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‘My most traumatic experience at that point was going to UCD’: Writer Kevin Power finds inspiration in Belgrade

For author Kevin Power, a weird and wonderful literary trip to Serbia provided plenty of inspiration for his White City novel

Occasionally in an author’s life, an experience will come along that is so ripe with incident, atmosphere and plain old bizarreness that it demands to written about. And so it transpired when acclaimed Dublin writer Kevin Power spent a week at a “literary colony” in Serbia in 2010.

After Power’s debut novel Bad Day in Blackrock came out in 2008 (and went on to win the Rooney Prize for Literature the following year), he was pleasantly surprised to be invited to speak at various literary events. “It’s a very cool part of publishing a book that I hadn’t expected,” he says. He gladly accepted offers to travel to lovely locations like Paris but, then, a more unusual invitation arrived – to go to Serbia on a literary visit.

Power was intrigued: “My only sense of Serbia was derived from the wars of the ‘90s which had been going on while I was a teenager. It had been one of the first global political crises that I’d taken an interest in.”

He accepted the invitation and flew into Belgrade, the capital city. What followed was a strange but inspiring week, travelling all over Serbia with other writers, doing readings in various venues such as schools, town halls and museums.


They also spent time at the Association of Writers of Serbia – essentially a writers’ union — in a big neoclassical building on Francuska Street in Belgrade, which was both very grand and very retro. “Inside, as far as I recall, it’s all huge mahogany tables, glass-fronted bookcases, sagging sofas, lots of dust.”

When describing his experience, Power chooses his words with care as he is loath to offend his hosts, who were “very welcoming and charming and wonderful”. He also doesn’t want to make himself persona non-grata with the Serbian people –although he jokes, “I probably already am”.

Before travelling to the former Yugoslavian country, he had written three or four pages of a book featuring a character in rehab. This eventually became the opening of his second novel White City (the title comes from the translation of Beograd, as Belgrade is known locally) but at the time, he had “no idea where it would go”. Until that is, he struck inspirational gold in Serbia.

“Going to Serbia had the shock of the new. It lodged so deeply in my memory. It demanded to be written about.” In White City, however, he made his version of the country “kind of infernal”, in order to put his protagonist, Ben, the privileged son of a retired south Dublin banker, through “some infernal experiences”.

A caricature it may be, but a lot of the events in the book really did happen in various forms. “It was one of those weeks where a whole lot of experiences get compacted down,” he recalls. “Even as I was there, I thought this is kind of like, “I’m in a novel. There were all these political undercurrents.”

Just like his main character, Power was put up in a bizarre hotel in Belgrade. “There really were electrical wires dangling from the ceiling in the bathroom. It had been used for spying by the Yugoslavian secret service. It was really extraordinary to go to a place where the physical traces of a communist regime were still in evidence. I probably sound gauche or inexperienced but it was my first experience of that part of the world.”

“I’m coming from Ireland. I’m 27. My most traumatic experience at that point was going to UCD and realising there were people who were richer than me,” he says, with his trademark self-aware sense of humour.

Quite a lot of what he encountered was “hilarious. The food was bad. The nightclubs were so seedy,” he explains. “Fried cubes of lard is a national delicacy — it looks and tastes exactly as you would imagine.”

The hotel had a nightclub that Power did not frequent but when he had to get up at 4am to catch his flight home, he recalls it was “really going. It was like characters out of The Sopranos, these guys standing round in their Hawaiian shirts with their Ray-Bans on in a nightclub. There was a conspicuous absence of women. At least, women who were there voluntarily. There was a sense of seediness that struck me and I amplified it.”

In White City, Ben navigates, or fails to navigate, Serbia in a sort of drink- and drug-fuelled fever dream. How “method” did Power go in the name of research? “The only substance I was on in Serbia was booze — rakija, the national spirit. Pretty nice, a bit sweet.”

Amorous Maria

As a fan of Power’s second novel, I couldn’t resist asking whether the character of the overly amorous Maria was inspired by a real person. It turns out she’s fictional but he admits to being “hit on” in a nightclub and when he turned the woman down, he was met with some impressively creative invective that demonstrated an excellent grasp of the English language. “Sometimes as a writer, you can’t believe people are giving you something so good. [You think] ‘This is a gift.’”

He directly transposed an episode where a taxi driver stopped in the middle of a motorway and told Power they had to wait for his friend to give him a mobile. “I thought, ‘okay, I’m dead’. I was nervously smoking. I smoked a lot then,” he says. “That was me, the comic character was me. I was neurotic, relatively inexperienced in some ways, unfamiliar with places like Serbia.” Fortunately, the taxi journey continued on safely after the phone interlude.

Did he feel on edge in Serbia in general? He says not really. “I walked round Belgrade in the middle of the night. I didn’t feel unsafe but at the edges of your awareness you’re seeing these big long black cars parked outside casinos and huge burly guys in leather jackets. You know a gangster when you see one.”

These characters were on the periphery and didn’t impinge on him, however. “You’re not going to meet any gangsters on a literary visit. I met journalists, writers, poets — all very wonderful and very, very passionate about Serbia.”

Towards the end of the week, the writers were taken to a remote Soviet-era hotel. It was located in a forest inhabited by wolves and bears and “felt like Dracula’s castle was just around the corner”. In the grounds of the hotel were the shells of Nato rockets used during the Kosovo war. Power recalls sitting there, notebook out, thinking, “he has to come here. The guy in rehab has to come here. But, my god, the hotel hadn’t been renovated or possibly even cleaned since the end of communist power in Yugoslavia. I thought, ‘this is incredible.’”

His eyes were also opened to what the Serbian people had been through. “I got this other writer and poet talking about his own experiences. He’d been a teenager during the wars of the ‘90s, had protested at great risk, was tear-gassed, beaten up by the cops,” he recalls.

And so, as richly inspiring as the trip was, he had qualms: “Am I using this country and its real pain as a backdrop to a knockabout comedy? I went back and tried to add a proper weight to my treatment of that stuff. It’s risky to take an Irish character and send him to Serbia to confront the real suffering of that country.”

‘Toxic relationship’

He did it because he wanted, indirectly, to draw a connection to Ireland’s own trauma and shame arising from the “toxic relationship” between church and state that defined this country in the middle of the 20th century.

“When you look at something like Tuam, there are literal bodies buried in this country and literal bodies buried in Serbia. Looking back, I probably made some kind of unconscious connection.”

More consciously, he wanted to contrast the economic conditions of the two countries. He had grown up in a culture where everyone he knew could afford Converse and Abercrombie & Fitch. In Serbia, he was confronted with shops where a pair of trainers cost a week’s salary.

“Ireland in 2010 was in the middle of a recession but we had spent the previous 20 years learning to think like rich people. But we were nouveau riche, of course. Being in Serbia made me acutely conscious of how much Ireland had changed and how quickly; and how precarious and shameful and, therefore, how funny, my sense of economic superiority was.”

He thought if he could set a novel in Ireland and contemporary Serbia, he might really be able to tell a story “about where Ireland is” economically.

Was he amazed to get so much inspiration from one week of his life? “Sometimes you just get a week, sometimes you just get a day. I’ve been to weddings that have enough material for a novel.”

Kevin Power’s collection of essays and reviews The Written World is published by Lilliput Press