Title: Fantastical: Tales of Bears, Beer and Hemophilia
Author: Marija Bulatovic
Publisher: SOL LLC
Purchase on Amazon
It’s been said that the truth is stranger than fiction. Marija Bulatovic’s dazzling debut, Fantastical: Tales of Bears, Beer and Hemophilia, certainly underscores that adage. Fantastical, Bulatovic’s reflections on her Yugoslavian childhood, is a mesmerizing memoir that takes readers on a wild and unforgettable tour of a country that has vanished from the map, but lives on in this lively collection.
With a pitch perfect voice, and a keen eye for capturing the absurd, the outrageous, the hilarious, the touching, and the sublime, Bulatovic weaves a rich tapestry. Bears, gypsies, quirky family members, foiled plans, unusual and unorthodox neighbors, Fantastical has it all. Lovingly told with an unmistakable fondness and deep affection, Fantastical is resplendent with humor, magic, and whimsy.
In this colorful, captivating and clever collection of stories, Bulatovic captures the spirit of the Slavic soul—passion and melancholy with a twinkle in the eye. Fantastical charms with its wit, keen insights, and larger-than-life stories. Part memoir, part love letter to a place and a people that lives on in memory, Fantastical is irresistible.
An exquisite assortment of stories—each more delicious than the last—Fantastical is a tale to be savored.
The gypsy woman shuffled the cards, blew on them, and cast them down, carefully, deliberately, with the skilled hand of a weaver of life and magic:
You will travel the world,
A child will make you proud,
You will marry a businessman, but you will still work to make your own way,
You will live a life of adventure…
– Kraljevo, 1993
The Yugoslavia of my childhood was anything but dull. A fantastical place rich in history, populated with intense people, and shot through with wonders and deep emotions, it was part of the Balkans, otherwise known as the powder keg of Europe. It was the birthplace of diverse luminaries – from Nikola Tesla, inventor of modern alternating current, to Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, the Albanian nun who would become Mother Teresa, to top tennis star Novak Djokovic.
Touching Austria to the North, Italy and the Adriatic to the West, Greece to the South, and Romania and Bulgaria to the East, it was the place that started World War I, that pioneered its own grand experiment in socialism, and that would later be home to the infamous ethnic cleansing of the ’90s and some of the most sought-after mass murderers on the planet.
Given its strategic location, it had been in the path of many conquerors. Everyone from the Visigoths to the Ottomans to the Austro-Hungarians to Soviet-era Communists had traversed its beautiful lands, leaving parts of their customs, language, and DNA behind.
The Ottomans brought foods and spices, the rhythms of the East, Islam. The Austro-Hungarians imparted Western European tastes, their own musical preferences, and industrial-age improvements. Finally, the Communists, the great equalizers of the diverse groups of people who now called this land home, were probably most responsible for the feeling of solidarity that I most strongly associate with it.
To me it was an amusing and intriguing place. Strange happenings, outrageous gossip, black magic – all were part of the fabric of my childhood, along with the safety and 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.
As I read back through these stories, the word “fantastical” sticks in my mind. Its meaning ranges from “existing in fancy only” to “slightly odd or even a bit weird.” My Yugoslavian childhood was definitely both. These stories represent a lost world. Not only does the Yugoslav nation no longer exist, but the sense of solidarity among its peoples, giving way in the ’80s and ’90s to ethnic divisions and nationalist tendencies, will never be the same.
These stories also represent an odd world. In a young socialist country with pagan roots, ancient and modern worlds slammed together. The incongruities were sometimes jarring, sometimes hilarious. As a child, I tried continually to make sense of it all. As an adult, I feel lucky to have taken it all in. I feel fortunate to have had such a start in life – a strange start, perhaps, but one lived openly and in full color.
I sometimes describe my childhood as “socialist meets gypsy Woody Allen.” When I was eleven, a nurse on her way to work one morning was stabbed in the back by a coworker. The two women worked together at the only hospital in our town and were part of a love triangle. In the end, no charges were filed, and the three lovers went back to work as usual. As local gossip had it, it was fortunate the event had taken place near the steps of the blood bank, ensuring rapid transfusion.
Others died each year in horrific bus crashes, caused by the regular drinking of drivers ferrying people to their chosen vacation destinations – or, in this case, to their deaths. Still others met their demise after eating poisonous mushrooms purchased at the local market. Apparently, the sellers couldn’t tell the difference or just didn’t care.
Especially in more remote parts of the country, a few people each year would barely escape being buried alive. Since no doctor was involved in validating death, the family would make the judgment on their own, sometimes mistakenly. The deceased would then be left to their own devices, forced to bang on the coffin lid in the midst of the funeral procession to be let out.
Needless to say, all this unpredictability fueled the superstitions harbored by many. At the same time, after more than thirty years of Communism, some things in Yugoslavia were very predictable. In our traditional, homogenous society, before the economic crisis that was to come, no one was too rich or too poor, no one too well or shabbily dressed. You could always count on some things to run smoothly and others not at all. A case in point was the Yugo. Voted one of the Fifty Worst Cars of All Time, it supposedly featured rear-window defrost so your hands wouldn’t get cold while you pushed it.
The Yugoslavia of my memory was wonderfully diverse, and in my world, at least, its various ethnic and religious groups lived together in relative harmony. Those around me were generally happy and satisfied with life, frequently socializing with friends and coworkers. The sense of solidarity was high. People wanted to do good and contribute to the overall benefit of society, and they generally looked out for one another.
I also remember a strong sense of intimacy, with people deeply involved in each other’s lives. It was common for everyone to know what you were cooking for lunch, and should the aroma leave some question as to the exact dish, it was perfectly acceptable to ask and have your suspicions validated.
Growing up, it was my grandparents’ world I was most familiar with and that colored my childhood. While my parents worked, I spent most days with my grandparents in the large apartment complex they shared with other military families in the Serbian city of Kraljevo. Communist-era buildings are typically presented as drab and gray, but I remember the balconies always beautifully adorned with plants and flowers, the interior walls always freshly painted in pastel colors. I also recall the complex teeming with people coming and going, providing abundant material for the local gossip.
Other stories reflect my parents’ world, in Kraljevo and on the banks of the Adriatic where we vacationed each summer, still surrounded by family and friends. Their world, too, was caught up in tradition, elaborate social norms, and the remnants of a more superstitious time, but it gestured toward modernity.
Some of these stories come to me solely though the gossip of neighbors, embellished in their own minds and later, in mine. Some come through the lens of childhood, colored by my need to make sense of my own actions and an often confusing world. Still, this place and time – the Yugoslavia of my childhood – is real. Welcome, reader, to these tales of a time and place long gone, a world vanished from the map but not the mind. Join me on this journey and let your own reality dissolve. .