This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website. I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.
Sisoye was finally made a member of the Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences.He just needed to deliver his inaugural speech and he would at last be admitted to those hallowed halls.
Sisoye has been waiting for this day for many years. He has prepared his speech well in advance, and knows exactly what he will say, how it will be received, and with what manner his colleagues will congratulate him. Finally, finally, all his associates throughout the years who put him down and pushed him down will see that he is, in fact, something of a scientific genius.
But not only a scientific genius. The protagonist of Blaže Minevski’s Academician Sisoye’s Inaugural Speech (trans. Will Firth) is a complex fellow, not exactly likeable, one suspects, as a friend, but enjoyable to observe, much in the way one would not wish Basil Fawlty as a friend or close relation, but he’s certainly hilarious to observe from a distance. Sisoye is superstitious, preening, proud to a fault, erratic in his thoughts and bizarre in his sciences. He believes the reason lions know to eat monkeys to improve their health (ie to consume food to stay alive) is because these lions have, somewhere deep inside, atoms that were once inside a physician. Oh yes, and that’s part of his speech…
Apart from atoms, which were his particular professional purview, Sisoye also loved to interpret sounds and signs in space, particularly birds in flight, the barking of dogs – the secret pathways of dreams…He believed that if the front door creaked, or a west-facing window, or if you accidentally broke some household object, someone in the family would die; if a hen crowed like a rooster and peeked in through your door, someone in the family would die; if a raven circled over your house, like that one wheeling over that house there, the one with the stone wall, someone there would soon die; while if a raven cawed in the morning, whoever heard it first would have bad luck, or else there would be some misfortune in his house…
And on it goes. Sisoye is a man who doesn’t believe in God, only atoms, but nonetheless is superstitious enough to cross himself every now and again in case it serves him well in the future. As can be seen from the above, he is morbidly obsessed with death, convinced that most everything is a sign that someone nearby, often a relative, will surely soon die.
Minevski hints early on that perhaps Sisoye is unwell, that his paranoiac ideas and bouts of forgetfulness are in fact symptomatic of something larger, but these hints remain minor, buried amongst the bizarreness of Sisoye’s excited preparations for his inaugural speech. And the speech, when it comes, is brilliant, filled with scientific words but completely, utterly deranged and lacking in any merit whatsoever. A taste:
”In other words, dear colleagues, all of you, all of us, are only reincarnations, and ephemeral ones at that. When we die, our atoms will dissociate as when you scramble a Rubik’s Cube; they will go off to seek new configurations in other places, becoming part of a leaf, or the eye of a woman, or a tiny droplet of dew. None of us know if we bear within us an atom of a fly that died a thousand years ago or an atom from the pumpkin that the wife of Kosan, the scribe of the Macedonian King Vukashin, baked between her torrid thighs in 1366. Atoms do not die,” Sisoye stressed.
Is it any surprise when, at the end of the speech, Sisoye crowns his address by declaring that the “dear colleagues” are in fact floating above their chairs due to the electrons in their bodies repulsing with the chair’s, and then the colleagues, stunned into silence or bursting into laughter, fly off into the distance? Well yes, it is, until – but that can come later.
Minevski’s story is sectioned into “Introduction”, “The Speech”, “Appendix”, “Epilogue”, “Bibliography” and “Acknowledgements”. For a 9 page story, six discrete sections seem like overkill, but on the other hand, how typically academic. We are exhorted in the opening sentences to check the Epilogue to discover the unpredictable events surrounding Sisoye’s speech, and then immediately nudged toward reading the story linearly, start-to-finish. The narrator states, “when one knows the end, one should also know the beginning”. What games are being played here?
A metafictive game, it turns out, and a very fun one at that. We learn through the epilogue that this story is just that, a story, a piece of fiction based on the bizarre and unexpected death of Sisoye immediately prior to the expected beginning time of his inaugural academic letter. Slavko Sivakov, who is referenced throughout as Sisoye’s “enemy”, is in fact more of a friend, and it he who discovers the notes to Sisoye’s speech. Along with the notes is a story, the story of the speech (which obviously appears in the section titled “The Speech”) – but the rest is a creation of Sivakov’s designed to explain to himself and others exactly what happened to Sisoye prior to his death. Minevski’s game is to rapidly shift the narrative perspective of the story, opening with an omniscient narrator who quickly becomes Sisoye, who then shifts (somewhat jarringly) to Sivakov, and then, right at the end, the narrator above all these narrators is revealed as (probably) Minevski. It’s a dazzling effort, and succeeds rather well thanks to the clear delineation of style and perspective that the different sections provide. Added to that, Minevski strikes the exact right tone in skewering the at time pompous requirements of academia, thanking and mentioning authors in the “Bibliography” section who were absolutely never utilised within any of the other sections, but – my doesn’t it do well for an academic’s resume to add a few references to his belt?
Academician Sisoye’s Inaugural Speech is a lot of fun and, whether you enjoy literary games or not, there is a great deal of pleasure to be found within the text. Minevski strikes the right balance in making Sisoye odd but not too; Firth’s deft handling of the many shifts in tone and narration should also be commended. The overall effect is one of great comedy, never unintentionally jarring (though it is successfully intentionally jarring a few times), and there are a lot of laughs throughout.
|Title||Academician Sisoye’s Inaugural Speech|
|Publisher||Dalkey Archive Press|
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press’ anthology, Best European Fiction 2011, include:
—United Kingdom: Welsh: Roberts, Wiliam Owen – The Professionals
—United Kingdom: British: Mantel, Hilary – The Heart Fails Without Warning
—Turkish: Üldes, Ersan – Professional Behaviour
—Swiss: Stefan, Verena – Doe a Deer
—Spanish: Catalan: Ibarz, Mercé – Nela and the Virgins
—Spanish: Castilian: Vila-Matas, Enrique – Far From Here
—Slovenian: Jančar, Drago – The Prophecy
—Serbian: Arsenijević, Vladimir – One Minute: Dumbo’s Death
—Russian: Gelasimov, Andre – The Evil Eye
—Romanian: Teodorovici, Lucian Dan – Goose Chase
—Portuguese: Tavares, Gonçalo M. – Six Tales
—Polish: Tokarczuk, Olga – The Ugliest Woman in the World
—Norwegian: Grytten, Frode – Hotel by a Railroad
—Netherlands: Uphoff, Manon – Desire
—Montenegrin: Spahić, Ognjen – Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead
—Moldovan: Ciocan, Iulian – Auntie Frosea
Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.