Slobodan Selenić - Premeditated Murder
Serbian author Slobodan Selenić's Premeditated Murder is a strangely constructed book, both a parody and a homage to the complex techniques of post-modern literature. At its heart it is a love story and a whodunnit, but the trappings of the novel make it an oddly constructed tale indeed.
Jelena Panić is a charming girl, though she will be the first to call herself out for her flaws. Her chosen task is to explore the history of her grandmother, also named Jelena, whom she has never met. She goes at it with great gusto, energetically interviewing old friends in an attempt to uncover secrets of the living and the dead. Jelena is active to the point of exhaustion, reeling off paragraph after paragraph on the basis of a single comment from someone she is interviewing. A comment that she is beautiful leads into, “Me? Beautiful? Amusing use of the word! A backside the size of Madagascar, a mop few have ventured to call hair, a few delight-inspiring blackheads...Fucking embarrassing!” And on she goes. And here is Jelena, on experiencing her very first declaration of love: “Where's my tape recorder? Bonehead's talking crap and for the first time, I don't feel like jumping out the window! In-fucking-credible! Maybe it's because I like what I'm hearing. And because of the way Bonehead's saying it. He's totally sincere. It's all straightforward, clean, like a geodesical equation or something. The guy is establishing simple facts, explaining the current state of affairs.”
The novel is constructed as Jelena's account of her and Bogdan “Bonehead” Bilogorac's adventure to discover the truth behind her grandmother's fate. This allows Selenić to play with the text as Jelena is well-read but inexperienced in literary matters. She is a casual, joking narrator, one who seems unaware of the conventions of the novelistic form. Much of the story is told in a play-like series of dialogues, Jelena incessantly comments in parenthesis to herself about the language she uses and her opinion of the other characters, and even the Acknowledgements page is faked. Jelena begins it with, “See that? Acknowledgement. Like this is a real book or something! Well, I am a writer – sort of.”
And it is an adventure. Her and Bonehead rollick about having fun and falling in love with one another while learning about her grandmother's curious past. The charm and energy of the present juxtaposes sharply with the mounting darkness of the past. Incest enters into her grandmother's history, and then obsession, jealousy, lust and, finally, murder. At the same time, the personality of Jelena's grandmother that emerges from the letters and documents shows a woman much like herself, which is to say brassy and crass, but loving and generous, too.
The charm of the novel comes from Jelena, but there is a serious side to Premeditated Murder. The complexities of the past show the possibilities of the present, and hint at the ongoing problems of Serbia and the Balkans. The times are as dangerous in the mid-1990s when the novel is set, as they were during the tumultuous times following the conclusion of the Second World War and the ever-extending hand of Soviet rule. Selenić effectively highlights the violence and confusion of both time periods, though the lens of Jelena's perspective ensures that the novel remains entertaining and clever, rather than bleak and mordant.
For all that Jelena is excitable and enthusiastic, the novel itself becomes progressively darker until the end, when the mirrored stories explode in tragedy and heartache. Slobodan Selenić seems to have little hope for the Balkans but a great deal of affection for its people. Pranks are pulled and fun is played, but the poking and prodding is gentle. The characters get off lightly, but the social milieu is attacked rather heavily. Soviet Russia is seen as but one of the many problems faced by the Serbs, also there is at times a sense that Selenić views the problem as systemic and, depressingly, offers little by way of a solution.
It is a very great shame that the cover chosen by The Harvill Press looks the way it does. It shows two young, beautiful things in a close embrace, and there is a suggestion of nakedness. The title, Premeditated Murder, coupled with the tender gaze of the cover, suggest a very different book indeed. It all looks to be something of a dangerous love story, when instead the novel is a tour of Serbian history, two intertwined stories that bear a remarkable, and unsettling, similarity, neatly constructed dialogues and all this, remember, is punctuated with continuous bursts of literary explosions. A cover does not of course mean much to the contents of a novel, but when the author is relatively unknown in the English speaking world, it helps if a prospective reader is encouraged, rather than repelled, by the cover.
(Original Title: Ubistvo s Predumišljajem)
||The harvill Press|
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