Svetislav Basara - The Cyclist Conspiracy
One of the curiosities of literature is Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges, a master of the short form who never wrote a novel, or even a large novella. His short stories are filled with labyrinths, conspiracies, inversions, juxtapositions, nightmares and the seductive pull of the infinite. They burst with historical and literary references, usually esoteric and sometimes completely fabricated, and it seemed that Borges had read all the books and was willing to explore the nooks and crannies of European marginalia in his fiction. Nowadays, particularly complex novels are compared to the novel that Borges might have written, which is in itself a somewhat Borgesian comment to make. The authors usually held up as carrying on the tradition of Borges’ fiction include Danielewski, Eco, Fuentes, Pynchon, Bolaño, and so on, but they always seem preoccupied with areas Borges never touched on.
Svetislav Basara's The Cyclist Conspiracy is the first novel I have read where the comparison seems apt. Basara captures the serious, encyclopaedic, esoteric aspects of Borges perfectly, and also the pathos, the willingness to explore an idea to the limits of its usefulness and then to push even further, and Borges' deep romantic streak. Yet he does not merely lie within the shadow of Borges, instead extending the possibilities of the Argentinian's short stories into the form of the novel, molding and shaping concepts until the fit neatly within the larger format, showing the reader the potential of this new, larger style. Time after time, section after section, I was reminded of Borges and the brimming potential he brings to fiction. Basara’s novel is undoubtedly the great Borgesian novel.
The Cyclist Conspiracy opens with King Charles the Hideous, an apocryphal ruler who sees the future as clearly (or as dimly) as an ordinary person remembers the past. He writes,
I will put an end to the tyranny of the unborn, to the fruits of our common sin, to those who would deepen our transgressions, so that, from the nothingness of my present time, the profane who are wallowing in the mud of the past will not be able to find arguments to justify their own present time, which is even more oblivious.
To do this he envisages a new Tower of Babel, one that will combine the strengths of the first with other qualities more desirable to Charles. He imagines the future, correctly anticipating Gulags and wars, timepieces and psychology, and declares that instead of future historians writing his biography, he will writes theirs:
They will think that those thoughts are theirs, and they will not even know that they do not exist yet. Isn't this a contradiction? It makes no difference. Grossman! Write this down: I, Charles the Hideous, in the name of God, decree that the following should be born: Herbert Meier, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, Çulaba Çulabi (what a silly name), Jurgis Baltruŝaitis, Sava Djakonov, Rheiner Meier, his son Ernest, Afanasij Yermolayev, a dozen supplementary characters, Sigmund Freud and Joseph Kowalsky, yes, Joseph Kowalsky, Kowalskyyyy!
A few of the above names will be familiar to all readers. Most of the others are fake, but Basara treats them as though they were real. The remainder of the novel is filled with correspondence, illustrations, black and white photographs, biographies, autobiographies, essays, fragments, mystical texts, treatises, and more. We are gradually introduced to the writings of each character or, we learn more about them through the writing of the 'dozen supplementary characters'.
It is from Rheiner Meier, who discovered Captain Queensdale's manuscript, that we first learn of the conspiracy that ties these people together. Meier, in his introduction to Queensdale's text, writes that,
I had to let the story find its readers by itself. Toward that end, I made six expensive, but uninteresting, books. I sent the books to the addresses of reputable secondhand bookstores in London, Istanbul, Heidelberg, Reykjavik, Cairo and Bombay. They will, I am certain of it, know how to reach their readers. Everyone who comes to believe in their contents will do the same thing I did: he will make six copies of the text and find a way to release them into the world.
The text in question is a long treatise on the velocipede, or bicycle. Its shape when stylised is a mystical symbol, representing all manner of things, but most often the male soul. Certain people throughout time have been drawn to the bicycle, and that includes people from before it was invented. The conspiracy is so vast, and pervasive, and secret, that one can be a member their entire life without knowing it, but all the while they are acting out the requirements of the conspiracy. Basara has written passages of such sustained exoticism and conspiratorial happenings that Borges story, The Babylon Lottery, is immediately recalled, and also his The Congress, which offers an even larger conspiracy.
As often occurs, a character will compare some manner of using a bicycle to some aspect of life, such as the following:
You see, life can be compared to riding a velocipede: you ride automatically, thinking about what will happen at your destination, enjoying the singing of the birds, and then you suddenly lose your balance, everything stops and at the decisive moment (overcome with fear), you see the surface of the earth hurtling toward your face...
