Goran Petrović, An Atlas Traced by the Sky

January 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Serbs are a people seldom satisfied with just one life, so they double and even multiply it several times over.  And as if that were not enough, they doggedly persevere in their own dreams or live in several places at once, always with the same tempestuous ardour.  It is no wonder, then, that Serbs, who expend themselves so relentlessly, die easily, hastily and hungrily, exactly the way they live.

Undoubtedly, this might be called a good custom, were it to end there.  But it does not.  It seems that it is in death that the Serbs are at their most dangerous, as if there too they exist.  Not only do their beards and nails grow, as on any corpse, but so do their bodies, and stories about them spread and multiply even more than when they are alive.

The prevailing view among our people here is that this wild and dangerous race should not be stopped from living dreams or living several lives in one and the same place.  It would be especially good to move them from fast living to slow, and thus dilute their unruly nature in favour of calm waters that can be restrained. (p. 120)

As a child growing up in the 1980s, I can remember my early fascination with atlases.  I remember turning to the back (or sometimes the front) of my dad’s social studies books (he taught social studies and PE for around three decades) and memorizing places and countries.  There were historical atlases of Egypt, the Hittite Empire, the Greeks, the Persians, and the Romans, each with their own special colors on the maps.  There were places outlined with little dots and others with larger ones; the capitals received stars.  There were colors, later on, that we had to do in my 9th grade World Geography class (1988-1989) of the 15 Soviet republics.  Fifteen colors to represent entities that had has much in common with each other as the arbitrary choices of colors we used for our crude maps.  Atlases ultimately are but our own futile attempts to place our stamp on a wild, uncontrollable, and even almost completely incomprehensible world.  Yet we still persevere in this fiction, believing somehow that it matters.

In his 1993 debut novel, Serbian writer Goran Petrović utilizes atlases as a means to create a series of connections that are in turns artificial and more natural than life itself.  An Atlas Traced by the Sky charts the dreams and manipulations of a handful of characters who inhabit worlds and possibilities, tracing their own atlases of the worlds they experience through the clouds above the open-roofed house in which they live.  Like the clouds that float across the sky, thickening, elongated, or dissipating as they move, the images and the metaphors for human life embedded within them also shift and transform as the reader moves from one page to the next.  An Atlas Traced by the Sky is not a linear work, far from it, but the effort the reader expends in processing what Petrović’s characters are describing ultimately rewards greatly those who pay close attention to what is transpiring.

An Atlas Traced by the Sky perhaps best can be described by that most nebulous and troublesome of literary terms, “postmodern.”  There certainly are elements of postmodernist literature within its 236 pages.  The conflation of dreams and realities, of narrators who inhabit one role in one dream/reality sequence only to play another role elsewhere, references to real and imagined works of art and literature (with an impressive list of writers cited in a bibliography that includes Borges, Calvino, Eco, Pavić, Basara, García Márquez, Cortázar, Ende, and dozens more), and the conflation of time, space, and reality all help shape a work that is ever mutable.

Such works can be off-putting to readers who want to establish an emotional connection to the characters and/or narrative(s).  For the most part, An Atlas Traced by the Sky‘s characters are appealing because in their construction of their atlases, their desires, fears, and dreams are illustrated with a refreshing clarity that makes their journeys through the worlds they outline and inhabit intriguing for readers.  Although there are a few places where the reader might want to pause and re-read (as I did at several points during my second reading of the book in English – I read it twice before in Spanish), for the most part the twists and turns can be followed by careful readers who are wary of accepting what is described at face value.

Petrović imbues his narrative with a host of reference to writers from the past 75 years.  Concepts developed by the writers I cited above (and others) can be seen unfolding as the characters chart their own paths.  Perhaps the concluding section sums it up best:

Even the biggest piece of paper is bound by edges.  However, if the cartographer is adept, no road will be cut by a margin.  And if he is imaginative as well, then it is here that the road will actually begin… (p. 227)

The same too can be said of outlining our lives and dreams.  If a narrator is skilled enough, and Petrović here proves to be so, then the lives and dreams of the novel’s characters can be said not to be cut by the margins of the narrative, but instead their roads begin here.  It is this sense of openness within the confines of a described atlas, even one traced by the sky, that makes An Atlas Traced by the Sky a novel that can be read and re-read multiple times, with more revealed each time.  Highly recommended.

