Arsénie Negovan, property-owner, is seventy-seven years old. It is the 3rd of June 1968 and he has not stepped outside his front door since the 27th of March 1941. For the past twenty-seven years he has run his business empire with the aid of his wife, Katarina, and the family lawyer, Mr Golovan, while he sits at his window peering at his women through a selection of binoculars: Simonida, Theodora, Emilia, Christina, Juliana, Sophia, Eugénie, Natalia, Barbara, Anastasia, Angelina . . . and those he could not see though his lenses he could picture in his mind’s eye. To each and every one he had been devoted and had been for many, many years. His wife knows all about them. How could she not? He has photos of them on the wall of his study. And scale models even!
The ‘women’ are, of course, houses, the things Arsénie Negovan prizes over everything else. Says Arsénie:
Houses are like people: you can’t foresee what they’ll offer until you’ve tried them out, got into their souls and under their skins.
Many people are property owners. Property is generally considered to be a sound investment. But financial gain is not what drives Arsénie. He has a “completely original angle” on property which he has managed to distil down to a number of axioms, the top four of which (the only four he can remember) are:
1. I do not own houses; we, I and my houses, own each other mutually.
2. Other houses do not exist for me; they begin to exist for me when they become mine.
3. I take houses only when they take me; I appropriate them only when I am appropriated; I possess them only when I am possessed by them.
4. Between me and my possessions a relationship of reciprocal ownership operates; we are two sides of one being; the being of possession.
Freud said it was sex; Jung, belonging; Viktor Frankl, meaning and Adler, power. In one of his essays, however, Pekić singled out “the will to possess” as one of the most powerful driving forces in our world, a phenomenon which inevitably influences even the “spiritual and moral side of man.”
Although he was responsible for the construction of some houses – always houses intended for residential occupation, Arsénie had no interest in business properties or offices – his real joy came in discovering some new building, desiring and then acquiring “her”. Borislav Pekić’s novel The Houses of Belgrade (which was originally published under the title The Pilgrimage of Arsenije Njegovan and is the first in a series of novels about the Njegovan family), concentrates on one particular house, the house his cousin, Stefan, build on Kosmajska Street, No. 41, a “free, and certainly lighter and more intelligent, copy of Dietrich and Eizenhofer’s Acadamy of Sciences in Vienna,” known, by the neighbours as “Stefan’s folly” but to become known by Arsénie, even before he tried to buy her, as Niké:
Niké was the secret name I gave to the house as soon as we fell in love.
He begins visiting Stefan more and more often:
Indeed, during my ever more frequent visits to Stefan all that happened between myself and his house can hardly be described in any other way than adultery, and since it all took place under cover of the host’s innocent hospitality, adultery in the most shameful of circumstances. ... Our romantic meetings in the street can also be counted here, for in the course of my business walks, which I continued according to the schedule in my saffian notebook, I used to pass her every day at a predetermined time. On these occasions quite brazenly, almost leaning out over her luxurious conservatories and balconies, she would give herself up to my wondering gaze, and her face, intent on keeping our sinful secret, would let slip those four clear Corinthian tears which I could only interpret as unsatisfied desire for me.
It is not love at first sight however. Oh, no. Far from it. His first opinion is that the building is a “monstrosity” and he is as obsessed with having it pulled down as he later becomes in owning it. But acquiring the house is not as easy as making an offer to his cousin. After much effort on Arsénie’s part Stefan does agree to put the house up for auction and this is where Arsénie is headed on the 27th of March 1941 when things go wrong for him and he ends up surrounded by a mob protesting against the assumption of power by General Simović.
A bit of history: On March 25th 1941 in Vienna, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, signed the Tripartite Pact. On March 27th the regime was overthrown by a military coup d'état and the 17-year-old King Peter II of Yugoslavia seized power. General Simović was appointed prime minister. On the morning of 27th March, first in Belgrade and then in other cities, people took to the streets. They rose the slogans "Rather war than the pact", "Rather death than slavery", "We demand a pact with the Soviet Union, not with Germany", etc. This put the new government in an awkward position since they wanted to keep good relations with Germany. Several hours after the coup d'état, in the morning of 27th March, the new Yugoslav foreign minister, Momčilo Ninčić, assured the German envoy in Belgrade that Yugoslavia would continue a friendly policy towards Germany, and on 5th April he proposed direct talks with the German government. The talks, however, never happened. Adolf Hitler correctly surmised that the British were behind the coup against Prince Paul and vowed to invade the country. The German bombing of Belgrade began on 6th April 1941. In the early hours of 13th April the 8th Panzer Division drove into Belgrade, occupied the centre of the city, and hoisted the Swastika flag.
