“The nights give me strength / The nights are my turn,” sings the Yugoslav new wave band Idoli in their 1982 song “Poslednji dani.” A collection of nocturnal tales that pays tribute to the ex-Yugoslav indie music scene, Last Night by Sven Popović (first published in Croatian in 2015) will be published this year by Dalkey Archive Press with translation by Vinko Zgaga. Since the publication of his debut book, Popović, a Croatian writer, critic, and translator, has written two novels, neither of which has been translated into English. Last Night, which Popović describes as a “book of stories” or a “very loose novel,” draws heavily on the emerging arts scene in Popović’s native Zagreb in the late 2000s. The stories are full of references to the writers and musicians that inspired Popović, and he quoted several of them during our conversation.

The main narrator is an aspiring writer—Homer, only “too lazy and too drunk to sing the praises of mighty heroes and cities.” With what Popović characterizes as a dirty realist bent, Last Night captures a particular era and the hungry young artists and dreamers of the time, when the nights were theirs: “The nights became many-headed hydras, and our only choice was which maw to leap into, only to be chewed up and spit out in the morning.” Perched on the precipice of disillusionment and cynicism and caught in a system stripped of idealism, they live for the moment, for one another—and for the night.

Popović and I spoke over video between Brooklyn and Zagreb in March 2024 to discuss Last Night, Zagreb’s alternative arts scene, youth, nostalgia, and Yugoslavia.

Eamon McGrath: Last Night is your first book translated into English. I’m curious how the process of translation went, working with translator Vinko Zgaga. And given the book was first published in 2015, is there any context you think could be helpful for readers in English?

Sven Popović: Vinko used to be my college professor, but for just one semester. Afterwards, we hung out in the same places in Zagreb. Zagreb in the late ‘00s and the early ‘10s had this emerging and strong young art scene. Not only Zagreb, but Belgrade as well. We became very close friends, and it was a lot of fun reading the translation. I think he did a marvelous job because I always admired American writers because of their parataxis. They can write long, long sentences without any punctuation whatsoever, and I tried to replicate that in Croatian. It was a lot of fun to try to translate some Yugoslav cultural references. It is also a document of its time. I mentioned this emerging art scene, especially when it comes to indie music in Zagreb and Belgrade, and those times were truly inspired. It was great to have a front row seat to all that great stuff happening. You would go to classes with these guys—I would be in the back writing a short story, and they would be scribbling some lyrics or whatever. The scene really got going around my freshman year in 2008, and it’s still going strong to this day. It’s beautiful to see how it used to be just ten people in the audience, and now they have sold-out crowds. So Last Night is a testament of that time.

What do you think led to the arts scene that was coalescing around the time you were in university?

There were a lot of things that contributed to it. Let’s begin with the fact that every generation is in conflict with the previous generation. My parents’ generation, they were young in the ‘80s, and Yugoslavia had an amazing art scene in the ‘80s—one of the strongest new wave and punk scenes in not only Europe, but the world. And I’m not a patriot or whatever, it’s just that good. You listen to these bands and they are amazing, but listening to that generation just go on and on about the golden ‘80s, it was so annoying at one point. So we decided to start our own thing. That was a contributing factor.

In 2009, at [the University of Zagreb], we, the students, took over the university for the duration of six glorious weeks, demanding education to be free. That taught us a lot about direct democracy, about anarchism. We really thought we were going to change the world. Maybe we didn’t change the world, maybe we changed ourselves a bit, but those really small things were like a snowball rolling downhill and actually became something else entirely. That formed my generation as well. And of course, millennials—all around the world, but especially here—we were promised that if we study, if we work hard, we’re going to get good jobs, and that didn’t turn out to be true. We are the most educated and the most miserable generation. And my generation is full of anger and resentment.

I know you also write music and literary criticism in addition to fiction. What was your entry point into writing?

As a kid, I would draw my own comic books. Mind you, I was a really shitty illustrator, but at least they were entertaining drawings. But my entry point into writing was fiction, short stories basically. I started working as a journalist, as a music and a book critic in 2008, and I started writing poems. I really, really wish that I was a good poet. I want to write poetry, but it’s just doesn’t sound right. So I started writing proper fiction when I was seventeen.

How do you divide your time among the different types of writing you do?

I write what I want to write exclusively. I’m not one of those people who’s going to say I would die without writing. No, I wouldn’t, that’s bullshit. I also work 9-to-5, so I just write when I want to write. I realized the other day that at one point I didn’t enjoy writing anymore. I like starting stuff and finishing stuff, but the part in the middle was so, so annoying. We have a great word here, tlaka, and that was tlaka for me. And then I said that to a great friend of mine, Lana Bastašić. She told me, “Sven, don’t think of [writing] in such capitalist terms. Don’t think of writing as a product. Think of it as a process.” I was like, shit, you’re right. So I remembered to enjoy the characters and just to listen to the characters and let them do their own stuff. That’s when writing became fun for me again.

