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Barbi Marković, a Serbian writer, believes that the true horror story is not a fictional one, but rather the struggles and challenges of everyday life.

According to Barbi Marković, a Serbian writer, life itself is the true nightmare that we face, rather than any imaginary story. She believes that the daily hardships and obstacles we encounter are the real horror.
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Barbi Marković, a Serbian writer, believes that the true horror story is not a fictional one, but rather the struggles and challenges of everyday life. According to Barbi Marković, a Serbian writer, life itself is the true nightmare that we face, rather than any imaginary story. She believes that the daily hardships and obstacles we encounter are the real horror.

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In Vienna, almost every other building exudes an air of regality, the servers donning tuxedos as they serve your coffee. Public transportation is not only reliable and affordable, but the city council even funds musicians to serenade passengers with Mozart’s melodies. However, in Serbian writer Barbi Marković’s tales, which take place in Vienna and its neighboring regions, there is an underlying sense that something is amiss in this seemingly perfect city.

In the book Minihorror, the protagonist, who is 44 years old, shares a peculiar and captivating collection of short stories. These tales depict sinister beings hidden within grand and ornate buildings. For instance, a person attending a celebration on a rooftop on New Year’s Eve stumbles upon a hidden corridor that transports them to a parallel dimension. Another story follows a man who takes a bite of a tempting bar of chocolate only to find it crawling with pale, worm-like maggots. Additionally, a woman visits her partner’s family in the rural area and uncovers their frightening secret of being made entirely out of cookie dough.

Marković, who was born in Belgrade but has been residing in Vienna for nearly 20 years, says that he draws inspiration from the seemingly flawless lives of the middle class. He enjoys capturing the moment when something seems amiss.

Marković, along with Saša Stanišić and Tijan Sila, is part of a group of writers who were raised in the former socialist republic of Yugoslavia and are now making a mark on the German literary scene. Her initial works, Superheroines in 2016 and Screwed-Up Times in 2021, were semi-autobiographical texts that primarily focused on her Balkan heritage.

The danger present in Minihorror is not solely a hidden allusion to the tragedy of the Yugoslav wars. Within the majority of these 134 brief tales – a few consisting of only one sentence – the fear stems from ordinary situations. For example, a character’s attempt to remove makeup results in a gruesome massacre. Another character becomes consumed by endless scrolling on the internet. And, a couple’s failure to reschedule an Ikea delivery leads to them being physically assaulted by the delivery team.

Menacing … Minihorror by Barbi MarkovićView image in fullscreen

“When examining the minute aspects of life in Vienna, one can’t help but notice various problems and injustices that are unsettling,” she explains as we stroll through Lugner City, a bustling yet dilapidated shopping center located just beyond the city’s iconic circular road. “The true tale of terror lies within life itself.”

The book Minihorror was originally released in German by Residenz Verlag, an independent publishing company based in Vienna and Salzburg, last October. As of now, it has not been translated into other languages. However, it has already gained widespread acclaim, topping the lists of notable critics from German broadcaster SWR and Austrian broadcaster ORF, even surpassing recent works by acclaimed writers such as Zadie Smith, Paul Auster, and Peter Handke. This Thursday, the winner of the highly regarded Leipzig book fair prize will be announced, and Minihorror, which is among the finalists, may no longer remain a hidden gem and could achieve mainstream success.

The book’s experimental prose has made it a remarkable journey. The two main characters, Miki and Mini, have names that were translated from the famous Disney rodents in Serbian. In addition to horror, Marković’s writing also incorporates techniques commonly used in comic books, such as speech bubbles and time skips. In a review, writer Clemens J Setz noted that while most of us stick to traditional methods in writing novels, Marković is boldly exploring uncharted territories with her jetpack.

Markovic brought me to Lugner City to see if H&M is still selling the T-shirts with the Mickey Mouse design that served as the inspiration for one of her stories. In the story, “Lugner City,” the main character Miki is waiting in line at the checkout when he realizes that everyone behind him has undergone facial surgery to resemble him. As he navigates through the maze-like shopping center, he stumbles upon a doctor’s office that seems to be responsible for the Miki clones. However, when he confronts the surgeon, the doctor questions Miki’s identity, suggesting that he should bleach his nose to be more similar to the clones.

