PART OF A SERIES ON THE BALKANS
I’m typing this as I stand, waiting for Aleksandar Prokopiev, in Pelister, a semi-glamorous bistro restaurant where this afternoon (7th April) we met and conducted our interview. It went well – I think – and I’m now rendey-vousing with the former rockstar at 9.30 for a drink and another chat, this one almost certainly off the record. While I’ve been waiting – he was at a film festival from late afternoon to now, though insisted we reconnect – I finished reading The Coming by Andrej Nikolaidis, the Montenegrin writer I am supposedly meeting at some point over the next two days, though he hasn’t replied to an email in over a week. I don’t mind too much as I’d wanted to stay in his home town anyway, and also his book is great. Still, I’d like to confirm details to stave off the anxiety, like.
The Coming is one of three of Nikolaidis’ novels that have been translated into English by Will Firth and published by Istros Books, and it is – I believe – the earliest. It is a novella, I suppose (length is hard to judge with an eBook in the free app I’m using), consisting of eight chapters of roughly equal length and then a much shorter one tying the two threads – four and four chapters each – together. The structure seems relatively simple from that description, but each thread tells numerous stories within itself, shifting from violent murder to apocalyptic cults to false messiahs to petty adulteries to doomed romances to fraught psychotherapy and the search for missing paedophiles. One of the narrators is a private detective whose voice echoes – deliberately, because it’s good for his business – old friends of this blog such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, a depressed, alcoholic loner who drifts from uninspiring case to uninspiring case, while the apocalypse appears to begin around him. The second narrator, Emmanuel, seems to be a frustrated genius, plagued by false beliefs of an uncriticisable knowledge of the entire universe, whilst remaining incarcerated in a Vienese institution. We learn about halfway through the novel that Emmanuel is the detective’s illegitimate son, though they have no emotional relationship beyond the fact of this tie. Their two threads are almost frustratingly distinct to begin with, but once they start to collude they begin to paint a complex, intriguing and pleasingly exciting, novel.
In coastal Ulcinj (where I’m driving to, from Skopje via Kosovo and Albania tomorrow) on the tasty Adriatic, snow is falling in June. Sea levels are rising and drunks are confessing more than their usual sins. An entire family has been brutally killed in a mysterious fashion, and the news reports that people think the world is soon to end. Because he was depressed anyway, the detective sucks it all up and gets on with his job, lying to clients where he would have lied before, telling the truth where it would’ve made him money. His locked-up son, full of possibly false knowledge, emails him essays upon obscure religious figures and claims to solve his cases – without being told about them – in ways that involve complex conspiracies. The two halves knit together, one very real where unreal things happen, one very unreal which seems to anticipate reality. It is playful and reminded me of Haruki Murakami, though actually both Homunculus and Quiet Flows the Una both did slightly too, which are the other books I’ve read that were translated by Will Firth. So this connection may be more of a quirk of literary translation with an edge of the unreal, rather than anything deeper. I’ll come back to it when I’ve read Nikolaidis’ other books.
The Coming is great, engaging and unsettling, though it is a bit overwhelmingly blokey, female characters existing as caricatures, sidelined behind the action and there to be victims, mothers or lovers. But this is an angry book about angry, lonely men, so it’s perhaps appropriate, though as a whiney liberal I want to point out that diverse representation – even in fiction – is important. (Feeling a lot of guilt about the fact that all three of the writers I’m meeting in the Balkans are men. This was not deliberate: I emailed many writers but these three were the only people who had both the availability and the English to make an interview practical/possible. #diversityfail)
I’ll read at least one more of Nikolaidis’ books before meeting (or not meeting him) over the weekend, and I’m looking forward to it. Hard boiled, postmodern, angry, emotive, fun. Ticked many of my favourite boxes.