Violence as a gift
By Anna Aslanyan
The Readymades, John Holten, Broken Dimanche Press 2011
Last July Birkbeck College held “the first” symposium on Tom McCarthy‘s work (quotes are not mine – McCarthy’s). It comes as no surprise that so many people now are not only reading Remainder, Men in Space, C, but also researching them – that his novels should find an audience was only a question of time. Young writers could do worse than take a leaf from McCarthy’s book; John Holten, for one, whose debut The Readymades continues the European tradition without trying to pass itself as a book by a Continental author. To say that McCarthy’s shadow is hanging over it would be unfair – rather, his themes are played anew, at times convincingly, at times tentatively, but for the most part boldly and with an honesty bordering on desperation.
Honesty – or, to use McCarthy’s terminology, authenticity – in art is one of those themes, launched in The Readymades more directly, less metaphorically than in Remainder, say. Holten’s reflections on art are expanding, concentric, explicitly suggesting that it is all there is to life. As one of the characters, a dying artist, says, “our lives are themselves one big lie, not because of a hidden transcendent truth they forsake but because we think of them as being ordered, civilised, replete with good manners, educated, sophisticated […] in short we take on our lives with the rules already governed for us.”
The backbone of the narrative is the history of an art group whose name, LGB, is made up of the initials of its three members, neo-avant-garde artists from Belgrade who served in the Yugoslav People’s Army as young recruits and ended up in Bosnia in 1992. The bulk of it is a manuscript written by Djordje Bojić, the B of the acronym; it is framed by a short preamble, which explains how the text came into the possession of John, the publisher of Broken Dimanche Press, and a number of art works by LGB and their associates. (This is where Holten’s collaborator, Serbian artist Darko Dragičević, comes into the game.) Bojić, a troubled figure, is trying to get to the bottom of LGB, to understand why he and his friends “only see the world as a matrix of references to works of art, literature, quotes, homages and criticisms.”
The novel – both the discovered manuscript and the rest – is suffused with violence, which can again be traced back to McCarthy’s works. The war in the Balkans is, of course, one source of it, but not the main driver – far from it. Recalling his time in Bosnia, the narrator talks of his secret, his “collusion”, as of something he and his friends wanted to leave behind throwing themselves into art. However, the scenes unfolding in Vienna and Paris, where the trio are successfully exhibiting their works, strike you as almost as violent as those in a motel near a Bosnian river. The same impulse that leads to what is termed as war crimes by judges creates things lapped up by curators and collectors as contemporary art.
The feeling of complicity is everywhere, not just in the half-confessions Bojić makes, be it his war experience or his part in selling over-priced Eastern European art in the West. A minor character who translates Serbian documents, reports coming in from The Hague, senses it too: “Suddenly, as if he was blind before, he saw himself clearly in his translations, his voice all over the work like a thief’s prints all over a forced window.” It is the same man who, later, is given Bojić’s manuscript to translate into English – and again, the consequences it has for him are far more dramatic.
In his testimony, Bojić does not spare himself or his lover, to whom it is dedicated. These are his words: “We became […] a team of two hunting for an expanse in ourselves found only through losing whole parts of those selves: we became nihilists, alcoholics, drug addicts, perverts.” He is equally hard on LGB’s reaction to questions they get from Westerners, charmed and excited by the war-hardened tough Serbian artists. “How did we react? We evaded, ducked and dived, and we most certainly lied through our teeth – we bandied about ideas of blame and never apologised. We acted hard and indifferent only because we knew they wanted us to be hard and indifferent.” The 90s Eastern European boom in the art world was, to an extent, defined by the very things heard at the International Criminal Tribunal. It takes some honesty for anyone who was part of that scene to admit it.
That violence makes great art has been said before McCarthy, of course, and John Holten is, in all likelihood, reflecting the zeitgeist rather than imitating anyone. Passages like “a bowl of coffee, yellow and chipped badly on the lip, laying abandoned by the mattress, white scum growing an outpost atop its slowly evaporating surface” may read as if taken straight from Remainder, as may those describing gay men “acting at being queer,” but no matter – all art is imitation. What distinguishes The Readymades from just another Declaration on Inauthenticity is the sheer force of Holten’s writing – or his protagonist’s, if we want to take part in the re-enactment of real and fictitious events this project essentially is. The message runs deep through the book: violence is what makes you a true artist, and you cannot bury your talent simply because it does not conform someone’s, even your own, idea of morality. Whether or not you can live with it, is your call.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 12th, 2011.