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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Chinese Letter

Svetislav Basara

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To purchase Chinese Letter

Title: Chinese Letter
Author: Svetislav Basara
Genre: Novel
Written: 1984 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 132 pages
Original in: Serbo-Croatian
Availability: Chinese Letter - US
Chinese Letter - UK
Chinese Letter - Canada
Chinese Letter - India
  • Serbian title: Кинеско писмо
  • Translated by Ana Lučić

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid take, though the basic premise is far too familiar

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 12-1/2005 Ethan Nosowsky
London Rev. of Books . 5/5/2005 Daniel Soar

  From the Reviews:
  • "The logic of utopian social engineering is anathema to Basara, and he mocks it witheringly. To the extent that he has a discernible ideology, it is antivisionary. (...) Passages like this are an acerbic delight. But there's a lot of dime-store existentialism strewn about in the novel, and too many of Fritz's assertions wither under close inspection (.....) Chinese Letter is often hilarious and always readable, even as Basara insists on asking big questions about life and death, art and representation, the conflict between world and spirit." - Ethan Nosowsky, Bookforum

  • "Fritzís inventions are pathological, but they seem also to be a way of defending himself against a greater pathology. One reason a writer like Basara chooses to exaggerate the fictiveness of fiction, constantly threatening the illusion by reminding us that it is written by a person sitting in a room, is that in the totalitarian state he says he lives in, he and his co-conspirators reject what they see as the assertive lies of power. (...) Chinese Letter is the product of an ethical belief that fiction is unsafe (.....) Basara has here defined the most fundamental and powerful of fictional engines -- the self-observing observer, riddled by doubt. But he also has a problem, a problem heís too committed to avoid: his particular amalgam of fictive loners has nothing really to rail against; unlike the others, he is created not by his situation but by authorial fiat." - Daniel Soar, London Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Chinese Letter is still a product of Yugoslavia, from before the collapse of communism, and Basara's existential fiction is a variation on a theme that has become almost paradigmatic in Eastern European fiction of the totalitarian period: a person is charged with an ill-defined but presumably confessional task by some mysterious powers-that-be. It's the sort of scenario familiar since Kafka:

I was told to turn in about hundred double-spaced pages and so I'll type until I'm finished. Nobody told me what I should write about. But they gave me a deadline. They said: "We'll be back soon."
       The text -- Chinese Letter -- is, of course, what the narrator produces in trying to churn out these hundred or so pages; the men who commissioned the text pop up occasionally with reminders and to see how he's coming along.
       The narrator also has some existential issues -- going so far as to sum up: "I have one problem: I exist." There's also the question of his identity: the novel begins: "My name is Fritz. Yesterday I had a different name. Today my name is Fritz." Later he identifies himself as Salajdin Bejs (admitting: "Really, a strange name: Salajdin Bejs"), but he doesn't seem to be too sure about that either. And even aside from his name he's not always too clear about who he is, and is pretty fuzzy on a lot of other details (including such basics as where he lives ...).
       In best existential tradition:
My life is nothing but a fear of death and finding the ways of making this fear less unbearable. And one more thing: my life is a constant digression from the subject. My job is not to die but to write.
       Indeed, while he's not too thrilled by his assignment (and remains unsure what exactly is expected of him), he does realize:
I have nothing against this state of affairs. It even pleases me. If they didn't persecute me, I'd be in a vacuum, left with nothingness and -- what's worse -- left with myself.
       He even takes a stab at suicide, but his condition complicates even simple matters like that, leading to such beautiful quandaries as:
Would I have hanged the right man if I had really hanged myself ?
       As he realizes:
What am I ? It's impossible to say anything about me. Whatever I say, it's not me anymore.
       Yet it's this that is also his salvation and hope: he cannot be grasped, even by himself -- but hence also not by the authorities. He remains free, in a sense, even as he tries to capture and bind himself on the page. The task he is charged with is a futile one, and whatever the powers that be take away from him -- in the form of these pages -- it will not be him (whoever he is ...).
       Sure, things don't work out particularly well for him -- at one point he finds himself literally thrown out with the garbage ("I woke up in the city dump. This was to be expected."), as Basara goes a bit overboard with the symbolism -- and he's rather out of sorts most of the time, but he makes it through to some end, which is more than he seems to have expected. Along the way there are some exotic touches -- yes, Chinese letters, and ninety-year-old mom gets kidnapped by white slave merchants (but they return her unharmed: they had the wrong address) -- but most of this is just frills to his existential wonderings.
       Sure, it's all very familiar - but that's also part of the fun. Basara is brazen in his borrowings, not trying to hide that this is a text built on the familiar. But he has a fine ear for creating just the right echoes -- including in the-near perfect closing lines with their echoes of Beckett's Molloy (whose closing lines are, of course, perfect), which he manages to twist into something all his own. Yes, he notes a few lines before: "It was raining" -- and then:
     I turned on the radio.
     The news was on.
     "Raymond Queneau died."
     I turned off the radio.
     But Raymond Queneau was still dead.
       Hardly original, and occasionally trying too hard, there are nevertheless enough small, appealing pieces -- and that knock-out send-off -- to make Chinese Letter worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 April 2009

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Chinese Letter: Reviews: Other books by Svetislav Basara under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Yugoslavian (Serbian) author Svetislav Basara (Светислав Басара) was born in 1953.

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