Róbert Túri

The Second Body. A Pious Novel

Courtesy of EAST CENTRAL EUROPE Journal, Hungary, 2009.

  • Translated by Réka M. Cristian.
  • Róbert Túri
  • Milorad Pavić. Drugo Telo (Beograd: Dereta, 2006). ISBN: 86-73-46-552-4. Hardcover. Format: 11.5 X 20 cm. 324 pgs.
  • English translation: Milorad Pavić. The Second Body. A Pious Novel. Online New Supplemented Edition. Trans. Dragana Rajkov. Available: http://www.khazars.com/en/second-body/
  • English

Milorad Pavić, the acclaimed Serbian writer and literary historian, was born in Belgrade in 1929. His unconventional novels can be compared with those of Jorge Louis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, and B.S. Johnson; his playful style made Robert Coover claim that Pavić “thinks the way we dream.” A member of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts since 1991, he lives and works in Belgrade.
In his Beginning and the End of the Novel Milorad Pavić describes the terms in which fiction embodies lives as narratives. Each novel, he claims, “selects its specific form,” while “each story can search for, and find, its adequate body.”[1] Rightfully. There are as many bodies as texts. But what about “the ‘othered’ bodies or the second body?” According to Pavić, this second body is always already there, alongside additional ones; this extra body lurks from between all the lines of his new novel, in which the author points to the path(s) leading to a glimpse of it.
The Second Body is Milorad Pavić’s most recent novel. After a list of unusually constructed stories beginning with the encyclopedic Dictionary of Khazars, crossword-puzzles of Landscape Painted with Tea and tarot-cards of Last Love on Constantinople. A Tarot Novel for Divination, to name just a few, this is an elegantly designed, hard-cover book that invites readers to reflect on its contents by first getting acquainted with Vladimir Dunjić‘s picture “Mirror” on its cover, which presents a woman’s ‘second’ face melting in her own mirror image, a symbolic invitation to self-reflection in the gusto of Pavić’s tradition of the trick novel. This trick-and-love novel is appropriately dedicated to the wife of the author, Jasmina Mihajlović, herself a contemporary Serbian writer.
The intellectually endowed love adventures are, as one already expects, collaged in a non-linear way in this belletristic texture. The subtle time-scheme ranges from the eighteenth through the twenty-first century in various European venues: Belgrade, Paris, Venice, Szentendre. The key character is Elizabeth (Lisa) Amava Arzuaga Eulohia Ihar-Swift (nicknamed Imola), whose full name the reader discovers only at the end. She is the final custodian of the secret to the second, other body. The book’s protagonist is the fictional narrator-author; he stitches the plots together and slaloms among several public but mostly personal texts and, by balancing between the level of existence and non-existence, creates a crossroad of stories that is left, at points, for the reader to inter-act with.
Among the characters Pavić employs in his fictive world are historical persons. They are Zaharije Orfelin (1726-1785) and Gavril Stefanović Venclović (the second half of the seventeenth century through the mid-eighteen century), figures of crucial importance, whom literary historian Pavić rediscovered for the history of Serbian literature. Orfelin, who spent most of his life in Venice, was a Renaissance man: he had a printing business but was primarily a poet, writer and composer; besides, he was the first to publish in the eighteenth century texts pertaining to Serbian cultural history. Venclović lived in Szentendre, then part of the Habsburg Monarchy. He arrived with the Serbs who, aiming to escape the Turkish rule in the Balkans migrated north. Venclović was an Orthodox monk who wrote poetry and liked to paint. As a man of arts and letters, he contributed to language innovation, while his progressive ideas made him oppose several dogmas of the religious institution he was member. A liberal mind, he believed in women’s right to determine their fate in society.
The novel is divided into three romantic fragments in which women and an enigmatic ring have crucial roles; all are markers of a given present-time. Pavić visualizes the presence of discussed topics (especially the ones that resist visual representation, like time) in drawings at the beginning of chapters and in passim. On page 224, the reader can actually see Pavić’s time-coordinates and the symbolic birth of the present time. Earthly timeline, conceived as a tool of the devil, is presented as running from left to right, similar to the route of writing (and reading) in Western civilization; eternity belongs to the realm of angels and it is symbolized by a descending vertical line. In the tangential point of these two lines lies a present tense, which is the narrated present of the novel. Interestingly, this moment belongs almost entirely to women characters, they seem to make the present of the story.
