1. I’ve noticed that I quite rarely write about Serbian literature (so far I think I have only one post) which is quite strange. Truth is that I usually read foreign contemporary literature and in private correspondence with my foreign friends I’m recommending my favourites Serbian writers; what a paradox.
2. Recently I had “conversation” with one Finnish friend about Serbian folklore, namely about devil/vampire in it and have recommend her “Fear and its Servant”, novel written by Mirjana Novaković (as far as I know book is translated only in French: La peur et Son Valet). That was the novel who missed the most prestigious Serbian literary award, NIN Award by one vote. But (big BUT) I wasn’t talking about the novel but about magical theatre play based on this novel. Play was settled under the open sky, during the night on the Belgrade fort Kalemegdan (where the novel is set as well). I have the novel on my to-be-read pile and after that conversation I took it and lightly start to read. I made first pause after reading 100 pages!
This is probably my novel of the year!
Fear and its Servant (Страх и његов слуга)
by Mirjana Novaković (Мирјана Новаковић)
3. Fiction with vampires is usually not my cup of tea (I’m afraid my only positive experience was „Historian“ by Elisabeth Kostova); however I’m very interested in ethnology and folklore and being Serbian I surely can’t skip vampires (I’ll explain the reason later; you’ll be surprised), therefore folklore, myths etc. in nonfiction work is something I like very much indeed.
The novel is set in XVIII century in Belgrade under Austrian administration and the topic is one historical event: Investigation of vampires.
4. XVIII century is full of scientific achievements and historical events and Serbs gave their (quite odd but still) contribution as well: Vampires!
Namely for the first time in the western world Serbian (!) word “vampire” has been documented! In the year of 1725 in the Serbian village Kiseljevo peasant Petar Blagojević (or HERE) died and soon after him few peasants more. All of them in their dying moments were talking that late Petar is coming to them during the night and drank their blood. Then commission along with the priest exhumed Petar, stabbed his heart with hawthorn stake and burned the body. Peter has been proclaimed as “archvampire”, the report has been sent to Belgrade and from there to Vienna and after publication in The Wiennerisches Diarium it was the main theme in Vienna’s public circles.
5. So, theme for this novel is historical fact from 1725, arrival of the commission from Vienna that supposed to investigate article in Wiennerisches Diarium about vampires in Serbia. But that would be just too simple right? Therefore the main role plays Devil himself! (in strange way similar with “Sympathy for the Devil” by Rolling Stones). 6. So I guess by default this novel suppose to be horror and in some way it is: we have vampires, placed in the system of manipulations, money, politics … yes it is actually kind of political horror novel. Therefore there’s no problem to put in this sub-genre at the same place vampires, devil, princes, Maria Magdalene, Christ … Politics is the biggest horror because it is true horror. In politics, nothing is fiction!
7. As I said devil plays the main role and is one (of two, second is Princess Maria Augusta Turn and Taxis) narrators of the story. He is disguised in false count Otto von Hausburg (one of many historical allusions) and is coming with his servant Novak, Serb (amazing character, Christian who is willingly work for devil as a way of self punishment) to check if the rumors about vampires are true. He has his own reasons.
8. In one moment devil says “I don’t have enemies among people. Everyone loves me!” and in some way you can believe in that (remember Rolling Stones from above) because we are meeting men that are much worse than the devil. Here devil is anthropomorphous being, almost common man who doesn’t have any supernatural powers but has flaws common to majority of human beings. And that is the irony: Devil meets people much worse than he is and he’s afraid and wants to avoid them. It seems that devil is afraid of Serbia (and Serbs)!
9. So this is mixture of horror and fantasy with postmodernistic elements. This is the story where the history is turned upside down! Vision of Christianity through the eyes of the devil, from the night in the Gethsemane Garden through the centuries is so intelligent and with amazing humour! We see devil as a common man who drinks, smokes hashish, sleep, is running away from love and is afraid of vampires! And why’s that? Well, think! If dead people are arising Judgment Day is near, meaning farewell to the devil!
10. Images of Belgrade from the early XVIII century are magical! The city has been divided in two parts: “Austrian” (which means: European, Christian, white (Belgrade means Beli-White Grad-City)) part and the second “obscure other” part that is on the other side of the Wall, behind the Prince Eugene Line, where through the night and fog roam vampires, ghosts, road bandits and other Serbian and Turkish natives. I said that the history has been turned upside down but there are many historical facts, especially about the history of my Belgrade (episodes I didn’t know).
11. Through entire novel many pseudo-biblical stories are interweaving and are initiated with the constant devil’s self-reexamination, his desperate need to treat Christ with irony and author with many beautiful marginal allusions is canceling linearity of time. We are sailing from the New Testament to Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Dante to Rolling Stones and through the huge part of Serbian literature.
12. In the same time, Novaković is telling one apocryphal story about one Belgrade that is nothing but apocryphal place for any nowadays Belgradian because there is almost nothing left from those past times. That was de-oriental-ed place, with three circle of strong walls, full of cathedrals build by Austrians, and destroyed by the same Austrians when the Austrian regent sold Belgrade back to Turks. 13. And if there is a place where that town still exists, it must be in that other world where, even today many undead souls of the always obscure, dark Balkans are roaming; about which Mirjana Novaković is writing with cheerful, ironical tenderness, precisely in the way one should write about something that is dear as much as is crazy, about something where even devil himself in one moment is putting cross around his neck!
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