PART OF A SERIES ON THE BALKANS
Till Kingdom Come is Andrej Nikolaidis‘ most recent novel to be published in English, and like almost everything I’ve read in translation this week, has been translated by the polyglot – I think that’s the right word – linguist, Will Firth, and published by the stellar Istros Books. I’m typing this lying on a bed overlooking the Adriatic the night before I meet Nikolaidis, so I’m very keen to order my thoughts and think up some cracking questions to ask him in the a.m. What I basically mean by that is that this “review” is more for me than it is for you.
I drove from Skopje to Ulcinj today and it took me around seven hours, due to a 90 minute wait at the Albanian-Montenegrin border. The first novel of Nikolaidis’ I read referred many times to people smuggling drugs and sex workers in and out of Albania, so clearly this point, close by the sea, is a significant spot for the authorities. Prior to that long static wait, though, I drove along the beautiful, pretty-much-brand-new, road from Kosovo to Albania, through, along, inside and around numerous mountains and rivers and forests. If good drives turn you on and you plan to drive from Prishtina to Tirana, make sure to bring some spare pants, as that is a hot and tasty road.
I listened to S Town as I drove, roadhard (not actually hard, just metaphorically), and felt waves of empathy with someone bitching relentlessly about the town they live in but never leaving. Felt a bit embarrassed, really. #tiredoflondon
This week I’ve spent a night in six cities, effectively speed-dating with places. They’re all very different, but I’ve not been able to get much of a handle on any of them due to the briefness of my stays. I wish I’d stayed longer in all of them, long enough to work out whether or not I would enjoy spending longer in them. Ulcinj, in south Montenegro, is where I am tonight, and where Nikolaidis primarily set his novel.
Till Kingdom Come – more than The Coming – is set elsewhere, too, simultaneously grounded in a more magical world and a more real one. In this book, no apocalypse is happening, but people are unstuck in time, minds wander and death comes easily, constantly and nastily. Till Kingdom Come is both dark and playful, and manages to be confusing without being alienating – this is weird fiction, but it works very well.
I’m going to take the Murakami comparison I made in the previous review and reassert it with more certainty. Here, especially, Nikolaidis appears on the page very much as a Montenegrin Murakami, and not just linguistically (which would more accurately be Will Firth appearing like Jay Rubin), but in terms of his structure and characters. The protagonist here is seeking to solve a mystery, but the mystery of his own identity. He sometimes dreams he is other people, with other memories (though some perhaps from the future) and then wakes up having sleep-walked whilst in a trance. He never met his parents, his mother died shortly after he was born and he was raised by his grandmother. Or was he? As he delves into his own past and the past of his mother, he learns that nothing is as it seems and even the most certain of truths are hiding weighty secrets. There is an informer – whose identity is never revealed – who emails him details about serial killers and ritualised murders, all of which veil clues related to the reality of his origins. However, as he gets more and more excited by his investigations he loses his job – as speechwriter for the head of the national police (I think) – and the data-mining privileges this brings.
As the protagonist explores his hometown and the places he has evidence of his mother visiting – veering closer to an understanding of her career and his slips in time – more real tragedies begin happening. His small circle of alcoholic, depressed, friends begin killing themselves, pulling apart and failing to grab onto something, no matter how odd, to keep themselves afloat. Just like in The Coming, Nikolaidis refers to Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th century Turkish monk who claimed to be the Messiah and was forced to renounce Judaism and convert to Islam and was banished to Ulcinj. This figure is significant in both novels, and I’ll ask Nikolaidis tomorrow what it is he finds so appealing about the man. Though, tbh, if a banished cult leader had died in my hometown I’d probably be obsessed with him too. (NB: I don’t think anyone of note has died in my town, though Harry Styles off of One Direction was born there, and so too was a certain award-shortlisted “literary lifestyle blogger”. (The second one is me.))
This is a novel that explores place in some detail, including – bizarrely – the offices of Istros Books and the (no offence) insignificant Holborn quadrangle of Red Lion Square, which I think is mentioned more times in this book that I’ve heard it referred to irl during nearly a decade (#fuckIneedtomove) of living in London. Place and time are fluid and solid, dreamlike and filled with verifiable detail. Till Kingdom Come is an imaginative conundrum that leaves numerous threads incomplete and unexplained, but is still somehow satisfying. Life (well, multiple suicides) seem to overtake the protagonist’s fascination with his past, and as a reader we know that nothing he learns for definite will be as exciting as the process by which he learnt it. This is exploratory prose, engaging and fun, and – other than the setting – feels very like Murakami, and I mean that in the best possible way. I’ll definitely be recommending Nikolaidis to other people, and will try to squeeze my way through his other translated novel in the eleven hours I have until I meet him tomorrow. Probably won’t happen, though, as I think my wifi here is strong enough to play Super Mario Run. Sweet dreams from Montenegro!
Written 9ish-10ish pm on Saturday 8th April.