Most narratives about and from the Balkans are endowed with a Manichaean plot, which, in Pavić’s book is represented by the alternating meeting(s) of the angel and the devil; their presence at the beginning of each chapter cleverly encode the less visible subplot of the visible/readable text. The book is divided, accordingly, into five main parts, with its subsequent chapters: the first is the ground of the angel, the second belongs to the devil, the third is angelic, the fourth is evil, and the fifth is seraphic in its significance. The book displays not only an erudite cultural background to intertextualize readers into the web of narratives but also has a subtle sense of self-irony pertaining to this European region. Pavić manages to present the intricate web of inter-cultural dialogues that are established in and around the Balkans among Western, Central and South-Eastern European individuals with their heterogeneous cultural backgrounds through particular stories that involve certain cultural or religious conflicts; he exposes the communicative strategies among these individuals through elaborate love stories that have a touch of humor catalyzed by rich historical circumstances reevaluated through the prism of individual experience. An example from Part five, Chapter four is when Lisa and her lover, Teodor Ilić Češjar talk in a German bunker about art and war:
“Almost all Serbian kings in the middle ages besieged Dubrovnik with the desire to rule this small but diplomatically and commercially mighty Roman Catholic republic on the Adriatic Sea, which possessed safe fiscal deposits (like Switzerland in our day and age), a good geographical position and a strong trading fleet. However, all Serbian sieges of Dubrovnik failed for the same reason.
- Which is?
- Serbs did not know how to swim.” [2]
The book’s love adventures accommodate three amorous encounters. The first discusses the love between an imaginary author-narrator and Lisa Swift, the second is a fictional account about Zaharije Orfelin’s passionate life, while the third describes the artificially constructed adventures of Gavril Stefanović Venclović. The material link between the above-mentioned stories is a magic, color-changing stone ring that appears and disappears when events take crucial turns from the point of view of the given story’s protagonist. This strange stone jewel prefigures the presence of the even more mysterious “other body,” that is constructed as the novel’s events unfold. The ring signals changes of fortune, health and mood, and symbolically speaks of the presence of love, fatherhood and even future children. However, the presence of the ring ensures the reader, as an external ‘other’ body, to decode more from the dense text(ure) of this tripartite plot. Pavić, the magician of words and conjuror of trick stories, leaves less room to textual sorcery here than in the hypertext version of The Glass Snail. A Pre-Christmas Tale[3], where the reader is free to choose which chapter should be read first, which chapter should follow and even what kind of (happy or sad) ending ought the story take.
The interpretive space in The Second Body is open for the reader to do its own magic with the stories that ‘meet’ through a ring. All three stories are similar in their quest for another body though this other body seems different from plot to plot. The ‘other’ body in the first narrative fragment – the love story of Lisa Swift and the author-narrator – is the metaphor for library the narrator has: the books contained in it represent embodied narratives of the ‘other’ self he has fictionalized. The ‘other’ body of the second story is dual: the publication corpus of Zaharije Orfelin and also the body of Orfelin’s other ‘half,’ Anna, who believes the books are her rivals. In the story of Venclović, the ‘other’ body points at the character of a young, beautiful girl, Aksenia who is caught in a ménage a trois between Venclović and another lover, Pater Ružićka.
The ‘other’ body – conceived as a second corpus – is always a function of narrative and narrating bodies; it appears disseminated and ever shifting throughout the novel both as a textual body and a body-in-the-text, but it also does embody a third character in love triangles. This is the case of Zabeta, a charming violinist who seduces married Orfelin. She displaces the previous “other body” in Orfelin’s story, and the exchange is mediated by the enigmatic stone ring. Zabeta presents Orfelin with the ring as a sign of her love but in the climactic moment of their carnal affair – when Zabeta paradoxically and simultaneously plays the Istrian Giuseppe Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill Sonata” on Orfelin’s body – the ring is transposed on her finger, as to show the almost diabolic body of the other. In the next story, music is replaced by religious differences. The Orthodox Gavril Stefanović Venclović and the Catholic Pater Ružićka have deep philosophical exchanges on the matter of the second body, which they consider to be Christ’s resurrected figure that appeared to the apostles but they did not recognize it (pp. 177-182). However, despite the religious deliberation on the issue, ironically the second body resulting from the two theologians’ polemics turns out to be personified by a child that might be fathered by either of them (pp. 217-237). Aksenia gives birth to a child that becomes the real “other body” for Venclović at the end. Before his death, Venclović recognizes the presence of the magic stone ring on his finger, a sign of certainty: he is the father of the so-called second body, the child.