I see the English translation of Goran Petrović’s An Atlas Traced by the Sky is now available

December 15, 2012 § 4 Comments

I placed an order a couple of weeks ago when I saw it on Amazon, but it was oddly labeled as being in Serbian, yet with an English-language cover, so I ordered it more thinking that I’d have the original text to go with the Spanish translation (which I enjoyed quite a bit) than I would be having the English translation.  Well, it turns out that it is indeed a Belgrade-published English translation (no idea if there’ll be UK/US publication in the near future) and this is the blurb.  Tell me if this sounds interesting to you:

Have you ever wanted to own an atlas that would map out the relations between dreams and waking, between reality and imagination, between the past and the future?  Award winning writer Goran Petrović offers you precisely that in his authentic postmodernist style.  In their search for life’s meaning and happiness, the cast of characters, living in a house with the sky as its roof, spend their days connecting the threads of this life with the myriad threads of other worlds.  They offer us maps which show the paths through birth and death, love and romance, the thoroughfare between joy and despair.  By combining their tale with a collection of ancient and future documents dealing with amulets, map-making, legends and mythology, the author guides the reader through a fantastic labyrinth toward the rather astounding outcome of self-awareness.  This is an atlas that will make you dream and, even more, it will show you where your dreams may ultimately lead.  Some of the best qualities of Serbian postmodernist prose in Pavić’s manner can be found in this novel.

An Atlas Traced by the Sky is, paradoxically, a book which stylistically reminds us of many other books and authors (The Arabian Nights, The Decameron, Borges, Pavić, Ende), but which actually, in its rarity, in its baroque elegance and in the feast of imagination it contains, truly does not resemble a single one of those books or authors. – Mihajlo Pantić

 I will review this translation before year’s end.  Unless the quality of the English translation is much poorer than that of the Spanish, I suspect it’ll have a place in my year-end summary of 2012 releases.

Four years later, blogging again about an author not (yet) available in English translation

June 7, 2012 § 5 Comments

The past few days I’ve been re-reading/reading some of the fiction of Serbian writer Goran Petrović.  Back on June 7, 2008, I wrote a column about him and his book (read then in Spanish as La Mano de la Buena Fortuna; The Lucky Hand Shop is a possible translation into English), Ситничарница Код спрћне руке.  It is a very good book, one that improved upon a re-read in 2010 (this time I read the Spanish translation in sentence-by-sentence parallel with the Serbian original).  Seeing how Petrović constructed his story at this level (as well as noting how the translator had to make adjustments to account for the shift into Spanish) heightened my enjoyment of his work.

In the interim, I have read two more books of his in Spanish translation, Atlas descrito por el cielo (Atlas Described by the Sky; currently re-reading it) and Diferencias (Differences in English), a short story collection (will be re-reading it later this month).  Earlier this week, I received both the Serbian Опсада Цркве Св. Спаса and its French translation, Le Siège de L’Église Saint-Sauveur (The Siege of the Church of the St. Salvation).  I began reading the two this afternoon and it is a very promising read.  Although I will have more to say about Petrović later, I thought it was enough of a coincidence that I did a blog search for him exactly four years after I first mentioned him here.

He certainly is an author that deserves a much higher profile in the English-speaking world, as his fiction is at turns evocative and ethereal.  There are mystical, dream-like qualities to the plots, characters, and even the writing, yet it feels as much “real” as it does “irreal.”  Perhaps the strongest testimony I can give is that I wanted to read The Siege of the Church of the St. Salvation so much that I am concurrently reading it in my 5th and 8th best languages.  Two chapters in and it is proving to be well worth the labor of love where I’ll be reading at the snail-like pace of perhaps two lines a minute.

Ever had authors you ever wanted to read that badly?

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