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Georges Perec: L’Attentat de Sarajevo [The Sarajevo Assassination]

Despite the late publication date, this was Perec’s first novel. He was twenty-one when he wrote it or, rather, dictated it to a friend, unsure of what he was doing or where he was going. He had become friendly with a group of Yugoslavs, in particular a young teacher of art history Žarko Vidović. Perec was very much attracted to Vidović’s girlfriend Milka. Perec went to Belgrade for six weeks with the intention of pursuing Milka. He failed but the story became the basis of this novel, which he wrote on his return.

He was unable to find a publisher for it, though Marice Nadeau was quite encouraging, and he soon abandoned it, focussing his intention on the novel that become Le condottière (Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere). He had no better luck with that novel. Both were thought lost and only emerged well after his death.

The story is at least in part based on his relationship with Vidović and Milka. He meets a Yugoslav teacher, Branko, who has come to study in France. They get on well, with Branko having interesting ideas on Franciscan (as in St Fancis) socialism. One day, visiting Branko in his room, he sees a photo which turns out to be Mila, Branko’s mistress. She is coming to Paris in a few days. However, once he sees the photo, he loses interest in Brank and becomes interested in Mila.

Mila arrives and our narrator gets to meet her. She does not seem to be like her photo. He notices two other things: she shows no affection towards Branko and seems to be unhappy. Our narrator is clearly attracted to her and will see her, sometimes with Branko, sometimes without.

Branko tells him that he is planning to break up with her, and return to his wife, Anna, in Sarajevo. She returns to Yugoslavia and there is a vague suggestion he may visit her. However, when she writes to him and tells him that she would love to see him, he is off to Belgrade the following week, as Perec himself did.

The situation in Belgrade is complicated. Is she interested or is she not? It seems that the relationship with Branko is still on and he pops up from Sarajevo every now and then. Mila and the narrator spend some time together. She spends some time with Branko. The narrator gets paranoid about the situation and so does Branko. Which one does she really love? Does she even know? Finally, it seems that our hero has won and he moves into her flat. He then receives an invitation from Branko to come and visit him in Sarajevo, which he surprisingly accepts. He meets not only Branko there, who tries to dissuade him from seeing Mile, but also meets Branko’s wife, Anna.

Inspired by the assassination at Sarajevo in 1914, he concocts a dastardly plan. His plan is to get Anna insanely jealous so that she will shoot her husband and he is freed of him forever. Anna seems sympathetic to the idea and has a gun.

While this is going on, we have had a few interjections about the more famous assassination at Sarajevo. Someone (not the narrator who claims to know relatively little about the 1914 events) is giving a lecture on the assassination. The received notion is that the plot was brought about by Serbian nationalists to help create a greater Serbia. This notion was clarly encouraged by the Austrians, not least at the trial of the conspirators, to justify their invasion of Serbia. Our lecturer has another theory. Apart from the assassination and Sarajevo connections, there is no connection between this sideline and the main plot.

It is easy to see why no publisher was eager to publish this work by an unknown writer. While it is quite a clever idea, it is a bit of a stretch to equate his planned assassination with that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Much of the book is his on-again, off-again relationship with Mila and his feelings of rejection when she seems to prefer Branko. Does he really love her or are his feelings as much a sense of conquest, a sense of triumphing in a feeble macho battle with Branko? Is it lust, male pride or love? I am opting for the first two.

Publishing history

First published in French 2016 by Seuil
No English translation