A family’s testament of endurance in occupied Amsterdam
Talking Location With author Cal Smyth – BELGRADE
8th May 2020
#TalkingLocationWith... Cal Smyth, author of The Woman with a Bullet in her Leg and The Balkan Route
Belgrade: the white city…
The aroma of red peppers being grilled in the autumnal streets and the scent of Lipa (Linden trees) in the spring breeze. All-night summer parties on the splavovi (floating nightclubs). Winter mist rising off the Danube and enveloping the city, seeping into the old stone walls, riddled with bullet holes. Remnants of World War Two, NATO bombing and Audis of Death.
I wanted to write a crime series set in Belgrade as it’s a fascinating city and a perfect location for Balkan Noir. I’ve also loved two Serbian women, my son is half Serbian and I lived in Belgrade in the late 1990s. At that time, Belgrade was a crazy place. The Yugoslav War was over, the West had imposed sanctions and inflation was off the scale. The only economy which worked was the black market and in this climate, crime thrived.
For the first novel in my series, I wanted to capture the essence of Belgrade in a present-day investigation affected by past events: ‘As criminals, politicians and police battle over the Balkan drug route, Inspector Despotović must fight corruption to keep his family alive.’
At the same time I was starting to write The Balkan Route, I met The Woman With a Bullet in Her Leg. She was studying linguistics in the UK for a semester, as a mature student, and we met in a park where our sons were playing. We instantly fell in love and she told me her story: as a young woman in Belgrade in the 1990s, she’d been the girlfriend of a notorious drug dealer. This ended with a police car chase and her getting shot in the leg. When doctors operated, they couldn’t remove the bullet. Needing to get out of the life, she moved to Austria where she married and had a son. With us both going through divorces and our sons becoming friends, we embarked on an international relationship.
As research for my novel, I wanted to interview a police inspector in Belgrade. Through a friend of mine, an author and publisher in Belgrade, a clandestine meeting was arranged with a young police inspector. My girlfriend and I flew over to Belgrade, staying with her family, who in typical Serbian fashion dished out homemade ćevapčići and rakija until I couldn’t eat or drink any more. The next day, we met the police inspector in a café. At first, he was understandably reluctant to talk. But with my girlfriend acting as translator, he opened up, telling us about the Balkan drug route and corruption.
The drug route starts in Afghanistan, where poppies are cultivated into heroin, which is transported through the Balkans and finishes up in western European countries such as Germany and the UK. The Balkans are just the transit route. It is the West which consumes. I was really pleased to find out that heroin is sometimes transported in ajvar. This is a Serbian relish made from red peppers, one of the most delicious things in the world. In my novel, I’d imagined heroin was hidden in jars of ajvar and as it was true, this became a major plot device.
The Balkan Route takes its title from the drug route but is also a love letter to Belgrade and is dedicated to the city, which is full of culture and history. Kalemegdan, the medieval fortress with panoramic views is where a crucial meeting takes between the police inspector and his boss. Šaran restaurant in Zemun with its delicious fish soup is where the inspector discovers a key clue. An underground bar in the cobbled streets of Stari Grad is where the inspector makes a deal with his lover and former addict to go undercover, despite his lover’s Turkish coffee reading predicting death for someone…
In a case of real-life replicating fiction, as The Balkan Route was being published, my then girlfriend was back in Austria, letting drug dealers and prostitutes back into her life. This was heart-breaking for both of us, our relationship ending. A few months later, I got a call from a lawyer in Austria. My former girlfriend was in prison: a crazy story involving tapped phone calls, prostitutes in witness protection and several kilos of cocaine. Out of love, I went over to Austria and helped get her out of prison. In a return deal, I fictionalised her story as a real-life thriller, tragic drama and doomed romance.
Belgrade will always have a big place in my heart, a city where real life is larger than fiction.
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