Courting the Fantastic


                                                                 by Guido Eekhaut 


The reader of this magazine may be surprised, even upset, when the reviewer presents this book – a first English translation – by the Serbian writer Svetislav Basara, since it is very far removed from anything normally associated with SF or fantasy. Or is it not? I recall a conversation with Larry Niven a while back (it must have been either in 1979 or in 1987 during a Worldcon) who mentioned once buying a Brian Aldiss book to entertain him during a transatlantic flight. The book was Report on Probability A, and those who know what this book is about will understand Niven’s displeasure, since he had expected some of the ‘real’ SF Brian used to write. Actually, I like Report on Probability A quite a lot, but that’s a whole different story.

            Back to Basara. Every once in a while a writer’s name in honored in an adjective, used to describe a specific style of writing, a manner in which a fictive world is build, and so on. That way we speak of Borgesian and Nabokovian fictions, and usually we know exactly what that means. Withing Serbian literature – so I’m told – Basara receives the same accolade. We can only hope this will speed up his international recognition. The problem with including him in an magazine devoted to the fantastic (in any sense) is merely a problem of definitions, since any sort of fiction that is not purely realistic or naturalistic is, in a sense, ‘fantastic’. And this surely is the case with this book.

            The premise of Chinese Letter is simple and mundane enough: the narrator, whose name might or might not be Fritz, is asked – even commanded – by two men to write what he himself calls ‘a statement’. This text has to be some hundred pages long, and it constitutes the book itself. A book in which Fritz writes about his often absurd conversations with his mother and his friends, a girl next door and other occasional passers-by. As in Report on Probability A the strangeness is found not in what happens but in the way all this action – or the lack of it – is dislodged from everyday reality.

The world that Fritz inhabits, and which reminds us of Queneau and Kafka alike, touches our own, finds similarities, and comments on them. This world touches that of any writer, explicitly when Fritz comments on the need for writing. The emptyness of not writing, the futility ‘Fritz’ has to overcome, is everywhere around him.

If this book speculates about any sort of human condition, it is about writing itself, which is – to Basara – a reality different and separate from the outside world. But writing is diminishing the truthfulness of the world, much more than any form of scientific extrapolation can bring about. “This is,” he writes, “what is utterly devaluing the writing: discontinuity among thoughts, events and what was written about them. On paper everything has its direction, its logic, but in reality everything that happens except for this logic is unclear.”

The world of Basara is so utterly simple that we are left wondering what is wrong with it. E.M.Forster once said that he envisaged his novel A Passage to India as a book with a hole in the middle of it. The world of Basara has a hole in its middle too, one that we are all too familiar with. It’s the hole of our lack of knowledge about the basic properties of our life. And this lack of knowledge starts with our Selves, and with ourself. As Fritz finds out: he is not himself, but maybe somebody else. But who is his true ‘I’? He has been replaced by another ‘Self’, much in the way this happens in some SF-movies, a literary self, one that can only tell fictions about itself.

Fritz is hardly a character we would care about. His observation of the world is rather bleak. At a certain point early in the book he observes: “My biggest success in life is that I’m not dead yet. My biggest failure in life is exactly the same thing: I’m not dead yet.” At least he has the certainty that he exists, even if he hovers in between life and death. The fact that he is obliged to write a hundred-page text is a sort of comfort to him: “They persecute me so that they can convince me that I exist. I wish I could trust them. I insist on being presecuted.” It is difficult not to read a political statement in these lines (and one should remember they were written in the early eighties). But later on Fritz realises this existence is only momentarily.

Meanwhile strange things happen: he is given the news that his aged mother has been abducted by slave-traders, but a short time later she had already returned, unharmed – or at least that’s what he is being told. Do we, as reader, have to take him and his text for granted? Does he invent his life because he has to fill a hundred pages? Or is Fritz – like the characters in the Aldiss’ book I mentioned earlier – only a subjective observer of misinterpreted events?

But what can Fritz do in such a world, full of subjective observation? He can do nothing but write. “I have to write so that I won’t die and I have to keep reporting this so that I won’t forget. Writing won’t get me anywhere, but if I go back, I will stay there forever.” After that a “magical world opens up” for him, not a world of exotic and supernatural magic but one of the most commonplace events, which are confronted time and again with the uncompromising demand for a hundred-page text. In fact, the commonplace world would not even exist without writing, without written desciption. It is even invented while writing.

The world of Basara – which is as far as this book goes is indeed fully ‘his’ – reminds the reader of Bohumil Hrabal or Paul Auster, while some familiarity with the more absurd sort of SF (one thinks of R.A.Lafferty) would help to appreciate Chinese Letter.

Svetislav Basara: Chinese Letter. Dalkey Archive Press, Normal/London, 2004. ISBN 156478374X. Paperback, 132 pp., $ 12.95. Original: Kinesko Pismo (1984), translated by Ana Lučić.



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