“As a matter of fact, everyone becomes unbearable once we get to know them a little better. That’s why the most beautiful women are those on painters’ canvases, where they’re limited to their appearance.”
The Son, a novel by Andrej Nikolaidis opened with a quote by Thomas Bernhard. I took that as a good sign, and, possibly, an indicator of things to come. Would the novel be morose yet shaped by grim humour? I hoped so, and my expectations were met amply in this dour, yet bleakly funny book. Author Andrej Nikolaidis was born in 1974 and brought up in Sarajevo, Bosnia/Herzegovina, but is of Greek-Montenegrin background. In 1992, Nikolaidis and his family moved to Ulcinj, in Montenegro.
The narrator of the book is a nameless writer, and as the title indicates, he’s the son of a “blighted family.” He lives in isolation on a hillside in the middle of his family’s olive grove, “fifty hectares of viper-and-boar-infested scrub blocking our view of the sea.” He hasn’t seen or spoken to his father who’s in bed, ”paralyzed by the depression which had abused him for two years,” even though they live just a few yards apart. Stuck in his own swamp of depression, our narrator rants, moans and complains about a range of things–his ex (she finally got the gumption to leave), and the tourists who litter the landscape:
Everything would have been different if I’d been able to control my repulsion, I realized.
The sun was still visible through the lowered blinds. It had lost all its force and now, unable to burn, it disappeared behind the green of the olive groves which extended all the way to the pebbly beach of Valdanos and on so far as Kruce and Utjeha; bays sardined with bathers determined to absorb every last carcinogenic ray before going back to their accommodation. There they would douse their burnt skin with imitations of expensive perfumes, don their most revealing attire and dash off to discos and terraces with turbofolk music, full of confidence that tonight they would go down on another body with third-degree burns; possessing and forgetting another human being almost identical to themselves.
Our narrator is repulsed by the human race and does not exclude himself from his savage, unforgiving, pessimistic commentary. Unable to read anything but the most lurid crime stories, and unable to masturbate, he acknowledges that his “own hunger for the grotesque will destroy” him. Freud could have written a book about this character if he ever sought professional help, but these days, we’d throw Prozac at the problem. The bitterness, the ennui, disgust, and self-loathing all add up to a narrator who’s fun to read but a real downer to live with–hence the departed Mrs. and who could blame her? Even the narrator admits that they had a “fragile and bloodless” marriage, which was tested to breaking point, as they lived, stuck together in a small, smelly house for two years. Now alone, attached to no-one, and with little to do, he feels superfluous to life–a modern-day superfluous man–he describes himself as a “bystander” who’s just “passing through.”
Our insomniac narrator finds mild interest in life through the most outrageous stories about serial killers.
For two whole years I hadn’t read anything except the crime column in the newspaper. The only things which still interested me were crime news and books about serial killers. It was as though only overt eruptions of evil could jolt me out of my indifference. I no longer had the energy for the hermeneutics of evil. That was behind me now. I could no longer stand searching for evil in the everyday actions of so-called ‘ordinary people’. Instead I chose vulgar manifestations of evil. If a man killed thirty people and buried them under his house, that still had a wow factor for me.
Events take our narrator out of his self-imposed isolation and out into town for the evening, and most of the book chronicles his misadventures and encounters with various people. These encounters include a meeting with an old school friend, talking to a Muslim preacher, an assignation with a prostitute and a surreal run-in with a family of lepers who live in an abandoned underground Soviet era parking garage. Everything the narrator sees appears to underscore his life view that “everyone abuses everyone else” and that ”human misfortune doesn’t derive from a social system of a geographical location, but from existence itself.”
This is just a short book, but author Andrej Nikolaidis packs a lot in these bleak, wickedly funny pages. There’s no down-time between diatribes as the narrator vents against the human race with a wide range of subjects which include cannibalism, PC porn, the comparison between being a writer and a pimp, crime (“every family home can turn into a slaughterhouse,”) and the “impertinence of beggars.“
For its bitter, morose humour, The Son should appeal to fans of Thomas Bernhard. Extra house points must be awarded to Andrej Nikolaidis for having the wit, intelligence and balls to take a literary baseball bat to the knees of one of the most over quoted sentences from the giant of Russian literature: Tolstoy. This event takes place in an underground car park and the father of a family of lepers tells the narrator that they stay underground, because they’re “happy there” away from the society that rejects and ridicules them for their afflictions. The narrator sardonically notes that the leper is ”unaware that he’d just convincingly refuted Tolstoy, who claimed that all happy families are happy in the same way.” Yet that realization underscores an encounter the narrator has with another family–Djuro and his daughters–all prostitutes. Djuro drives a car a “rusted red Moskvich with ‘Dirty Djuro and Daughters: Sex for Every Pocket’ painted on the side.” The family home, located in a cellar, is a “ three-room brothel,” and the narrator is confronted by the fact that even though Djuro, “endowed with entrepreneurial spirit,” has condemned his daughters to a life of degradation and prostitution, they still worship him. In spite of the narrator’s bleak world view, it’s these encounters that somehow, strangely, show how the human spirit endures–in spite of humiliation, degradation, and the bleakness of the human condition. Perhaps this paradox can be explained by the contrast between our self-focused narrator and those he encounters–people who genuinely lead miserable lives and yet find some sort of philosophy to transcend tragedy and cope with life.
The phone rang. A friend was calling to tell me that a DVD edition of the film Cannibal Holocaust had just arrived from America.
“What’s that?” I asked him.
“A film about an expedition of film-makers, who come across a tribe of cannibals in the Amazon jungle,” he said.
“Sounds good for starters. What happens after that?”
“Nothing much–the rest of the film is about the cannibals eating them. ….”
And here’s another review from Winston’s Dad
Translated from the Montenegrin by Will Firth. Review copy.