This is one of the most interesting sections of the book because here Arsénie begins interrogating himself to get to the truth he feels is buried in this memory. And all the while this cross-examination is going on we also get to hear snippets of what the crowd is shouting. It sounds like it would be very confusing to read. Surprisingly it is not.
Some time earlier Arsénie had “been asked to give a lecture at the Jubilee of the Circle of the Sisters of Serbia ... under the general title ‘The Different Faces of Belgrade,’ which was to take place ... in the large hall of the Kolarac Institute B.P..” During this he proposed to expound upon the “benefits of the equal, reciprocal dual-phase type” of ownership. He does not, however, get the opportunity to explain his “philosophy of Possession”; after presenting his outline to one of the initiators of the function, Joakim Teodorović, Teodorović himself steps in and delivers the lecture in his stead; Arsénie is not even permitted to attend as a guest.
So, what happens when he inadvertently manages to attract the mob’s attention? He delivers his speech verbatim there and then amid cheers and derisory remark and ends up being beaten up for his trouble. Needless to say he does not make the auction and Niké becomes another man’s.
Twenty-seven years pass. Arsénie becomes a recluse. He loses interest in the outside world, with the sole exception of his houses. He even stops listening to the radio or reading the papers. At first he and his wife receive a steady stream of visitors and guests but, little by little, put off by Arsénie’s disinterest in current events, these dry up. Occasionally he overhears a bit of news and is under the delusion that he still has his finger on the pulse but the simple fact is that he hasn’t a clue what’s happening in the world. What then could possibly induce him to go outside after all this time?
You’ve guessed. A ‘woman’.
He has learned that “the lovely Greek Simonida with her fine, dark countenance, her milky complexion beneath deep blue eyelids, and her full-blooded lips pierced by a bronze chain, African style” is going to be knocked down. “It was with Simonida that [he] began to give the houses names. First just ordinary ones, then personal ones.”
I always chose feminine names. I didn’t do this because, in our language, the words house, block, palace, villa, residence, even log cabin, hut, shack, are all of feminine gender, whereas building, country-house, and flat are masculine, but rather because I couldn’t have entertained towards them any tenderness, not to mention lover’s intimacy, if by any chance they had borne coarse masculine names.
Arsénie determines to visit her one last time and put a stop to demolition but as soon as he steps out of the door he steps into his past. Memories, beginning with the October Revolution, carry him down this street and then that. In his mind he is once again swept away with the mob and then, in what depending on how charitable you feel is either a contrivance on the author’s part or one heck of a coincidence, Arsénie this time finds himself caught up in the student riots of 1968.
Another bit of history: The 1968 Yugoslavian student riots began on the night of June 2nd with a clash between the students and the police in Studentski Grad, a student district in the capital of Belgrade. A popular theatre company were booked to play the university but there were not enough tickets. The students requested that they perform at the university's large open-air amphitheatre but instead authorities arranged for them to play a smaller venue and only make seats available to youth members of the ruling Communist party. On the night of the show, a large group of students gathered outside the theatre and attempted to force their way in. The police intervened with guns, and the situation escalated into a street battle. This was just the catalyst.
Due to the country’s economic and social reforms unemployment was high, particularly amongst graduates, many of whom had to wait one or two years for a job; others moved abroad to find work. Following this encounter with the police the students occupied the Belgrade University where they formulated a four point “action program.” In the morning the neighbourhood student action committee called for a demonstration against police violence in the city centre in front of parliament. Several thousand students took part in the demonstration which was brutally attacked by the police. High-ranking politicians tried to calm the situation but failed. In the afternoon about 10,000 students occupied all Faculties of Belgrade University, proclaiming a strike. The students used loudspeakers to address people in the streets.
