The blurb of almost every book published by Andrei Nikolaidis after 2012 claims that he is the most dangerous writer in the Balkans. To be perfectly clear, it is true. I witnessed the scandal that broke out in the wake of one of his texts, in which he theoretically proposed a revolutionary terrorist act as an ironic revenge on those who had been the supporters of nation-state separation in Bosnia. In other words: if there cosmic justice existed, they would have died in a socially-motivated terrorist act, and not a nationalistic one. At the time, when the text was published, Nikolaidis was an advisor to the Speaker of the Montenegrin Parliament, but nevertheless remained, and still remains, an independent thinker and author. However, Serbian newspaper Politika published an invective targeting him, claiming that he supports and promotes terrorism, and asking for an official apology from the Montenegrin government. It concerned a minor international incident, blown out of proportions that, however, hit the ruling Democratic Party in Serbia like a boomerang, given that, although at the time it had enjoyed parliamentary majority, it subsequently lost elections. There were other consequences, particularly in Serbia, among the intellectuals who stood by Nikolaidis, some of whom lost their jobs or were treated very roughly by the authorities. Eventually, it turned out he really was the most dangerous writer in the Balkans.
Right now, two of his novels have been translated into English – The Son and The Coming, both with London-based Istros Books. Since he received the European Literary Award, the number of his translated books is constantly growing. It is good news not only for him, but also for post-Yugoslav literature as such, given that his novels are not merely about war atrocities or experiences of transition from nothing to nothing (this is a quote from Victor Pelevin). If we were to address a problem of wider reception of any literature written in a smaller language (in terms of the number of speakers), we would have to admit that such literature is always judged through the prism of its politics and ideology. It could be argued that any literature is an expression of ideology and politics, but in the Western world there is at least a functional literary market providing a choice. In third world literatures, as Frederic Jameson has argued, everything is political. And in relation to the major Western canon, post-Yugoslav literature could be seen as belonging to the third world. If we understand it that way, we cannot be surprised that any writer from this part of the world should find its predestined place in a big folder of non-Western fiction, with pre-selected list of subjects and motives that range from war crimes to poverty, from concentration camps to wild capitalism. Nikolaidis goes well beyond that, actually betraying the expectations imposed upon him as a Montenegrian or a post-Yugoslav writer. He simply refuses to be put into a heart-shaped box and to follow the rules.
However, he is not ready to betray and reject his background. Almost every one of his novels is set not only in Montenegro, but more specifically in Ulcinj, the city in which he lives. And it is not done randomly, since it is not merely an autobiographical circumstance. Ulcinj is a small town located in southeastern Montenegro on the Adriatic coast, not more than 15 kilometers from the Albanian border. It has long been the last town before Stalinist Albania but, since the 1990s, it has become a transitional town in which, like in any other town of that kind in the world, more or less every imaginable vice flourishes. More than providing a setting for both of his novels, Ulcinj, the town between worlds, adds another factor to the equation – in The Son it is the heat (paraphrasing T. S. Eliot, the narrator claims: “August is the cruelest month”), and in The Coming it is the flood and the nearing Apocalypse. In that way, he sets his novels on a stage which is ready to explode any minute, right in the faces of his characters. It is a world before its end, a world that has no mercy upon people who inhabit it.
If one wants to find a common denominator of these two novels, apart from the roughness of the world they are set in, I think he should focus his attention on the tension between the signifier and the signified. Not only that the relation between them is arbitrary, as de Saussare has rightly claimed, but in Nikolaidis’ novels that relation does not exist. The world is full of signifiers, but the signified are nowhere in sight. For example, in The Son, every family relation is turned upside down and, at the end, the fathers’ house is empty, he is gone, and there is a possibility that he has never been there. Every person is just an empty sign, a signifier that had lost its signified, abandoned. We can see many examples of this, in almost every relationship between the characters in the novel, this situation is being reiterated, the emptiness is overwhelming, and there is a smell of decay and death.
In The Coming, the world is coming to an end. It is snowing in June, the sea is closing on the city, the tide is high, but the narrator is not giving up on his mission – to discover who murdered the members of Vukotić family. But who cares whether one crime would be solved in those circumstances? So if, in The Son, the author had tried to closely inspect the notion of the family and all of its tensions, in The Coming, he is inspecting the notion of ethics. How can one care about a meaningless murder on the verge of an Apocalypse; however, what if the world does not come to an end, what if it is just a play of Nature or God? The novel is toying with the old romantic conception of teleology, of the purpose of history, especially in terms of human nature. As in The Son, each character is morally corrupt and evil, without any remorse or mercy.
It is interesting that, for these two novels, Nikolaidis has chosen the existing narrative models, just in order to completely deconstruct them. The Son is a family novel, a format which became popular in the early 19th century with Jane Austen and has persisted through numerous variations to our day (Jonathan Franzen’s novels being recent examples), and The Coming is basically hard-boiled fiction in which we have a narrator who is at the same time a detective, a private investigator. However, in both cases, the content outgrows the form and starts to build something completely different. To continue the metaphor of abandonment, Nikolaidis adopts one particular genre and then, as if realizing it is too narrow and too strict, he leaves it in the middle of the narrative, and readers are surprised because they have had certain expectations. And, of course, this play with readers’ expectations creates an aesthetic pleasure.
This outgrowing is also the consequence of his extensive use of essayistic passages in which his narrator tries to address different problems which are sometimes only loosely connected to the story, but the use of the first person narrative accommodates them completely. The passages on the Apocalypse in The Coming, or many stories on the question of guilt in The Son, the whole nihilistic and cynical stance taken from Thomas Bernhard, the famous Austrian author, are all integral parts of the novels, although they are not always novelistic in their nature. By adopting this kind of writing, Andrej Nikolaidis has managed to carve a unique position among post-Yugoslav writers.
Vanishing one evening
without a trace.
Without forgotten clues
on the threshold of my room
and no arrow
to show me the way.
Wherever I could have gone
Would be of no relevance:
Laid at the bottom of the sea
Buried in the darkness of the woods
In China devoid of memory
Looking for a pitiful story
Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.
Everything is fine
As long as nobody ever knows.
Vanishing without a certificate of death
So that one day they will understand
What is baffling me now.
This is another way of saying “no” to the dominant culture in which practically the only music is the one played on a one-string fiddle. In contrast, in these two novels, there is a playlist of musical pieces at the end of them, mostly alternative rock and pop, which should be listened to, in order to augment the impact of the narrative. In this way, Nikolaidis tries to show another thing – his belonging to the wider world, making it not merely an act of refusal, but also the one of adoption and acceptance of something that is there to be shared and enjoyed. This may sound strange to any other culture or any regular Western culture, but for post-Yugoslav literature it is a novelty, something that needs to be firmly stated.
The Son and The Coming represent two novels that have brought wider attention and critical acclaim to their writer. If one reads them in respective order, one could see that there is a slight shift in the interest of the narrator and we may presume also of the author. Already in quotes at the beginning of the second novel, The Coming, one can read a passage from Engels, one of the founders of Marxism, along with a one by Karl Marx. This pronounced shift to the left, which is very important and which makes Nikolaidis’ writing even more provocative, especially for the media, is manifest in later books, the collection of essays Homo Sucker and two novels, Paresia and Nine. All three of which are, needless to say, excellent reads.