Is anybody listening? This isn’t a question that detains most eminent Western writers of fiction, whose able conjurings of hot-air balloon disasters relived in appalled slow motion, or of multiple family unravellings that refigure the world, are the engines of supercharged literature. But the great novelists have a problem. They’re expected to perform, and in order to perform they have to submit to their own fiction, which – in the manner of any great performance – has to be oratorical and technically faultless. Think RSC extravaganza. They have to trick themselves into believing that what they’re about to deliver is the only thing worth listening to. They have to believe in stories.
Svetislav Basara is Serbian. You probably wouldn’t have heard of him even if you came from what used to be Yugoslavia and were living in Ljubljana or Zagreb or Sarajevo, since none of his twenty or so books has sold more than a couple of thousand copies, and they have all appeared from a variety of small presses in Belgrade, Uzice and Banja Luka – in Serbia and the Serb part of Bosnia – from establishments whose main business is running a bookshop, but who also publish books because if they don’t no one else will. This is the way publishing works in the Balkans and much of Eastern Europe: fuelled by enthusiasm, as if a late-night debate over the kitchen table had led to a hare-brained scheme to publish for an audience of neighbours and co-conspirators. The logic of such production is that – with no need for a big story that sells to the masses – everyone involved is in on the game, and this might go some way to explaining the extreme postmodernism characteristic of much Balkan fiction of the 1980s and 1990s. Anglo-American realism doesn’t make for electric conversation; the frame of reference is South American and European. For the back-room writer it’s not that nobody is listening, it’s that the people listening are so close he can almost touch them: they are the art-house crowd in black turtlenecks and trenchcoats, and they have a certain sophistication.
The least unknown of Basara’s novels is Fama o biciklistima (1988) – speculatively, ‘The Fuss about Cyclists’ – and I looked up a copy to find out what the fuss was about. It turns out that I understand less Serbian than I thought I did, but the book appears to be a collection of apocryphal manuscripts gathered from imaginary libraries by fictional scholars; it includes Freud’s ‘Case of Ernest M.’ (whose peculiar complex leads inevitably to his involvement with the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and possibly in his assassination) and Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’s Final Case’ (which depends on the discovery that a criminal has been following a route determined by superimposing the outline of a penny farthing bicycle on a map of London). There are diagrams and equations, a note about the construction of the Hospital of Babylon the Great, and a concluding list of members of a ‘secret society of bicyclists’ which includes – those I’ve heard of – Mircea Eliade, Bohumil Hrabal, Eugène Ionesco, Eddy Merckx, Slobodan Milosevic´, Gavrilo Princip, Jozef Skvorecki, Tsvetan Todorov and, perplexingly, Alexis Carrington from Dynasty. These names speak to those in the know, with a complicated take on the obsession that sees Rosicrucianism or freemasonry or the Illuminati everywhere, capturing both the talismanic appeal of the secret list and its satisfactory arbitrariness. By the time he published Fama o biciklistima, Basara had found an audience, even if it was a select one. While he was writing his first novel, Kinesko pismo, during Tito’s final years, he would have been less sure. It was published in Belgrade in 1984, and is now the first of his books to be availably translated into English, by the invaluable Dalkey Archive Press. ‘My name is Fritz,’ Chinese Letter begins. ‘Yesterday I had a different name. Today my name is Fritz. I have nothing to say.’
At this point perhaps we should stop to imagine Svetislav Basara sitting down one day, having decided to write a novel. His fingers are on the keys of his typewriter. The paper in the machine is blank. He badly needs to know what to say. Anything is possible. Here comes the next sentence. ‘I am sitting in my room trying to type a hundred pages or so of my story.’ So far so true. But Basara is paralysed by the limitlessness of the possibilities open to him. Nothing is expected of him; there is no audience clamouring for an encore, no one to tell him what to write or that what he will have invented is a failure. His only option is to write what he’s sure of. The only thing he knows for certain in this context – in this room, variously his ‘shelter’ and his ‘prison’ – is that he has sat down and is trying to write. What follows is what happens when the only voice a person hears is their own: a lapse in perspective. ‘It appears that nothing is happening. Yet that’s not true. Lots of things are going on: my heart is beating, my blood is circulating, my kidneys are somehow managing to purify my blood, the Earth is rotating – it almost makes me feel dizzy – and night is falling. There’s a sort of incessant ticking in my head.’ With nothing to distract him, everything he hears reflects back on him; the white walls resound. ‘I have a sense that I’ve become too big for myself: I feel as if I’m smaller inside than the actual size of my body.’ He is struck by a vertiginous confusion about the space he occupies, about his own solidity, and this plausibly disorienting sensation is cleverly combined with the idea that the book is constantly reminding us of: that this is a made-up character, larger and less real than life.
