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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Bora Ćosić

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Title: Tutori
Author: Bora Ćosić
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978
Length: 787 pages
Original in: Serbian
Availability: Die Tutoren - Deutschland
  • Serbian title: Tutori / Тутори
  • Tutori has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

A- : dense, creative, daz(zl)ing family/nation tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ A+ 12/9/2015 Karl-Markus Gauss
Die Welt . 16/10/2015 Herbert Wiesner

  From the Reviews:
  • "Die Zunge, die Sprache. Dieser Roman, auflachend witzig und überbordend mit der Vielzahl an literarischen Anspielungen, historischen Travestien, sprachlichen Parodien, ist eine einzige Sprachorgie. Er ist derb, vulgär, sarkastisch, gewitzt, anarchisch, ungezügelt, rasant und weitschweifig zugleich, ein gelehrsamer Hohngesang – ein gänzlich inkommensurables Werk, das nur an seinen eigenen Massstäben gemessen werden kann, aber in Wahrheit nicht einmal an diesen, denn auch sie macht Ćosić zum Gegenstand seiner beissenden Satire. (...) Was für ein Buch !" - Karl-Markus Gauss, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Bora Ćosić hat mit Die Tutoren die Gattungen des Romans und der Familienchronik oder ihrer Parodie mit den Mitteln experimenteller Literatur eine geschmeidige Lebendigkeit verliehen, die alle Todeserklärungen ad absurdum führt. Aber er hat nicht an den formalen Experimenten der zweiten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts gebastelt. Er hat mit den Mitteln der Kunst das über ihn verhängte Schweigen gebrochen. Er hat eine Schlacht gegen die Zensur gewonnen." - Herbert Wiesner, Die Welt

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:

[Note: this review is based on the German translation by Brigitte Döbert, Die Tutoren (2015)]