Last Night is full of intertextuality. The book begins with quotes, by writers Zvonko Karanović and Antun Šoljan, but so do many of the individual stories as well, with quotes by poets, musicians, journalists, novelists, and others. References to writers and musicians are scattered throughout the stories. At one point the narrator even compares a conversation he’s having to a dialogue from Franny and Zooey. What writers do you draw the most inspiration from? And, given that you also write music criticism, I wonder to what degree you differentiate between writing and music?

Music was equally as big of an influence on me as literature. I did mention the indie rock scene in Yugoslavia, but also growing up in a household where some of the first sounds you heard were the Clash or Radiohead or the Ramones. It was always, always a huge part of my life, and there’s absolutely no difference between lyrics and novels or short stories, if you ask me. Probably my favorite storyteller is the late Shane MacGowan. When I was a teenager, I used to use his rhythm and melodies and write my own lyrics to them. He was a great mentor when it comes to lyricism. He was so, so poetic. He was a true bard. He was equally important as Bukowski. I really dug Bukowski as a kid, and Kerouac. Now I really don’t like Kerouac anymore—I think he has half of a good novel. Boris Vian, he’s a great, great French author, he was a great influence. If I had to choose one novel that I had to read for the rest of my life, it would be Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, so he was also a great inspiration. And one of my first influences was Sue Townsend’s [Adrian Mole series]. It’s about this kid growing up in a shithole near Leicester during Margaret Thatcher’s era, and he’s writing this secret diary. And it was so, so hilarious, a coming-of-age story that goes through Thatcherism and to Blair’s Cool Britannia. I took a lot from Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole as well.

Although some stories in Last Night explicitly take place in other cities, many are set in Zagreb. One story is even called “Zagreb, Je T’aime.” But within your depiction of Zagreb, I see a tension between a love for the city and its inhabitants and a desire to escape, to be in new places, with new people. To what degree could one call Last Night a book of Zagreb stories? And what does Zagreb mean to you as a place to live or to write?

I think everybody has a complicated relationship with their hometown. I love this city, I love its scene, but to quote James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem, Zagreb, I love you, but you’re bringing me down. Sometimes you just want to get the hell out of here. I’m what you would call a socialite, I have a very, very strong social battery. But I’m exhausted the past couple of years. I can’t go anywhere without bumping into somebody. I wish I could just go somewhere else, Andalusia maybe, for a year, and then come back. I realized I like returning to Zagreb, a lot. And I think you could call [Last Night] a book of Zagreb stories. It was an exciting city at the time as well, it still is, so I tried to really make that a testament of that time in Zagreb.

So many stories in the book unfold during the night, taking place in crowded bars and smoky rooms. At times you evoke the night poetically and mystically, its potential to create memories or fall in love, to meet people. But other times you emphasize the repetitiveness of night—being forced to live within the moment, not dwelling on the hangover or the consequences of the next day. What does the night evoke to you, and how do you differentiate it from the day in your writing and in your life?

A photographer said that the night doesn’t reference things, that it merely suggests things. I think that’s what I like about the nighttime and going out. When the sun is going down, what’s real and what’s possible—there’s just a thin line between it, and there’s a lot of promise and excitement in that moment. And nothing ever happens, we’re just waiting for something to happen, but still the promise of it and waiting is what makes the night exciting. I was very young when Last Night came out, and I wanted to be this tough guy writer. I thought, write what you know. Only now do I realize that it’s a bit of a cliché. But the night is always full of promise. When you’re out with your friends, for a brief moment, you’re immortal and you’re indestructible, and those are the moments you want to live for.

On a personal level, have you always been more of a night person?

Oddly enough, I was always more of a morning person. I really like the fact that I have a 9-to-5 job because it gives me structure in my life. [Last night,] I think I was up until one PM. But that’s not something you can do when you’re thirty-four. I am so tired, and my back hurts, and I’m starting to go bald as well.

The stories in Last Night are imbued with youth and ideas about what it means to be young. Many characters are students or recent graduates who are full of potential—sometimes wasted—but there’s still a hope for fun and what each day may bring: drinking, sex, adventure. And similarly, I found the tone of Last Night to be propulsive and full of energy. The characters are dreaming and sky-gazing and getting into endless debates. Almost unable to stay still. The narrator thinks a lot about what it means to be a young writer and what a young writer should be writing about. What does being young mean to you? And now that nine years have passed since the book came out, how has your thinking on writing and age changed?

I used to write about what I know because I thought that was the only way to get started. Now I realize that you should write about what you don’t know. The unknown is way more exciting. Nine years have passed, and I think my ideas on writing didn’t change drastically at all. I still think it’s hard work, but it’s fun. I like the concept of playing, so everything you do, you have to play around with it. That’s why I enjoy, for example, Dungeons & Dragons—that game proves that everybody is a creative person. I think that Julio Cortazar in Hopscotch taught me you can play around with form, with the structure of the text. That’s always something that’s going to keep me going. My latest book is called Mali i Levijatan (The Kid and the Leviathan), and it’s a swashbuckling pirate fantasy/coming-of-age novel. It was so, so much fun to write. My writing actually became more character-driven now, whereas Last Night and my first novel, Uvjerljivo Drugi (Loser by a Landslide), they were more atmosphere-driven. If you develop a good character, you just have to listen to them, and they’re going to do your writing for you.