This time Arsénie does not get to give any speech but he does lose his hat, a Boer, which he risks life and limb to retrieve:
[I]t was a question of principle: That hat was mine; it belonged to me by inalienable right of ownership. One might say that all revolutions began with hats, with the destruction of the outward signs of dignity.
Battered and bruised he survives this second encounter, makes his way home and writes his will “on the back of tax forms and rent receipts,” whatever comes to hand. In fact it is his will we have been reading up until this point, certainly, if it was a real will, one of the longest one could imagine. In between the recollections and the misremembering – like his buildings his mind is also crumbling – we have his various bequests not all of which can ever be met because Arsénie no longer has a true picture of his world let alone the world at large; he no longer possesses some of the items he wishes to bequeath and not all of the beneficiaries are alive to learn of their good fortune.
The book ends with a two-page Postscriptum in which Pekić explains how he came in possession of the manuscript and his relationship to Arsénie Negovan. These last two pages are quite illuminating and provide a rather sad coda to a most unusual life.
The novel was not well received by the government when it was first published and Pekić was accused of being a supporter of the students although he did not share their radical Marxist ideology in the least. (All they had to do was read the book to know that.) Consequently, when he decided to leave Yugoslavia and move to England in 1970, he was refused a passport and had to wait for a year before he could join his wife and daughter abroad. The following year the book won the prestigious NIN annual award as the best Yugoslav novel, and Pekić was finally granted a passport and left for England.
Arsénie Negovan is self-centred, obsessed and cantankerous, but there is something appealing about him too; we Brits have a fondness for eccentrics. Through his eyes we get a unique take on Yugoslavian history and through the metaphor of the gradual decline of a builder's mind, Pekić allows us to examine the nature of identity, alienation and the fear of loss. Houses become people and it’s easy to see how a man who had been locked up for five years with only a Bible to read could write the following:
For just as people who have done nothing at all wrong are got rid of simply because they stand in the way of something, so houses too are destroyed because they impede somebody's view, stand in the way of some future square, hamper the development of a street, or traffic, or of some new building.
Of course Arsénie’s logic is back to front but his point is valid nevertheless.
It took me a little while to get into the book but once I did it flows nicely. The only things that really bothered me were the fact that there are no chapter breaks (I like my books chopped up into chunks) and Arsénie has a habit whenever “excited or in a difficult position” of lapsing into French and my French is not very good.
Borislav Pekić is considered one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. He was born on 4th February 1930 to a prominent family in Montenegro and died in London on 2nd July 1992 of lung cancer. From 1945 until he moved to London in 1971, he lived in Belgrade. After World War II, Pekić co-founded and led as vice president the secret "Yugoslav Democratic Youth" organization; he personally took charge of ideology, propaganda, and the work of a secret printing shop. Due to his opposition to the Communist regime, he was arrested in 1948 and sentenced to 15 years in prison, but released after 5 years.
In 1953 he began studying experimental psychology at the University of Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy, although he never earned a degree.1958 marked the year of his marriage to Ljiljana Glišić, an architect and the niece of Dr Milan Stojadinović, Prime Minister of Yugoslavia and the publication of his first of over twenty film scripts, among which The Fourteenth Day represented Yugoslavia at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. This success did however not soften the official ban issued by the ruling Communist Regime on the publication of any of Pekić's literary works. His first book, Time of Miracles, was only published in 1965 many years after the manuscript had been completed.
In 1985 he was elected to the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts and was made a member of the Advisory Committee to The Royal Crown. Posthumously, in 1992, Alexander, Crown Prince of Yugoslavia awarded him the Royal Order of the Two-headed White Eagle, being the highest honour bestowed by a Serbian monarch.
Želimir Žilnik, ‘Yugoslavia: “Down With The Red Bourgeoisie!”’, German Historical Institute, Washington DC, Bulletin Supplement 6 (2009), pp.181-187
Z. Antic, ‘Yugoslav Youth Insist on Further Reforms and Democratization’, Radio Free Europe Research
Jelena Milojković-Djurić, Borislav Pekić’s Literary Oeuvre: A Legacy Upheld
This is an expanded version of the review that originally appeared on Canongate’s site.