This example is a bit farcical, but there are others which use the bicycle as a starting point for a great and complex metaphysical system, bringing in mythology, Christianity, history and the doings of men.
The conspiracy deepens. Stalin's Russia and the Gulags are invoked quite often, and the anarchist Joseph Kowalsky becomes a major touchstone of the novel. Kowalsky rides his bicycle around cities smashing clocks, and soon time, too, becomes a major focus of the novel. Time, or the measurement of it, has increasingly segmented the life of a man until there is nothing left for him to do but witness the ticking of it as it passes him by. When there was 'day' and 'night' and that alone, man had limitless amounts of time in which to live his life. But now that we can measure the second to “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom,” our lives have become infinitely divided, and we are shackled to the notion of being late, being early, waking before an alarm, shifting our lives to it, rather than using time to our advantage. Basara's character's musings on time range from the pop culture, such as a brief Sherlock Holmes story concerning a bicycle-riding man who shoots clocks around London in the pattern of a bicycle, to the philosophical and profound, such as the many pages-long examinations of time that appear increasingly often toward the close of the novel.
Another character now. In Jurgis Baltruŝaitis' FAMA BIROTARIURUM, we learn that,
There are very few facts about the mystical order – the Little Brothers of the Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross. Only one tangible document exists – the Basel Parchment – where one can find, besides the text about which more will be said, a coat of arms: an old-fashioned velocipede, having a handle-bar stem topped with a cross, carrying the motto GENS VNA SVMVS, but the whole thing could easily be a forgery. Some writers, like Herbert Meier, completely reject the idea of the existence of such an order. On the other hand, no less reliable researchers, among whom the authority of Carl Gustav Jung stands out, never question the existence of the order. Jung even mentions it, with some reservations, in one place in his work Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido.
And now we have a name for our conspirators. But the question must be asked: why bicycles? Well, why not. Basara proves that, just as one can do anything with numbers, so, too, it seems with objects. The justification for bicycles is variously give as:
-A bicycle look like a cross from above;
-Riding a bicycle is inconspicuous in its act, but noticeable enough when compared to the actions of others that fellow conspirators can recognise one another;
-Joseph Kowalsky tells us that “The bicycle, namely, is a vertical device; it contradicts gravity. In itself, it carries no special meaning and it represents a sort of mandala, the purpose of which is to stimulate contemplation.”
And there are other reasons, but half the fun is discovering them for one's self. Basara's capacity for inventiveness, his culture excesses and intellectual gymnastics, are really quite amazing, and at times it seems that, with each turn of the page, yet another historical figure, event, or concept, will be included under the umbrella of the bicyclists.
Our conspirators are able to meet anywhere, but they do most often in their dreams. There, the dead can converse with the living, and those yet to be born can participate. The conspiracy stretches so far and wide, it seems, that being dead or unborn is little more than a hindrance, and a small one at that. Basara's fondness for mysticism culminates in a lengthy excerpt toward the end detailing the construction of a 20,000,000 strong insane asylum, which doubles as an upside-down Tower of Babel, and which shall be filled with all manner of people, from the insane to those who haven't yet determined whether they are insane or not.
It was something of a risk for Geopoetika to choose Basara's The Cyclist Conspiracy as one of their titles to translate into English. The risk lies in the inherent niche appeal of the title, for this is by no means a mass market book. It will scare away the faint of heart, and it will confuse and confound those looking for a 'good read' and nothing else. What it will do, however, is secure a small and loyal following, a group of readers who will read it again and again, pouring over its mysticisms and its esoteric connections in an attempt to unravel the mystery of the conspiracy. There is so much here, so many places, and times, and characters, and references, and the ties that binds them – bicycles and time – are both absurd and universal. One can imagine a twenty year old student, fascinated with literature and becoming aware of its possibilities, discovering The Cyclist Conspiracy and holding it deep within their heart for decades. It is a book that will appeal to few, but those who enjoy it, will love it greatly. It is a Serbian Gravity's Rainbow, a Central European monument to history, to culture, to excess, and to the remarkable connections between everything and nothing.
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. The Cyclist Conspiracy continues the fine collection of Serbian literature Geopoetika is attempting to distribute within the English-speaking world. Another title to anticipate.
||The Cyclist Conspiracy
(Original Title: Fama o biciklistima)
||Randall A. Major
Titles that fall within the Geopoetika Serbian prose in Translation series under review include:
---Novaković, Mirjana - Fear and Servant
---Ognjenović, Vida - Adulterers
---Stanković, Slavoljub – The Box
---Valjarević, Srdjan - Lake Como