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The Balkans as a Colonial Space in Speculative Fiction

Colonialism is often associated with conquest, violence and the physical influence of one culture over another. However, the ideological takeover is equally effective. Louis Althusser identifies two major venues for the exertion of dominance. The state, as a repressive apparatus, is allowed to use legal force to impose hegemony, like the police or the army. The institution that imposes itself ideologically is, for instance, the educational system (Althusser, 1970). A collaboration of both is what ensures a certain territory is shaped into values and behaviours that the state, as the main governing body in the modern world, demands. 

Storytelling is the core of culture. It helps transmit tradition, values, beliefs, and experiences across generations and space. While the practice of weaving tales orally is somewhat chaotic and random, written culture is more subject to control. For centuries, only a selected few could access literacy or written texts. The creation of a literary canon is a process that lasts for centuries, by careful selection of authors, themes, tropes, and preferences that adhere to the taste of an elite minority or, in the modern world, the state. For instance, in the 19th century, as the idea of a nation-state gained global acceptance, the new historical novel rose to meet the need to create a nationalistic history, as well as an individual with a newborn national consciousness. 

 Nicholson, W. (1900). Baron Munchausen.
Figure 1: Nicholson, W. (1900). Baron Munchausen.

This article will explore the Balkans as a colonial space in European speculative fiction, and the role that stories play in solidifying the region’s ongoing reputation. In his famous book Orientalism, Edward Said recognizes the tendency of Western authors to describe “oriental” locations in a certain manner, through dichotomy with themselves. So, the West becomes male, logical, progressive and rational, which means the East must be female, sensual, irrational, emotional and despotic (Said, 1978). Despite the fact colonial depiction usually refers to non-European locations like Africa, America or Asia, within Europe itself, there is a place for the Other. And it is often the Balkans. What follows will try to shed light on the reasons why and provide a general overview concerning the development and evolution of such literary tropes. It will also touch upon the practice of self-orientalism by local authors and the various purposes it serves regarding authorial intention and perspective. 

Europe and its Shadow: Colonialism at Home

Vesna Goldsworthy’s book, Inventing Ruritania. The Imperialism of Imagination is focused on studying the Balkans, not as a real location, but as it appears in British fantasy. This trend is something that started in the 18th century and proceeded to evolve in the 19th and 20th centuries of British speculative fiction. Through English and subsequently American entertainment and art, the Balkans became codified in a manner that still exists today. According to the author, literary colonization shapes the way the world perceives an area, which is exactly the fate that befell the Balkans (Goldsworthy, 1998).

The examples she provides portray the region as orientalized and exotic, but also fictional. For the British creators, the Balkans served many purposes as an imaginary land. It was a return to the mythic past of the West itself, to the noble barbarians that the British also used to be in the bygone eras. This attitude was common among romantics like Lord Byron. However, sometimes it was turned into a completely fantastical landscape through stories that took place in imaginary kingdoms that were meant to resemble Eastern or Central Europe. The visitor, usually coded as British, admires the locals but often becomes their new ruler, endorsing the idea that such cultures are not fit to rule themselves (Goldsworthy, 1998).               

A European Map With Supposed Locations of Ruritania. (n.d.).
Figure 2: A European Map With Supposed Locations of Ruritania. (n.d.).

Being at the same time different but not oppositional, European locations that serve as colonial, occupy a special position in the hierarchy. Unlike other continents that the European colonizer frames as a complete opposite, the Balkans and Central Europe are similar and distant simultaneously. Therefore, the Western creators were more likely to build a narrative not of a fundamentally different culture, but that of a mirror into the past. Instead of being seen as irrevocably foreign, like more distant colonial spaces, the Balkans were transformed into Europe’s distant past, an earlier stage of development, now long overcome, but sometimes longingly lusted after (Goldsworthy, 1998). 

The Invention of Eastern Europe

Up until the Renaissance, the story of two Europes was about the barbaric North and the civilized South. As the Germanic, Protestant world started its upward journey, heavily supported by colonialism, another classification needed to be made. During the 18th century, it was the one between West and East. The cultural prejudice surrounding it still exists and was particularly noticeable during the Cold War/Iron Curtain era. The author’s haunting quote summarizes the sentiment of fear towards the “other Europe” perfectly. “The iron curtain is gone, and yet the shadow persists” (Wolff, 1994, p. 3). 

The prominent thinkers of the Enlightenment solidified multiple concepts and biases, like Montesquieu's European liberty and Asian despotism in the Spirit of the Laws (Montesquieu, 1748, as cited in Wolff, 1994, p. 7). Balzac put it even more plainly in his Human Comedy: "The inhabitants of Ukraine, Russia, the plains of the Danube, in short, the Slav peoples, are a link between Europe and Asia, between civilization and barbarism" (Balzac,1829-48, as cited in Wolff, 1994, p. 13). Who are the barbarians and how the discourse around them changes is the topic of Tzvetan Todorov’s Fear of Barbarians. Beyond the Clash of Civilizations, where he evaluates the West/East dichotomy, in the context of the war between civilizations (Todorov, 2009). The peninsula’s position between Europe and other continents, as well as Christianity and Islam, makes it a perfect projection of what the West doesn’t want to think about itself.  

