The Year of Reading Dangerously – Milorad Pavic
Milorad Pavic is best known for Dictionary of the Khazars, a novel that was sold in both male and female versions with, I believe, one sentence different. It was followed by Landscape Painted with Tea, a novel structured around the crossword. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that The Inner Side of the Wind is a flip book, presenting the reader with an immediate choice – which story do I read first? Or, more accurately, whose story do I read first, as the novel’s alternative title reveals it to be The Novel of Hero and Leander, and its division takes place along these lines, with one section entitled Hero and the other Leander. The two stories meet in the middle just as the mythical lovers met, Leander swimming across the Hellespont guided by Hero’s lamp. However, you must not imagine that this is something as straight-forward as a retelling of the myth from their separate points of view: neither the Hero nor the Leander of this novel are the lovers of Greek legend; and each half tells a different story, one set in the 17th century, the other in the early 20th.
Leander’s tale, the slightly longer of the two is the more straight-forward. He is born into a family of masons but takes the opportunity to tour with a group of musicians and see the world. Echoes of the Hero and Leander myth are found in a relationship with a young girl, Despina: they meet on water in a boat; Despina brings a candle with her. The focus, as with the two narratives, is on not connecting:
“His rhythm was, after all, entirely different form hers, and for the first time he confronted the terrible fate that lay at the bottom of his secret virtue. They were unable to harmonise even later, and Leander, as though he were spawning roe in the lake and through it the river, spent the following nights filling the nets beneath him instead of the woman.”
Both the language and the image suggest the fable-like nature of the story; it is certainly one of the most poetic descriptions of premature ejaculation that I have encountered. ‘Fable’ is not intended to suggest a story removed from reality, however: soon Leander is fleeing from the advancing Turkish army as the Balkans are plunged into war, something that would have contemporary resonance for Pavic at the time the novel was written. It is at this moment that Leander has an epiphany:
“…we shouldn’t burn and destroy. We should build, even now. Indeed, we are all builders…From this day on we shall build. We shall flee, and build fleeing.”
From this point on, Leander builds until, returning home, he builds a tower in competition, of course, with an experienced mason. Only at the very end do the two towers synchronise:
“They say that, a second before the explosion, the cocks atop the towers showed the same wind and the same hour. For the first time and the last, the same wind and the same hour.”
As the towers collapse into each other, so do the stories. Hero’s story is set at the beginning of the 20th century. Despite this, it too begins like a fable:
“Her hair was so long she used it in place of a shoe horn. She lived in the busiest part of Belgrade…and kept her refrigerator full of love stories and cosmetics.”
Hero hires herself out as a French tutor, but discovers that, instead of the two children she is contracted to teach, only one appears. This missing child has never been seen by her brother, and soon begins to have an effect on Hero’s ability to teach, making her forget the present tense in favour of the future. This story works well, but only lasts the first chapter before Hero leaves for her brother in Prague. Hero’s story is much more fragmented than Leander’s, containing a story she has written and interpolated into a translation of another text in chapter 2, and changing to a first person narrator, a friend of her brother’s, for chapter 3. Although each chapter works in its own terms, the cuts from one narrative point of view to another serve little purpose, and mean that we do not get the same access to Hero’s character.
My only other issue with the novel was that I just did not see the connection between the two narratives. It’s true that Leander drops a hint with regard to this when he suggests:
“Perhaps it was the waves of time, not of the sea that separated Hero and Leander. Perhaps Leander swam through time not water.”
Despite this, the novel is always entertaining. Pavic’s love of language (“It was as quiet as a freshly washed soul”) and love of story shine through any textual trickery.
Danger rating: Books with choices about how you read them are always interesting, and in this case you need only flip a coin. As an aside, some of Pavic’s novels now seem to be available in English as download only – perhaps a sign of things to come.