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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"Second Body"and 'Last Love in Constatinople" by Milorad Pavic (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)



Second Body - or the Pious novel

"The author of this book is imaginary; the rest of the characters mostly existed. The Spring of the Virgin Mary mentioned in these pages can be found near the house of the Holy Virgin Mary in the town of Ephesus, now Turkey. The ring in the tale also exists. We saw it at a friend of ours’. It changes color depending on the state of its bearer’s body. The two authors talked of in this novel also lived – Gavril Stefanović Venclović (cca 1680-1749?) and Zaharija Orfelin (1726-1784). One lived in Sent Andrea, in Hungary, and the other for a while in Venice. 

Their works mentioned and quoted here can be read to this very day. In 1772 Venetian printer and publisher Teodosije published Orfelin’s voluminous biography of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, one of the most finely illustrated books of the time, today read as an exciting novel. Alexander Pushkin had it in his library and studied it carefully. 18th century Venice also had a famous orphanage for the incurable (Conservatorio degli incurabili). All in all, many of the people in this book really did live in their day, for example the musician Zabetta, or Cristofolo Cristofoli, Venetian inquisitor of the 18th century, but their fates were lost in the darkness of time, and have been reformulated here."

This originally published online novel is a very powerful meditation about God, Creation, resurrection and what Christ meant to humanity.

It is written in 5 chapters following a mysterious ring that is rumored to discern what the wearer will have in life - health, love or happiness depending on which color it turns, but somehow it always turns a color if any, only when the wearer is dead. So what does it mean?

Chapter 1, 3 and 5 are contemporary, following the narrator, an elderly writer who is already 40 days dead at the beginning of the novel, his strange and strangely met wife, and several other mysterious characters, real and supernatural.

"Of course it could not have been me, her husband, on the phone, for I had been laid to rest forty days before at the Belgrade cemetery at 50 Roosevelt Street."

Chapter 2 is about a Serbian emigre writer/editor in Venice ~ 1764 and his adventures and misadventures with some venetian girls, Anna and Sabetta.

"On a foggy day in May of 1764 Mr. Zaharija Orfelin received a new name, of which he was totally unaware."

Chapter 4 is about an orthodox Serbian under-priest - "hieromonk" on the border between the Hapsburgs and the Turks from 1717 to some decades later and his fateful encounter with a catholic priest and reputed alchemist and necromancer. 

This chapter is the philosophical heart of the novel and the discussion between the two encapsulates it perfectly. I am not an expert in theology so I have no idea how original are the arguments there - but they are very interesting and they make the book worth reading if only for that.

Whimsical, always interesting and beautifully written, Second Body is an extraordinary novel and a coronation of a magistral career.


Last Love in Constantinopole - or the Tarot novel

"The adventures of a Serbian cavalry officer during the Napoleonic Wars. The novel comes with a pack of tarot cards and the way they turn up determines the sequence in which the chapters should be read."

This novel is structured in 22 chapters - keys based on the major arcana of the Tarot cards - and in the appendix there is a cutout for the 22 cards and a short dictionary explaining their meaning as well as several ways of using them either for divination or for reading the novel.

The chapters of the book are interconnected short stories that progress somewhat linearly though with liberal detours in the past or through the fantastic, so they can be read relatively independently.

"IN addition to his mother tongue, he also spoke Greek, French, Italian and Turkish. He was born in Trieste into a family of Serbian merchants and patrons of the theatre, who had ships in the Adriatic and wheat and vineyards on the Danube. Since childhood he had served in the unit of his father, French cavalry officer Haralampije Opujic. He knew that when charging on horseback or making love exhaling was more important than inhaling."

The prose is beautiful and the novel is absolutely fascinating. It follows the interconnected fortunes of two Serbian families, one of merchants that provides several soldiers for Napoleon, and one of artists that provides several soldiers for the Hapsburg Empire. The action takes place in 1797 and 1813, and the main character is Captain Haralampije Opujic, a larger than life Napoleonic officer, him of 3 deaths and Last Love in the title. A famous womanizer, party-goer and marksman, he has a counterpart in Hapsburg musician turned officer and marksman Pahomije Tenecki - their famous encounter of 1797 becoming stuff of legend.

In 1813, their sons - and here we have the second main character and actually the one getting most face-time in the novel, Sofronije Opujic, a Napoleonic lieutenant and his Hapsburg counterpart captain Pana Tenecki face off too.

There are also quite a few women, some lovers of both elder Opujic and Tenecki, as well as of elder and younger Opujic, some that are related to them in various ways as well as with the Tenecki's and assorted odd characters, most notably an orphan, Avksentije Papila, classmate of one of elder Opujic's illegitimate sons who is presumed to be able to tell the day of death for most people...

A short but very, very engaging read at about 160 pages, and worth of at least one reread to get all the details - highly recommended.



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