The Cover of S.Janevski's Waiting for the Plague. (1986).
Figure 3: The Cover of S.Janevski's Waiting for the Plague. (1986).

Besides describing their travels across the thrilling land waiting to be discovered, Western authors often depicted the inhabitants of the area as hybrid creatures between humanity and animalism. This idea was heavily supported by famous people of letters. For instance, De Sade made his Minski of the Muscovite an “ogre of sadism,” (Wolff, 1994, p. 57) and Barun Munschausen turned the region into a complete fantasy. “For Munchausen, Eastern Europe was a realm of fantastic adventures with savage beasts, whose wildness he triumphantly tamed in a parable of conquest and civilization(Wolff, 1994, p. 102). Authors from the Balkans sometimes gladly accept this but twist it into a more complex discussion. When describing people of the Balkans, Milorad Pavić says they “lie in Walachian, are quiet in Greek, wise in Turkish, sing in Russian and speak Serbian when they intend to kill. They are born as poets, live as thieves and die as vampires” (Pavić, 1984, p. 33). Although they can be interpreted as partially mythical, the eerie metaphors poetically highlight the state of being multi/intercultural.

The idea of a Europe that has yet to be discovered by the developed world (and, perhaps, conquered and ruled over), an unknown territory, open to colonization by Western imaginaries has remained relevant, particularly in speculative fiction. Eastern European authors use the same concept, but not only in a self-orientalizing manner, which will be discussed later. 

The Curious Question of Central Europe

The idea of a “middle” Europe is an intriguing concept. In a way, its destiny is a kindred spirit to the dreaded East. Mitteleuropa only emerged as a category in 1915, at the sunset of World War One. To be more precise, the author of the book with a puzzling name, Does Central Europe Exist, Friedrich Naumann, released the title that year, with a clear framework regarding what Central Europe was supposed to be-the economic and cultural colony of Germany. As such, the Germanic influence persists in many Eastern European countries, particularly through the legacy of the Habsburg monarchy. The evocative division of the middle and eastern regions of the continent tickled the imagination of Hitler and sparked his ideas regarding the enslavement of the Eastern European Slavs (Wolff, 1994, p 16). 

In his book, A Central Europe of Our Own: Reality-myth-utopia, Nikola Petković examines Central Europe as a literary concept, in a cultural context as well as postcolonial studies. He provides literary examples, like that of The Danube, by Claudio Magris, which emphasize just how different the interpretation of the same trope is when one compares the Western and local authors. While following the grand river, Magris never names the unknown, like the previously mentioned Western authors. He is not discovering, merely unravelling. He is not an authority but a fellow traveller of Dunabe (Petković, 2003, p. 157). Another intriguing phenomenon in Magris’s narrative is what Petković calls“absence as an authentic form of cultural presence” (Petković, 2003, p. 164).  The incarnations of this motif are found in a plethora of regional stories. Pavić’s protagonists of the Khazar’s Dictionary have no faces, or, rather, grow a different one every morning. They are a people lost to history whose narrative is controlled by others (Pavić, 1984). The author also comments on the role of the written language in the process of colonization: “That is what was done with Slavic speech, it was broken into shreds, brought to their mouths through the bars of Cyrillic letters, and glued with their spit and Greek clay onto their feet.” (Pavić,1984, p 65). Pavić imagines the letters as cage-like, designed by the Greek norms to tame the savage Slavic speech.

The Khazars. (n.d.).
Figure 4: The Khazars. (n.d.).

Postmodernity’s feigned history is another beloved stylistic choice. In Miodrag Janković’s Haereticus (Janković, 2006), Giordano Bruno is not just himself but a mythical entity, and in Teodora Tara’s Moon Dew (Tara, 2007), Joan of Arc survived the stake and tricked history. The element of fake biography and postmodern play with known facts represents, perhaps, a popular form among colonial authors due to the attempt to control the dominant historical narrative by planting false details. 

The Balkans Strikes Back: The Mythical Abyss as Revolutionizing World-building

Many regional authors of speculative fiction have adopted the approach to their territory as dark and mythic. However, not always in a typical, self-orientalizing manner. Macedonian author Slavko Janevski uses the mythical village of Kukulino, the Naval of the World, as both mythical and historical (Janevski, 1986). Not to mistify Macedonia, but rather to touch upon the untouchable. The layers of culture and cultural experience require the mythical otherwise, they would be hard to pinpoint. Milorad Pavić, an esteemed Serbian author wrote “the first book of the 21st century” back in 1984, according to the Paris Match review on the cover (Pavić, 1984) envisions not just the Balkan territory as mythic, but attempts to portray the mere concept of the colonial narrative and how history is controlled. His focal point, the Asian Khazars, are a nation that has disappeared. They only live in the astral realm, through which they influence reality. Even there, their faces are different every time the people they “possess” wake up. Pavić provides evidence of the Khazar history through Muslim, Christian and Jewish sources. Of course, they all tell the story that suits them the most. They colonize them by writing about them. The only reality, though, is the Khazars are titular, but absent. The only power left to them is to spiritually possess their colonizers.

