A whiff of terrorism in the air

As I made my way through Frankfurt Airport on the way back to Prague from the book fair a strange incident took place, something that reflects a new and interesting trend in writing from Central and Eastern Europe – certainly in terms of the books getting translated into English – but which almost got me into a lot of trouble.

I was going through security and they chose one of my bags for closer inspection. After rummaging around the few books and magazines I was bringing back the guard called over a colleague and then they had me brought over to a separate cubicle for questioning.

“So Mister Stein, are you very interested in terrorism and Osama bin Laden?”

I was about to say “Not very” or “Not more than most people.” It’s not like I haven’t heard of the guy or read newspaper and magazine articles about him. On the other hand I really haven’t bothered to read books about him, his family, al-Qaeda, etc. I have enough other books to read.



And then I remembered. It just happened that the books I was bringing back from the fair to review were all related to terrorism in the Muslim world.

I have already posted about Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut and its 11th century fanatical assassin. The other novel in my bag was A Poet and Bin-Laden. Written by Uzbek journalist and BBC correspondent Hamid Ismailov in Russian, the novel uses fictional and documentary elements to evoke a seminal moment of modern history that began on 9/11.

Before I even had a chance to answer my interrogator though, he had gone on the computer and made another damning connection.

“Ah . . Afghanistan again. I see you have written about Petra Procházková’s Freshta, which is being published on this very day? Coincidence? And there’s fundamentalist terrorism in that as well, isn’t there?”

What was I supposed to say? He was right. Like many readers he might be taken aback that Czech, Russian and Slovene novels aren’t all about the gray realities of communism, dystopias or the challenges and absurdities of post-1989 societies. Or perhaps his preconceptions were even more archaic and he expected roulette and nihilism and Jazz and labyrinthine legal processes in these writers’ work and thought that the terrorists in Afghanistan should be left to well-traveled Western journalists.


Granted, this is only one stream of fiction from this region that is opening itself up more and more to outside subjects. Stork Press, which published Freshta on October 15, released two other books in the UK on the same day: The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noémi Szécsi and Illegal Liaisons by Grażyna Plebanek, neither of which is about fundamentalist terrorism or Osama bin Laden, but rather hark back to the good old traditional topics of vampirism and sex, respectively.

If only I had had those books in my bags I would have passed through security without a hitch.

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  1. Literary roundup: Kharms, my Thursday evening and the Reconquista | literalab - 24/10/2012

    […] European Union Prize-winning novel Turkish Mirror, yet another example of a Central European writer turning his or her attention eastward. Actually, this isn’t geographically true, since the novel is set in Hungary, but set in the 16th […]

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