Home, an Illusion; in Illusion, Home: Borislav Pekić’s Masterful Book on Arsénie the Landlord

Houses (1970) by Borislav Pekić translated by Bernard Johnson (2016, New York Review Books)

I first heard about the curious Serbian novel Housespublished by New York Review Books, almost a year ago and have been wanting to read it ever since. Written by the Yugoslavian novelist and screenwriter Borislav Pekić, it was originally published in the “Serbo-Croatian” language in 1970 in Belgrade and translated into English by Bernard Johnson (1933–2003) from the Language Centre at the London School of Economics in 1978.

Pekić was a most interesting figure. Born in Montenegro in 1930, he was educated in Belgrade, where he was arrested in the year 1948 for his founding role in the Association of Democratic Youth of Yugoslavia and sentenced to fifteen years of hard labour. He eventually served five years of the term, during which he was able to draft outlines for future writings. Following the staggering success of Houses in 1970, Pekić was able to obtain a passport and emigrate to the UK. After the collapse of Communism, he kept returning to Serbia and in 1990, helped form the new Serbian Democratic Party, clashing with security forces at an anti-Slobodan Milošević rally in 1991. Pekić died in 1992 of lung cancer in London.

You can learn more about the author on the bi-lingual blog www.borislavpekic.com. I think it has been set up by his wife Ljiljana.

 

Pekić with his wife, Ljiljana in Belgrade, 1957 by User “Maduixa”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

 

Pekić in the garden of his house in London, 1978 by User “Maduixa”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

 

Pekić during demonstrations in Belgrade on March 9th, 1991 by User “Maduixa”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

 

Houses is an amazing book that buzzes with architecture, economics, politics and spirituality. The official description from NYRB states:

Building can be seen as a master metaphor for modernity, which some great irresistible force, be it Fascism or Communism or capitalism, is always busy rebuilding, and Houses is a book about a man, Arsénie Negovan, who has devoted his life and his dreams to building…Negovan is one of the great characters in modern fiction, a man of substance and a deluded fantasist, a beguiling visionary and a monster of selfishness, a charmer no matter what. And perhaps he is right to fear that home is only an illusion in our world, or that only in illusion is there home.

When the novel opens, Arsénie Negovan is 77, racing to write a will on the last day of his life. He has spent the first half of his existence in a rapidly modernising Belgrade, building houses–whom he lovingly gave female names of Simonida, Eugenie, Christina, Emilia, Serafina, Katarina, Agatha, Anastasia, Daphne, Xenia, Eudoxia…After World War II and the Nazi Occupation, Negovan imprisoned himself in one of his houses. Cared for by a wife and a nurse, he has been looking at the city through a pair of binoculars, utterly irritated at the much newer trends of aesthetics and real estate that do not match up to his beloved personal ideals.

Arsénie hates the fact that houses have been reduced to abstract entities subject always to the arbitrary rise and fall in shares. The property owner is now a gambler rushing madly for easy profits, “made on the bitter green baize of the roulette wheel of the stock exchange, in the lackeylike service of the god Mammon.” Moreover, featureless, expressionless, homogeneous, purely functional cardboard boxes of concrete, steel and glass are cropping up outside the window, like prisoners devoid of individuality. Together they make up an unsightly omni-body.

 

Arsénie writes: “Most of all–and this is what causes me the greatest difficulty–they are quite impersonal, with nothing noteworthy on their expressionless facades to set them apart physically or spiritually. No individuality. They are not truly ugly in the accepted sense of the word; they are simply without character. Humped together in the plain, they are pitiful to look at, lined up like a despondent column of convicts whose individual identity has disappeared inside their coarse prison clothes.”

 

What is Arsénie’s philosophy? It is one of Possession. The relationship between house and landlord is a mystic marriage, and the roles of the possessor and the possessed are interchangeable. A house must have a proper personality [the idea of the house having a personality was also addressed by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in his phenomenal The Poetics of Space, which I featured in October 2016]. How does Arsénie differentiate between his view of possession and that of the new owners? It could be compared with, he writes:

the essential difference between the theological representation of God as an impersonal concept of omnipotence, and the real, incarnate God which believers experience in their very soul.

Houses, for Arsénie, must not be merely utilitarian. Rather, they must ornamented, embellished, honoured with zones and characteristics that are not immediately and straightforwardly “efficient” from a commercial viewpoint. In my houses, he writes:

too much expensive space was used up for no purpose at all. If the furniture that encumbered them were removed, the would look like the empty caverns of the Pharaoh’s tombs. Their ceilings were excessively high, like domes above a church nave…and their disposition was irrational, vainly wasting expensive space on entrances, hallways, corridors, verandas, terraces, and balconies, turning the house into an impassable labyrinth dear only to the hearts of children.

 

“…entrances, hallways, corridors, verandas, terraces, and balconies…” (Photo: Pixabay)

 

[…]

 

And then, the building materials: the finest stone, the hardest wood, the best plaster, the most durable paint. Marble from Venčac–sometimes even from Carrara! Porcelain, mahogany lamps, plaster rosettes, ceramic floors, wallpaper made in Prague! Finally, all those decorative and expensive eaves, loggias, oval niches in which we placed impressive standing figures, and the charming alcoves, chains, balustrade, candelabra, bas-reliefs with mythological scenes, and ornaments–all that stone flora and fauna which at my insistence blossomed from the facades of my houses.

And yes, this maniacal Don Quixote-like devotion, obsession continues till the last page, which made the book a fairly entertaining read for me, even though portions of it–related to political history–were a bit cumbersome to navigate. Arsénie’s vision of creativity and property ownership was not one of wastefulness or extravagance but one that was in line with the essence of humanity. An artful construction meant for more than shelter, established for pleasure and enjoyment is what ultimately separates us from other animals. They build (example, the bees, the ants, the birds) mostly just to be able to survive. We can (and should) go further.

 

 


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