Anyone who thinks the Balkans have moved on from the 1990s should read Andrej Nikolaidis’s Till Kingdom Come, impeccably translated by Will Firth and published now by Istros Books. This short novel, ostensibly about Montenegro today, is awash with paranoia: conspiracy theories, serial killers, natural disasters and the shifting meaning of recent Balkan atrocities. It’s to Nikolaidis’ credit that it’s also an entertaining, page-turning read, and – at 125 pages – almost virtuously pared down.
The book starts smoothly enough: after a description of a biblical flood which assails his hometown of Ulcinj, we find ourselves in a world of lethargy, alcoholism, cigarette smoke and witty despair, with an intimately confiding narrator who gives us his bracing insights on every page. It’s a world familiar to any reader of modern Eastern European literature – a cult of lyrical, enriching defeat – and pleasant as a hug to return to. We follow the narrator – a cynically epigrammatic and barely successful journalist – as he outlines to us the post-war Balkan world – one riven by a ruthless capitalism, in which compassion and goodness are out and the same rogues and mediocrities still jostling for power, using “lofty terms such as ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ and ‘united Europe’ to explain why complete control of the population was necessary.”
In this world, the author has no purchase – he exists in a ‘here and now, doused with alcohol and filled with idleness and indifference,’ in which there are three principle pleasures – his unrequited love for his friend Maria (a vividly drawn heroine whose spell you fall under a little yourself), his passion for Single Malt whisky, and the daily mental gymnastics of reading between the lines in political speeches and newspaper articles: a hangover from the censorship of the communist era, and one just as pertinent, Nikolaidis tells us, today. Otherwise his chief pleasure is indulging in melancholy, a theme the book will return to many times: ‘I am a person prone to nostalgia and who can enjoy sorrow. Few things in life have brought me as much happiness.’
Yet suddenly, a third-way through Till Kingdom Come, the story changes. Our antihero writes a newspaper article – which may be more or less tongue-in-cheek – about the suitability of serial killers for national leadership, and is offered a job as a speechwriter by the Interior Minister, a man himself of literary bent: ‘Imagine the State as an enormous novel….. My job, like that of a writer, is to have complete control over all the characters in the story.’
Rising in the world, the narrator finds a number of people crawling eagerly out of the woodwork to hound him, among them an unknown relative bearing information that will blow his sense of identity and personal history apart. Suddenly, in a world in which nothing seemed to matter, everything does: ‘Who the bloody hell am I?’
The attempt to find out – spawning increasingly paranoid and fantastical conspiracy theories (which may be nothing less than true) – will occupy the rest of the book, and the change is abrupt (perhaps too abrupt for some readers, though the unhinged effect is perhaps the point). Quickly we see the cosy pessimism of the early book giving way to a much less comforting kind, in which bloodlusts, hatred, devil-worship and the irrational movements of crowds seem realler than the thin veneer of civilisation smoothed over by Europhile politicians and the press. As a picture of the world-view that the Balkan Wars have left in their wake, Till Kingdom Come could scarcely be more shocking – or illuminating. A disengaged, impotent despair or full-blown persecution-mania: this is the stark choice, Nikolaidis implies, available to thinking Balkan citizens today.
If all this sounds oppressive or earnest, it isn’t. ‘He was one of those people where you can’t tell from their face whether they’re being deadly serious or lucidly sarcastic,’ the narrator remarks of another character, and Nikolaidis offers us the same dilemma. His novel, tormented by uncertainty though it is, is also full of bleak humour, spiky truths, captivating ideas, and its brevity doesn’t stop it engaging with big topics, even if ‘Sometimes it’s better to just have a question, not the answer.’ Nikolaidis is one of those writers who can put into words thoughts you’d half articulated, tell you things you didn’t know you already knew, and more than once I found myself underlining quotable, pithy insights (his skewering of the very notion of Californian wines and his excruciating description of what happens when, under the influence of calf-love, a self-declared cynic lets the mask slip are alone probably worth the price of admission).
Istros’s self-declared brief is to publish writers from the very edges of Europe, but one suspects Nikolaidis won’t remain on the margins for very long. A new and buoyant addition to that family of writers numbering Konrad, Kundera and Nádas in its ranks, he’s clearly one to watch.
Andrej Nikolaidis’s Till Kingdom Come (translated by Will Firth), is published by Istros Books at £9.99. To read an extract from the novel, please click on the book cover at the top of the page.