But Fritz or ‘Fritz’ isn’t entirely alone. He has been visited by two mysterious strangers, and it is on their instructions that he has begun to write. ‘Nobody told me what to write about. But they gave me a deadline. They said: “We’ll come back soon.”’ It isn’t clear what they are asking of him: a confession, perhaps, or an account. They return, bringing with them unsigned and threatening letters. Fritz spends most of his time in his room. He has panic attacks; his mother, alarmed, comes in to check on him, motheringly deferential. He has outings: he goes for a walk, sits on a bench, goes to visit his friend, a pathologist at the morgue who is mildly amused and mildly depressed by the corpses he examines. He visits, or appears to visit, the 18-year-old green-eyed girl who lives upstairs, who is called Maya or perhaps Moira. She plays the piano heartbreakingly, and may be the daughter of a judge; she sleeps with strangers in the park and writes him letters on pink paper telling him she has slashed her wrists. In one of the letters she signs herself Chiang Ching; she might be Chinese. Fritz considers nailing his hand to his desk to prevent it from strangling him. He tells a policeman his name is Salajdin Bejs. He may have met a girl in a church, the sexton’s daughter or possibly a spy who wore a dress of sparkling beads, who may be called Luna or Natasha and who was – or might remind him of – his childhood sweetheart, if he had one. His sister is getting married, to the son of the crooning butcher across the street, a man Fritz calls the Mongoloid. He once worked – he remembers, or thinks he remembers, or says he remembers – for a kind zookeeper who was killed by a brain tumour. Before that he worked in a musty shop for a Jew with striped trousers and three gold teeth who spoke no Yiddish and died of tuberculosis.
Fritz’s inventions are pathological, but they seem also to be a way of defending himself against a greater pathology. One reason a writer like Basara chooses to exaggerate the fictiveness of fiction, constantly threatening the illusion by reminding us that it is written by a person sitting in a room, is that in the totalitarian state he says he lives in, he and his co-conspirators reject what they see as the assertive lies of power. (Basara, incidentally, is a member of a mildly nationalist political party, and now the ambassador of Serbia and Montenegro to Cyprus.) Chinese Letter is the product of an ethical belief that fiction is unsafe, and Fritz gives his sister a lecture on dissent. ‘They taught us in school: the Danube flows into the Black Sea; Bucharest is the capital of Romania; Mont Blanc is such and such tall. Let anyone dare claim differently. They’ll end up in an asylum. Nobody checks to find out whether any of this is true.’ In Serbian, as in other Slavic languages, there are two everyday words for ‘story’: priča and istorija – ‘tale’ and ‘history’. When Fritz says he is trying to write his ‘story’, he doesn’t mean he is spinning a tale in the manner of the novelists, but recording the facts, in so far as he can ascertain them. It’s just that facts are slippery and he can be certain of nothing. In the society he thinks he lives in, anything he is told may be a fiction. He also has to be careful: he may be monitored. ‘The walls of my room have strained their ears and they are trying to hear what I’m saying.’ You’d think this kind of paranoia would cancel out the fear he began with, the fear that he is in an empty echo chamber; but it’s not impossible to hold both beliefs simultaneously. Fritz wonders whether he exists, but he also wonders whether the streets have been given names only in order for the authorities to be able to identify where he lives. The question of whether anybody is listening has no sane answer: either no one is and you move through the world as a ghost; or their spies are everywhere. Or both. Fritz sums it up nicely: ‘Everything that was happening seemed very suspicious.’
Nothing that happens in Chinese Letter is secure. About two-thirds of the way through, Fritz announces that his mother has been kidnapped by white slave merchants. He has an uncomfortable interview with the police. He goes back home to find that his mother has been returned: the slave merchants had the wrong address. In the space of a few pages, Basara has conjured up a crazed subplot and then coolly deflated it. It’s a ploy that displays the familiar mechanisms of fiction in their undisguised form, showing up the magicians’ tricks for the deceptions they are. He makes many similar gestures, as when the two strangers turn up again and again, their unanticipated rearrival representing the necessary jolt that in a ‘realist’ novel would be the introduction of a new character, a shift, a twist in the plot. There are pleasingly subtle gestures of other kinds: Fritz, dismissed from hospital, has an idiosyncratic difficulty with walking that is a nod to Beckett; he scrawls part of his story on a bench in a nod to Hamsun; the two strangers, slightly less subtly, come from Kafka. Fritz is the sum of a progression that begins with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and ends with Beckett, and he accumulates along the way most of the verbal tics and comic turns that characterise each writer’s outsider.
Basara has here defined the most fundamental and powerful of fictional engines – the self-observing observer, riddled by doubt. But he also has a problem, a problem he’s too committed to avoid: his particular amalgam of fictive loners has nothing really to rail against; unlike the others, he is created not by his situation but by authorial fiat. Fritz despairs of the uselessness of books. ‘Their only purpose is to allow the writer to live through the hell of this life and not feel it on his skin. There is a constant decline in real books. I mean the ones that have real excitement or dangers in, books with machines from hell built into them or war books packed with hidden caplets of poisonous gas.’ He tries to counter the decline by spattering his typescript with the blood that drips from the hole he has made in his forehead with a sharpened pencil, defacements represented in the printed book by black dots that pepper the text. If you refuse to be taken in by stories, the only story you can reliably tell – again and again – is that you’re making it up. The question Basara has forgotten to ask is who is telling his story. He could have found it in himself to be someone else – even without self-deception. As Laurence Olivier said to Dustin Hoffman, ‘Why not just act, dear boy?’ It’s good advice. Somebody might be listening.