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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Apology
and the Last Days


by
Borislav Pekić


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Apology and the Last Days



Title: The Apology and the Last Days
Author: Borislav Pekić
Genre: Novel
Written: 1977 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 119 pages
Original in: Serbian
Availability: The Apology and the Last Days - US
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  • Serbian title: Одбрана и последниј дани (Odbrana i poslednji dan)
  • Translated by Bojan Mišić

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Our Assessment:

B : fine concept, well executed, but feels a bit strained even just at novella-length

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       The Apology and the Last Days is an inspired spin on the usual tales of guilt and culpability. It is presented as an apology and confession written by a man named, like his father before him and his son after him, Andrija Gavrilović. He writes from his prison cell in (West) Germany at the end of the 1950s, where he is serving a fifteen-year sentence for murder, and he begins his account with an explanation of how he came to now write it in the first place.
       The opening chapter describes what happened to him after the murder, and the frustration of all those involved in trying to help him with get off with a relatively light sentence. Gavrilović killed the man who was his benefactor in Germany (where he has lived since the fall of 1944), Privy Councilor Erich Gruber -- who, during the war, had been a fairly high-ranking Nazi, Standartenführer Erich von Rüchter (high-ranking (and hence also tainted) enough for him to be: "a war criminal listed in the Nuremberg files" and making it incumbent for him to change his name and not be recognized for this past once he was back in Germany).
       Gavrilović's attorney, as well as the representative from the Yugoslavian consulate, encourage him come up with excuses -- the Germans pushing him to claim he is a Communist who was egged on to commit the crime by his compatriots, while the Yugoslavians push him to play the "victim of fascist terror"-card. But Gavrilović won't have any of that, explaining:

Mr. Gruber had always been very good to me, was never a war criminal to me, and, as far as I know, never was a war criminal to anyone else.
       As to the question:
     "So why did you kill ?"
     "Just because. Does anyone ask why it rains or why the grass grows ?"
       Of course, there is a bit more to it than that, and Gavrilović does eventually explain the circumstances that led to his arrest for murder. He does so in a self-styled apology, which then makes up most of the novel. It is inspired by his reading of Plato's Socratic apology, as he finds in Socrates: "my brother in sorrow" and identifies with him and his fate.
       Gavrilović is a fairly simple person, admitting: "I'm not Socrates either. I have a few years of schooling and a head on my shoulders". He never finished school, but after a few years of simple laboring he applied for: "the noble job of a lifeguard" and was accepted. That became his career -- but the stretch of beach he watches over is one where no one ever seems to have the slightest problems; as years of experience teach him: "Even a brick wouldn't drown in this water". Even after fifteen years on the job, he's never been called on to save a single soul. Finally put to the test, after so many years on the job, he promptly fails hilariously and miserably.
       Only after his disgrace does his apparent moment in the sun come -- except, of course, that instead of redemption it turns out to be his darkest: saving Standartenführer Erich von Rüchter proves to be his (local) undoing.
       Upon learning who he has saved, Gavrilović just says:
     "That's nice," I said. "I didn't know that. He was the same to me as any other drowning person."
       His compatriots, of course, do not see it that way. A big newspaper story -- complete with picture -- about his heroic deed, as well as the medal he is (supposed to be) awarded for his deed do not help matters, either.
       As the war winds down and the Germans retreat, Gavrilović makes the fateful decision to throw his lot in with theirs, leading him to a new life in what became West Germany -- helped by the man he once had saved, who does quite well for himself, in his new identity. Gavrilović, on the other hand, with only his first name made slightly more Germanic, rechristened Andreas, can not reinvent himself as readily and remains largely true to his defeated self. And, eventually, it comes to the events that lead to the death for which he is charged with (and found guilty of) murder.
       It's a very clever spin on notions of guilt and culpability, but feels somewhat artificial and constructed in its telling -- a good idea that turns out to be just a bit better in theory than practice. Part of the problem is that Gavrilović isn't an ideal narrator as presented here -- not as a simpleton but nevertheless relatively simple.
       He is asked by the man investigating the murder:
     "What are you, Gavrilović: a philosopher or a fool ?"
     "Both. But I would never have become a philosopher if I hadn't been a fool first."
       Pekić wants to have it both ways with his protagonist, presenting him as both philosopher and fool, which is already hard to pull off. And when you have to spell it out like this, and rub it in the readers' faces, that's probably a sign you're trying much too hard; it certainly weakens the impact of the narrative here.
       If not entirely successful, The Apology and the Last Days is still a fine and rewarding novella -- and an interesting minor part of Pekić's major œuvre.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 August 2012

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Links:

The Apology and the Last Days: Reviews: Borislav Pekić: Other books by Borislav Pekić under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Yugoslavian author Borislav Pekić (Борислав Пекић) was born in 1930. He moved to London in 1971, and died there in 1992.

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© 2012-2013 the complete review

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