Az by Jasna Horvat deals with an imaginary biography of the brothers behind Slavic literacy. In her narrative, the local Slavs’ connection with the Byzantine Empire is inevitable, and, above all, intellectual. Constantin is a passionate thinker, with an avast knowledge of ancient esoteric philosophies that go beyond his ethnic origins (Horvat, 2020). Many ex-Yugoslav speculative fiction authors used the murky, undefined territory to dig multiple layers of cultural influence, mingling the Slavic with Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Romani, Muslim and Jewish mysticism, and many philosophical and esoteric theories that left their mark on the culture of the Balkans. 

Yaltirik, M.B. (n.d). People Posing As Supernatural Beings.
Figure 5: Yaltirik, M.B. (n.d). People Posing As Supernatural Beings.

Not just people, but the land itself often disappears or transforms into a mythical setting. In Avdić’s narrative The Seven Fears (Avdić, 2004), even though the novel is social realism rather than speculative fiction, Bosnia is a mysterious hellscape. Still, the reason for this depiction is not an inherent flaw of the location, but a manner of dealing with the relatively recent trauma of war.

The early decades of the 21st century saw a rise in the popularity of speculative fiction, mostly pioneered by tropes and preferences of English-speaking authors. Many contemporary Eastern European authors follow this example, emphasizing ethnic or regional frames for their imaginary world in a Tolkienesque manner. This could be interpreted as the second coming of Goldsworthy’s literary colonialism since the global popularity of Anglophone fantasies imposed norms, expectations and motifs of the genre on the rest of the world. However, the lack of it in the past could have been by design rather than the absence of contact. In his literary theory book Demons and Galaxies (Urošević, 1988), Macedonian author Vlada Urošević offers an extensive study of the history of speculative fiction, mentioning all the crucial Western names, thus revealing the reason why the specific Western form did not influence the regional authors until the global popularity of fantasy in the early 2000s was not the lack of knowledge. The ex-Yugoslav approaches to speculative fiction, however, may be a result of publishing trends, different literary canon, and preferences. 

Yasar, M. I (n.d.). An IIlustration of Fictional Character Abdulharis Pasha.
Figure 6: Yasar, M. I (n.d.). An IIlustration of Fictional Character Abdulharis Pasha.


The discussion about the influence of colonialism on storytelling and ideology is a complex tirade of questions without clear answers because cultural debates depend on perspective and interpretation, as well as an ever-changing meaning. Still, literary studies show that the space of the fantastical was traditionally borrowed from the colonized. For Europe, the nearest colony, the Balkans, has been constructed as more of a fantastical setting than a real place, the mirror of Europe’s past, or the threshold between civilization and barbarity, which is a bias still present today. While the fantastical, for the Western creator, derives from conquering and discovering unknown realms, naming, controlling,  and mapping, for the region, particularly ex-Yugoslav authors, it comes from the realization that even one’s own country can never be known. Reality is agnostic. Lack of control over the land enables it to spit out the corpses of older cultural layers, acknowledging all the people that came before. They utilize the self-orientalizing acceptance of their space as mythical only to explore culture and society on a deeper level, emphasizing, perhaps, the area’s antiquity, complexity and diverse ethnic influence. 

Bibliographical References

Althusser, L. (1970). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. “Lenin and Philosophy” and Other Essays. Monthly Review Press. 1971. (Original work published in La Pensée, 1970). 

Avdić, S. (2009). Sedam strahova. Algoritam. 

Goldsworthy, V. (2022). Izmišljanje Ruritanije. Imperijalizam mašte. Geopoetika Beograd. 

Horvat, J. (2020). Az. Naklada Ljevak d.o.o.

Janevski, S. (1986). Legioni Svetog Adofonisa. Narodna knjiga Beograd. 

Janković. M. (2006). Haereticus. Prosveta.

Pavić, M. (1984). Hazarski rečnik. Prosveta.

Petković. N. (2003). Srednja Europa. Mit-zbilja-utopija. Adamić. Rijeka.

Tara, T. (2007). Mesečeva rosa. Čigoja štampa. Beograd. 

Todorov. T. (2009). Strah od barbara. S onu stranu sukoba civilizacija. Naklada TIM Press. Zagreb.

Urošević, V. (1988). Demoni i galaksii. Makedonska kniga. 

Wolff, L. (1994). Inventing Eastern Europe. Stanford University Press.

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in the 19th century, as the idea of a nation-state gained global acceptance, the new historical novel rose to meet the need to create a nationalistic history, as well as an individual with a newborn national consciousness.  geometry dash subzero

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