The cover of Fantastical: Tales of Bears, Beer and Hemophilia depicts a black-hatted bear standing upright atop a large ball, a black cane in one large paw. I wondered whether this slim volume of stories could live up to this imaginative cover with its dancing bear and tantalizing title. I needn't have worried.
In this collection of stories set in 1980s Yugoslavia, Marija Bulatovic presents her attempts as a child to make sense of the "fantastical" world around her. But these stories are so much more than a childhood remembered because the Yugoslav nation she describes no longer exists. Fortunately, Bulatovic carries the culture with her and shares its beauty, its spectacle, its curiosities, and its foibles with her readers.
Fantastical is clearly a labor of love: Bulatovic has a deep affection and respect for this lost world. Her lens is tight—she does not write about playmates or school, for example. Its focus is her grandparents, her parents, and their close-knit community in the Serbian city of Kraljevo. In a beautifully written introduction that provides a brief history of the Yugoslavia of her childhood, Bulatovic establishes the place, the people, and the events that will be her canvas:
Strange happenings, outrageous gossip, black magic—all were part of the fabric of my childhood, along with the safetyand stability of home that was always there in the background, the love embodied in my parents, grandparents, and the larger circles of family and friends.
In elegant and engaging prose, Bulatovic describes the diversity and the homogeneity, the natural world and the supernatural world, and the beliefs of the ethnic peoples, grounded in fact and superstition. When her mother tells her that eating hot dogs causes hemophilia, Bulatovic does not eat another hot dog for thirty years. Noticing what are apparently blood-tinged cigarette butts littering the apartment building's stairwell, she wonders whether black magic had a role in causing the smokers to bleed from their mouths.
Readers may be surprised that a book called Fantastical is often so authentic and down to earth. In short chapters Bulatovic tackles the serious ("Hanging at the Day Care"), the everyday ("Keeping the House in Order"), the enchanted ("Gypsy Magic"), the innocent ("Puddle Under My Chair"), and the worldly ("The Angel of Syphilis"). All people and subjects are treated with the same warmth, respect, and affection, regardless of their status or their shortcomings.
A grandchild of Eastern European immigrants myself, I found that many of her descriptions evoked the sights, sounds, and smells of my own childhood and the home of my grandparents. But a reader doesn't have to share these traditions to enjoy them, as told through the eyes of a child who noticed everything. Time, maturity, and an innate talent for the written word enable Bulatovic to articulate these scenes from her childhood in gorgeous language—she has a gift for description—but even though the language is adult, she manages to capture the innocence, wonder, even naughtiness, of her younger self with immediacy.
In a brief postscript, Bulatovic explains that she wrote these stories after the birth of her first child, both as a respite from the demands of new motherhood and in a quest for "wisdom and enlightenment." In sharing this vivid portrait of a place that is lost to history, Bulatovic has given both her readers and her son a lovely gift.
Marija Bulatovic was born in the 1970s in Yugoslavia and, along with her parents, immigrated to the U.S., just ahead of the 1990s Yugoslav wars and the breakup of the country. An accomplished business professional, she lives in Seattle with her husband and son. Visit her website.
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