READ THE WORLD – Montenegro: Milena & Other Social Reforms by Olja Knežević

Translated by the author.

Trigger warnings for drug use, rape, and human trafficking. Milena & Other Social Reforms is also based on a real woman’s life.

Milena thinks she has it all when she lands a job as the President’s interpreter. Bright, young, beautiful, willing to take a chance, she is the embodiment of the new Eastern Europe. But a bold new title comes at a cost. As a country suffers the growing pains of greed, Milena is caught up in the machinery of crime, corruption and human trafficking.

Milena & Other Social Reforms spans over five years or so from the early 2000s when Monetnegro is young and finding its feet after Yugoslavia was dissolved, to the mid-2000s after the country has gotten its independence in 2006. It jumps between two times and places too. In Montenegro when Milena is working as an interpreter and getting to know various politicians and important and well-connected people in the country, and in London years later where she’s started a new life as a nanny for a wealthy Russian family.

It takes a while to really understand just what Milena’s life was like in Montenegro as how her job went from just being an interpreter to almost being a prostitute for the President of the country in order to get information from those he considers both allies and enemies, seemed to be one of those things that happened slowly then all at once. Things snowballed for her but because she had an intimate idea of how the politics and rules of the country worked due to having been in so many important meetings, it sometimes felt like an almost foregone conclusion that this is the position she’d end up in even though she definitely didn’t want it. It’s shocking and sad to see the depths of the corruption Milena encountered, with the police framing people, politicians being involved in everything and elections being fixed.

I liked how the story went between her life in Montenegro and her new life in London. Even though you don’t know the extent of what she went through to begin with, in the London sections it’s clear she’s still not OK and is sometimes struggling to deal with her past. The fact she often hangs out on the roof of the block of flats when she can’t sleep and one of her flatmates is concerned about her doing so is proof of that.

Milena is a smart and resourceful young woman but Milena & Other Social Reforms shows how that is not enough when faced with powerful and cruel men and corruption everywhere. Milena can’t trust the police or doctors or anyone who could be bought off, instead it’s other women that help her. Women who have escaped being trafficked or women who have some international political power (because there’s very few Montenegrin women in politics) or once she’s in London, women from other Eastern European countries who are looking to make a better life for themselves for whatever reason.

Milena & Other Social Reforms can be a tough read at times – in part because this self-translated, self-published novel doesn’t always have the correct English words, spellings or phrasing – but also because it shows the underbelly of the politics of a new country that is trying to show itself in the best light to the rest of the world. Still, it’s an interesting and thought-provoking read and it never shies away from the horrors of corruption and what people (often women) are left to face when they’re just trying to make a better life for themselves. 4/5.

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