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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


How to Quiet a Vampire

Borislav Pekić

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To purchase How to Quiet a Vampire

Title: How to Quiet a Vampire
Author: Borislav Pekić
Genre: Novel
Written: (1977) (Eng. 2005)
Length: 408 pages
Original in: Serbian
Availability: How to Quiet a Vampire - US
How to Quiet a Vampire - UK
How to Quiet a Vampire - Canada
How to Quiet a Vampire - India
  • A Sotie
  • Serbian title: Како упокојити вампира (Kako upokojiti vampira)
  • Translated by Stephen M. Dickey and Bogdan Rakic
  • Written 1971-2, but first published in 1977
  • Kako upokojiti vampira was made into a TV film in 1977, directed by Slavoljub Stefanovic-Ravasi

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive moral debate, engagingly presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/2004 Michael Pinker
The NY Rev. of Books A- 24/6/2004 Charles Simic

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Borislav Pekicís brilliantly crafted 1977 novel, the terrible fascination of terror dogs the steps of one of its presumed minions as he returns to the scene of his crime to find justification for betraying civilized standards of conduct. (...) Through allusions in style and subject Pekic also archly sends up several Western philosophical classics, ironically counterpointing his protagonistís unseemly confessions." - Michael Pinker, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "(A) book without a trace of optimism. (...) He strives to inflate the clerk and the guilt-ridden professor of history into even more universal symbols after it had become unnecessary to do so. Leaving some of the subplots and commentaries out -- and that includes most of the appendix -- would have made a brilliant novel into a great one." - Charles Simic, The New York 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:

       How to Quiet a Vampire is probably not something Buffy (of vampire-slaying fame) would have found much use for. The vampire of the title is a much more personal demon: as the narrator explains:

Tomorrow is what makes me human; yesterday is what makes me a corpse. The mistake was reviving something I should have taken long ago and buried forever. Our problem is not how to revive, but how to quite our vampires. THE PAST IS A VAMPIRE AND THE REAL QUESTION IS HOW TO QUIET IT FOREVER.
       There are quite a few other issues at issue in the novel, but that remains a central one. How to Quiet a Vampire is an epistolary novel, as Professor Konrad Rutkowski travels to the Mediterranean resort town of D. for a vacation with his wife in 1965. Rutkowski has been here before -- as an SS and Gestapo officer in 1943 -- and he confronts his Nazi past there, trying to explain and justify his position and actions in these letters to his brother-in-law, a fellow historian.
       The novel is described as 'a sotie', what the OED defines as "a species of broad satirical farce". (They add: "current in France in the 15th and 16th centuries"; our 2000-page Webster's International doesn't even include the word .....) It is a book of very dark humour, but certainly not your usual farce.
       Adding one final twist to scare off potential readers, the book is an overtly philosophical one. To emphasise it the 'editor' (Borislav Pekić, in a brief introductory appearance) even decided to: "associate each letter with one of the European philosophical schools and to title each of them after a masterpiece of human thought from a different epoch". But even without this added framework, How to Quiet a Vampire is almost entirely the story of a man debating morality (and history) with himself.
       (However, die-hard vampire-slaying fans will be mollified by the significant role umbrellas (more versatile -- and more widespread -- than stakes) play in the novel -- and it should be noted that besides all the intellectual debate Pekić does relate a pretty compelling story.)
       Nazism presented quite the moral dilemma for Konrad Rutkowski, and in his letters he frequently tries to argue that he was a victim, put in a position where he could not act otherwise, despite not really supporting the cause. His boss in 1943 was Standartenführer Heinrich Steinbrecher, a man of fewer qualms, who mercilessly goads the would-be intellectual Rutkowski, presenting him with impossible arguments and logical (and moral) conundrums -- cruelly toying with Rutkowski since any false step or answer could mean death (something Steinbrecher doesn't seem to take too seriously either).
       Rutkowski claims:
I'm the only man in the whole damned Sonderkommando who is, according to his human and intellectual conscience, inclined to do anything for our unfortunate prisoners. But my personal willingness to help them is dependent on my ability to remain in a position where I can do so. And even to advance to positions where I can undertake it even more successfully. (...) This kind of moral agenda requires the meticulous and conscientious performance of all my police duties, even the most unpleasant, and all of them with the clear awareness that this is only a loathsome means for the attainment of a higher goal, that the temporary infliction of torture on people is only a necessary path to their permanent liberation.
       That's what he tries to convince himself (and Hilmar, to whom he is writing these letters) of. It is, of course, a very poor argument, but Pekić does a wonderful job of conveying Rutkowski's intellectual and emotional twisting and turning as he keeps trying to explain why he acted as he did.
       In the town of D. the Germans inherited a prisoner, Adam Trpković, and Rutkowski's handling of that case leads inevitably to disaster, a black comedy of errors and outrageousness. In his self-justifications Rutkowski even takes on the contemporary locals, as Adam is now celebrated as a hero (with statue and all). Rutkowski replays his conversations from that time, but Adam's ghost haunts him to this day, another voice that won't let him off as easily as he believes he deserves to be.
       Meanwhile, Rutkowski's obsession does little for his marriage (this was obviously not the right place to go for a peaceful little vacation) -- despite (or because of) the fact that he is not sharing his troubles with his wife --, and his delving in the past undermines his mental stability, leading to a number of ill-advised actions. All the while his writing and argumentation remains a model of clarity (of some sort) -- but even he can't be satisfied with the answers he comes up with.
       Much is made of the intellectual approach, the retreat into reason: Steinbrecher has his fun with it, while the history professor Rutkowski desperately looks for a rational basis that can excuse and explain him. He envies his wife:
She stopped being Sabina and became an intellectual act, or in any case, its essential premise. It's the dream of every intellectual to cease being human and become an intellectual act -- a part of a perfect logical system. She succeeded in this. Now she's a logical symbol, with two or three references and several Ibidems.
       Looking to be part of a perfect logical system and the like is, of course, a major factor leading to Rutkowski's downfall. Logic and morality don't mix well in the way he approaches them. When Steinbrecher asks him what he thinks the task of the police is, Rutkowski answers: "To learn the truth". Steinbrecher has very different ideas:
What are we, a bunch of goddamned philosophers or something ? We make truths, Obersturmführer Rutkowski ! We don't learn them, we make them ! That's a creative endeavor, not an investigative one. We're artists, my dear sir. And were I to have the joy of seeing even the faintest spark of comprehension in your dead eyes, I'd say poets.
       But the only thing Rutkowski can fall back on, the only thing that offers him support is purely intellectual: philosophies and logic. And he mines them all (well, the western European tradition, at least) in his desperate search.
       Adding another layer, the book also offers extensive endnotes, many offering the opinions of medical experts as to Rutkowski's "abnormality". There's also a transcript of an interrogation, and 'Professor Konrad Rutkowki's Secret Testament', yet more facets of an impressive fictional edifice.
       Pekić's novel is remarkably rich and well-structured, the narrative held firmly in its philosophical wrappings and trappings. A great text for an ambitious book club or a university seminar, it's a significant work of fiction, and a very successful melding of philosophy and literature, covering important issues of morality and history. Well worthwhile.

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How to Quiet a Vampire: Reviews: Kako upokojiti vampira - the TV film: 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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