       Tutori -- 'The Tutors' -- is a five-part novel covering one hundred and fifty years in the life of Bora Ćosić's family. Each station centers nominally on a different figure and specific year, from 1828 to 1977, while generally ranging far beyond these: Tutori proceeds more or less chronologically yet is far from your usual family/historic epic.
       The first section, from 1828, is Theodor Uskoković's, the author's great-great-grandfather, a then-thirty-year-old still childless clergyman in fictional Grunt, Slavonia -- part of Croatia (and not to be confused with Slovenia), in the Habsburg Empire of the time. The suggestive town-name -- close to the German 'Grund' (foundation, basis, reason, property -- and familiar from the elemental phrase: 'Grund und Boden'), while nicely suggesting the word's English pronunciation and meaning -- is just the very beginning of a work that is bursting with wordplay, at every seam and, it can sometimes seem, sentence. [I relied on the German translation, but obviously one of the reasons the novel has long been considered untranslatable -- and why Brigitte Döbert's rendering was a German-translation prize favorite when it came out -- is because of the very creative and challenging use of language throughout, which is also very clearly on display in the German translation.]
       As if to hammer home the idea that Tutori is as much about language as anything else -- indeed, describing it as a language-book is about as close as any description could get -- Theodor's section is nothing less than a 130-page lexicon of word-definitions. Yes, dictionary-like -- though not alphabetically (or, for the most part, any other strict way) organized -- Theodor offers word after word, each with a (usually) short definition -- simply a single sentence, in the majority of cases, with only one ('MOTHER') as long as a page (though 'ACQUAINTANCES' -- naming many of Theordor's -- also comes close). Thousands of words defined -- nouns, verbs, adjectives ..... Even, eventually: 'DICTIONARY' ['WÖRTERBUCH', the German nicely/conveniently has it: 'word-book'] -- though his own undertaking perhaps more closely resembles the word defined right before that: 'PRIMER' ['FIBEL' in Döbert's German version].
       Not coïncidentally, 1828 was the year the Vuk Karadžić published the first Serbian dictionary -- formalizing the language. So too Theodor's wide-ranging word-list is foundational, of language, family, nation(s) and culture. It is of that present, of the world as it is then, the definitions often reflecting a world-view of those times and circumstances. It is, for the most part, not obviously personal -- and yet also entirely so: this is Theodor's somewhat unusual way of capturing the world around him as he understands it.
       The second section leaps ahead to 1871 and Katharina, Theodor's daughter-in-law. Theodor is old but still alive, while his son, Vasilije, Kathatrina's husband -- who is only thirty -- has taken over his position. The section begins nicely comparing this local family with that reigning over the empire, Franz Joseph's, as the here (slightly) more conventional narrative takes a different approach to situating its characters at that specific (time-and-place) point -- geographically and historically, among other things (including, inter alia, the observation: "the Uskoković family has lived in Slavonia for 327 years, and F.J. has been emperor for 4 yrs.").
       Among much else, there are also more domestic details here, such as the legal wranglings after Katharina was disinherited (depriving her of a huge fortune) for marrying an orthodox priest (Vasilije) -- one of many circumstances which also involves the always simmering ethnic-cultural tensions of the region (her family and others, as Ćosić dryly observes: 'readily acknowledging all Serbs were Croats -- but not vice versa').
       Overall, the first part of this section is a sort of expansion of Theodor's approach: if his was word-orientedly lexical, Katharina's is encyclopedic -- or almanacal. There is little great elaboration on facts and incidents, but a powerful flow of bits of information -- linked only slightly more than Theodor's word-lists. It also looks ahead, even describing the larger work itself, '18 notebooks from five different epochs' (listing already ahead, too: '1828, 1871, 1902, 1938, 1977' and who the driving figures are). Indeed, it summarizes this as: 'The book of all other books, life-confession of a man of letters'.
       Unlike Theodor's, Katharina's section isn't uniform: the five sections of the novel are further divided into the eighteen notebooks that are mentioned. Hers includes one of shorter stories and pieces -- almost straightforward narrative storytelling ! -- and then a longer, dense flow that adds as much rhyme to the reasoned prose (yes, it aims for full-blown verse, though without line-breaks).
       The Laura section dates to 1902; Laura is Katharina's daughter-in-law, married to Dušan, who became a doctor. After an opening presenting -- by the numbers -- 1902 Novi Sad, Ćosić offers yet another entirely new form, staging his material in presenting it as a full-length (almost hundred page) provincial play. Beyond that comes more conventional narrative -- though, for example, that too includes a parenthetical basically-just-a-listing of names (often humorously twisted or invented, with an occasional stray comment).
       Laura's more cosmopolitan experience, which includes a trip to Paris, also introduces family and readers to the more unsettled twentieth century, and her narrative presents the more tumultuous times (in appropriately tumultuous fashion).
       The fourth part takes us to Lazar, 1938 -- the husband of Laura's daughter, Danica, and a Ćosić; young Bora -- Lazar and Danica's six-year-old son, and already able to read and write -- is also already on the scene. It is Laura who continues the free-wheeling narrative; once again, encyclopedic listing and records are part of the package: 'to date I have written 6436 letters" she notes of her correspondence, as well ..... Here, eventually, a collection of songs is yet another variation-in-approach.
       The final section dates to the (then) present, 1977, and places 'The Author' front and center -- beginning, amusingly, in a bookstore (and the customer request: 'Something accessible, please, but not just anything'). Danica also speaks with the bookseller about her writer-son -- the bookseller giving her much of the credit (blame ?), too: 'Word-games. He absolutely got them from you. Grammatical reveries.' They consider: 'Words, words, words' -- and there's the suggestion/realization that: 'The style reveals the man': all in all an amusing metafictional consideration of the work as a whole, and Ćosić's approaches in and to it.
       Tutori is a writer's primer -- one man's primer, Bora Ćosić's, the lessons his forebears -- family, foremost, but also cultural, linguistic, and national -- taught him to make him the writer he is. Unsurprisingly, Tutori is not a simple, uniform text: it is one of continuing exploration: language is not fixed and evolves even in the present, and part of the exercise on display here is in trying to figure out how to capture past -- and language -- in and for the present. (An afterword by the author to the German edition also notes the circumstances that led to the writing of the book, a time during which Ćosić was an author non grata -- circumstances that, since they didn't come with actual repression, allowed for complete freedom -- which he took full of advantage of here (though also hardly expecting the resulting book to be published).) Tutori is literally experimental; fortunately, it is also wittily so, and even though it is a dense text, Ćosić manages a deft, light touch most of the time too: the sheer mass and quick flow can seem overwhelming at times, but Ćosić doesn't bludgeon the reader. The cross-referencing in the book, and the rapid-fire constant switching about is admittedly dizzying, compounded by the Croatian/Serbian/Habsburg/Yugoslavian historical and cultural references from across a century and a half. Tutori is commentary on writing, language, family, and the cultural and political experiences of the region across these times, with the frustrating Serbian-Croatian tensions among much that plays an over-large role for much of the time.
       Tutori was published in Yugoslavia in 1978 -- and was a great success. Presumably, it was acceptable to the authorities because it is not overtly political (though inevitably it is, to some extent, political); instead, it is obviously historical, in the greater sense: not a historical saga or account, but a reflection of the times it describes, and the times it was written in -- and transcending them, as the most lasting history does: whatever the concerns of the authorities at the time, Tutori's much grander vision and scope were so obviously so much more that it could safely be deemed safe reading. And from their point of view it probably was.
       The super-wordy novel is remarkable as a literary feat, the writing bubbling over in often delirious word-play and pastiche, all flow and flood; even in translation it (and the remarkable German translation) impress greatly simply from a technical point of view. But there's considerable substance to it too -- at every level, from its individual pieces and approaches to the whole. Beyond that, the very genuine warmth of family-recollection reïnforce the personal to it: heartfelt, Tutori isn't simply a display of cerebral invention and writerly showmanship.
       A rich, grand, epic (if not in the most traditional ways) novel, Tutori is certainly a masterpiece. It's a lot to chew, too, but certainly worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 January 2018

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Tutori: Reviews: Other books by Bora Ćosić under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bora Ćosić (Бора Ћосић) was born in Zagreb in 1932.

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© 2018 the complete review

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