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Andrej Nikolaidis: The Olcinium Trilogy

The three books in this trilogy were published separately in both Montenegrin and English but have been combined into a trilogy by the publishers, Istros Books. While they certainly can be read separately, they do have a couple of things in common, apart from their author. As the title tells us, they are all set more or less in Ulcinj, Montenegro (Olcinium is the Latin name of Ulcinj) and they are all fairly grim.

In its review of the first book in the trilogy, the Independent commented It makes Samuel Beckett look positively cheery. Maybe it’s just me but I find Waiting for Godot very cheery. Beckett, however, makes his characters as symbols, often of the Common Man, and sets them in mythical landscapes. Nikolaidis’ characters are very much real people (with one or two exceptions) and live in the very real town of Ulcinj. His characters often have a sense of spatio-temporal dispalcement, unsure of not only where they are but when they are. Unlike Beckett they do make serious attempts at relationships but like Beckett’s characters do not generally succeed very well.

Sin (The Son)

This may be the grimmest of the three; however, if you have a somewhat warped/dark sense of humour, you may find it very funny as well. It is narrated by a writer who seems to have given up writing. At the beginning of the novel, his wife of two years has left him. Initially, he claims that it was primarily because their flat was too hot. Nothing could survive the night in that room, certainly nothing as fragile and bloodless as our marriage. However, it soon becomes clear that there was more, much more that drove her out.

He does not take it well. The only things which still interested me were crime news and books about serial killers. He also reads stories about cannibalism.

We learn about his background, equally grim. He tells the story of his uncle. The man from Crmnica laboured, suffered and died. That’s the whole story about each and every one of us: the complete biography of the human race.

He himself was responsible for the death of his older brother. The worst thing was his parents’ reaction. They forgave him. Those who forgive us are our harshest judges. He would prefer not to have been forgiven. I committed every new crime in retaliation for not being punished for the previous one. My father forgave me for everything and that made my life hell.

His father bought an olive grove. It burned down. He laboured night and day to repair it. Again it burned down. This time he was not prepared to expend as much energy on it. Now, our hero sees it burning again in the hot weather.

His mother got cancer but did not go gracefully. Life with you was hell, a hell I’m now leaving, she said both to her son and husband.

It is not just him who has a miserable existence. We hear lots of stories about others even worse off. There are the leprous Kosovans in the car park, for example. The car park was built in the Communist era, a massive multi-storey car park. Unfortunately, no cars have ever entered it, as they forgot to build an access road. They pointed out that the people were much better off than before, because the car park was there. The access road would come in a later plan. It never did. Now it is a place where people dump their rubbish and the police dump undesirables, such as the leprous Kosovans.

This is by far from being the only grim story. Our hero decides to go to a local prostitute. Djuro arrived as a refugee and used to repair things or, rather, he did not but merely claimed to do so. So he changed profession, after having been been beaten up once too often. He pimps his daughters – a well-organised, carefully thought-out, proper little family business.

If there is a moral to this story, it is, as our hero quotes from Thomas Bernhard: human misfortune doesn’t derive from a social system or a geographical location, but from existence itself. I would add a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre: Hell is other people. Our hero hates beggars, hates religion, does not like his father, hates tourists, hates Kosovans. Indeed, the only things he sees to like are alcohol and masturbation.

Publishing history

First published in 2006 by Durieux
First English translation in 2013 by Istros Books
Translator: Will Firth

Dolazak (The Coming)

Unless you count the Apocalypse, this book is not quite as grim as its predecessor. We do, however, start with a brutal murder. Our narrator is a private detective. He is employed not just for the usual marital infidelity cases but for more serious cases, such as murder. This is not just because his clients think the police are not competent enough to catch the culprit but because they suspect that they are likely to be bought off or the courts are likely to be bought off. Much easier to get a private detective to sort the matter and then the family will take care of the culprit themselves.

As soon as I opened my agency, though, it seems all of Ulcinj decided to start killing, robbing, abducting and raping. And there was plenty of adultery too: it must be close to a dozen marriages I’ve torn apart.

However, particularly in marital infidelity cases but also, as we learn, in murder cases, his technique is not necessarily to catch the person who actually did it or to find out whether there really was marital infidelity, but, rather, to give the client the information s/he was expecting, even if blatantly wrong. It’s not about discovering the truth but about discovering what truth is for those people.

However, he is going to get himself involved in a much more complex case than he imagined. Indeed, we start with his account – relayed to him by a police official – of the brutal murder of the Vukotić family – father, mother and two daughters. The murderer seemed to know where the people were but left no trace.

The focus was on this murder but, the same evening, the local library was burned to the ground. Were the two events connected? Of course they were. We soon realise that a mysterious book is involved as we plunge back into history, with the Venetians, pirates, Fra Dolcino (a very real person, whom we have already met in both in Dante and Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose)) and Sabbatai Zevi. All are somehow connected with the two crimes.

But there is more. Our hero is also investigating another murder, the son of a butcher. Will he get the truth or just a truth?