In the first love story, the one between Lisa Swift (herself a Protestant character) and the author-narrator, the second body becomes visible (actually, readable) after the death of the fictional author, who then becomes an interlocutory character directly addressing the reader. The couple bought a weird stone ring that the protagonist wears as a wedding ring all the time during their marriage (its color was always black). Lisa, similarly to Anna from the sibling story, believes that what she presumed as the second body is actually her husband’s library. Before his death, the author-narrator tells his wife that if he ever manages to find out what the second body is, he will return and kiss her on the neck as a sign of his ultimate knowledge. By this he will prove her that his own second body does, in fact, exist. In the meantime the ring – permanently in Lisa’s bag after the death of her husband – turns red as she has an affair with Teodor, who sells magic spells he coins as Cybele’s smile, the Seal of Mary and the Letters of Artemis. An archeologist, Lisa realizes that it is time to decipher the hidden message no one knows fully. After the ring turns black again, she begins to meditate, losses the sense of present-time and finally “reads” the author’s postmortem love kiss she feels as a light itch on her neck. The subsequent body has returned from a realm only a woman in love (with another man) can understand, proving that ‘othering’ as second chance – or body – does exist between texts and bodies, between wor(l)ds and through times. And its language is the kiss, as a mirror to one’s own reflection that can be experienced at the threshold of past and future, at the border zone between life and death.
The book is a meditation on creation and inspiration, on the relationship between the artist and art, between artists and muses. It does not speak a symbolic but only a somatic language, has a way of expression of its own which is restricted to a particular person, it is distilled through the metaphor of the kiss and embodied only in a woman’s smile. Lisa’s smile is the smile hiding a secret which cannot be seen in the letters of the novel but is there sewn in the novel’s subtext, recalling the (pro)creative spirit of the Earth Mother, of Gaia, of Rhea or rather that of goddess Cybele into an ambiguous, enigmatic expression previously caught in the visual codes of Leonardo Da Vinci’s (Mona) Lisa.
Lisa of this novel becomes an author herself and writes (the ending of) the novel, in her native language (English) but with the voice of the second body. The Post Script of the book and the online English version of the novel – on the real author’s webpage[4] ­– adds, in this context, an extra f(l)avor to the already playful text. The author – whoever it might be – is not dead but alive and kicking, and, despite the name we are reading on the cover of the printed book, it is, here, nevertheless, a woman:
“Well that’s what this book has been telling you all along. That I’m not dead. That somewhere none of us are dead. But since I believe that the reader is always right, because literature is lead into the future by readers, and not writers, I will add one more explanation. Of course this book could not have been written by myself for the very reason that you have stated. The readers are not dumb not to realize who the author of this novel is. This book was written after my death, in her native English language, by my wife. The author of this book is Elisabeth Amava Arzuaga Eulohia Ihar-Swift. With the nickname of Imola.”[5]

[1] Milorad Pavić, Beginning and the End of the Novel. Available: http://www.khazars.com/en/end-of-novel/, Access: 2008-12-13. 

[2] Milorad Pavić, The Second Body. A Pious Novel. Online New Supplemented Edition. Trans. Dragana Rajkov Available: http://www.khazars.com/en/second-body/second-body-part-five/ Access: 2009-02-20

[3] Milorad Pavić, The Glass Snail. A Pre-Christmas Tale (Trans. Sheila Sofrenovic). Available: http://www.wordcircuits.com/gallery/glasssnail/ , Access: 2009-02-23.

[4] See it on http://www.khazars.com/ and on http://www.khazars.com/en/. Access: 2009-02-22

[5] Milorad Pavić, The Second Body. A Pious Novel. Online New Supplemented Edition. Trans. Dragana Rajkov. “Post Script.” Available: http://www.khazars.com/en/second-body/second-body-post-script/, Access: 2009-02-23.

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