Friday, February 15, 2019

Borislav Pekić' Houses

Since I have now reached those years in which man's allotted span comes to its natural end, and moreover since my health is no longer of the best, I, Arsénie Negovan, son of Cyrill Negovan, rentier here residing, have decided, being fully lucid and in possession of all of my mental faculties as prescribed by law, to set down this testament,...

So opens Houses of Borislav Pekić. We soon learn it's Belgrade in June of 1968, so you may have some doubts about how lucid Arsénie Negovan actually is, if he thinks he's a rentier. You're right to doubt.

Arsénie is 77 when he's writing this combination last testament/memoir and earlier that day he'd been caught up in Belgrade's version of the 1968 student riots. Arsénie can't stick to a timeline, but we gradually learn that he acquired or had built, with the help of a contractor cousin, a number of houses in Belgrade during the 20s and 30s and he really was a rich property owner renting out residences and living off the proceeds.

But he doesn't think of himself as a typical exploitative property owner. He loves his houses; he gives them all girls' names, Sofia, Irina, Eudoxia, above all, Simonida and the lost Niké. He doesn't feel he has to maximize his income. The houses have a soul only he can preserve.

" that the Possessor becomes the Possessed without losing any of the traditional function of Possession, and the Possessed becomes the Possessor without in any way losing the characteristics of the Possessed."
Hmm. Is it houses we're talking about?

Then the Second World War and Communism came to Yugoslavia. I had to remind myself from Wikipedia, but Yugoslavia remained neutral even after the Italians tried to invade Greece, but failed. When it came time for Hitler to rescue his Italian ally, he put pressure on the Yugoslav government to join the Axis and at first the Yugoslavs did so under the regent Prince Paul, but riots in 1941, encouraged by the British, led to the overthrow of the Regency, allowing the seventeen-year-old Peter II to assume the throne. The Germans subsequently invaded Yugoslavia, as a by-stop on their way to Greece.

Arsénie was caught up in that 1941 riot and badly injured; from that day until 1968 he never left his house. Well, a few things changed in the meantime. Because Arsénie was presumed to be frail and with heart trouble, his wife Katarina and his nurse Mlle. Foucault 'took care of' his property, and Arsénie's folie was nurtured. Until he feels Simonida is threatened by renovation and he must once again leave the house.

There are number of details about Negovan family relationships that come out over the course the novel, Arsénie's brother, his cousin, his son, his nephew. How good (or bad) a person is Arsénie? It's a question the novel invites us to ask. Well, he's bad enough that this novel about a haute bourgeois can be published in Yugoslavia under Tito. But not so clearly villainous that as a result Pekić felt more comfortable emigrating to London a year after it was published. Pekić had already spent five years in jail as a Center-Left Democrat in the immediate post-war period.

The introduction compares Arsénie to Don Quixote and that's not a bad comparison, though perhaps a little too forgiving. Arsénie does real damage and only sometimes means well, less reliably than Don Quixote.

Anyway, I thought it was very good, though a little difficult to get into at first, because the narration is a bit mad and disjointed (and I know very little about Belgrade). But I was glad I stuck it out. It seems Pekić wrote another seven novels about the Negovan family, as a group called The Golden Fleece, not yet translated into English. I say, get on them!

Pekić was born to a prominent family in Montenegro, but this is so clearly a Belgrade novel, I really feel uncomfortable using it for anything but Serbia in Gilion's European Reading Challenge. So Serbia it is!

As a side note: in reading Wikipedia about the events of the time, I discovered that Peter II, that 17-year-old king who took over in 1941, spent a great deal of time in Chicago after the war where there was a large Yugoslav community. My father's boss in Chicago when he worked at RCA in the 60s and 70s was a Serb royalist, Milan, I no longer recall his last name, who had, I was told, seen some terrible things fighting as a partisan during World War II. I met Milan once or twice, maybe when I was seven or eight. Could I have met the former king of Yugoslavia when I was child? Well, I'm quite sure I didn't, but perhaps it was only two degrees of separation...

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