(Feminist Press, 2023)
In these ten stories, Asja Bakić writes with rare wit about lust, love, science, the climate disaster, time travel, and even provides a female take on the sufferings of Goethe’s Young Werther. Life is seldom fair, as the young female narrator of “1998” tells us. A competitive table tennis player, she decides to join a friend at summer camp at Jablanica Lake (a large artificial lake in Bosnia and Herzegovina). She brings “a two-piece bathing suit, teen angst and the novel I, Tituba.” Although she’s only sixteen and unsure about boys and life, she also tends “to expect the worst of people.” Through her experiences in the sports world, where the boys have financial support and even the best female players have none, she’s already come to understand “the connection between money and men.” At sixteen, she’s already become bitter. When a mysterious young man appears in the lake, and then later one of her tentmates begins bleeding profusely and is rushed away, the narrator realizes something terrible and strange is happening. As more girls end up in the infirmary and then return utterly changed, “as if they’d gone to a place that had turned them upside down,” the narrator also observes that “Nothing bad happened to the boys in the meantime.” When a boy at the camp mistakes her for another boy, she runs away into the forest and ends up in a strange, inverted place, an “underworld” where she feels more at ease than in the real world. But when things take a dark turn, she knows she has to escape.
In “Gretel,” men have ceased to exist and women regularly visit an AI controlled erotic amusement park, “Sweetlust,” where all “of the activities were, of course, conventionally heterosexual.” The narrator complains to her friends that it’s “sad to be surrounded by other women but still thinking only about men,” and muses that the “world without men wasn’t the utopia we’d longed for.” And so she writes a computer virus, “Gretel,” in hopes of bringing an end to the oppressive and false pleasures of Sweetlust. But her friends have other plans and she has her own surprise for Sweetlust’s AI. In “Blindness,” the narrator has been blind for two years, a condition that she believes may have been caused by her first orgasm. She and her sister Marija search for a cure, but when doctors have no answers, she turns to religion, going on pilgrimages to holy sites all over Serbia, Montenegro, and Croatia. Her sister is a nonbeliever and finally drives her to Klek, “the witches’ mountain.” Roped together, they climb to the summit in a rainstorm, the narrator losing her hearing along the way. What awaits them at the summit is revelatory and upends the narrator’s faith and identity. Another story focused on identity, “Fellow’s Gully” starts with a phone call and builds into a clever restructuring of a traditional myth. The female narrator is suffering from depression and spends her time “mostly just [wearing] a blanket over my head.” The phone keeps ringing and when she and her husband answer, a woman asks to purchase a plot of land she calls “Fellow’s Gully.” Neither knows what the woman is talking about but eventually, they learn that they’ve inherited the land from an unknown relative. Her husband is only interested in selling the property, but the wife travels to find the piece of land, uncovering a larger mystery and ultimately, the sad truth of her husband’s identity and their marriage. But there’s humor here too, turning a myth on its head: “At the first mention of his mother, I should’ve taken him back to where he’d come from.” Although he wants to get away from his mother, he can’t, and finally, the narrator decides to move on with her life.
In “1740,” a former theoretical physicist and programmer is living in the midst of a flooded future, surviving by reading and also, by lying, “Lying helps me survive—it’s because of lying that I’m not an extinct species myself.” Her friend Vilko travels by boat to visit her bringing books and supplies. Vilko lives with his wife Vinja in Zagreb and together with two friends, Fink and Gmaz, they’re building a time machine to try to stop the climate disaster. The narrator lives near a garbage dump and remembers the cherry trees that once grew there. Her parents made rakija (fruit brandy) and she drinks her way through the remaining bottles as she contemplates the depth of loss, “How can we make such lovely and such disgusting things at the same time?” But in the end, she betrays her friends because, for her, it’s all about the rakija and the cherry trees and not about saving the planet.
In the very strange “Mama,” Ivor is oppressed and obsessed with his mother, tormented by dreams of her until one night he dreams instead of a strangely sensuous girl-creature with horns and big doe eyes. One day he goes on a trip with his college classmates, sees the dream creature emerge from the forest, and has an intense sexual experience. When he returns home, he finally forces his mother to reveal his true origin which is both shocking and darkly funny.
The equally strange “The Abduction,” is a tale of humans and robots and the various uses hands might be put to. The female narrator is a writer who has just been awarded a residency on the space station Bitter Sun. In this dystopia, writers exist to create advertising and product placement—“mass-produced” and “unreadable trash.” When the narrator is abducted by robots she learns that the human race is degenerating and “atrophied” and that robots no longer have hands because hands “tether a person to work.” When one of her captors, a sexy robot named “Sharmila,” explains that humans have become less human than robots, she agrees to help him change humanity. “MCSB” (Monitor of Common Species of Birds) is an odd second-person narrative of a bird watcher who is drawn in and then molested by a strange half-bird/half-man creature with horrifying results. “Dorica Kastra” introduces a society where group marriage is required by law and taxes paid through video footage of private lives and/or sex—a sort of critique of both polyamory and the surveillance state.
The collection wraps up with the sharply funny and wildly wicked, “The Sorrows of Young Lotte.” Lotte is no virginal young girl and Werther is a bore and a stalker. As Lotte tells her side of the story, she explains, “You can’t even begin to fathom my wickedness.” Lotte has no interest in Werther, she doesn’t “want to play house” with him. We begin to fear for Werther’s well-being (or do we?) when Lotte claims he’s already “standing on the edge of the abyss. You just need a gentle push.” Throughout, Lotte is viciously hilarious and anyone who’s suffered through Goethe’s suffering Werther will revel in Lotte’s take on Werther’s self-obsession. This is an equal parts weird and skillfully witty collection and very much worth the read.