Review – Mirjana Novaković – Fear and Servant (trans. Terence McEneny)

This review was originally published on the Quarterly Conversation website in 2010.  The website no longer exists, so I have decided to extract it from there and publish it here.

In the years since Count Otto van Hausberg last visited Belgrade, the Austrian-ruled city seems to have changed, and not for the better. Fog and mist have settled around the city walls, and everywhere there is talk of murder, rebellion, and death. And in the twenty years since his last visit (or is it thirty? or more? the Count is never quite clear on the matter) the stench of vampires has come to Belgrade. Hausberg is unsure whether these vampires are real, which means the Last Judgement is approaching, or if they are fake, which means that he, Satan, has made a foolish mistake in wasting his time hunting the simple dead.

Satan? Perhaps. In the opening pages to Fear and Servant, Serbian author Mirjana Novaković supplies sufficient evidence to suggest that Otto van Hausberg is Satan. Hausberg possesses intimate memories of Gethsemane and Christ’s fall, he has a certain smell of brimstone, and is accompanied by a seemingly demonic servant. Yet a few pages later this evidence is undermined by Hausberg’s fears, his seeming mortality, his lack of any explicit power, and his shock when others take his Infernal Self seriously. So is Hausberg Satan, or merely man?

Therein lies the rub. Throughout Fear and Servant the question of truth and identity are continually raised. Hausberg is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, demanding and expecting reliability and seriousness from those around him while consistently feeding the reader a series of half-truths, exaggerations, sleight-of-hand stories and, most often, qualifications that seem to shed greater light on a previous topic, while simultaneously clouding others. He refers to himself as the devil and is pleased when others recognise his infernal powers, but when he is required to act or be an immortal figure of evil, he becomes afraid, vacillates, and often flees. He fears being wounded; there is a brief clue, buried in a long paragraph, that indicates he suspects another devil has come to Belgrade as well. But how could that be true? “The time I have spent among the rabble of mankind,” Hausberg says, “has taught me that people love and enjoy nothing so much as their belief that a lie is in fact the truth.”

The early seventeenth century aristocracy in charge of Belgrade welcome Hausber to their city, and invite him to an upcoming ball. Naturally, this ball requires a costume, which adds to the pervading sense of falsehood. Hausberg dresses as the devil, and becomes startled when, again, people take him seriously and refer to him as such.

During the extended ball sequence, we are introduced to our second narrator, who tells us that she is “Maria Augusta, Princess of Thurn und Taxis, wife of Prince Alexander of Württemberg, the former regent of Serbia.” This is true, but much of the rest of her story may not be, for many of the details clash with Hausberg’s perspective of the events. Our two narrators soon travel to Dedinaberg, where there have been indications of vampires killing at night. The aristocracy in Belgrade believe there are vampires yet don’t’ take their existence particularly seriously; their reaction is similar to, say, an attack from a stray wolf. Now that Novaković has brought her narrators together, the essence of the novel becomes clearer. In the complex play of Hausberg’s and the princess’s versions of lie and truth, the story changes from a mere hunt for vampires to an extended examination of the nature of good and evil. As the hunt for vampires continues, Novaković is careful to provide equal amounts of evidence to suggest they are real as not, which feeds into Hausberg’s that, if they are real, the Last Judgement is near and he lacks sufficient power to win against God.

Fear and Servant is Mirjana Novaković’s second published work, and her first novel. This novel, which was shortlisted for Serbia’s NIN literary prize and received the Isidora Sekulić Award. Was followed by Novaković’s second novel, Johann’s 501, a dystopic vision of Belgrade, its citizens drugged and obsessed with the occult. In all of her literature, Novaković struggles with the fluctuating truth of language and its inability to accurately portray reality, due in part to the inherent instability of a world which shifts according to each individual’s perception of it, but also thanks to the inherently unstable nature of language and communication.

Fear and Servant has been published in English Geopoetika’s Serbian Literature in Translation series, though the book is not yet available in most English-reading nations (the United States included). Titles in the series include well-established authors such as Svetislav Basara and Zoran Živković, as well as upcoming and emerging authors.

As Hausberg himself notes, not everything is as simple as its surface would indicate:

Men and women who never blanch at acts of evil cannot bring themselves to face Evil Itself. I’ve often wondered why. Of course they’re mistaken in believing me to be evil through and through, as if there were nothing else to me. They don’t understand, the foolish creatures: if I were pure evil, I would be God. Because God is God so that He might be nothing but good, and that is the same as being nothing but evil.

If all the world is, as Novaković suggests, a composite of varying and disagreeing truths, then the balance of the world is mostly lies and thus belongs to Satan. Toward the end of the novel this concept is made explicit during a parable where God direct his Angels to paint, on the Seventh Day of Creation, a canvas showing how this newly created world should be. Satan (then, of course, still Lucifer) paints the story of the ages, beginning with primeval forces and ending with the locomotive and electricity. In judging the paintings, God takes note of Lucifer’s effort, but ultimately he determines that Michael’s work, which is a blank canvas, is the best, purest and most true representation of the world as it should be. Lucifer, rebelling, becomes Satan, and the world is written into being. Novaković’s suggestion is that Satan is the closest and most knowable deity, while God is too aloof to properly understand the tragedies and failures of mortal existence. This is reflected in Fear and Servant, where Satan is virtually identical to everyone else in terms of power and influence; the primary difference is his memory, which is long and dwells quite often on the sacrifice of “Fishmouth” (his name for Jesus), and his capacity for reasoning and thought, which makes him, as the princess points out, similar to the many philosophers who vie for her attention at court. Satan, then, is us, though slightly enhanced, and, because he is knowable, ultimately more appealing than God.

Much like in José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which portrayed God as unknowable, uncaring, and willing to sacrifice his son to ensure the ascendancy of Christianity in the coming centuries, in Fear and Servant Novaković makes of Satan a sympathetic figure, putting him forth as the progenitor of the arts, particularly of literature, and also showing him to be the only one of the two who actually has a concern for the acts of mortal man. Hausberg constantly refers to works of literature and art that he could not, as a 17th century Count, possibly know, including Moby Dick, Tolstoy and, most tellingly, Charles Kinbote from Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Hausberg notes that art must have been created by evil, for it purports to present lies as truth, and offers a prism upon the world which by definition must be artificial and thus false. Yet at the same time art provides man with a glimpse of what is beautiful, good and true, in stark contrast to the world around us, darkening our reality while brightening the sublime. How could this complex interplay of truth and lie, argues Satan, be anything but my own creation, and not God’s? Lest the novel come across as a heavy-handed essay on theology, truth and art, however, one should be reminded that, at its heart, Fear and Servant is the story of the hunt for vampires, and the violence and terror that such a hunt brings.

Fear and Servant offers an apologia for Satan while excoriating God. The goodness of God is not, in fact, an achievable aim for a flawed human being; instead, the qualities of both God and Satan must be harmonised. In the end the vampires are as real as one would wish, and so too concerning Hausberg as Satan. Read as though he is, Fear and Servant offers an extended retelling of Christ’s death and the complex relationship between Satan, God, and the world. Read as though he isn’t and Hausberg becomes a somewhat mad Count whose thoughts on art and literature demand attention, and whose beliefs in God have become fractured following the dark history of central Europe during the 17th century.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s