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New York Times Book Review

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January 21, 2004

Quieting a 'Vampire' From an Author's Grave


BELGRADE - A dozen years after his death Borislav Pekic is acclaimed as one of the  greatest writers in the Serbian language, but he is otherwise little known.

Now Northwestern University Press has announced that a translation of his  chilling novel ''How to Quiet a Vampire'' will be published in the spring.  It is the third of his major works to be translated into English, following  ''Time of Miracles'' in 1976 and ''Houses of Belgrade'' in 1978.

In ''Vampire'' Pekic somberly explores and dissects the minds of the  midlevel practitioners of a totalitarian system, specifically Konrad  Rutkowski, the protagonist, a former Gestapo officer who in postwar Germany  has become a liberal intellectual, and of his superior, SS Standartenführer  (colonel) Heinrich Steinbrecher, a fanatical Nazi.

Rutkowski, a professor of medieval history at the University of Heidelberg,  relates his doomed vacation visit to a Dalmatian town where he had served  22 years earlier on special detail with the Gestapo. In 26 confessional  letters this former Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) recalls how he  botched his first interrogation, sending a harmless town clerk to the  gallows and in another case beating a recalcitrant prisoner to death.

These horrors represent the vampire he wants to silence. His confessions  are torture to him. He hallucinates that his vampire inhabits a demonic  umbrella that had attached itself to the town clerk. The umbrella then  pursues Rutkowski, ultimately causing his death.

Rutkowski both renounces and justifies his past. He contends that he joined  the Gestapo to fight Nazism from within, arguing that he had ''clear  awareness that this is only a loathsome means for attainment of a higher  goal.'' To prove this he invokes a wide range of Western thinkers including  Marcus Aurelius, Erasmus, Hegel, Nietzsche, Spengler, Wittgenstein and Sartre.

Bogdan Rakic, a professor at the University of Chicago and co-translator of  ''Vampire,'' commented, ''The whole of European intellectual tradition is  shown as something oppressive and artificial, dissociated from the  spontaneous vitality of life.'' Pekic's intention was not  anti-intellectual, Mr. Rakic contends, but to ''show that totalitarian  ideologies can reappear in altered circumstances.''

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Pekic himself reflected: ''Rutkowski was wrong when he believed that by  simply being the product of Christian civilization and middle-class  tradition he was safe from these barbaric, atavistic impulses.'' Not just  ex-Nazis: ''There are so many people who still haven't faced their own  vampires.''

Awaiting publication during an 18-year literary-political exile  in London, Pekic commenced what became his masterpiece, ''The Golden  Fleece.'' This novel in seven volumes is the saga of a Balkan family  stretching from the edge of mythological times into the 20th century. Part  of the saga has been translated into French.

While beginning in myth, the central story portrays the birth of the  Serbian bourgeoisie, the birth of modern Belgrade and through them a vision  of Serbia's (and his) urban class. On another level ''The Golden Fleece''  is a critique of materialism and acquisitiveness.

The saga is of a family who were Tsintsars, a now extinct tribe of the  Vlachs, who emerged as wealthy entrepreneurs in northern Greek territories  in the 17th century and then migrated northward. Pekic's roots were partly  Tsinstar, and the book expresses the memories of his father and  grandfather. Born in 1930, the son of a senior civil servant in the  Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, Pekic came to dissidence early. He was  arrested at 11 for participating in a demonstration against Nazi Germany.

He enrolled in the Communist youth league at the end of 1944 as a ruse,  forming his own clandestine anti-Communist group a few months later and  another in 1948. That year he was arrested and imprisoned for five years.  In his cell he wrote on toilet paper with the tooth of a comb. He also  contracted tuberculosis.

''Fleece'' and ''Vampire'' are part of the outpouring of work after he  emerged from prison: 4 film scripts, 6 other novels, 2 novellas, short  stories, 10 dramas, 11 volumes of radio plays, diaries, an amusing  ''Sentimental History of the British Empire,'' science fiction and  collections of letters.

In the family apartment, his widow, Ljiljana, noted that for a few years  after prison he studied ''history of art, then psychology'' but then became  a full-time writer, initially for films in 1960. ''He was a workaholic -- a  write-aholic,'' she said. She met him, just out of prison, in his apartment  at 7 Malajnicka Street, ''playing poker with a friend.'' The house now  bears a plaque commemorating him.

The Communist regime regarded him as undesirable even after his release,  delaying or preventing his publications. Fed up, he moved to England in  1971. Returning to Belgrade in the waning years of Yugoslav communism, he  joined a group of dissidents including Vojislav Kostunica, later president  of Yugoslavia, and Zoran Djindjic, later prime minister of Serbia and who  was assassinated last March. In February 1990 the three men founded the  opposition Democratic Party. At their convention Pekic denounced the  moribund Communists: ''If this system has no moral foundations, principles  or laws on which we can all rely equally, it ceases to be legitimate.''

Four months later he marched in a demonstration against the ruling  ex-Communists of Slobodan Milosevic and was injured in a police charge. He  died in 1992 of lung cancer.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company 
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