📖 🇷🇸 #38: A mythical Western from Serbia

Téa Obreht on the American West

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Set in the drought-ridden Arizona Territory in the late 19th century, Téa Obreht’s Inland is a weird, smart, sweeping reimagining of the American West. Told through a dual narrative, the novel follows frontiers woman Nora Lark as she waits for her husband to return home with water and Lurie Mattie, a young outlaw and orphaned Muslim immigrant from a Balkan part of the Ottoman Empire who is on the run and wanted for murder.

We first meet Nora at home, waiting for her husband Emmett. Since his disappearance, two of Nora’s sons—Rob and Dolan—have also gone missing. As rumours circulate that Emmett has died and Rob and Dolan are on the run, wanted for avenging his death, Nora is left to care for her youngest son; Emmett’s wheelchair-bound mother; and Emmett’s cousin, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant called Josie who hosts séances in order to communicate with the dead. Meanwhile Nora is haunted by the memory of Evelyn, her daughter who died of heatstroke as a baby. Throughout the novel, Nora communicates with Evelyn’s imaginary ghost.

Like Nora, Lurie has ties to the dead: he sees ghosts wherever he goes—ghosts whose desires he becomes possessed by. Lurie gets into the habit of petty crime because a ghost convinces him it’s a good idea. On the command of another ghost, he starts searching for water. In contrast to Nora’s chapters, which follow a simple third person narrative, Lurie’s are written in the first person and addressed to… a camel. On the run from a marshal, Lurie falls in with the American military during the US camel corps, a real life experiment which involved bringing camels from the Middle East into the American Southwest in order to serve as pack animals. He strikes up a touching friendship with one particular camel called Burke.

Camels are not for the listless or lowdown. They are faster than one might expect, and twice as rattletrap. They are frowsy and irate. Their fur sloughs off and drifts, filling the air with a sweet, melty stench that frenzies mules and horses, who scatter to outrun their own terror. Those big, rubbery lips hide purple gyms, gravestone teeth with which they try for everything in sight: hats, arms, ears, coyotes dogging the herd.

But camelhair is the softest in Creation. Camel’s eyelids are thatched with the finest lashes God ever loomed. They are sturdy from their ears to the soles of their feed. Their hearts belong to their riders. And their great height lays all the horizon to view.

Though they have little in common, over the course of Inland we see both Nora and Lurie’s lives become subsumed by the projects of a settler society. Nora’s strength and resilience serve only to set her apart from the “ladies” who are generally desired by men and Lurie (whose nickname is an Anglicisation of his real surname Djurić), meets cameleers like Hi Jolly (real name: Hadji Ali) whose inadvertent pursuit of the American dream serves the creation of the new empire.

Obreht is a sharp writer whose characters are vividly-rendered and whose prose meanders with purpose as she explores a fascinating time in American history. In this great Guardian interview Obreht, who was born in Belgrade and moved to the US aged 12, explains that she was inspired to research the American West and have a go at subverting its tropes after watching Hollywood Westerns with her grandparents. In any case, Inland is an excellent, challenging read that you’ll want to take slowly so you don’t miss a single beat.

Inland by Téa Obreht (W&N, 2019)

More books by Serbian authors

Here’s a list of the other recommendations I received this week:

  • Dogs and Others by Biljana Jovanović, tr. John K. Cox

  • Ekaterini by Marija Knežević, tr. Will Firth

  • Fairground Magician by Jelena Lengold, tr. Celia Hawkesworth

  • Fear and his Servant by Mirjana Novaković, tr. Terence McEneny

  • The Tragic Fate of Moritz Toth by Dana Todorović

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.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Susan Curtis from Istros Books and Rob Young for their recommendations for this issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!