Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you like the sound of my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.
Asja Bakić’s Mars is a strange and compelling collection of ten short stories that span science fiction, magical realism, and gothic horror. Though each story is set within its own world, the collection tackles common themes including sex, literature, and feminism.
Most the stories in this collection centre around characters who are trying to understand the nonsensical universes they inhabit—universes that become gradually stranger over the course of each story. Some of Bakić’s narrators are writers exploring the scope and purpose of language, like the protagonist of The Talus of Madame Liken, a murderer who plays word games with the police when they question her about a dead body found near her home. Or the narrator of Day Trip to the Durmitor, a recently deceased author who finds herself in purgatory, tasked with writing a masterpiece in order to progress to the next level of death. Meanwhile in Passions, a shy writer begrudgingly learns that she is the pseudonymous writer of this year’s bestselling erotic novel and The Underworld tells a wild story about what happens when all the writers on earth are made to choose between renouncing their work on earth or living in exile on Mars.
Mars was really just an abandoned urban development project. No one had said why the corporations had left the hotel complexes, the residential and business sites, half-constructed. Everything had originally been designed for the kind of travellers who already know exactly what to expect before they set off on their trip. I’m talking about truly unimaginative people. The places they dream of visiting probably resemble the places where they live, just slightly farther away.
My favourite story in the collection is Abby, a tale about a woman who cannot remember whether or not she is married to the man claiming to be her husband. As Abby grows increasingly suspicious of the information she’s being fed, she starts rooting through her husband’s drawers—a practise that eventually leads her to discover she is, in fact, a sex robot.
I stared in disbelief. On the paper were printed instructions. I realized the charger I’d seen in the drawer wasn’t for a phone, but for me. I took the USB, shoved it in my pocket, and closed the safe.
After hitting her husband on the head and making a run for it, Abby stomps on the USB stick she found. “I resolved that no one would stick anything into me anymore,” she says. Bakić is at her best when she is exploring what it means to inhabit a female body, whether that’s through sex robot Abby; pornography writer and clone Asja 5.0; or Jelena, a wife who employs a woman who smells like raw meat to tempt her husband into a threesome.
What makes these stories singular is Bakić’s pared back storytelling. Her language is never pretentious, nor is her central message ever particularly obvious. Instead, Bakić establishes high stakes from the very beginning of her stories before by plainly and purposefully leading the reader to not to a final twist but to a tantalising peek at a more sinister world.
In the book’s afterword, South Slavic literature scholar Ellen Elias-Bursać explains that the writers from Bakić’s part of the world tend to be “fuelled by the outrage and atrocities of the 1990s.” According to Elias-Bursać, Bakić’s fusion of science fiction, feminism, and horror makes her unique.
I know I’ve never read anything quite like Mars before and I hope this won’t be the last of Bakić’s books I’ll read. If you’re at all tempted to give this book a go, do.
Mars by Asja Bakić, translated by Jennifer Zoble (Feminist Press, 2019)
More books by Bosnian authors
Here’s a short list of other recommendations I received this week:
The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić, tr. Lovett F. Edwards
Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipović, tr. Christina Pribićević-Zorić
The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
Death in the Museum of Modern Art by Alma Lazarevska, tr. Celia Hawkesworth
Before the Feast by Saša Stanišić, tr. Anthea Bell
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Joe Bates for his recommendations for this edition. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!