Noir is always dimly lit and pierced with shadows and it’s easy to mistake heroes for villains. The gray characters follow their own moral codes as they navigate the danger and dread lurking around every corner. All cities have a dark side, and Akashic Books just revealed Zagreb’s in Zagreb Noir, the latest addition to the Brooklyn-based publisher’s popular International Noir series.
Launched in 2004, the series invites English readers to inspect the seedy underbellies of more than seventy cities in the United States and around the globe. Through the series, the small, independent publisher with an urban edge has asked authors and editors in each city to present their own unique vision of noir.
“It doesn’t have to be about crime or be a mystery. We’re incredibly loose with the definition,” said Akashic Managing Editor Johanna Ingalls. The anthologies present unique blends of literary writing and genre fiction with dark, fatalistic themes and a heavy dose of crime. In the new Zagreb edition, readers can explore the back alleys of the city’s psyche with a diverse collection of disturbing tales.
Akashic insist that stories take place in specific neighborhoods in the city, and stories must be written for the project and translated by qualified translators. By placing the stories in firm locations, the books have gained an audience in retail outlets that don’t often feature translated literature. Ingalls said the series does well in travel and guidebook stores, airport stores, as well as mystery book stores.
Ivan Sršen, a writer, editor, publisher, and literary agent in Zagreb, was the maestro of the Zagreb edition. Sršen is a co-owner of Sandorf, a Croatian publisher and literary agency that represents Balkan writers throughout the world. When Sršen attended the Frankfurt Book Fair he met Akashic’s editors, who were looking for connections to help expand the series in Eastern Europe. Sršen was up to the task and took on three years of commissioning stories, curating, and editing.
The following authors were featured in Zagreb Noir: Ivan Vidić, Josip Novakovich, Andrea Žigić-Dolenec, Robert Perišić, Mima Simić, Pero Kavesić, Nada Gašić, Zoran Pilić, Ružica Gašperov, Darko Milošić, Nora Verde, Ivan Sršen, Neven Ušumović, and Darko Macan.
Along with the loose direction from Akashic, Sršen asked authors to write stories that focused on common lives instead of big-time crime, politics, or government. “In the Balkans, one thing that is really apparent is the link between crime and politics or the people in power. It’s really obvious. So if you write about it in a kind of investigative or crime fiction way, it even sounds naïve,” he said. “I told authors I wanted a dark story about what was bothering them the most or what they saw as the weakest point in Zagreb.”
He also sought stories that avoided a whitewashing of the city. “Here in Croatia or in other small countries there is a certain auto-censorship when writing about our own place because we would like foreigners to think well of us and of our environment-- sometimes it’s even subconscious,” he said. “I told them that I would like them to write a story about Zagreb that the common reader, the common Croatian reader from Zagreb, would say, ‘Oh it’s not so bad, you are exaggerating.’ ”
Writers responded by stripping Zagreb bare and revealing a cast of realistic characters that include a young anarchist on a late-night postering mission, a literary recluse in love with a blow-up doll, down-on-their-luck café patrons smuggling foreigners for extra cash, and a young man on a bender in an abandoned war-time Zagreb. While the stories are closer to uncomfortable truths than extravagant exaggeration, they are unmistakably Zagreb and perfectly noir.