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Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Coming - Andrej Nikolaidis (translated by Will Firth)

Earlier this month I reviewed the independently published “The Son” by Andrej Nikolaidis,  a bleak novel from Montenegro where a son watches his father’s olive grove burn and then travels the city of Ulcinj coming across a range of bizarre characters who have shaped him as a man. A thoroughly enjoyable work and one I learned was part of a “trilogy”, I had to jump on-line and buy his earlier work “The Coming”.

Our story opens with the gruesome murder of a family, two children and both parents have been killed with an axe. Our first narrator is a private detective:

As soon as I opened my agency, though, it seems all of Ulcinj decided to start killing, robbing, abducting and raping. And there was plenty of adultery too: it must be close to a dozen marriages I’ve torn apart. I’ll always remember those jobs most fondly, given the rest of my blood-soaked career. I follow adulterers to their hotel, make myself comfortable in my car, and knock back a swig or two of whiskey – just enough to give them time to undress and get down to business. A few photographs as evidence, and the matter is settled. My own experience in such matters is rather scant, I should say, or at least not as extensive as I’d have liked it to be, but one thing’s for certain – women cope with adultery much better. A woman sees her partner’s adultery as a betrayal: she’s angry and offended. But a man who’s just found out his wife is cheating on him sees it as humiliation and irrefutable proof that he’s not man enough. When a woman finds out she’s been cheated on, her femininity is abruptly heightened. It’s as if she has a ‘femininity switch’ which her husband inadvertently activates by having an affair/ But a cheated man crumples like a used condom. Little in this world is as fragile as masculinity – I’ve learned that lesson well.

Of course our narrator is hired to solve the murder, however this is not your ordinary crime novel, or a Sam Spade noir story. Alternate chapters are spoken via an email from to our private detective a very different tone, striking in their opposites, we even have a different font:

Even here, in this room where I’m confined – for my own good, they never fail to say – the first snow brings serenity and joy. And even though the narrow slice of landscape I see through the window is now my whole world, that world is sublime in its beauty once it’s covered in white. The west wind casts snow on the gnarled branches of the plum tree, the browning grass of the hill and the bristling willows. There are other days when the lake is leaden grey and impossible to distinguish from the sky, which is eternally grey here in the Alps. The surface of the water sometimes shakes as if someone were walking on it, unseen and unheard. The water ripples and the little waves move towards me. They won’t shake the willow branches dipping into the lake and don’t have the strength to reach the shore. If it weren’t for me patiently awaiting them every winter as I stare out through the window, probably no one would notice their so potent existence.
Those waves which won’t foam, let alone carry away or smash anything, are a sign: they herald the first snow. The wind which raised them will soon strengthen and bring driving snow to the lake. A flurry of snowflakes will descend on the landscape and white will re-establish its order. But not before several large, watery stars have stuck to my window. By evening, ice will have covered the glass: I’ll press my face up against it and feel the cold on my forehead. Outside everything is at rest, and inside everyone has fallen asleep. That is my time: I can let the ice with my breath right through until morning. Every few seconds I breathe life into a shape – and a being on the window-pane starts to move. Now it’s a bird, next time it’s a wolf. And however often the cold comes for them and the ice reclaims them, I bring them back with my breath.

The claustrophobic feel is almost palpable, a landscape you can’t inhabit, therefore create your own.

All of the novel is set to a theme of “the end of the world”. The apocalypse has arrived and we see the inane day to day activities. As a reader you question “why would someone do that during their last hours on earth?”

MTV reacted promptly and to the point: Strummer roared London is drowning and I live by the river, while an autocue at the bottom of the screen advertised the upcoming MTV Apocalypse Awards.

Another work (as we had in “The Son”) which contains a soundtrack at the back of the novel. I’ve been listening to them as I’m writing this review in fact, REM, The Clash, Nick Cave, The Jesus and Mary Chain (all bands I’ve managed to see live so something I can relate to quite easily). Amazingly they add another layer to this work, with fitting lines and themes of a world in decay. Of course The Smiths – Meat is Murder runs parallel with the section where a butcher is called into action for an injured cow.

Heifer whines could be human cries
Closer comes the screaming knife
This beautiful creature must die
This beautiful creature must die
A death for no reason
And death for no reason is MURDER

And the flesh you so fancifully fry
Is not succulent, tasty or kind
It's death for no reason
And death for no reason is MURDER 

There are so many quotes from this work which I could use to show the in-depth ruminations on parenthood, father son relationships, the City of Ulcinj, what is truth, what is sin?

A man lives with his neighbours in ‘peace and harmony’ for decades. Ask anyone in the local area about him and they’ll tell you he’s a peaceful, friendly guy. Isn’t the crime news in the papers always the same? Don’t people always describe their neighbour in the same way, and then – out of the blue – he commits a terrible, bloodthirsty crime? He conforms to the social conventions for years and years. But then comes a day when he follows his own desires: he goes into the house of people he’s lived alongside in peace and love for decades and kills them all. Who is the man living next door? Who is the criminal from our wars? An ordinary man, a good neighbour of forty years’ standing, who under the sway of ideology, religion or whatever, blows a fuse and commits the crime? No: he’s a killer who wished to see his neighbours dead for forty years and one day finally did what he’d always wanted.
It’s the same with sincere friends. My good friend is drunk: he comes up to me and insults me; he tells me he despises me – no, he hates me, a hatred I deserve for things I’ve done, some of them in the distant, common past, which he enumerates and describes with what feels like the inhuman precision of a surveillance device. When I see him again the next day, he stands before me with his head bowed and apologises. ‘Please forgive me, I was drunk,’ he says.
What is my friend actually apologising for? Not for what he thinks and feels, but for having said what he thinks. He apologises for truth having punctured the condom of inter-personal consideration under the influence of alcohol. His apology is a request for me to reject the obvious: yes, that is what he really thinks about me. Hypocrisy is at the very heart of so-called good interpersonal relations. It’s the very core of our everyday forgiveness. Usually we forgive what is done to us and manage to ignore the fundamental question of why it was done to us. Even if we forgive from the position of a good Christian, we do so in the full knowledge that there’s a final arbiter, our God, who considers the claim for clemency once again. What’s more, we forgive in full awareness that we have to forgive for our own sins to be forgiven. SO that the outcome of the trial in which we are being judged be favourable, we have to relinquish our authority in the trial where we are the judge and transfer the matter to the ‘Supreme Count’. We forgive, fully aware of the existence of the Heavenly Bank of Sin, in which every transgression counts. Our interests in the Bank of Sin render us fundamentally incapable of forgiving: a person can only truly forgive if their grace is disinterested. Ours never is, therefore it isn’t grace.

Add to our plot a mystery of a holy and ancient book, the Ulcinj library is burned to the ground and the story of this ancient book, self-proclaimed Messiah’s from the 1600’s, and the right to become the Messiah should you own the book are all intertwined with the mystery of the murdered family. An Umberto Eco in Montenegro in the shape of James Ellroy? What a blend.

Another wonderful work from Andrej Nikolaidis, peppered with thought provoking snippets, a fine plot, and multi layered through two voices and an accompanying sound track. Nikolaidis’ work deserves to be more widely explored and read, and personally I can’t wait for the third instalment, "Til Kingdom Come" from Istros Books in July 2015.

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