Marković explains that choosing Miki and Mini as the main characters in a book primarily taking place in Vienna felt appropriate. He clarifies that Vienna can be thought of as a “Mickey Mouse city” not in the sense of being insignificant, but rather because the living conditions are “very pleasant and comfortable compared to other parts of the globe”.

Mickey Mouse is often seen as a dull, goody-two-shoes character, contrasted with the quick-tempered Donald Duck. However, I see Mickey as someone who always strives to do his best, and ultimately, things work out in his favor. When Mickey sets his sights on becoming a pilot, he will undoubtedly achieve that goal. As I was coming of age during the conflicts in Yugoslavia, Mickey’s determination and success were a source of inspiration for me.

Marković was born in the Banovo Brdo neighbourhood of Belgrade. She experienced the last years of socialist Yugoslavia, its break-up in the early 90s, and the 1999 bombing of the city by Nato. In her second novel, Screwed-Up Times, initially conceived as a board game, she attempts to make sense of these sudden and tumultuous events. The story follows three teenagers who stumble upon a faulty time machine intended to send them back in time to prevent the Balkan wars. However, instead of the past, they are thrust into the future where they are bewildered by the rise of nationalism among their peers and family.

The speaker remembers that there was a prevailing belief that Yugoslavia was founded by the proletariat and upheld equality for all. However, this changed seemingly overnight. The nation was suddenly exposed to capitalism without having its own resources, leading everything to become a fierce competition. Due to a lack of familiarity with this new system and limited currency, the powerful began seizing assets from the vulnerable.

Her decision to leave behind what she calls “the bully-society” came relatively late and on a whim. In 2006, a friend told Marković about an agreement that meant students from countries that used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian empire could study in Austria for free. With “two suitcases and €500 in cash”, they upped sticks and moved to Vienna. In spite of nearing the end of a degree in German literature at the time, she says her command of the language was lacking.

To cultivate her German language skills, she attempted to translate Thomas Bernhard’s 1971 novel “Walking” from German to English. When encountering unfamiliar words, she substituted her own and eventually transformed the three male lead characters into three women in their twenties on a night out in Belgrade. She also changed the title to “Going Out.”

After requesting approval from Suhrkamp to publish her “remix,” the German publishing company initially refused. After pleading, they granted her permission to publish one edition of “Going Out” in Serbian language only and advised her to avoid similar projects in the future. However, three years later, in 2006, the novella remix was eventually published in German by the same publisher who had previously denied her.

She reflected on the affair involving Thomas Bernhard and came to the realization that her ability to express herself in any language would never be lost. She turns to friends for help with finding the perfect words, draws inspiration from other writers, and isn’t afraid to create her own. Ultimately, what matters most is that she produces a piece of writing.

It is a style of writing that may be more fitting for the literary culture in Austria compared to its larger neighbor to the north. The speaker indicates that in Germany, authors often have backgrounds in creative writing education and strive for a polished, professional image. On the other hand, in Austria, there is a strong presence of eccentric individuals who create avant garde art for the enjoyment of it.

In the past years, there has been an increase in the number of horror books written by authors from ethnic minority backgrounds. Marković mentions Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl as a source of inspiration for her own work, and some of her stories resemble a Balkan twist on Jordan Peele’s film Get Out. These stories often center around a plot of trauma, revealing the horrors of inter-generational or inter-societal injustices that cannot be ignored forever.

What makes Minihorror unique is that despite the strong feelings of discomfort and explicit violence, the horror writing is surprisingly optimistic. Mini is entombed, Miki is attacked by a cannibalistic creature, yet in the following story they are alive and well. “I dislike pathos,” Marković explains as we leave Lugner City. “To me, pathos implies being overly serious, which can be dangerous and potentially lead to violent actions. I prefer to maintain a balance between being fully immersed and being distant.”

Source: theguardian.com