You wake up one morning: You don't know your name, where you live, or whether you're alive or dead. All things considered, this should be viewed as a sign of psychic distress. If you're the protagonist of a certain kind of novel, however, you might recognize this as the embarkation point for a postmodern quest narrative. In the opening lines of the Serbian writer Svetislav Basara's debut novel, Chinese Letter, originally published in the former Yugoslavia in 1984, the narrator flatly declares: "My name is Fritz. Yesterday I had a different name. Today my name is Fritz. I have nothing to say." Nevertheless, Fritz gives it his best shot. He doesn't seem to have a choice: Only days before, two mysterious men were at his door, demanding that he write one hundred pagesˇ"whatever you want!"ˇwhich they threatened to collect in due course.
Fritz takes up the task with a mixture of resignation and anxiety: resignation because he feels helpless before an anonymous assertion of authority; anxiety because he is unsure what is expected of him and doesn't seem to know who he is. He starts by recording his daily activities: trips to the hospital, where he visits nameless friends with nameless diseases; circular conversations with his worried mother (how come Fritz never asks her for his name and address?); updates on his state of mind ("I felt just the average awfulness"); possibly murderous encounters with a neighbor; and possibly romantic encounters with the same neighbor's daughter. Periodically, Fritz hears from his tormentors, who sense that he is shirking his duties. "We know everything about you," they write in a letter. "We aren't interested in you. We just want your hundred or so double-spaced pages." And so it goes, until Fritz finishes his statement.
Considering that Basara published Chinese Letter a few years after the death of Yugoslavia's strongman Communist president Marshall Tito, Fritz's "angular" response to his predicament seems to be his quiet rebellion: He is furtively thumbing his nose at the spiritual depredations of Tito's authoritarian state. Going by a new name every day might be just the kind of madness that helps a person survive. Deftly and comically, Basara dissects the fear and paranoia that define such a societyˇas when Fritz describes how hard it is to resist walking up to a policeman and declaring, "I surrender! My name is Fritz! It's impossible that I'm not guilty. Take me with you!" He also understands, though, how content one can be in a cage: "You see, I'm persecuted: they force me to write," Fritz explains. "But I have nothing against this state of affairs . . . If they didn't persecute me, I'd be in a vacuum, left with nothingness andˇwhat's worstˇleft with myself."
The logic of utopian social engineering is anathema to Basara, and he mocks it witheringly. To the extent that he has a discernible ideology, it is antivisionary. As Fritz nears the completion of his assignment, he lays out his "plan for the salvation of humankind. The plan is simple: retreat into yourself." Simple but monstrousˇit involves poking out everyone's eyes with hot needles, and cutting out their tongues. Notes Fritz: "True, this would hurt, but a little pain and discomfort (which we know is necessary for the realization of all big ideas) will bring magnificent rewards."
Passages like this are an acerbic delight. But there's a lot of dime-store existentialism strewn about in the novel, and too many of Fritz's assertions wither under close inspection: "If you think really carefully about something, it immediately becomes clear to you that it is nothing." Does it? Such stoned philosophizing grows tiresome quickly, as does the "Is this happening or is it made up?" dithering that intrudes on the narrative here and there. You end up feeling that you've read it all before, and in a sense, you have: It is said that good artists borrow while great artists steal; if so, then Basaraˇwho once conceded, "My influences are visible in my books . . . I am not so stupid as to consider myself original"ˇis a very good artist indeed. One wishes there were a bit more larceny in his soul, actually. Take, for instance, one of the several absurd conversations between Fritz and his mother, in which Basara doffs his cap to one literary father after another:
"Mom, where is the pink letter?"
"What pink letter?"
"The one that you brought me this morning."
"I didn't bring any letter this morning."
"Have you ever read Kafka?"
This is cute rather than comic, and reflects Basara's insecurity about his influences. So do his whimsical typographic pliÚs: oversized black dots meant to signify drops of blood on the page; a few lines of open-field poetry; calligrams about rain that seem lifted from Apollinaire (perhaps Basara really is a thief after all?).
After I finished reading the book, I asked a writer-friend fluent in Serbian what she knew of Basara, expressing my misgivings about the book's secondhand feel. "Well, there's a lot of cut-rate Kafka in the Balkans," she replied. But it isn't just the Balkansˇwhose tortured history certainly provides fertile ground for absurdistsˇand it isn't just Kafka. The governing rules of novels that are everywhere labeled Kafkaesque, or Borgesian, or Beckettian have become, after all these decades, as predictable as the nineteenth-century strategies that led John Barth to plant his flag in the "literature of exhaustion." Nowadays, it is harder than ever to make experimental writing seem experimental. And yet, Chinese Letter is often hilarious and always readable, even as Basara insists on asking big questions about life and death, art and representation, the conflict between world and spirit. In light of the fact that Basara has written more than twenty books, one wonders how his work has developed over the past two decades, and why Dalkey felt the need to start at the beginning. Even Fritz, for all his maundering, knows better.
Ethan Nosowsky is an editor in New York.