Friday, 13 September 2019

Book Review: Fear and His Servant by Mirjana Novaković
Sometimes there are rumours about extraordinary, even mysterious events that give us the creeps no matter how erudite and rational we happen to be because – if only for an instant – they make us speculate what would be if it were true. Authors even like to toy with such musings in books and films. Take for instance zombies, revenants and vampires. For us today they may be delightfully scary creatures because they belong to the realm of superstition and ancient religions, but for our ancestors it was a real threat to be haunted by one of these undead or even worse to become one of them instead of passing on into eternal life after death. In the modern Serbian novel Fear and His Servant by Mirjana Novaković the Devil himself travels to Belgrade out of fear that the vampires whispered about all around may be real and presage his impending end.

Mirjana Novaković (Мирјана Новаковић) was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in April 1966. In 1996, she made her literary debut with the short-story collection Дунавски апокрифи (tr. The Danube Apocrypha) and soon followed up with her first novel, i.e. with award-winning Fear and His Servant (Страх и његов слуга: 2000) that has meanwhile been translated into several language. She brought out two more, critically acclaimed novels since, namely the award-winning science-fiction title Johann's 501 (2005) and the political thriller Тито је умро (2011; tr. Tito Has Died). The latest published work of the best-selling author, who keeps her private life remarkably secret, is the short-story collection Тајне приче (2016; tr. Secret Stories). In the languages that I can understand, no information seems to be available about her place of residence.

It’s autumn 1736. With Fear and His Servant, the Devil who calls himself Count Otto von Hausburg to protect his incognito returns to Belgrade after many years because he wants to see if there is any truth in the rumours spreading across Europe about vampires haunting the region. On the road, he meets other travellers from Austria and has no difficulty at all to make young Count Klaus Radetzky, a physician in the service of Emperor Karl VI, blurt out that he leads a secret imperial commission in charge of investigating the strange events disturbing not just the local population.
“Fortune had smiled on me at last. After the bony Hungarian girls in Pest, the clever coachman and the broken wheel, now was my chance. I had only to get close to Radetzky, gain his friendship and everything I wanted to know would be dropped right into my lap. So the news had reached the emperor after all. My journey had not been in vain.”
In Belgrade, von Hausburg encounters Prince Alexander of Württemberg, the regent of Serbia, and his young wife Princess Maria Augusta of Thurn and Taxis who craves desperately for the love of her indifferent husband. Although the Turks besiege the nearby city of Niš and threaten to attack Belgrade, too, life at the Residenz just outside the fortress walls of Belgrade goes its usual way. There even is a costume ball to divert the guests from the looming danger as well as from all the constant whispering about vampires. Late in choosing a costume, von Hausburg has to disguise as himself.
“[…] I heard a servant announce me at the entrance, clearly and unmistakably: the Devil. And, once again, clearly and unmistakably, as on so many previous occasions, I found myself among the very first at the party. Anyone with an iota of self-regard takes care to arrive fashionably late. Who else would have rushed to be there ahead of the rest? No one but me, that’s who – always getting it wrong, no better than the biggest clod of an officer, no better than the most dim-witted lady-in-waiting.”
The following day, von Hausburg accompanies the secret imperial commission as an observer although with the help of his servant he has already found out that the stories about the tax-collector Count Wittgenau who disappeared and then reappeared as a vampire were just a hoax. However, there are more rumours and he needs to be sure because if there were vampires it would mean the Last Judgement is beginning and the mere idea makes him sweat sulphur for fear of his near end. Thus, he awaits the result of the re-enactment of Count Wittgenau’s last known hours with certain tension…

Although the story of Fear and His Servant evokes a vampire hunt from the alternating points of view of two first-person narrators who are both rather unreliable, it serves primarily as background for their character studies. The one, the – actually rather human – Devil himself, who tells his version of what just happened isn’t particularly dependable by his very nature as great deceiver and the other, the love-craving princess, looks back on events from a distance of almost half a century making her eye-witness account no more trustworthy than her memory. In addition, their accounts alternate quite arbitrarily, sometimes even imperceptibly until a couple of paragraphs into the new section thus adding to the confusion of the story itself. The timeline of the plot is broken ever again because past and future regularly ooze into its present through stories, quotations and allusions in the Devil’s report, but also through the names of characters reminding of celebrities born long after the eighteenth century like the last Austrian Emperor’s son Otto von Habsburg (Hausburg) or the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (Wittgenau). The author’s language is clear, unpretentious and to the point with always a substantial dash of irony that makes it an amusing read.

To read Fear and His Servant by Mirjana Novaković was a bizarre and slightly confusing experience, but overall I found the novel entertaining, even funny, although I don’t care much for vampire fiction. In fact, I’ve always been more interested in the real people and events that inspired such stories than in what writers made of them. My English edition of the books lacks an introduction or an afterword stating that the novel was in any way based on true historical events, but I know that it must be loosely. It’s known that in the 1700s a commission led by an imperial physician investigated vampirism in Serbia (and other places under Austrian rule at the time) and if I’m not mistaken, it also served Bram Stoker as inspiration for his famous Dracula. Fear and His Servant might not stand comparison with this classic, but it was certainly a worthwhile read.

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