Srdjan Valjarević - Lake Como
Our nameless hero – shall we think of him as Srdjan Valjarević? - is in a bad way. He is unhappy in Serbia, his writing is not satisfying, and it seems that life, such as it is, is passing him by. He receives a Rockefeller scholarship to spend a month at the Villa Maranese in Bellagio on Lake Como, Italy, and off he goes, to while away the weeks drinking free alcohol, drawing pictures in notebooks with Italian women, and generally succumbing to the ramshackle state of his disorderly life. Late, very late in the novel, Valjarević has his character note, at the end of a particular scene, “And that's how it was.” He could just as easily have said, “And this is how it is”, and why not? Life is, the days go by, and we make of them sometimes what we will, but most often what we can.
Our hero is in a bad state when we meet him, and he remains that way throughout. He is a likeable fellow, though he drinks too much. But his general manner is friendly and laid-back, and we have the suspicion that he will let anyone be if they will let him be in return. He doesn't judge, but he certainly observes. Lake Como opens with the narrator stating quite firmly that,
I had given up on publishing books. It really was bad in Serbia, it was horrible, but not so much for me, I could make ends meet, I did lots of odd jobs and managed to survive.
The “badness” of Serbia is never explored, but it's not hard to realise what he means – the forcible separation of Yugoslavia was not, after all, a completely bloodless affair, and it is clear he has been affected by the turmoil within his nation. But this is all for another book; instead, Valjarević turns his eye to the dispirited writer, the castaway, uncertain of his position or even if should have a position. What to do with a crumbling life?
The narrator is a drunkard, but in an oddly positive sense. He drinks to connect with people, and is never violent or rude. Rather, it is simply an aspect of himself, the way some people like to wear berets, or smoke a certain brand of cigarette.
It was better for me to write stories for the newspaper with a fountain pen, a ballpoint pen or type them on a typewriter and earn money to pay the rent. And take a trip somewhere if anything was left over. That was better for me.
He is a ramshackle man, disheveled, unaccustomed to the niceties of high society. The novel proper begins when the narrator arrives at Lake Como, where he is to spend the month writing a novel. Instead, he drinks. The retreat is one of those rarefied places where professors, writers, thinkers, activists – you get the idea. The cream of the intellectual crop. They gather to network, that horrible term, and they are expected, among other things, to give introductory speeches and farewell addresses. Ostensibly, they are there for a month, or a week, or whatever, to pursue their chosen field in an atmosphere that assists deep thinking; in reality, they are there to mingle and make connections, or at least most of them are.
Our narrator is the only Serbian there, and indeed, many of the people (from all over the world, from Australia to Africa to New Zealand to China to – and so on) know very little about Serbia, and only a few are interested. No writing at all is done, but he drinks, he watches, he thinks, and he wonders. What is the place of Serbia on this, a small version of the world stage? Does Serbia have a place? Can it hold its own amongst the towering giants of America, France, China, and England? Is there a future for Serbia when the place seems overrun with exceptionally hard-working Africans? Has Serbia missed its chance? Our narrator never asks these questions directly, but the metaphor of the retreat is clear. Serbia – our narrator – has an opportunity, and what does he do? He drinks, he settles into the sidelines, he spends more time with the waiters and help-staff than with the glorified intellectuals.
Valjarević plays his character straight, but the situations are often quite funny. Everyone takes themselves so seriously, but the rotating roster of heavy-weight intellectuals means that we never really connect with anybody. It seems that the very talented are as interchangeable as anyone else. Lake Como is almost a Magic Mountain in terms of its breadth, but not at all in its depth – Valjarević seems to deliberately create his intellectuals as titles and achievements, rather than people. He is not interested in showing us who they are, but that they exist, and the narrator's observations of them. Serbia, again, is content to watch. It doesn't yet know its place.
He doesn't write while he's there, but he pretends. The waiters quickly learn that his glass doesn't really enjoy being empty, and they talk and laugh together after lunch and dinner. One old woman, accomplished, sure, confident and concerned, questions the narrator:
“Why don’t you ever come to breakfast?” she asked me.
“I can’t wake up on time,” I said.
“Do you write at night?”
“Yes, yes, I write way into the night.”
“But it’s a shame to miss breakfast.”
