Each month, Daniel Haeusser reviews short works of SFT that appear both online and in print. He is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Canisius College, where he teaches microbiology and leads student research projects with bacteria and bacteriophage. He’s also an associate blogger with the American Society for Microbiology’s popular Small Things Considered. Daniel reads broadly in English and French, and his book reviews can be found at Reading1000Lives or Skiffy & Fanty. You can also connect with him on Goodreads or Twitter.
translated from the Croatian by Jennifer Zoble
March 12, 2019
Back in January, I reviewed “The Talus of Madame Liken” by Asja Bakić here at Speculative Fiction in Translation. World Literature Today published that story in advance of the March release by The Feminist Press of the collection that contains it, Mars, as translated from the Croatian by Jennifer Zoble. I adored the complex layers of that story and its pervading sense of dreamlike eeriness and unease. With elements of mystery, folklore, feminism, and biology, it defied simple characterization and demanded rereading. In our podcast as part of Skiffy & Fanty, Rachel and I discussed our interest in reading more from Bakić, so I was thrilled to get a copy of the complete collection for review. The rest of the stories in Mars are just as rewarding, and it’s a short collection that I will happily return to for gleaning more insight and entertainment.
Originally published in Croatia in 2015, Mars consists of ten stories that each feel uniquely profound and styled, all sharing haunting atmospheres and impassioned feminist commentary. As her stories rebel against the assumptions of patriarchy, so too does Bakić defy entrapment within any prescribed confines of genre. Fantasy, magical realism, horror, science fiction: she employs any of these however her ideas and complex characters require. Zoble’s translations flow lyrically, with a surface simplicity that encourages readability. Underneath this lies layers of metaphor and social implication that make you continue to digest a story in the quiet interlude before the next.
The title of the collection (taken from its final story) likely evokes images of the planet, and/or the Roman god of war. Given the cultural associations of Mars with the masculine, this immediately conveys an ironic feminist critique that pervades Bakić’s work. The afterward to the collection also explains that Mars symbolizes ‘otherness’ in Slavic culture within the idiom “as if he came down from Mars.” Bakić’s characters feel mysteriously out-of-place, strangers to their sexuality, bodies, minds, vocations, even the essence of their reality. Yet, as a proposed destination of human colonization Mars also has come to symbolize hope, progress, and resilience. The women in Bakić’s stories are creators who manifest that spirit: writers who imagine worlds and construct identities, or a journalist faced with the prospect of turning thought into physical matter.
Earlier this year I reviewed The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington for Strange Horizons, and reading this soon after, I was struck by similarities. Both Carrington and Bakić ground their stories in the surreal and mysterious. Both use plots that involve men trying to control their women protagonists. But where Carrington draws themes of predation, consumption, and magical transformation from that patriarchal system, Bakić focuses more on the solitude and desire it builds within her characters. Both literal and existential, these themes of vulnerable isolation and the accompanying yearning to find one’s place represent something that a reader of any gender can appreciate.
Normally when reviewing a collection, I would summarize each of the stories, or at least point out some that particularly resonated. However, in the case of Mars, this seems futile. Any summary would be vague. Their unifying themes make them easily blend one into another with gorgeous language, yet each story has a unique feel that perfectly fits with its own particular strength. None stands out, but this is merely a testament to how powerful they each are. If you enjoy the literary side of speculative fiction, then Mars is something not to be ignored or missed. I dearly hope that more of Bakić will come in English, but in the meantime rereading this will be just as precious.