I know some writers have a particular age that they focus on in their writing. As you’re getting older, is there an age that you find particularly compelling, or do you feel like your characters are aging with you?

My latest characters, the two protagonists Mali and Strijela, they’re late teens, so my characters actually became younger. I like the promise of youth. I had great mentors growing up. My father is a writer as well, and coming up in my early twenties, a lot of other writers or editors took interest in me and helped me along the way. The promise of youth is something that’s always exciting to me, and that’s what I’m trying to do with new up-and-coming authors in Croatia. My door is always open for them, so whenever they need any advice, if they need feedback, I’ll always be there.

I want to turn to the temporal nature of your writing. In Last Night, so much seems to be happening in the present, and we get so little information about the narrator’s past, his family, or his upbringing. But the present in which the action is unfolding almost reads like a future perfect, in which the future has already happened or has already passed the characters by. Many stories invoke ideas around having missed out on something—being too late for the revolution or these great historical moments, like rock and roll, the new wave, or the ideals of Yugoslavia. The characters’ dreams are wasting away or going down the drain. Given that, I was wondering what role nostalgia plays for you, if at all. And, if so, is it for the past, the present, or the future?

Recently I read Jack Gilbert’s poem where he says that music is nostalgia for things that haven’t happened yet. I really dug that line. So yeah, nostalgia does play a huge part because, as I said, we were raised on the myth of brotherhood and unity and Yugoslavia and the glorious ‘80s—and I don’t know how many recessions we’ve been through and how many genocidal wars. It doesn’t seem like the world’s becoming a better place. They left us nothing but ruins. I’m really trying to not make the world a better place but to help my younger colleagues and younger friends, and I’m really protective of them. Us millennials, it was like everything went tumbling down along with that Berlin Wall. With the end of socialism in Europe, it’s like nothing good happened after that.

A lot of contemporary Croatian writers, especially those who are translated into English and have large international readerships, are dealing or have dealt explicitly with themes surrounding Croatian politics and history, particularly the collapse of Yugoslavia, the wars of the 1990s, as well as post-war Croatian society. Authors like Drakulić, Drndić, Bodrožić, Ugrešić, or Perišić. Being born in 1989, you’re obviously of a different generation than these writers. But in Last Night, I felt like these topics were only dealt with more marginally. What I see more is a general critique of a socio-economic system—call it post-socialism, neoliberalism, or late capitalism. Can you speak to how you see Croatian history or politics as part or not part of your writing?

I didn’t want to write about the war or go too far on background with that, not because I don’t think it’s an important subject but because other people already covered it quite well before me. And I was very, very young when the war ended. I do still remember the air raid sirens and running into shelters. I wouldn’t say that’s it’s not an important thing to me, but there are way too many novels about the war right now. It’s been more than twenty years. Let’s try to focus on writing about not what used to separate us but what can bring us together again. Isn’t that the point of a story, to bring people together? A story that does not bring people together, it’s propaganda, it’s not a story.

I think there’s a tendency outside of the ex-Yugoslav space to either read into writers from the region that they must be dealing with the wars or Yugoslavia or to expect those writers to explain those things to people from outside of the region. I imagine that can be a trap for a writer if you know you’re being translated and read in countries like the US, where many people don’t know the history and are expecting you to explain it, but that’s not at all you’re writing about.

It’s kind of annoying being the token Balkan writer. That’s all people expect from you, like, oh you come from a small, war-torn country, woe is you. I don’t like being pigeonholed like that. What I like about our Yugoslav history is that we’re the only country that liberated itself from fascism without the aid of the Soviets or the Allies. We had a very strong partisan, anti-fascist movement, which I’m proud of. I always celebrate the 8th of May, which was the day Zagreb was liberated. We go on the riverbanks, we light bonfires, and we remember the heroes who liberated our city. But it’s always the first question, the war. Like, can you ask me about football or ask me about our music scene? To repeat, not because I don’t think it’s an important subject. Unfortunately, it’s something that still has a tight grip on our lives.

I’ve seen in some interviews you explicitly mention being born in Yugoslavia, which in Croatia might be understood as a political statement. What, if anything, does that country mean to you today?

I consider myself to be a Yugoslav. I was born in Croatia, I was educated in Croatia, but I am a Yugoslav. My mother is a Serb from Bosnia, my father is Bosnian. I have Macedonian and Roma blood as well. So to me, Yugoslavia, it’s not just a country, it’s also an idea of brotherhood and unity, because there are more things that can bring us together than separate us, usually. Writing that I was born in Yugoslavia, it is factual, yes, but it’s also kind of a provocation, because I really, really like annoying the shit out of nationalists. I just love it. Sometimes it gets me into trouble. But worth it.

Eamon McGrath is a writer and critic currently based in Brooklyn. He writes about literature from Southeastern Europe on Instagram @balkanbooks. His work has appeared in Balkanist, The Upper New Review, and La Piccioletta Barca, among other places.

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