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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Mongolian Travel Guide

Svetislav Basara

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To purchase The Mongolian Travel Guide

Title: The Mongolian Travel Guide
Author: Svetislav Basara
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 117 pages
Original in: Serbian
Availability: The Mongolian Travel Guide - US
The Mongolian Travel Guide - UK
The Mongolian Travel Guide - Canada
Guide de Mongolie - France
Führer in die innere Mongolei - Deutschland
Mongolski bedeker - Italia
Guía de Mongolia - España
  • Serbian title: Монголски бедекер
  • Translated by Randall A. Major

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable writer's-tour -- to Mongolia and (less-)beyond

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 15/10/2007 Clémence Boulouque
NZZ D 9/11/2008 Ilma Rakusa

  From the Reviews:
  • "En un peu plus de cent pages, souvent eupho­risantes, il convoque la transmigration des âmes, Confucius, saint Thomas d'Aquin ou l'Otan pour se moquer de lui-même, de son érudition comme excès de bagage, de son nihilisme de paresseux et des illusions qui poussent à changer d'horizon pour se fausser compagnie." - Clémence Boulouque, Le Figaro

  • "Hatte der phantastische Galopp durch Zeiten, Räume und Bewusstseinszustände durchaus komisch-bizarre Züge, verliert sich Basara nun in Selbstbespiegelungen und verquasten Theorien. (...) Zu spät kommt des Autors Einsicht, «vielleicht wäre es besser, solche paraphilosophischen Fantastereien, die für dicke Bücher charakteristisch sind, bleiben zu lassen». Schon passiert. Und trotz versuchter Ironie ist es nicht amüsant gewesen." - Ilma Rakusa, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

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:

       The Mongolian Travel Guide is not a travel guide -- though the plot involves (on one level ...) a writer named Svetislav Basara accepting a commission from a magazine to visit and write about Mongolia; the actual journey presented in this novel -- only part of which is set in Mongolia -- is more in and of the writer's head, the imagined (and dreamt) overlapping with the real: "is this a novel or delirium ?" he asks at one point.
       The commission isn't even originally narrator-Basara's; it's passed on to him in what amounts to a thoughtful friend's suicide note, a parting gift to get him out of the house ("thanks to my death, you'll see a bit of the world, and I'll have the comfort of knowing that I did something useful").
       The Mongolian adventure is appropriately bizarre -- and unlikely, from the: "fairly large number of translations of Yugoslav authors in Ulaanbaatar's bookshops" to ... Charlotte Rampling ("Miss Rampling spends eight months out of the year in Mongolia. She leaves, makes a movie, gets paid, and comes back").
       Rampling isn't the only film-actor there; Basara also encounters:

a certain Mr. Mercier. That's the old scoundrel who, for a hefty sum, introduced Sylvie Kristel into the finesses of oriental sin in the movie Emmanuelle. The fellow in fact had been dead for five years already, but no one minds that in Mongolia, where people are ultimately polite even toward those who are quite obviously corpses, which Mr. Mercier certainly wasn't. He was a tough old bird, that Mercier, as if he'd come from the pen of the degenerate Marquis de Sade.
       Among the others he brings to Mongolia with him is a Protestant Bishop from Holland -- and Basara threatening him with a "nonexistent bull of the Holy Father" is enough to get him a stern reprimand from the unlikely "papal nuncio to the government of the PR of Mongolia", and warning that insulting the Vatican again will result in him being proselytized "from Orthodoxy into the Catholic faith" and then being burnt as a heretic -- as: "The fact that Bishop Van den Garten is just a dream is no excuse for such an unacceptable act".
       Springboards for the narrator's ruminations include chapters that begin with a tractate by the late Mr. Mercier, and a would-be psychoanalytic Q & A with a Dr. Andreotti (allowing Basara to place, in the rearranged hotel room converted into a psychoanalyst's office, a picture of Sigmund Freud on the wall -- as is found, Basara notes, in all his books). Andreotti -- who turns out to be Joseph Kowalsky (familiar from Basara's In Search of the Grail, in which Kowalsky was already sent to Mongolia by his father) -- tries to shake him (and the narrative) up:
Just hang all this babble about salvation for literature out to dry. God has a bad opinion of your books. Of books in general. You have to become a realist. You have to start writing like Tolstoy ...
       The Mongolian Travel Guide is a -- unTolstoyan -- piece of personal reflection, refracted through the literary. As he admits:
why did I come to Mongolia ? To write a travel guide. Nonsense. Let's say, I came here in order to try once again to find something out about myself. I don't know who I am. I never have.
       Reflecting on identity, he looks back to his small-town Yugoslavian roots, and the false pictures of it: life-is-a-lie (in various senses) is one major theme of the novel. Haunting him also is a memory of a lost, only briefly glimpsed ideal, the face of a little girl "about whom, much later, I wanted to write a novel". Even the memory is indistinct -- in one of the novel's best sequences, he notes: "I was perhaps five or six, or maybe ten, or even twenty; I was childish for a long time" --, but he carries it with him, suggesting even:
Perhaps that's actually the reason I headed for Ulaanbaatar in the first place. Either to find her in some impossible place, or to hide from her. I don't know. I think, actually, even if we'd ever met, I'd still feel this terrible emptiness in my soul.
       Another lost female figure exerts a similar lingering fascination, the 'Girl in the Window in the Yard' from his childhood, who disappears and leaves behind some notebooks with some poetry in them. Basara does not entirely wallow in nostalgia, but it seeps into his narrative (as he admits), with the lost -- including lost holds and stability -- obviously casting a long shadow over this work -- in no small part, it seems safe to assume, also because of the shattering of the state he grew up in around him. (Indeed, he writes in an opening note: "This book was supposed to be published in Sarajevo [...] Before it was finished, Sarajevo was blanketed in absolute darkness".) Yet his literary approach preceded it; as he observes:
The wise guys in the Department of Modern Literature thought that the state dissolves first, and then from the continuing chaos, sensing the loss of all values, artists begin to deconstruct the forms. All backwards: first the novels begin to fall apart, and only then does the state follow suit.
       The Mongolian Travel Guide is marked by a fairly grumpy tone and attitude. There's a resignation to his bitterness and anger -- as he suggests, for example:
My mission, for example, is to trash the world and people, to humiliate myself and others, to contradict everything and everyone. Unfortunately, I'm not doing a very good job.
       The sense of resignation become more prominent as the narrative turns more introspective in its conclusions. Looking over what he has written he finds it to be: "Triviality after triviality. [...] The dusk of postmodernism. Clerical work". Arguably, he ultimately protests too much, and/or states it too blatantly:
Literary fame doesn't interest me. The opinions of critics even less. I write books so that I can search for something in them; not to force my way into Serbian literature, which will very soon turn into a paramilitary organization and therefore not interest me at all.
       If that comes too close to whining, at least he concludes The Mongolian Travel Guide with a more creative turn again: a letter from his imagined Bishop Van den Garten (who then asks, Zhuangzi-like: "were all the things that happened in Mongolia my dream or yours ?") and then a leap back to 1929, and the conspiratorial cyclists Basara has toyed with in some of his other work.
       Good, sharp fun, The Mongolian Travel Guide sways just a bit too far between bitter-edged personal and more creatively imagined spins. Still, this is an enjoyable little novel, and though some of the jokes and allusions involve other works by Basara, it stands quite strongly on its own, too; indeed, it's a good, easy-to-swallow introduction to a (grumpy) author whose work is certainly worth knowing.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 January 2019

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The Mongolian Travel Guide: 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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© 2019 the complete review

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