When I was in Belgrade a while back, I bought four novels in a wonderful bookshop on the main street, Knez Mihailova. They were all literary novels by Serbian writers, translated into English.
One thing they all had in common was a lack of plot. In literary fiction in any language, of course, plot can be less central than it is in other types of novel, but I was struck by the fact that in all of them, very little actually happened. They had a quieter, more meditative feeling than most novels I’ve read in English. I don’t want to generalise about a nation’s literature based on four books bought at random, so I won’t pursue the point. If anyone reading this knows more about Serbian literature and can tell me whether this is a trend or a coincidence, I’d love to hear from you.
In The Russian Window by Dragan Velikic, the action is sparse. We start with an old man, Danijel, reminiscing about missed opportunities, and then spend most of the novel with a young man, Rudi, as he drifts through relationships, cities and jobs.
So it’s not a novel to read if you’re looking for drama. The strength of the book lies in the beautiful writing and in the themes and symbolism that build up over time. The theme of trying to dress up and order reality comes across in several different ways. Rudi is a failed actor, his mother was a set designer, in the end he gets a job dressing up corpses for burial, and other symbols like mannequins appear throughout the book. Rudi also acts in his real life, making up stories about the relationships he’s had, and he is constantly struggling to reconcile the reality of his life with the grand idea he had of it and the sure sense that he would one day do something special.
Railways appear throughout the book, too, as a kind of metaphor for life. People travel by train, change lines, carriages get coupled and uncoupled to different locomotives with different destinations, and sometimes end up in sidings. For example:
What happened to Klara? She was left behind in a siding, in a crude false bottom. On one of those side roads that hides the place where our real life is supposed to unfold. Somewhere on the way to Debrecen.
There are subtle echoes everywhere in the book. We see Danijel, for example, raising his baton to conduct an orchestra, and then a bit later we see his grandfather, a small-town stationmaster, waving a train out of the station, and then on the next page, the motion of Danijel’s hand as he pushes the curtain back from the window recalls both of the previous gestures. It establishes a connection between the characters and the different spaces and times, and it’s a really impressive effect as it continues throughout the book.
And one thing the book captures beautifully is the sense of lost time and missed opportunities in life. Consider this passage about Danijel’s mother:
My mother dreamed about small eternities in which time is not registered, she longed for some sort of appendices to time when all the left over things could get done. And one of the things she intended to get done for years was putting together photograph albums. I listened to that story my whole childhood, how she needed at least a month to fix up the albums in peace. Since my father was a passionate photographer, we had thousands of photographs. My mother put them away in cardboard boxes and regularly bought albums for them. I remember dozens of expensive albums, still unpacked in cellophane. After her death, the albums and boxes of photographs remained.
So, in summary, The Russian Window is a book in which not much happens on the surface, but much goes on beneath. It’s worth reading for its beautiful prose and its quiet musings on missed chances and elusive dreams.