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Sunday, January 30, 2011


I simply couldn't get my hands around this complex, dense, ambitious, playful 1988 novel (translated 1990). So, I decided to look at what some critics and reviewers had to say. Well, I dug into some databases and couldn't get beyond any simple reviews. However, it was interesting that the reviewers didn't all agree on what happens at the end of the book, at what the solution to the crossword, at the center of the book, is.

The story centers around Atanas Svilar and his second wife, Vitacha Razin. A brilliant but failed architect, Svilar searches for where his father was killed in WWII. He finds out he was betrayed in a monastery. While there Svilar also learns that he is not fated to be an architect.

At this point, the book becomes a crossword. The reader can choose to read it across -- straight through in a conventional manner -- or down.

In this section Atanas leaves his wife and children for his first love, Vitacha Razin, and they put down roots in California where Svilar changes his name to Razin and makes millions of dollars selling a toxic defoliant to the government.

What characterizes his prose more than anything else is his magical, agrarian images supporting stories loaded with digressions. One of the most fascinating digressions concerns the monk who actually turned in his father. He frequently wears his clothes backwards.

There is one critical article on this book that I came across. It is by Jasmina Mihalovic and entitled "Landscape Painted With Teas as an Ecological Novel." It is fascinating the way the article sees this book as a call away from alienation and back to "the art of living." It sees the book as cautiously optimistic, I think it would be safe to say, even if it is a highly stylized Satan, in this topsy-turvy world, who ends up as Savior.

"The picture in Landscape Painted with Tea of the upside down world of historical and perverted reality is the reflection of our own selves. The cathartic power of the book as a mirror should prevent the headlong plunge into nothingness and should return to the world its lost essence and internal balance." (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1988)

It's interesting that this apparently Slavic author of this article believes in such things as "internal balance." It would seem to be the furthest thing from what a Postmodernist would believe. Pavic collage and montage techniques are both Modernist and Postmodernist, but I don't know if his ultimate sensibility is. In an interview with Thanassis Lallas, Pavic describes himself as "always trying to act as an ancient epic poet...To me the best literature is oral...To understand how someboy writes a novel, you must feel the breath of the book." (Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1988)

Could it be translation difficulties that are bringing these seeming incongruities up? I don't think so. Here I point out Pavic's imagery, something that is easy to translate. Yes, it is often magical, but the magical elements are made up of agrarian elements. There is a nostalgia in Pavic's writing, that is sometimes explicitly stated. It's not naive. It's not conservative. It feels as if we need to get back to our own, specific,  historical moment when reading him.

I'll repeat that:

It feels as if we need to get back to our own, specific, historical moment when reading him.

I am not entirely sure what that means. But it feels so accurate, I'm going with it. Obviously, we feel many other things when reading him. For me, this is predominate.

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