Translated from the Montenegrin by Will Firth
Reviewed by Chelsea McGill
Strange things are happening to our narrator, a local newspaper reporter living in the seaside town of Ulcinj, Montenegro – an ancient seaport notorious for being the pirate capital of the Adriatic Sea for centuries. First, after a long drinking session with his friends (including his love interest Maria), he wakes up as a teenage boy in Sarajevo, where he as never been before, walking drunk through the city in the middle of the night; this “episode” continues until the following morning, when he suddenly realizes that he is standing on the balcony of his house in Ulcinj.
When his life is already falling apart because of these “episodes” (which take him into a different place or person every time), he is summoned to the capital by a high-ranking government official, who wants him to quit his job writing conspiracy theories for the newspaper and work for him.
Then, a man appears in his house claiming to be his great-uncle – but, at the same time, stating that the narrator’s grandmother, who raised him, wasn’t actually a blood relative. After the demise of this claimed relative, the narrator begins to search for the truth of his own origins. Or would, if the “episodes” and his own innate apathy didn’t get in the way.
This narrator is unreliable; he doesn’t even know who he is or what’s happening, so how can he tell his readers what’s going on? Somewhat uniquely, his major character trait is apathy: he has no real desires or, if he does, he has no wish to actually act on them. A case in point is his relationship with Maria. Despite being in love with her for years, he never acts on that attraction when sober. When he moves to the capital, he gradually loses touch with her despite knowing that she is suicidal – which, needless to say, is not what one should do when in love.
However, two things make this potentially depressing novel well worth reading. The writing itself is gorgeous. I can’t get the description from the first few pages, about flooding and unceasing rain, out of my head:
The foundations of the houses absorbed the damp, and before the eyes of the tenants it climbed the walls towards the ceiling. Everything we touched was water. We slept on wet sheets under cold, clammy covers. The floorboards were swollen to bursting point. Parquet flooring buckled like the ground after mighty tectonic shifts, such as shook the Earth in pre-human eons. The contours of the floor changed from day to day. Windows, even those with heavy shutters, were no help against the rain. It came with a wild westerly one moment and with a sirocco the next, constantly changed the angle at which it fell, attacking now frontally, now from the side, until it had crept through every invisible opening in the walls and woodwork. In their rooms, people made barriers of towels and babies’ nappies beneath the windows. When they were sodden, they would be wrung out in the bathroom and quickly returned to the improvised dykes.
While I got a bit bored at some parts of the novel (I don’t appreciate long passages about drinking sessions…), these beautiful passages immediately pulled me back in.
The other thing that makes this book worth reading is the combination of black humor and intellectual sensibility. At one point, Maria writes the narrator a letter in which she discusses the philosophy of Walter Benjamin. One of the narrator’s many “episodes” takes him to London, all the way to the office of Istros Books (the novel’s publisher). Google even comes into it: the narrator uses the search engine to look up information about Satanic cults and about the possible mental illnesses he might have. It is dark, chuckling satire at its finest.
Till Kingdom Come is a strange mix of genres. Based on the book’s blurb, I expected it to be a mystery – but it’s far from a conventional one. A better way to describe it would be a blackly humorous and satirical look at one man’s mental deterioration and (possible?) descent into conspiracy theory-driven madness.
I don’t often read novels that are this avant-garde. For this reason, some of the flashbacks/-forwards/-sideways(?) frustrated me, and I found it hard to keep reading. After getting further into the novel I got used to it, and in the end I quite enjoyed the story. Sometimes you need a little black comedy in your life, and this is a book that gives that to you.
Chelsea McGill is trying to collect books from as many languages as possible on her blog, The Globally Curious.
Andrej Nikolaidis, Till Kingdom Come (Istros Books: London, 2015). 9781908236-241, 125 pp., paperback
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