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Monday, 3 November 2014

The Son - Andrej Nikolaidis (translated by Will Firth) - Winner 2011 European Union Prize for Literature

It’s been an insane time here at Messenger’s Booker, with outside pressures curtailing my reading, not to mention my reviews here. So it is about time I got my life back in order and returned to blogging about books in translation.

My latest read, again comes from Istros Books, park of their “Best Balkan Books” Series, “The Son” by Andrej Nikolaidis.

However little we expect of life, it gives us even less. Disappointment is inevitable, and not even the complete absence of hope can free us of it.

So here’s a warning, are you after a nice uplifting tale? Sorry, this won’t fit the you want enlightening ruminations on the futility of existence? Well just about every page here contains something to make you ponder your own life.

Our novel opens with heat, the stench of sweat, insomnia, a broken marriage and cannibalism, and that’s just the first four pages. Welcome to the world of our unnamed writer protagonist, a first person narration on a day in the life of “the son”.

Our narrator is carrying a deep dark secret, one that separates him and his depressed father. A relationship that his late mother could not mend, a burden he carries but will not discuss that could lead to forgiveness and forgiveness is a punishment? A story set in Montenegro, more specifically in the seaside city of Ulcinj. A city where our writer, Andrej Nikolaidis, lives, a place which contains the “Square of Slaves”, where allegedly Miquel de Cervantes was traded as a slave. The city where tourism is rife but a dark past is lurking in the shadows. A city which becomes the melting pot for our narrator as he travels it, guzzling whisky, throughout a single night.

To escape a fire in the family olive grove (the third and obviously final nail in his father’s coffin) our writer goes into town and our nightmare begins. He comes across an angry mob outside the mosque, debates and lamentations on patricide and stories “gleaned from anecdotes” follow. He then meets up with the town cheapskate, who pimps his own three daughters. A fellow school friend who was severely bullied as a child, ended up in the army, lost everything and is now an alcoholic. More and more characters from our narrators past appear, others join his life, like a family of lepers living in an abandoned car park. A multi storey car park with no access road, the road is the promise of a better future, if only extra work is put in the future would be rosy...

This is a work which contains numerous illuminating snippets throughout, for example:

He slaved away all his life, only to die in misery.

Things never fail because of me, not do they go off well thanks to me. They always happen with me as a bystander. I just adapt to them.

If someone managed to wring all the black out of just one human soul, like the ink from a squid, the whole world would disappear in murk.

Is “illuminating” the correct word for the darkness we wade through here? However there are great passages revealing the angst of this man’s soul, this one as he watches his father’s olive grove burn;

I soon tired of the scene. Three helicopters were now in operation, and it was plain to see that they would defeat the fire in what would be one more triumph of technology. Once technology and nature were pitted against each other in this way I felt that there was nothing left for me. And yet I simply couldn’t make up my mind as to which was more monstrous: nature itself or the methods people employ in order to dominate it.

Even though our anti-hero narrator writhes in the murk of his own existence, his relationship with his father simmering along in the background, as each hour of his journey into the soul of Ulcinj reveals more of his despair and hatred of humanity;

As a matter of fact, everyone becomes unbearable once we get to know them a little better. That’s why the most beautiful women are on those painters’ canvases, where they’re limited to their appearance. Beautiful they are, and that’s all we need to know about them. Because any other detail about their biographies, habits and thoughts would repulse us and turn delight into disgust. I can just imagine how the girl with the pearl earring must have stunk. Europe at that time didn’t have bathrooms, so it’s hard to think of European women of that era as anything other than carriers of the plague bacillus. This woman, as we know, was a maidservant. Before she sat for the painter determined to immortalise her beauty, in other words the lie about her, she must have already cooked the main meal, scrubbed the floors and done all the shopping. She’s sure to have worked up a sweat at least three times, and being in the same room as her must have been awful. But there’s not a man alive who doesn’t desire to kiss her when he sees her on a museum wall.

I don’t want to reveal all the characters our writer comes across in his nightly travels as the underbelly of Ulcinj would be a lesser experience for you as a reader if I exposed the Dantesque gathering of misfits. Needless to say our protagonist ends up at the Square of Slaves, where he dreams up a modern concept of a slave market for writers and artists (of course the outcasts in his world).

A novel which also contains a “soundtrack”, unfortunately this is listed at the end as I may have listened to the recommended tracks as I was reading – a listing of thirteen pieces to accompany the reading, ranging from J.S. Bach to Sonic Youth (“Tunic (A Song for Karen)” which is about Karen Carpenter, the singer who died from anorexia nervosa – “You are never going anywhere”).

Although this is a short work, only running to 115 pages, it is multi layered and complex in its observations. Ultimately a story about the father/son relationship, this is also a moving story of Montenegro and the futility of existence. Another great work from the Balkan region and yet another from Istros Books that I thoroughly enjoyed. A region I will continue to explore given the wealth of writing talent.

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