Šljivovica

A few years ago, an old work friend and mentor originally from Montenegro showed up at a party I threw with a very kind gift of a bottle of Serbian šljivovica. Maybe a year later, she brought another bottle to another party. I had a few other spirits laid out that night I wanted finished, and she poured a shot of Hungarian apricot brandy leftover from a long-ago post here. That stuff was gnarly, and I warned her as much. She insisted, but then quickly decided that actually yes, it was pretty terrible, and cracked open the šljivovica instead.

Chapter 57 of Against the Day finds us not far from Serbia and Montenegro and not far from more šljivovica. It’s October 6 1908, and Austro-Hungary has just announced its annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Cyprian is in Trieste meeting with his “field advisor,” Derek Theign. Theign has an “open bottle of šljivovica” on his desk, suggesting his own Balkan interests, but he’s not offering any around (p. 806).

Cyprian heads to Bosnia with Bevis Moistleigh to, as best as I can follow, rescue another agent there threatened by the situation, Danilo Ashkil. After finding Danilo though, it seems Cyprian himself is in pretty deep shit too, Theign having apparently sold him out to the Austro-Hungarians. Cyprian and Danilo have lost Bevis and are wandering “adrift and mapless.” This wandering brings them to Jajce, northwest of Sarajevo. They head to the Jajce Grand Hôtel, thinking Bevis might be there, but meet a more ominous reception:

Nobody at the reception desk had seen Bevis. “But those gentlemen over there have been waiting for you, I believe.” […]

Wasting no time on pleasantries, Batko, the larger of the two nodded them towards the restaurant bar. Cyprian had an impression of dark wood and antlered heads. Bakto ordered šljivovica all round.

Against the Day, p. 834.

The ominous gentlemen turn out to be not entirely unfriendly (šljivovica all round was a good start) and give Cyprian and Danilo some advice on fleeing the country.

Šljivovica all round works for me. As my wise and generous colleague judged, it’s way nicer than that apricot brandy Cyprian encountered a hundredish pages earlier. This particular šljivovica is the Flores “Žuta Osa” (yellow wasp) from Serbia. Cyprian and co must have had something similar—the spelling Pynchon uses refers specifically to šljivovica from Serbia or Croatia.

Šljivovica is distilled from plums, and the Žuta Osa has a lovely plum aroma, very pleasant subtle fruitiness, a good hit of fiery warmth, and a touch of sweetness. Once, long ago in the Czech Republic, I had some slivovice (Czech spelling) someone’s grandmother had made, and man was that stuff intense. Spiky, wild, kind of thrilling. The Žuta Osa, though, is a much more polished beast, round and rich and delicious, not at all rough around the edges. Great stuff! Were I fleeing with Cyprian and Danilo, I’d be running for the hills with a bottle under each arm.

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