Thursday, January 5, 2012

"The bicycle is a vertical vehicle. . ."

The Cyclist Conspiracy
By Svetislav Basara
Translated from Serbian by Randall A. Major
280 pages
Open Letter Books
March 20, 2012

. . . If we look at a simplified graphic representation of the bicycle, we can see that the device has an abundance of religious symbols; two wheels, two circles, symbolizing the two faulty infinities (time and space) connected by the true eternity of the Trinity, represented by the triangle of the frame. At the same time, when represented like this, the bicycle has the shape of metaphysical glasses with which it is possible to correct spiritual myopia. But that is not all. If we take a birds-eye perspective (which is the viewpoint of the Holy Ghost), the bicycle has the shape of a cross, where the handlebars are the crossbars of the cross. A man who rides a bicycle is, in fact, crucifying himself. (214-215)

Svetislav Basara (1953-), former Serbian ambassador to Cyprus, is also a major figure in contemporary Serbian literature, having authored dozens of novels, essays, plays, and short stories. In 2006 he received the NIN Award for his novel The Rise and Fall of Parkinson’s Disease. At this time, only two of Basara's works are available in English: the novels Chinese Letter (1985) and The Cyclist Conspiracy (1988).

Fama o biciklistima (The Cyclist Conspiracy) is a patchwork compilation of historical documents, scholarly papers, photographs, short stories, and poetry concerning the Order of the Evangelical Bicyclists, an esoteric, transhistorical cabal that meets secretly in dreams. Psychoanalysis combines with Plato and Augustine's City of God in a theology that knows no temporal restraints, manipulating history from the future in a plot to reunite humanity and the heavens. Chronological time figures prominently as a social construct that locks the unenlightened into regimented rigidity; a favorite recurring activity of the Little Brothers is the smashing of public clocks as they speed through European capitals on their sacred vehicles. To the Little Brothers, as the cyclists call themselves, the waking world as essentially broken, an invisible prison that enslaves human souls to corrupt worldly institutions. To consolidate and subsequently purge the evil plaguing the City of Man, the Evangelical Bicyclists are seeking to construct a Grand Insane Asylum for some 20,000,000 patients - an inverted Tower of Babel that lies partly underground.

Though largely metaphysical, The Cyclist Conspiracy also bears the influence of twentieth-century Yugoslavian and Eastern European history, with Stalin as the emblem of ultimate capitulation to the world of "technology": the brutish social order of government, institutions, and science that "lies in opposition to the real world" as "nothing other than a false world, the world of deception" (92). Basara is quite satirical on this subject. The exalted goals of the Evangelical Bicyclists are at times expressed in terms of violence and destruction, as seen in the fictional Serbian journals Vidici and Student (which appear as the subjects of an academic article). As parodies of those underground political rags put out by angry radicals, Vidici and Student, despite their Nietzschean overtones, seem to recall the promises of communism that culminated in Soviet totalitarianism. Rich irony lies in the disparity between utopianism and its means. The Grand Insane Asylum is, after all, a "hospital . . . structured like a country and all its citizens are only potentially crazy" (260). One is reminded of the internment of Soviet political prisoners in mental hospitals under contrived diagnoses (such as "sluggishly progressing schizophrenia") that began under Stalin's regime.

That the world of technology (or Augustine's City of Man) is one of chaos is probably Basara's point, as a contrasted to the perfected realm of God that we glimpse only through the lens of our fallen nature. As one high-ranking Little Brother explains to a neophyte:
"I can't help you get rid of your prejudices because even what I know belongs to the sphere of prejudice. Actually, they are at a higher level, but that doesn't change anything, if you're climbing the stairs leading to eternity, it is absolutely the same if you are at n + 1 or n + 25. No one knows the real purpose of our Order. No one can tell you whether we are doing good or evil. We're simply doing what we have to. You should know that the Order is more of an interesting hypothesis than an organized institution or power. That's good, too. That is the power of our community that has been maintained for a thousand years, due to the fact that it has never been constituted and, let's say, it hardly exists at all; it was created to not exist, but to disappear. A rigid organization only offers the illusion of strength, but it is not strength." (136-137)
The Order is nebulous because it is a manifestation of humanity's perpetual search for transcendence. The bicycle is essentially a dadaist symbol (dada originally being French for "hobbyhorse") reflecting the absurdity of trying to conceptualize the divine in tangible form, an undertaking that is never anything but subjective and prone to acrimonious debate. The Cyclist Conspiracy broaches such lofty regions and builds itself a labyrinth of possibilities surrounding unknowable things. It is a difficult, Borgesian work overall, and not one likely to have broad appeal. Still, its thought-provoking creativity is rewarding and every reader is guaranteed a different interpretation.

Review Copy


@parridhlantern said...

This is a book that has really appealed since I read about it on Open Letters, Just love the idea of this vast conspiracy that has influenced historical moments
and as a keen obsessional cyclist this has another layer of interest for me :~}

Anonymous said...

I also like Gary like the sound of this book it has that eastern european oddness ,last serbian book I read was hidden camera ,all the best stu

Eileen said...

Parrish: Yes, I'm a big cycling enthusiast myself. I am car-free and live in an urban area so I'm always either walking or riding. I actually posted this review on the Facebook page for the cycling group I'm part of. They had enjoyed the two excerpts I posted in the past.

Stu: I actually found this one more Borgesian than anything else. I've heard, though, the part of Europe with the most oddness is Scandinavia - something about the gray northern climate.

LMR said...

Your review has persuaded me to give this one a try. It sounds absurdly incredible!

Anonymous said...

I delight in, cause I found just what I was taking a look for. You have ended my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye
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