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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


(The Houses of Belgrade)

Borislav Pekić

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To purchase Houses

Title: Houses
Author: Borislav Pekić
Genre: Novel
Written: 1970 (Eng. 1978)
Length: 218 pages
Original in: Serbo-Croatian
Availability: Houses - US
Houses - UK
Houses - Canada
Houses - India
  • Previously published as: The Houses of Belgrade
  • Serbo-Croatian title: Ходочашће Арсенија Његована
  • Translated by Bernard Johnson
  • With an Introduction by Barry Schwabsky

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely spun-out tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Aged seventy-seven years, Arsénie Negovan decides on the third of June 1968 to set down his final will and testament -- and, as befits such a summing-up event, to venture out once again and survey his lands -- or rather, houses, the embodiment of his life. Arsénie doesn't get out much -- not lately anyway: "I hadn't crossed my threshold during the last twenty-seven" years, since 27 March 1941 -- and over the past nearly three decades has relied entirely on his wife, Katarina, and his lawyer to deal with his business dealings. Occasionally he's overheard news that's made him suspicious -- as also the fact that there wasn't exactly much rent-revenue flowing in should have been a warning flag -- but from his apartment perch, peering through one of his many pairs of binoculars, he's been able to keep a bit of an eye on things and so he more or less believes things to be in order.
       Clues do mount: planning his great escape -- he's leaving the apartment in secret, so as not to worry his protective wife -- he finds only a lone funeral suit left in his wardrobe, his sixteen other suits missing ("perhaps she had sent them out to be cleaned", he tries to rationalize the situation), as well as that his wife's jewelry isn't here ("quite clearly Katarina had deposited her jewelry in the bank" -- "people to whom I wouldn't even have entrusted my excrement").
       For Arsénie houses --and especially his houses -- are everything. He gives them names -- feminine names, "because I couldn't have entertained toward them any tenderness, not to mention lover's intimacy, if by chance they had borne coarse masculine names". And he saw the buildings he commissioned and owned as: "a chronicle of my life, my sole authentic history". He has a personal relationship with his buildings, and sees them as living creatures:

I was schooled in houses' physiology, their circulatory system, their epidermic defensive envelope, even their stomachs, their sensitive stomachs, not to mention their life process.
       His expedition also brings back memories of his last foray outdoors, on 27 March 1941, a date familiar to Pekić's (then-)Yugoslavian readers, as the date of the coup d'état in the wake of the agreement reached with the Nazis two days earlier (and then soon followed by large-scale bombing of Belgrade by the German forces). The protests and the coup d'état also coïncided with Arsénie's ill-fated, last-ditch hopes to obtain a house he had long been coveting at an auction -- an auction he was never able to participate in, as he got caught up in the events of the day, something that wouldn't happen to him again until the fateful 3 June 1968. Unsurprisingly, in 1968 he finds himself yet again carried away in and by sudden mass-action .....
       Arsénie doesn't live so much in the past as outside of time, a recluse kept connected to the world by a small circle -- who aren't entirely forthright with him, something he is at least partially aware of (among his games is teasing Mademoiselle Foucault by inquiring how his brother George is doing -- well aware that George has been dead for twenty years). In modern Belgrade, once he ventures out into the streets, he comes to understand that little of his world has been left standing -- and certainly that 'his' houses are no longer in any way his domain. Of course, Arsénie was hardly suited to 1941-life either, as his bumbling efforts in those days suggest; withdrawal was the safest and best option left to him. So, too, then, the outcome of his venturing back out into the world ends quite predictably.
       Pekić nicely presents Arsénie's passion and delusion, and Houses is a sharply tragi-comic tale. It's surprisingly political too -- going considerably further than anything published in the Warsaw Pact countries in 1970 (Yugoslavia was, of course, not part of the Warsaw Pact, but even so the novel must have been seen as quite provocative). The carefully chosen dates on which most of the action takes place -- in 1941 and 1968 -- make this a very Yugoslavian book, too, a commentary, and a chronicle of Belgrade firmly anchored in these two days twenty-seven years apart, but Pekić's book als transcends the historical-political specifics, and Houses works very well just as the tale of a man who has lived in a world he has carefully built up in his own mind, even as reality has brought almost all of its real-world counterpart crashing down.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 February 2016

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Houses: 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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© 2016 the complete review

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