness of the adult world.
The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andríc (Bosnia, 1945)
While this novel is itself a gripping account of Bosnian history, and the author himself is Bosnian, the story is most fascinating because of the diversity it presents. Tensions often brewed under the surface, but the Balkan peninsula has always been home to many people of different faiths and ethnicities, all living together. The Bridge on the Drina, which is part of the body of work that won Andríc the Nobel Prize in 1961, will take you through centuries of that history.
Vilnius Poker, by Ričardas Gavelis (Lithuania, 1989)
A man returns to Vilnius after some time in a labor camp, but the city that he finds has only a very tenuous hold on reality. The characters fight their various battles, and even the city can speak for itself. Gavelis‘ depiction of Lithuania’s capital is another harangue against Soviet oppression during the Communist period, where the absurdity of the lives portrayed serves to reflect the absurdity of the regime.
The Year of the Frog, by Martin Šimečka (Slovakia, 1992)
In communist Czechoslovakia, children of blacklisted parents paid for their parents’ crimes without having to commit any themselves. This novel tells the largely autobiographical story of a man who is not allowed to enter university, so instead he works in a series of low-level jobs and tries to chase down his passions right at the end of the regime that is limiting his life.
The Legend of Kalesh Andja, by Stale Popov (Macedonia, 1958)
Macedonia, now a Slavic country, was once, like much of the Balkans, under the control of the Ottoman Empire. In this novel, Popov, the most celebrated Macedonian writer, tells a story that harkens back to 1565, when a number of peasants stood up to the Turkish rulers. Historical though the setting may be, the theme of the fight for justice and freedom is still salient today.
Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, by Oksana Zabuzhko (Ukraine, 1996)
Probably the most significant Ukrainian book written since the country became independent, this autobiographical novel tells the story of a woman who, along with her country, bursts into the realm of freedom and struggles with the transition. By addressing and bringing into the open previously taboo topics, Zabuzhko did a true service to her country by writing this.
Flesh-Coloured Dominoes, by Zigmunds Skujins (Latvia, 1999)
Latvians are not unique among Central and Eastern Europeans in their propensity to ask themselves what it means to be Latvian but, as with every other country, the question of Latvian identity is not easy to answer. This playful and thought-provoking novel wrestles with that theme, visiting the 18th-century realm of rich, Baltic Germans then moving on to the 20th-century Latvia that the author himself has experienced.
Our Man in Iraq, by Robert Perišic (Croatia, 2008)
Despite the title, the setting for Our Man in Iraq is Zagreb in 2003, where a journalist ends up in an awkward situation after getting his cousin a job writing about the American war in Iraq. The journalist has to first write for his cousin as the reports get stranger and stranger and then cover up for him when he disappears. Witty and irreverent, this is an anti-war novel along the lines of Slaughterhouse Five or The Good Soldier Švejk (a Czech classic).
Nostalgia, by Mircea Cartarescu (Romania, 1956)
Readers of Nostalgia should not expect a chronological story that follows a certain set of characters, but instead a set of five pieces that combine in a surreal, dreamlike fashion to ruminate on something larger. It stands as yet more proof that even the most depressing places – like, here, a run-down block of flats in communist Bucharest – can offer up beautiful writing. It may not make sense while you’re reading it, but it will come together in the end.