Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Scent of Rain in the Balkans - the gripping story of the five Levi sisters of Sarajevo


Continuing a recent theme, I have just finished reading a totally gripping book by Belgrade born writer Gordana Kuic - The Scent of Rain in the Balkans. It is the story of a Sephardi Jewish family, called Salom in the book, but based on the story of a real family called Levi, who just happen to be the author's ancestors.

Covering the history of the family from 1914 and the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, through the First World War, the inter-war period and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and then the devastation wreaked on that country throughout the second world war.

The strongly matriarchal family is made up of six diverse characters - mother Esther and her five daughters - Nina, Buki, Clara, Blanki and Riki - pictured right. The story refers to historical characters such as the unfortunate archduke, King Peter and the Croatian Fascist leader Doctor Ante Pavelich as well as tracing the changing social mores of the several decades covered by the book. We see daughters marrying "out", one to a Catholic, another to an Orthodox Christian. We see the youngest daughter Riki leaving the family nest to train as a dancer first of all in Vienna and then traveling across Europe as a successful artist. Of equal interest are the varying reactions of the people around the family - shocked neighbours, occasionally supportive friends and relatives and admiring writers, artists and other bohemian types.

The portrayal of Belgrade society in the inter-war period is fascinating. As with many people in the west, I knew very little about Belgrade's fascinating history until recently, but Ms. Kuic describes a time of great creativity, frivolity and also of hope for the future. The family's changing fortunes mirror those of the times with stunning highs followed by crashing lows - sometimes quite literally, including the inevitable tragedies experienced by a family that considered itself Bosnian, Serbian, Yugoslavian and Jewish in the Second World War.

This is not a short story - the English translation runs to almost 400 pages, but it is fast moving, gripping and has many twists and turns that held my attention throughout. I particularly like writers who can make me feel that I am in the place or the time that the story is set whilst I am reading and I certainly had that experience here - I could feel the cold of the Balkan winter, the fear of who might be knocking at the door during the war years and the anger of Clara at her frankly useless husband! Kuic has a real feel for the characters, especially the women who all display great strength at different times and in different ways. Her men are less developed and much weaker individuals, with a couple of notable exceptions - Blanki's eventual husband, Marko Korach being a bit of a quiet hero and one or two of the bit part male characters are also interesting. But this is a story about women being determined to survive against all odds and to live with hope for the future.

Gordana Kuic: The Scent of Rain in Balkans

The book has been phenomenally successful in Serbia, including having been turned into a TV series, as well as there having been a ballet produced using elements of the story - you will need to read the book to understand why! The story of the Salom/ Levi family is played out over two more books that take the reader through the communist period and then on to the collapse of Yugoslavia and the wars of the 1990's. Unfortunately the other two books are not yet available in English - but I understand that another of Ms Kuic's works - "The Legend of Luna Levi" is in the process of being translated.

Gordana Kuic was born in 1942 and worked for 27 years as a translator, cultural assistant and English teaching assistant in the United States Embassy in her home town Belgrade before the collapse of Yugoslavia. You can read more about Gordana and her work on her website. I think London's Jewish Book Week in February next year would be a great place to hear more about her work...and to get my book autographed! If Jewish Book Week friends are reading this - please take note!

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