Goran Petrović: Код срећне руке (At the Lucky Hand)
Adam Lozanić is a student in the School of Philology, a degree candidate in the Serbian language and literature programme, and a part-time proofreader for the tourism and nature magazine Our Scenic Beauty. At the start of the book, an elderly man brings him a book he wants Adam to edit for publication. Adam is bemused as it is already a book. Moreover, he is worried by the copyright but the man assures him that Anastas C. Branica, the author, has been dead for fifty years. As he is offering a generous sum and Adam is not well-off, he accepts.
Adam checks with a friend at the National Library and no reference can be found to Anastas C. Branica. Interestingly, there is a dedication in the book which reads This novel has arisen from a great and futile affection for Mademoiselle Nathalie Houville, a gifted painter and a cruel lover. The friend will later find a review of the book which utterly damns it, stating that it is nothing but a description of a house and garden, with no plot at all. At the library he sees a woman carrying an English book, whom he finds attractive. We guess that is the Jelena, whom we are about to meet.
Adam has a quirk which he has kept quiet about till now. When reading a book, he seems to meet other readers of the book in the text and often recalls these unknown readers at a later date. They may be nearby or many miles away.
Jelena has taken a job as the companion to a somewhat eccentric elderly, unmarried lady, Natalija Dimitrijević. Jelena is studying English, with the sole purpose of emigrating. One of Natalija’s eccentricities is, in the evening, she wants to read a book with Jelena. This means that both women read different copies of the same book, the same pages, at the same speed.
Natalija’s father had owned a bookshop in the town but it was taken over when the Communists took power. Natalija had worked in her father’s bookshop and continued to work in the now publicly-owned stationery shop that replaced it. She had managed to extract some of the books from her father’s shop but the Communist authorities seized many of them. In her discussions with Jelena, she mentions that a professor had visited her. He asked her about the books in her father’s shop and, in particular, thirty copies of a book called My Memorial, by Anastas C. Branica.
Jelena feels that Natalija is going senile. She frequently goes shopping, visiting shops that no longer exist (such as the eponymous At the Lucky Hand) and even often visits a department store that was planned but never built because of the war.
Jelena finds that her reading is changed. In the co-reading with Natalija, she becomes very much aware that many other people, both in Belgrade and elsewhere, are reading the same book as she and Natalija are reading and she even sees them in her mind’s eye. Her approval for travelling abroad has come through but she feels that she cannot abandon Natalija.
Meanwhile, Adam is working on the book. He is able to go to where the book is set – the garden mentioned in the review – where he is joined, as promised, by the wife of the man who brought him the book. She does not like the pagoda, which he can see. He changes a few words in the book and the pagoda disappears. He also meets Jelena, who is visiting the housekeeper who has the same name as another person who reviewed the book, which his librarian friend had found. This person went missing some fifty years ago but is clearly the same one.
We now follow the story of Anastas C. Branica, starting in 1906. His father had been killed in the May Coup of 1903 and his mother remarried. (Obscure Serbian history aside: the leader of the coup was called Dragutin Dimitrijević; he happens to have the same surname as Natalija). We meet him him sitting on his stepfather’s chair. While reading, he sees himself going down to the sea and even going into the sea. When his stepfather returns, the chair is soaking wet, as is he, and there is sand on the floor. He can give no explanation and his stepfather is furious. This is not the only time in this episode that someone will step out of reality into what they are reading. We also have more communal reading, with Anastas his mother and stepfather, all reading the same magazine at the same time. Anastas will also later read the paper at the same time as a Serbian princess, called Jelena, who is in Moscow at the time but they somehow communicate in their reading.
We follow Anastas’ story and, as we know will happen, his falling in love with Mademoiselle Nathalie Houville. We also know this does not go well. We also know that he is also somehow involved with Natalija Dimitrijević and this story comes to light. We see the gradual construction of the house and garden mentioned in the book, both for real, as Anastas spends a lot of money on it and in the book, as well as Adam’s changes to it and the various people who clearly have read the book and have their views. In particular we meet one of the visitors, Sreten Pokimica, who turns out to have an unpleasant past.
It is a complicated story, involving several love stories. Above all, the basis of the story is clearly that books are life and life is books, with the two intertwining and overlapping continually. The idea that if you are reading a book or even a newspaper, you are somehow connected to anyone else reading it at the same time and can communicate with them, as well as the idea that when you are reading the book you can easily jump into the landscape of the book and meet the characters and even change the landscape by rewriting the book, is something of a conceit but Petrović just about pulls it off, even if we are at times confused as to whether the character is in real life or in the book and where exactly the boundaries are. I am sure many of us would have wished to be have been in the landscape of a book we are reading and meet some of the characters, even though, at times, we may definitely not have wished to do so. Petrović is not the first person to take this idea but, making it the driving force of his book certainly takes it further than other attempts.
Does it work? The short answer is more or less. Given that we do have real life stories, with several characters falling in love with people of their own time and place and really only Anastas falling for someone he meets through his reading, it does not seem too fantastical, even with something of a contrived ending. The way he works it is certainly imaginative and most original and you cannot help but be impressed with all the ins and outs of the tale.
First published in 2000 by Narodna knjiga
First English publication by Deep Vellum in 2020
Translated by Peter Agnone