I was attracted to this book in part because I’ve lived in both Serbia (the author is Serbian) and Hungary (where the story takes place). None of that was important to following the story.
There’s a certain Eastern European authorial tradition that feels that opacity, when mixed with a touch of drama, produces Literature. In part, that may be because in so many countries, writers were compelled to use allegory and implication to avoid the censors. Unfortunately, some of today’s writers have kept the top layer of obfuscated allegory, but forgotten to include the deeper layers of meaning. The result is both portentous and confusing, like a word search puzzle where they’ve forgotten to put in the words. Even celebrated writers seem sometimes to have forgotten to tell an interesting story.
To be fair, Todorovic’s book is not quite in that category; it has neither the cynicism of Srjdan Valjarevic, nor the heavy-handedness of Gyula Krudy. It does have layers of meaning, but it also relies on narrative that is needlessly opaque, and drama that is mysterious, but never quite explained. The book is a two-track affair that follows both Moritz Tot (and here the name seems mainly to be just the common Hungarian name, and not a reference to the German word) a punk-ish opera prompter, and Tobias Keller (and again, the name seems not to bear dual meanings), a bureaucrat working for a distant and mysterious supreme being. Moritz’ story mostly concerns his strange preoccupation with a man he sees from his window. Keller’s story describes his trial for breaching rules by interfering in the mundane world and Moritz’ life.
The concept of the book is interesting, if not highly original, and much of the line by line writing is good. Unfortunately, the pieces simply don’t hang together well (for one thing, the initial shift between sections is not obvious). Moritz is obsessed by the man he sees, but his reactions are irrational, and he comes across as paranoid, leavened slightly by details about his life that never resolve into meaning. For example, the book starts with his new job as an opera prompter. I’m not an opera fan, so perhaps a whole layer of subtext passed me by, but the job aspect just faded away in later chapters, and never really seemed relevant. Moritz and others generally act in ways that normal, reasonable people simply would not do. It’s never explained, and it prevented me from ever really immersing myself in his world.
Keller’s world is more interesting. The trial mechanics are too self-consciously Kafka-esque for my taste – Kafka did this already. The mysterious supreme being is more interesting, as are the moral and ethical dilemmas posed in Keller’s thoughts. The resolution, such as it is, is ambiguous. I could have accepted that, but in the context of the Moritz story, the whole left me dissatisfied.
Todorovic has done the English translation herself. In many ways, that’s a good thing – who could be more sure of getting the meaning correct? Unfortunately, while her English is excellent, it’s not perfect, and there’s a pretty fair helping of incorrect tenses scattered throughout. It doesn’t mix well with the opaque text, sending the reader out of the story to wonder whether it’s a complex hint, or just an error. My reading suggested error. Kudos for the language skills (how many English speakers could translate their work into Serbian?), but the book would have benefited from a final copy edit by a native speaker. The larger problem, however, is not with the translation, but the style. A fair example from mid-book: “For this reason, by believing in the abovementioned idea, I was also obliged to hold on to other beliefs which, instead of facilitating the fruition of my original idea, ended up being an aggravating factor.”
All in all, an interesting book, but not one that I felt paid off. As noted, I’ve found a large proportion of the region’s Literature to have similar flaws, so if you’re already a fan of East European writers, by all means try this book out. If you’re new to this tradition, I wouldn’t advise this as the place to start.