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Muharem Bazdulj: Tranzit, kometa, pomračenje (Transit, Comet, Eclipse)

This book consists of three novellas, whose aim can best be described as showing the situation in Eastern Europe. The other link is seen by the title – namely celestial phenomena. The first one is set in the eighteenth century, the other two in the present day.

We start with a real person: Ruđer Bošković (Bazdulj uses his Croatian name, not his Westernised name as given in the link). Bošković famously made a journey from Istanbul to Saint Petersburg. His main interest was in seeing the Transit of Venus as two were to take place in his time, namely in 1761 and 1769, with the next one not due till 1874. He had travelled to Istanbul to see the 1761 one but arrived too late. (He also missed the 1769 one; he was invited to California to witness it but, because he was a Jesuit and the Pope had banned Jesuits, he could not travel to California which was under Spanish rule at the time.)

Much of this novella focuses on the journey he makes with James Porter, former English ambassador in Istanbul, and his wife and young children, who are visiting Eastern Europe. Everywhere they stop, Porter seems eager to move on, while Bošković wants to stop, explore the town, meet the people and ask them questions about their lives and their town. Indeed, we learn, along with Bošković, a lot about these towns, many of which I had not heard of.

Part of the purpose is to show that the East is not as much a backwater as people might think. Porter’s wife, Beatrice, who is Dutch, is convinced that both tulips and the tulip bubble, were Dutch creations. Bošković is quick to point out that tulips come from Turkey and that Turkey had its own tulip bubble before the Dutch did.

Despite this, Bošković, who was born in Dubrovnik, seems to favour the West and has spent his time (and will continue to spend his time) in France and Italy, rather than Eastern Europe (much of it, of course, then under Ottoman rule). Indeed, this is one of the issues he raises continually, namely the relationships between the Turks and the Christian Eastern Europeans (it seems to vary, though is often difficult) and how much a town retains its traditional appearance and how much it has become more Ottoman. The further East he gets the more he is horrified at the Christians he meets who seems to know little about Christianity beyond the very basics. He is most horrified by priests, who marry, do not know Latin and know little or nothing of Christian liturgy.

He does enjoy some towns, such as Jassy (modern-day Iași, now in Romania). He refers to it as the capital of Moldova but I wonder whether this is the translator’s error or the author’s, as it was, in fact, the capital of the region of Moldavia, which is not the same as modern Moldova (though, of course, had some of the same territory). The Prince of Moldavia is very down on his own country, stating the entire history of my country is one great eclipse.

He does not make it to St Petersburg, falling down a well in Poland. He does survive but the rest of his life does not go particularly well, including the failure to see the Transit of Venus in 1769.

The other stories are somewhat less interesting but still worthwhile as they deal (amongst other things) with a difficult issue, namely people trafficking and enforced prostitution. Both are set in the present day. The second one is about a young Moldovan (i.e. from Moldova and not (necessarily) from Moldavia). Maria Alexandra was born in 1986, the year of Halley’s Comet. She was named after Maria Cebotari, the soprano born in 1910, the previous appearance of Halley’s Comet. Her father was in love with Maria Cebotari, hence her name.

As in the previous story, Moldova does not fair particularly well. He [her father] told her about the eternal misfortunes of the East, about the damnation of their homeland and its backwater beauty, about rivers, old cities, about glorious history. Her mother was killed in an accident and then her father became an alcoholic and he too died. Her strict grandmother looks after her but then she meets Boško, who is very nice to her but, sadly, he is not what he seems.

The third story is about The Writer. This is clearly Muharem Bazdulj himself and this story tells of how he came to write this book. His birthday was either 18 May or 19 May. His parents disagree which it was. On his birth certificate, it is marked as 19 May, but his mother insists he was actually born before midnight, hence 18 May. Overall, it is not important but it matters for him. Ruđer Bošković was born on 18 May and he wants to share a birthday with him.

However, Paul Auster soon becomes his favourite author and the beginning of Auster’s New York Trilogy starts on 19 May and was the day the hero, Daniel Quinn, was conceived, so essentially he adopts two birthdays.

We learn more about the background to the book and details of his favourite writers, in addition to Auster. He is very much influenced by a book about Western Europe written by his friend, Larry, presumably Larry wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe. We also learn what writers he does not like: bombastic quasi-autobiographical texts in the first-person singular in which the narrator is the fantasized alter ego of the insecure author, or politically correct onanisms about the penetration of the cultures, the diaspora, or the condition called exile, and politically incorrect masturbations of fat cynics. (Knausgaard anyone?)

One key event is when he accompanies a journalist to investigate a night club which is really a front for trafficked and enforced prostitutes. The journalist manages to interview one of the waitress/prostitutes, a Russian woman called Olga, and learns of the horrors she and others have to put up with.

It is certainly an interesting idea, though the first story is definitely the most interesting for me. However, all three stories give a portrait of East Europe, the good and the bad, and we learn a lot about the author as well.

Publishing history

First published in 2007 by Ajfelov Most
First English translation in 2018 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Nataša Milas