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Central/Eastern Europe: University Press Publishes Post-Communist Writers

Washington, 2 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- For the past seven years, the Northwestern University Press in Evanston, Illinois, has been publishing English translations of works written in the former communist world in a series entitled "Writings from an Unbound Europe." The books range from Romanian poet Liliana Ursu revealing her spiritual loneliness during her recent years of exile in America to Bosnian Muslim novelist Mesa Selimovic's dreamlike novel about a dervish killed during the Turkish occupation in the 18th century. Recent works include a collection of short stories by the young Slovenian writer Andrej Blatnik and the novel "The Soul of a Patriot" by the Russian Evgeny Popov.

The series is edited by Andrew Wachtel, professor of Slavic languages and literature at Northwestern University and chairman of the Slavic Department.

Wachtel says: "Publishing the series is part of my job, part of my own research activity. The (Northwestern University) press gets free office space and a small subsidy from Northwestern University. We usually break even, and sometimes make a little money."

He says that until a few years ago getting manuscripts submitted from Eastern and Central Europe was a problem. But not any more. Ten, fifteen years ago, many of the big houses in New York published as many as six titles a year. But not being able to sell 10,000 copies -- which is the break-even number -- they lost money, and now each publishes maybe one a year.

"Their loss is my gain," says Wachtel who has a major role in selecting the manuscripts. "I have so many manuscripts lying around that I have to reject a few I would have been glad to publish a few years ago."

He acknowledges that his fluency in five Slavic languages -- with three of them spoken in the former Yugoslavia -- accounts for the preponderance on his list of authors from the former Yugoslavia and Russia. Though he has published one volume of Estonian short stories, and a book of Lithuanian poetry is about to roll of the presses, there have been very few submissions from the Baltic states, and none in the Albanian language. Though the title of the series refers to "Europe," he says he would be interested in publishing books from the former Soviet Central Asia as well.

Other members of the editorial board also judge the manuscripts, Wachtel says. Each approval for publication requires two recommendations.

Wachtel is delighted to explain that "there is an audience out there for the strange fare we offer." First, he says, professors of Slavic literature buy the books and use them in their classes. The second group of readers are Americans whose parents or grandparents came from Central and Eastern Europe and who may be fluent in the language but cannot follow literature. Third, there are random Americans who have nothing to do with the region and pick up the books from the Internet or from bookstores and appreciate them for their literary value. Most of the books sell between 800 and 1,500 copies, Wachtel says. The best-selling titles have been in the 3,000 range, and the most successful authors so far are Serbian David Albahari and Croatian Dubravka Ugresic.

Wachtel says finding and publishing the works of Central and East European writers is "a wonderful thing to do." He calls the literary scene he follows "lively and viable" and what further attracts him is that "you cannot typecast what these writers write. Some of them were dissidents, and some were overlooked because they were not dissidents. Often there is no political subtext at all nowadays. It's all very unpredictable."