He also receives an email from a twenty-five year man, Emmanuel, who turns out to be his son, of whose existence he was unaware and we learn about the son, brought up thinking his mother’s husband was his real father, a sickly childhood, his psychiatric treatment at the hands of Dr Schulz (who delves into the father-son relationship issue), his love affair and his knowledge of the history of Ulcinj and how it links with the narrator’s investigation.

Finally, as mentioned above, there is an apocalypse going on. It has snowed in Ulcinj in mid-summer but there has also been a plague of frogs in Japan, a devastating earthquake had hit Los Angeles (Los Angeles is in flames and people are trying to flee the city in panic), Manhattan was flooded, the Netherlands had been hit by a tsunami and other similar disaster occurred elsewhere.

All of these things going on make for a much more complex (and, in my view, more interesting) novel than the first novel. However, Nikolaidis can give still give us a moral: His first and greatest misfortune was to be born in this country. As with the majority of things which cause us lifelong suffering, he had his parents to thank. We’re all victims of our parents’ inability to resist the reproductive urge.

Publishing history

First published in 2009 by Algoritam
First English translation in 2013 by Istros Books
Translator: Will Firth

Devet (Till Kingdom Come)

Publishing history

We start off with more climate change issues – this time a huge amount of rain flooding everywhere, to which the only solution for our hero and his friends is to head for the hills and consume large quantities of alcohol – before moving on to serial and ritual killing. Yes, this book is just as grim as its predecessors but just as well written.

Our hero is probably called David (he is called that, once, by one character). He is, by profession, a journalist, writing articles critical of the system (I owed every single ‘success’ of my journalistic career, if we can call it that, to people who would curse and swear when reading my pieces, who would screw up the newspaper and trample on it).

He had been brought up by his grandmother, Olga, his mother having died soon after he was born and his father having disappeared when learning his mother was pregnant. His grandmother has recently died and he is very upset as a result.

One day he writes an article about the US serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy. As a result he receives a phone call from the minister responsible for the police, Mr Mandušić, who offers him a job as a speech writer. It pays more, though does mean moving to Podgorica. Mandušić tells him I have a horde of advisors, but I use them for just one thing: I ask them for their opinion, and then I do exactly the opposite of what they advise. Cynicism is, of course, key to this book and the other two.

Soon after getting the job, he gets a visit from his great-uncle Tripko, brother of his grandmother, of whom he has never even heard. Tripko claims the grandmother’s house, saying your grandmother wasn’t your grandmother. David is bemused by this, not least because he had no idea. Tripko is big, violent and threatening. Tripko leaves and is soon found dead. The verdict is suicide.

So what was the true story? As he works for the Minister for Police, he consults Mandušić who puts a police officer onto the case. The rest of the book involves the investigations the police and David make to determine his antecedents, who his grandmother and mother really were and, of course, who he is. Not surprisingly, it turns out to be one massive conspiracy, involving the Yugoslav Secret Service, Sabbatai Zevi, whom we have met in the previous book, a variety of serial and ritual killers, and Oliver Cromwell. Yes, that Oliver Cromwell.

It is a wonderfully complex story and is enhanced by his spatio-temporal lapses (These spatio-temporal lapses continued in the years which followed and became ever more frequent and prominent). At one point, for example, he is walking through Podgorica, when he suddenly finds himself in London. Not only does Oliver Cromwell come into it, but so do Istros Books, publisher of these three books, whom he visits. He subsequently visits London (and Istros) for real. (We also get an explanation for where the word Istros comes from.)

These lapses have occurred in all three books, though do occur more here. The future will stop completely, claim Spanish scientists, who have devised a theory to explain why the universe appears to be expanding and accelerating continuously. Ultimately, they say, time will stop completely. An interesting theory.

And the moral of the story? Alas, there is only one happy ending – the Apocalypse – even if it is only a promise.

I have to admit that I enjoyed this book most of the three, partially because I enjoy a good conspiracy theory, but also because he attacks the system in a spectacular way. It is very original, very cleverly plotted and very well written.

First published in 2014 by Algoritam
First English translation in 2015 by Istros Books
Translator: Will Firth

All three books can be read separately and, indeed, were originally published separately. However, I found reading them together was a huge advantage. Though they are different, as I hope I have shown, and the main characters are also all different – writer, detective and journalist, respectively – they also have similarities, particularly the issue of the post-Yugoslavia problems in Eastern Europe and the issue of climate change. Reading all three at once, is a bit like looking at a view from three different but related perspectives.

One further advantage of reading all three together is that you can see what a great achievement this trilogy is. Nikolaidis has dissected post-Yugoslavia Montenegro in a way that may be grim, cynical and bitter, but also in a way that does not hold back at all. There is no prettying up and little redemption. The only question is not if the Apocalypse is going to come – whether caused by conspiracy, corruption, spatio-temporal lapses, climate change or just a general collapse into drug and alcohol abuse – but when it is going to come. For Nikolaidis, it would appear, this might not be a bad thing.