“I know, it’s a shame to miss anything here, but I have quite a lot of work,” I said.
“Are you working on your novel?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m working on my novel,” I said.
“How’s it going, this is a wonderful place to work, isn’t it?”
“Yes, a wonderful place to work, and it’s going just great,” I said.
The humour here comes from how straight it's all played. Valjarević's novel is laughter without the noise, a gentle, not quite mocking laugh. The narrator is a man who, during an impromptu piano concert where a colleague plays Debussy and Beethoven, and people quote Nabokov and generally exude the intellectual life, the squashing of a bug takes prominence, the details of its soft body popping allocated as much space as the antics of the drunken intellectuals. He later notes that,
I spent the whole morning alone in the study.
I did not have any plans.
I did not have any desires.
I felt fine.
I looked out the window.
People come, people leave. Everyone is sad, they clink their glasses and shed a tear, though it never bothers our hero. And why should it? The retreat is seen, though never referred to as, a bit of a ridiculous venture, one that exists to perpetuate the names of those who arrive, and little else.
But enough about Lake Como. The true heart of the story comes from the people who live in Bellagio, the people who have never been to the retreat, though its mountain heights dominate their views and their lives. Valjarević and the narrator have a great deal of respect for these people; they are made much more whole than any of the intellectuals, and it is from them we learn the most. The most touching scenes are perhaps those where the narrator shares a notebook with Alda, an Italian barmaid who speaks little English and no Serbian. They draw their thoughts and dreams on the paper, sharing with pictures what they can't quite share with words. They are clearly fond of one another, and sympathetic to the other's plight. Add to that Luigi and Augusto, two older men who take the narrator under their wing and show him the 'real' Italian life, and you have a novel celebrating the true, earthy, meaningful part of existence, and largely ignoring the high-flying intellectual aspects of it. The narrator never outright says it, but he is clearly more at home with the people who are true to themselves and who truly like him for him, and not because he has found himself at a prestige retreat.
That said, the novel suffers from a unfortunate misstep in its final fifty pages or so. A glamorous American, Brenda, comes to the retreat, and is handled rapturously by everyone, including the narrator. If we are to again assume that the narrator is a stand-in for Serbia on the world stage, then what we are seeing is Serbia kowtowing to America, which is an understandable but unfortunate situation. To be sure, America looms large in comparison to Serbia, on almost every scale, but it is unsettling to watch the narrator fall head-over-heels in love for Brenda, when Alda and his friends are there, willing to make him theirs. If it is a misstep it is not a thematic one, because it fits perfectly into the concept of the retreat as a miniature recreation of the world stage, but it feels wrong, and perhaps that is the point. The narrator knows he must return to Belgrade and become just another Serbian, so why not dally with the American when he has the chance? She offers accommodation and support should he ever come to New York, but the offer is a hollow one, and both know it. Serbia cannot, in good faith, have much to do with America on an equal footing. They can dance, sure, but that is all.
Srdjan Valjarević's Lake Como is a fascinating book on multiple levels. The metaphor of Serbia on an international level is satisfying and confusing at the same time (which adds to the satisfaction), and the climax of this thread fits neatly and works well. As the story of a not-quite-alcoholic young writer finding his feet amongst strangers from another country, it works equally well, and Valjarević's sensitivity and emotional understanding should be commended. It's also funny, and eminently readable. For a novel that is largely about a drunkard who is weary of the world as much as he is of himself, this is quite a remarkable feat to achieve, but Valjarević handles it effortlessly, or seems to. To end with the narrator once more, it's a magnificent book, well told, superbly translated, and certainly accessible to those perhaps afraid to delve into European literature that is not French, German, or Italian. And now to the narrator:
And that's how it was.
Please note that this novel is not yet available outside Serbia. When it is available for purchase outside Serbia, I shall update the page to reflect its availability. Lake Como continues the fine collection of Serbian literature Geopoetika is attempting to distribute within the English-speaking world. Another title to anticipate.
(Original Title: Komo)
Titles that fall within the Geopoetika Serbian prose in Translation series under review include:
---Basara, Svetislav - The Cyclist Conspiracy
---Novaković, Mirjana - Fear and Servant
---Ognjenović, Vida - Adulterers
---Stanković, Slavoljub – The Box