Chinese Letter by Svetislav BasaraChinese Letter, the first English translation of the nationally prominent Serbian writer Svetislav Basara, opens with writer's block. "I don't know what to write," the narrator confesses. "What's going on? Time is passing. My heart is beating, the world is turning."
It's an ominous opening. Creative writing classes and blogdom are infested with variations on the sentences above, coy "automatic writing" bemoaning lack of inspiration and cataloging respiratory minutiae in present progressive tense. The declamatory "x is y" trope strives to grant mindless introversion a Gestaltist appreciate-your-own-farts quality, as if such musings carry profundity. Lazy overengagement with process -- I am writing this right now; now I am writing about having written about writing this -- is a deep-rutted onramp to Zeno's paradox; the longer it goes on, the further it falls behind itself.
Chinese Letter's protagonist, mostly named Fritz (though it changes), at least get marks for the sincerity of his indifference. There's no doubt: he isn't trying. He doesn't care about keeping up anything, even narration, and lies down as what plot there is crushes him and rolls onwards, a runaway vehicle with no driver. Fritz, or whoever we're supposed to think is writing the words we read, remains behind. He sobs to the reader through the fourth wall, adrift in a blank frame like a comic strip character with no comic. It's interesting, but it isn't much fun.
Existential literature has come a ways since Kafka, at least far enough that name-checking Kafka does not excuse overt efforts to emulate the horror of his characters' frustration. In social situations, some overweight people will loudly call attention to their weight, acknowledging it to preempt criticism. Thus does Basara, a wicked and unregenerate biter of Kafka, conjure the man's name and the titles of his famous works. This ameliorates nothing, and induces vicarious embarrassment.
Chinese Letter does improve as it rambles on. If the reader is stuck, let us say, waiting in line in a Florida Department of Motor Vehicles office, with a bad hangover and no air-conditioning, the extremes of Fritz's angst may garner some sympathy. There's something to be said for bleeding on the page, and Basara can be witty. "I have two hands," Fritz informs us. "I usually cover my face with them, but sometimes I use them for other things too. For example, I use them for trembling."
On the occasions it hits its stride, Chinese Letter achieves the hopeless, universal loathing of Ivan Brunetti's first Schizo, tempered with the playfulness of Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut, but you won't learn anything between its covers. Besides a few titillatingly transgressive specifics -- Fritz pops Xanax, slaps around his sister, and decries Arab enslavement of white women -- it's no show and all tell. Whatever Basara's status in his native Serbia, Chinese Letter makes a poor ambassador.
Chinese Letter by Svetislav Basara, translated by Ana Lucic
Dalkey Archive Press