“A wildly meandering and scathing rumination ” – The Mongolian Travel Guide by Svetislav Basara

The Mongolian Travel Guide, originally published in 1992, was Basara’s ninth book in his native Serbian (he’s since written over thirty more) and this translation marks his fifth English-language publication. It’s not – as you might expect – an actual travel guide, but a novel partly set in Mongolia, or a version of Mongolia, which is actually probably a dream of Mongolia, but it’s not clear whose dream it is. Get it? No? Fair enough: we’re talking Flann O’Brien crossed with Borges and maybe a dab of Andrew Crumey, but very European (very ideas-based) and laced with very, very hard liquor.

Nominally, this is the story of when Svetislav Basara, fictional character, went to Mongolia to write a travel guide at the behest of a friend who’s just killed himself; actually, it’s the story of when Svetislav Basara, fictional author, had an existential crisis and can’t work out what to write or how to love (or live). It starts and ends in Serbia, with a lengthy interlude in Ulaanbaatar, where Basara meets a cohort of ex-pat misfits, including a bishop from Holland who’d dreamt about Mongolia before waking up there; Mr Mercier, a French zombie and acquaintance of Sylvia Krystel; and Charlotte Rampling, on her holidays. Structurally – as might be apparent – it’s not practically driven by plot; it’s more of a wildly meandering and scathing rumination on well, everything, loosely held together by a meditation on writing as a process and a career.  It’s also woven through with references to his other books – some of which are available in English – and these probably provide considerable added value, if you’re familiar with his earlier work (I’m not).

It’s a book very much in the European experimental tradition: a metafictional philosophical satire that holds no truck either with verisimilitude or likeability. It’s Dalkey Archive at its most Dalkey Archive. When it’s funny, it’s grim and clever and quick: ‘That which is called rain would be just as wet and bothersome, and you would still feel as miserable, unnecessary and pitiful, if it were called Margaux Hemingway or Susan Sontag.’ Basara knows a lot and he expects his readers to keep up with him. Although the plot – such as it is – is arcane and (deliberately) illogical, the references are dense, and the story’s full of tangential sub-narratives (Mercier’s story, the bishop’s account), it’s enormously entertaining, if only for Basara’s carping and complaints.

On the flip-side, to get political – which seems entirely legitimate when we’re talking about what is, essentially, a satire on Basara’s own society – the dearth of female characters is tiresome at best, and infuriating at worst: there’s Charlotte Rampling and a young girl (in a non-speaking role) whom young Basara spies upon and old Basara obsesses about… and that’s about it. Basara isn’t oblivious to this: in fact, he has his stand-in briefly introduce a female journalist ‘because of the ever-more frequent complaints that there are no women in my books’. Cue laughter, right? It would be a mistake to conflate the misogyny of ‘Basara’ with the politics of Basara, of course, but certainly The Mongolian Travel Guide relies to some extent upon a certain camaraderie between misogynists if the central character’s dilemmas are to be taken at all seriously. And even though the novel’s ending suggests that ‘Basara’ doesn’t know what he’s doing, there’s little textual evidence to suggest an alternate reading…

Any Cop?: It’s very witty, and very entertaining. If you like Flann O’Brien, you’ll like this, though it lacks the kernel of compassion that O’Brien’s works maintain. I’ve got reservations (see above!) but it’s worth checking out, if only to dip into Serbian literature.

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