26 April 2005

Three Short Novels from Eastern Europe

Novels that hover between 100 and 200 pages get a friendly first response from me, because I'm not all that fast a reader and most days are pretty busy, so fiction that is longer than a short story but not long enough to take me a week or more to read feels like a gift.

Recently, I read three such books: Black Blossom by Boban Knezevic (published by Prime), Chinese Letter by Svetislav Basara, and Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov (both published by Dalkey Archive Press). Knezevic and Basara are both Serbian, Gospodinov is Bulgarian.

I should have read Black Blossom first instead of last of the three, because then I would have approached it on its own terms and not tried to fit it into some stupid stereotype of what I thought Eastern European literature should be. Both Chinese Letter and Natural Novel are playfully metafictional books, novels that are very aware that they are novels, and so when I started reading Black Blossom, which begins with Chapter 9 (working back to 8, then 10, then 7, 11, 6...), I was all ready for something similar. It's not that at all. It wasn't until I went back and started rereading the book after I had finished it, somewhat disappointed, that I realized how much I had injured my reading of it through ridiculous expectations.

In any case, Black Blossom can be interpreted in a variety of ways. At a superficial level, it is simply a somewhat unimaginative example of epic fantasy. If you want epic fantasy, this is not the book to read. There's more to it that is satisfying, though: it can be read, it seems to me, as a political parable, a parable of loss, of mistakes, and of hope. It feels both very old and quite new, with the tendency toward traditional storytelling evoking a strange tension when viewed alongside the quite nontraditional portrayal of the protagonist. The main character is a knight who has been given superhuman strength through a curse, but he is not the most virtuous man, not a man with infallible judgment, not a man who has never lost his temper, been dishonest, or betrayed a friend. When you have superhuman powers, though, a lack of virtue or judgment can be deadly and catastrophic. But the narrator is not a bad or amoral person, exactly, not really an anti-hero -- his intentions are generally good, and he cares deeply about Serbia and its people. The plot races along, but there's a sadness to it, because we as the readers can slow down and think about what's happening, while the unfortunate characters are caught in a whirlwind of events that becomes a cycle where every good intention gets met with some sort of punishment or ill fate. The final chapter, which comes immediately after the first, offers a bit of hope, a sense that the characters have learned something, that they may not fall into the same traps as they, and their ancestors, did before.

Chinese Letter and Natural Novel are very different from Black Blossom, but not so different from each other. Both are great fun to read, both throw bits of philosophy around like candy, both are fragmentary and ambiguous. Natural Novel is a somewhat weightier book because it is more grounded in everyday reality: reduced to its most basic conceit, it is scraps of a book that a character named Georgi Gospodinov has found, and that seems to have been written by a man who was getting divorced, was interested in biology and entomology, and became a homeless beggar. It's exasperating toward the middle, because the narrative almost gets lost amidst all the asides, dreams, lists, and moments of scientific, historical, and intellectual speculation (including a short history of toilets), but just when it all seems ready to collapse into meaninglessness, the book snaps into coherence, and the ending is, for a reader who has paid attention and let all the details accumulate in their mind, devastating. This is a book I'm sure I will reread at least a few times, just to try to figure out how Gospodinov made it all work.

Chinese Letter was Svetislav Basara's first novel (as Natural Novel was Gospodinov's), originally published in Serbia in 1984. Basara has gone on to write quite a few other books, and I'm curious about them, because while Chinese Letter was certainly a book I was glad to read, it felt like the work of a writer I'd call more promising than accomplished. There's clearly a lot of intelligence behind the story, and yet there's also an overly large debt to Kafka and a certain thinness to it all. The central premise is a joy, though: A narrator who thinks his name might be Fritz has been ordered by two men he doesn't know, but is afraid of, to write a manuscript of "about 100 pages", and the book we're reading is the result: pretty much anything that comes to Fritz's attention while he is writing; stray thoughts, ideas, conversations, news, encounters, math problems, schedules, drawings, etc. It's the sort of book that is fun to read but doesn't stick its claws into your memory to the same extent as a book like Natural Novel or Black Blossom.

I see I have neglected to mention the translators, something I usually try to avoid doing, because translators deserve more credit and thanks than they get in this world. Black Blossom was translated by Dragana Rajkov, Chinese Letter by Ana Lucic, and Natural Novel by Zornitsa Hristova.

(By the way, if you're interested in issues of translation, be sure to read this interview with Ammiel Alcalay, which I discovered via Languor Management.)