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Serbian author Barbi Marković: ‘The real horror story is life itself’

In Vienna, every second building looks like it was built for a king, the waiters who serve your coffee wear tuxedos, and public transport is not just efficient and cheap, the council pays musicians to play Mozart in the carriages. But in the stories of Serbian author Barbi Marković, set in the Austrian city and its surroundings, there’s something not quite right about the place.

In Minihorror, the 44-year-old’s very strange and very addictive short story collection, horrifying things lurk behind splendid baroque facades. A guest at a New Year’s Eve rooftop party discovers a secret passageway leading her into a parallel universe in the building next door. A man bites into a delicious looking bar of Alpine chocolate to discover it is infested with fleshy white maggots. A woman visits her boyfriend’s family in the countryside and discovers they are all made of cookie dough.

“The perfect lives of the middle classes are often my starting point,” says Marković, who was born in Belgrade but has lived in Austria’s capital for almost two decades. “I like that moment where you think: hang on, something’s wrong.”

Marković is part of a wave of writers, including Saša Stanišić and Tijan Sila, who grew up in the former socialist republic of Yugoslavia and are now livening up the German-language literary scene. Her first two novels, 2016’s Superheroines and 2021’s Screwed-Up Times, were partially autobiographical books that mostly dwelled on her Balkan background.

But the menace in Minihorror is not only a veiled reference to the trauma of the Yugoslav wars. In most of these 134 short stories – some of them only a sentence long – the terror lies in the everyday. A makeup removal session ends in a bloodbath. A woman starts doom-scrolling and gets trapped on the internet. A couple fail to reschedule an Ikea delivery and get beaten up by the installation team.

Menacing … Minihorror by Barbi Marković

“Once you start zooming into small details of life in Vienna, you see problems or injustices that make you shudder everywhere,” she says as we meander around Lugner City, a fading but lively shopping mall just outside the city’s landmark ring road. “The real horror story is life itself.”

First published in German by Vienna and Salzburg-based indie press Residenz Verlag last October and not yet translated into any other languages, earlier this year Minihorror topped the prestigious critics’ lists of both German broadcaster and Austrian broadcaster , ahead of recent books by Zadie Smith, Paul Auster and Peter Handke. This Thursday, when the winner of the influential Leipzig book fair prize is announced, shortlisted Minihorror could well lose its status as a word-of-mouth hit, and find mainstream success.

It’s already a remarkable journey for a book that makes a virtue of its experimental prose. The two protagonists in all of Minihorror’s stories are called Miki and Mini, which were the names of the famous Disney rodents in Serbian translation, and Marković’s writing borrows storytelling techniques not just from horror but from comic books. Speech-bubble-style exclamations (“WHAAT?”) and sudden time skips (“The morning after …”) abound. “When it comes to crafting novels, most of us are still chugging away on handcars, following well-established tracks,” wrote fellow writer Clemens J Setz in one review. “While Barbi Marković is exploring uncharted territories by jetpack.”

Marković has brought me to Lugner City because she wants to check if H&M still sells the T-shirts with the Mickey Mouse motif that inspired one of her stories. In “Lugner City”, Miki queues at the checkout when he suddenly realises that the people behind him have all had facial surgery to look like him. Hidden at the back of the labyrinthine mall he discovers a doctor’s office that appears to be the source of the Miki-lookalikes. But when he confronts the surgeon, he questions Miki’s claim to be the real deal: “You’re hardly perfect, I’d bleach the nose a bit if I was you.”

Using Miki and Mini as the protagonists of a book set mostly in Vienna seemed fitting, Marković says, because Vienna is a kind of “Mickey Mouse city” – not in the British sense of lacking value, but because life is “very nice and easy here compared to other places in the world”.

Mickey Mouse may have a reputation as a boring do-gooder, especially compared with the short-fused Donald Duck. “But to me Mickey is someone who always tries to give his best, and with him everything always turns out right in the end. When Mickey wants to become a pilot, you know he’ll become a pilot. Growing up through the Yugoslav wars, you can’t imagine how much I needed that.”

Born in Belgrade’s Banovo Brdo neighbourhood, Marković lived through the final years of socialist Yugoslavia, its dissolution in the early 90s and the 1999 Nato bombing of the city. Her second novel, Screwed-Up Times, which she originally conceived of as a board game, tries to make sense of these sudden upheavals: three teenagers discover a faulty time-machine that is meant to take them to the past to prevent the Balkan wars but catapults them into the near future instead, where the rapid spread of nationalism among their friends and family leaves them puzzled.

“There was a national story that Yugoslavia had been built by the working class and everyone was equal,” she recalls. “And then all that changed in what felt like a week. The country was exposed to capitalism without having its own capital, and everything turned into a competition. And because people didn’t have much experience with this new system, and because there wasn’t much currency around, it mainly meant the strong started taking things away from the weak.”

Her decision to leave behind what she calls “the bully-society” came relatively late and on a whim. In 2006, a friend told Marković about an agreement that meant students from countries that used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian empire could study in Austria for free. With “two suitcases and €500 in cash”, they upped sticks and moved to Vienna. In spite of nearing the end of a degree in German literature at the time, she says her command of the language was lacking.

To practise her German, she tried translating the 1971 novella Walking by the maestro of misery made in Österreich, Thomas Bernhard. For words she didn’t know she inserted her own, eventually substituting the three male central characters for three twentysomething women on a night out in Belgrade, and changing the title to Going Out.

When she wrote to Suhrkamp to get permission to publish her “remix”, the German publishing house initially declined. After some begging, it gave her permission to publish one print-run of Going Out in Serbian only, and urged her to “refrain from such projects in the future”. Three years after Marković moved to Vienna in 2006, her remix novella was published in German after all, by the same publisher who had initially barred her from doing so.

“When the whole Thomas Bernhard thing happened, I realised that I can’t really lose my voice whatever language I write in,” she says. “I ask friends for the right expression, I steal from other authors, I make up stuff. The only thing that matters is that a piece of writing comes out at the other end.”

It’s an approach to creative fiction that may be better suited to the literary scene in Austria than its larger northerly neighbour: “My impression is that in Germany authors are more likely to have gone to creative writing schools and try to come across as professional,” she says. “Austria is full of lunatics who make avant garde art for fun.”

Recent years have seen a in horror writing by ethnic minority authors: Marković cites Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl as a book that influenced her, and some of the stories in her collection read like a Balkan-flavoured reimagining of Jordan Peele’s film Get Out. Many of these stories are animated by a trauma plot: the horror they expose lies in an inter-generational or inter-societal injustice that cannot for ever be suppressed.

What’s unusual about Minihorror, by contrast, is that in spite of the pervading sense of unease and graphic violence, horror writing has rarely been more upbeat. Mini is buried alive, Miki is set upon by a flesh-eating monster, but by the start of the next story they live and breathe once more. “I can’t stand pathos,” Marković says as we exit Lugner City. “Pathos means taking yourself far too seriously, which to me is something that is dangerous and can lead to actual violence. I prefer to keep one foot in and one foot out.”