If you've never heard of Zoran Feric, you're not alone. Although he's published several novels in his native Croatian language, little other than the odd short story has made it into English. Autumn Hill Books corrects that with Tomislav Kuzmanovic's translation of Feric's darkly odd novel Death of the Little Match Girl.
The story opens simply enough. Fero is a pathologist who lives and works in Romania. The death of a childhood friend's daughter draws him back home to Rab, a small island in the Adriatic Sea, to attend the funeral. The opening chapter is a parade of odd characters as Fero reminisces about his past life in this small town. It becomes quickly apparent that this is not a normal funeral when the priest reads the wrong eulogy and the resident crazy man of the town---who looks like Balzac in flip flops--- insists on reciting a non-sensical bit of prose at the podium.
Things are all told through Fero's darkly comic mouth, which gives us an unending supply of comments that range from the funny to the unnerving. Pontificating on the fate of the little girl's soul in the afterlife, Fero thinks: What would happen to her now in heaven's open fields, where all sorts of wishes come true? Would she grow a tiny wee wee?.
A number of Fero's thoughts made me chuckle, others made me say "Huh?", and a few---like the above---kind of did both. Especially all the jokes about Auschwitz. I'm not sure America is quite ready for holocaust humor.
A death occurs shortly after the funeral and the island's police inspector, an old buddy of Fero's, asks Fero to lend his expertise as a pathologist. You see, it's not just anyone who's died. It's the towns only stripper and prostitute. But this stripper had a big secret, yes she did. Or is it a he? No one's really quite sure.
After that things just get weird.
The longer Fero stays the more involved in the general oddities of the island of Rab he gets. He meets more old friends, and meeting more old friends leads into more bizarre cases. We've get a a thief who steals the endings out of library books, a gravedigger, Franciscan monks performing exorcisms, strange metallic statues appearing across the town overnight and a snuff film making the rounds of everyone's VHS player that may or may not be evidence in the stripper's murder. A large part of what Feric's doing is lampooning the style of the crime novel by smacking it on it's behind and sticking his own tongue out at the same time. The hero stumbles into his cases and pretty much solves them in the same way---if you can really say he solves them. It's not Inspector Clouseau slapstick or hardboiled Philip Marlowe, but something indefinably between the two.
I get the same feeling from Feric's writing that I get from Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore, that he's laughing the whole time he's writing. But his jokes are a lot dirtier and profoundly politically incorrect, at least by U.S. standards. The novel's title, for example, has nothing to do with the old folk tale of the little match girl. It's a bad sexual pun about the size of the dead prostitute's male genitalia.
I can't personally vouch for the quality of the translation, because I don't know the first thing about translating from Croatian. I can say it's phrased in a style that's descriptive and sometimes even thoughtful, but still easy to read in a commercial, mainstream kind of way. I have a nagging suspicion I'm missing something because I don't know enough about that part of the world. Some secret joke, some cultural reference, something that takes this to a higher level of meaning. But for the life of me I can't begin to tell you what it might be. While its lewd content prevents me suggesting this to just anyone, I can say I had a good time with this. It's all smartly written, embarrassingly funny and I enjoyed it despite myself. Readers with a thick skin and an open mind will have a good time, but sensitive souls would do best to stay away.