Saturday, April 01, 2006

Borislav Pekić by Borislav Mihajlović Mihiz

Translation © 2005 by Srdjan Simonović from The Selected Works of Borislav Pekić, vol. 12, 1984

Only a short time has passed since Ivo Andrić and Milos Crnjanski, having reached their zenith, began to bask in their future eternal fame and then passed from life to our literary tradition. They had ended their long, productive careers at an auspicious time in Serbian literature, leaving in their wake a number of gifted, first-rate writers who have already moved well into the realm of high art. I want to introduce one of them to you, one whose place in the future history of Serbian literature is already secure, and would be increasingly so. He is right here, living in our time, growing and developing before our very eyes – it is only right that we should get to know him.

Borislav Pekić

A figure unusual in many ways: in his life, his work, his looks.

Above the slightly bent shoulders of a tall, delicately built man, a chiselled, ascetic, triangular head. A stern look behind powerful glasses, a look that seems to be seeing rather than watching, is but rarely lit up by a fleeting and somewhat bewildered smile. The soft gait of his long legs, the exquisitely beautiful and restless hand. (A perceptive painter made a portrait of him as the famous icon of “Bogorodica Trojeručica” – Our Lady with Three Hands).

He speaks but a little, and almost always in curt, brief phrases – he, the author of the longest sentence in Serbian literature. He also speaks gruffly, even indignantly, as if he were angry with his interlocutor in advance, as it happens with people who hide their sensitive spirit behind the armour of irrefutable logic. An assiduous worker, uncommonly and unflaggingly committed to his trade, he is always somewhat absent in the company of other people, as if the best part of his thoughts kept toiling over unfinished manuscripts. He drinks rarely, and when he does he only takes stiff drinks, with the resolution and vigour of a Cossack.

He is proud, even haughty, like a nobleman. He seldom makes mistakes and he reluctantly excuses the mistakes of others, let alone his own. A sturdy man who keeps to his beliefs and principles, luckily without the pedantry and hair-splitting one often encounters in such characters. He cannot stand charlatanism, too strong and hasty words, or our sentimental, Slavic outbursts. He keeps his word as if he were a Scottish Highlander, and he makes much of it if others keep theirs too. In a word, a strong, tough and somewhat unrelenting man, who in spite of that can be both a precious and a preciously devoted friend to the people and ideas he has acknowledged his own.

Of course, such as he is, Borislav Pekić could not have had an easy life.
He was born in Podgorica in 1930 as the only son of a Montenegrin father, senior civil servant in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and a mother from Banat. In the turbulent, crazy times after the Second World War, at the age of eighteen, he was tried as a member of the illegal political organization called The Democratic Youth and sentenced to many years’ imprisonment, eventually serving out more than half a decade.

Destined to become a writer and aware of his vocation, he had to wait for a long time and endure the double torment of imprisonment and silence. Although he was to become an erudite and one of our most learned writers, he began his schooling but never finished it. (After all, Thomas Mann – who is Pekić’s next of kin in spiritual terms – also finished, if I am not mistaken, only seven grades of high school). He was strong enough after attending his “university” in prison to go on preparing for his public debut for another decade, in secret.

And he burst into our literature suddenly and from an unexpected direction, with a book of New Testament legends entitled The Time of Miracles, at a time that was witnessing and invoking a different kind of miracles. Discerning eyes could already detect in this first book an ambitious author marked by an epic sweep, a polished style, and a paradoxical, ironic intelligence.

After this, Pekić was silent for five years, as if he had all the time in the world and even more self-confidence; and then, already a forty-year-old, he published the first in a series of novels about the Negovan family, The Pilgrimage of Arsenije Negovan (translated into English as The Houses of Belgrade). It achieved great success, won critical acclaim and the “NIN” award, and the persevering recluse suddenly found himself in the focus of public attention.

He remained there for a short while and then, as if he were not from this part of the world, where people laze on the laurels of their success so easily, Pekić fled to London with his architect wife and his only daughter, and in that populous city, procul negotiis, far from the hustle and bustle of his homeland’s literary scene, he dug himself in, like a conspirator or an ascetic, in the vaults in which he creates his works.

From the faraway London then began to flow, if through a broken dam, the full spate of his novels, plays, essays, journals; Pekić’s oeuvre constantly grew until it numbered thousands of pages. And though he remains there, in that foreign city, with each new line he writes he is increasingly here and increasingly ours.

I have had the opportunity, unique for a connoisseur of literature, to follow the work of Borislav Pekić in the making, from the vantage point of a close friend. The Time of Miracles, The Pilgrimage of Arsenije Negovan, The Rise and Fall of Ikar Gubelkijan, How to Quiet the Vampire, The Defence and Last Days of Andria Gavrilovic, and his major, central work The Golden Fleece (five volumes of which have been published, and two more announced).

A dozen of plays and dramatizations (of which seven have been staged in Belgrade) and as many radio plays that have been broadcast across Europe, especially in Germany. Published fragments of an unpublished novel, "The Reds and the Whites"; an unpublished novel, The Builders; a thoroughly worked out plan for a novel about the Byzantine Empire; a broadly conceived and diligently kept journal of the writer’s reflections. This is what Pekić has written, or is writing, or, to my knowledge, intends to write.

Let me try – though I do not even hope to succeed – to squeeze this extensive oeuvre into the tight corset of a short commentary.

Borislav Pekić is never a mere chronicler of people’s destinies, but a writer who always focuses on moral, intellectual, political, and historical problems that have caused such destinies. This is why each of Pekić’s texts rests firmly on a paradoxical intellectual construction. Basically a sceptic with a powerful imagination, Pekić sees man as a being impaled on the stake of history, on which he simultaneously twitches, cackles and cries for mercy.

Like any wise man, Pekić conceives history in broad terms: as politics, economy and morals, as the scent, the colour and the style of an epoch, as a succession of tradition and innovation, as a craft, a profession, a bloodline, a family, a genus, deeming that the only constant thing is the eternal split of man’s dual, Centaur-like nature, the split between passion and logic, between compulsion and defiance, between the mundane and the mysterious.

This also explains why Pekić is so well-informed and his works abounding with so many data. He cannot stand superficiality and improvisation: if one of his characters (George) is a general, this implies the author’s deep knowledge of military matters; if another is a house-owner (Arsenije) and yet another one a future architect (the little Isidor), this implies the knowledge of all the fine points of architecture. This may even include familiarity with IGA Farben if his characters happen to work in the chemical industry (the two Stefans), or the wanderers’ lore from the times when the Negovan genus was peddling across the Balkans.

Since all truly great novels are in fact family novels (from the first one – The Iliad, to the best one – War and Peace), thus Pekić too, undaunted by the task he had set himself, envisioned his masterpiece in a megalomaniac fashion and – perhaps for the first time in the history of world literature – took and followed a family through twenty long centuries.

Never self-indulgent, Pekić indulges his reader even less. He is what is usually called “a difficult writer.” He writes at full length, elaborating on his subject, and the reader will often have to fight his way through the entangled thicket of his texts, though sometimes doomed in advance to failure. From his reader Pekić expects and requires that he should be absolutely concentrated, willing to pursue with him the remotest digressions or obsessions, and sufficiently informed to follow his hidden allusions and his vast learning. However, if the reader endures in this, I am tempted to say, concentration camp of spiritual demands, he shall be amply, lavishly rewarded.

He shall meet the multitudinous throng of Pekić’s interesting and powerfully depicted characters, he will follow the course of an inspired and inspiring intelligence moving through various times and taking the shape of various people, he will face intriguing problems of man’s existence expressed with subtle irony and very often with the most sophisticated spirituality and humour to be found in our culture and our language. He will find a close and indispensable companion in this great lover of paradoxes, who loves them because we are ourselves paradoxical – both we and this life we are living.

Translation © 2005 by Srdjan Simonović from The Selected Works of Borislav Pekić, vol. 12, 1984

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