How to Quiet a Vampire by Borislav Pekic
The literary world is full of unreliable narrators, but one of the least trustworthy ones I’ve come across has to that of this very remarkable book! Written by Serbian author Borislav Pekic, it was one of my Christmas bookish gifts and it certainly is an extraordinary read. I was hesitant about picking it up at the moment, as it looked to be a long and involving read (it was!); however, when I noticed that it was dedicated to Danilo Kis (whom I reviewed here) I was hooked…
First, a few words about Pekic. Born in Yugoslavia in 1930, much of his youth was spent moving around following his father’s work (the latter being a high-ranking official who also worked for the police). In his teens he hit a rebellious streak which led to clashes with the authorities and imprisonment. Prison affected his health and despite marriage plus a career in screenwriting, he was always at odds with the regime. He began to write novels which reached a wide audience, but the late 1960s were a period of much change in Yugoslavia and eventually in 1971 he was able to emigrate to London, where he spent the rest of his life, eventually passing away there in 1992. “How to Quiet a Vampire” was first published in his native language in 1977 and this wonderful English-language version, translated from the Serbian by Stephen M. Dickey and Bogdan Rakic, appeared in 2005.
“Vampire” tells the story of one professor Konrad Rutkowski: in 1943 he was an apparently unwilling member of the Gestapo, stationed in D (Dubrovnik?) and, he claims, trying to save as many prisoners from the Germans as he could; in 1965, he returns to D and begins a journey into his past, trying to justify his behaviour and exonerate himself. Sounds simple enough, but this is most certainly not a simple book. For a start, it’s structured as a series of letters sent by Rutkowski to his hated brother-in-law Hilmer; the letters are apparently edited and annotated by one Borislav Pekic, who has also taken it upon himself to consult a number of specialists on the subject of Rutkowski’s sanity. And then there is the philosophy….
Each letter has been titled to correspond to a particular philosopher and way of western thought; and the book ends with a pair of treatises by Rutkowski on his beliefs. All this adds up to a rich and complex work that takes a fair amount of commitment but yields fascinating rewards. But what’s all this about umbrellas? We’ll see…
So the bulk of the book consists of the 26 letters and these vary in tone according to the mental state of our Konrad. He and wife Sabina are visiting D for a break while Rutkowski finishes a historical work he is writing. Amazingly enough, they’re staying at a hotel which is actually the building that was the Gestapo headquarters back in 1943. Flashbacks starts hitting Rutkowski immediately, as he recalls his nemesis Steinbrecher (which translates as “stone breaker”) – his commander in the Gestapo and a rigid and tricky man capable of talking anybody into believing anything or confessing anything. A cold, hard, logical man, he typifies how we think of a Gestapo man and he’s utterly merciless in how he deals with either his staff or his prisoners.
As the Germans enter D, they take over the old headquarters of the previous occupying force of Italians and start to Germanize it. However, they find they have inherited a prisoner – one Adam Trpkovic, who will become another nemesis for Rutkowski, and is a minor municipal clerk who’s sitting in a cell with a large black umbrella. As the letters progress, it becomes clear that Adam’s fate will not be a good one, particularly when we find that not only is he being inappropriately memorialized in his local town, but also that he does not intend to let Rutkowski’s conscience rest easy. The story flips between past and present as Rutkowski attempts to exculpate himself, but despite his stated intention to try and get Adam released, events are very much out of his control.
To say more about the plot would be to give away too much, as there are plenty of surprises and unexpected twists in the narrative, right up to the very last page (a trait I do love in books). And despite the layers of philosophy, this is a surprisingly gripping book which really keeps you reading to find out what’s going to happen next. Rutkowski himself is brilliantly portrayed, with his changing mental states convincing and chilling. His wife Sabina is a shadowy figure, but her brother Hilmar, about whom certain things are revealed as the narrative goes along, seems to have as much to be guilty about as Konrad does. Both men deal in history as their trade, and both seem to want to use it, manipulate it or forget it in different ways
We’re proceeding – or should I say hurtling – into the future as innocent as children! Let’s shake off the dust of history from our clothes at the threshold of a new age! Let’s await a new insanity stripped of confusing memories of our old insanity. As far as I’m concerned, I can only wish you a nice journey down that road, and that on it you won’t find yourself facing once again the same tests that we failed back in 1933 and 1939.
So what actually is the book about? Well, a number of things really. Crucial to the narrative is human behaviour to other humans, particularly under a totalitarian regime (and this could be the Nazis under discussion or in fact that of Yugoslavia, from which Pekic had just fled.) “Vampire” shows brilliantly the absurdities of totalitarian double-think, particularly in one of the appendices, which purports to be the transcript of an interrogation by Steinbrecher of a suspected spy. The Nazi is able to twist words and logic in a terrifying manner so that whatever the suspect does, he will never be able to talk himself out of the inevitable verdict.
There’s also the subject of free will and choice, and discussion of whether we (or anybody else) put in the position of Rutkowski and co would be able to make different choices. The point is made subtly that the people sucked into Nazism were educated men, many of whom after the war returned to their posts in Universities and the like (after perhaps serving a prison sentence of some sort…) And however badly the collaborators behave, there is, alarmingly enough, always a philosophy available to help them justify the worst possible kind of behaviour.
It’s a cynical and dark viewpoint, condemning most of western philosophy, which leaves you with not much hope for the future of humanity; particularly in our modern world with reports of atrocities and horrors on the news every day. As Rutkowski says at one point, “There’s no doubt that we’re only the product of our environments, and that the difference between a cannibal and a humanist lies in the kind of training.”
However, there are the other elements in “Vampire” which make it unusual and readable and not just a catalogue of torture and violence. Surprisingly, there is a little comedy – for example, at one point Rutkowski describes his unit as looking like “an extraordinarily dangerous company of retired university professors who had escaped from an insane asylum disguised in Gestapo uniforms.” And as Rutkowski slides in and out of madness, the events he claims to have witnessed become more and more bizarre. There are also metafictional levels in which the author becomes a necessary character in his own book, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.
Ah yes; the umbrella…. This item, possessed by Adam and with him until the end, comes to symbolise much for Rutkowski, somehow becoming the incarnation of evil. He fights against this for a while, stating “The healthy, rational core of my intellect rebelled against the idea that in 1943, amid the tumult of a bloody war, a crooked umbrella was strolling through the world and increasing the general misery on its own initiative.” However, the particular umbrella in question, and umbrellas or parasols in general, will become an important part of the story – more I shall not say because I’d hate to lessen the impact …
You’re one of those who’ll be saying tomorrow that you were only following orders.
The time at which I believe the book was written, the early 1970s, is relevant. The Second World War was still a recent memory; many of the communist regimes were starting to show cracks, as more and more protests against restrictions took place; and trials were still taking place of those involved in holocaust atrocities. Against this background, Pekic takes us into the mind of a number of people who were involved in the last great conflict and asks whether we have learned from the mistakes of history or whether we are to be condemned to repeat it; and the philosophy quoted indicates rather frighteningly that we’ve learned nothing.
I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is an important work, one which lost me a little sometimes in the philosophical sections but which nevertheless is a necessary read. “Vampire” is a difficult book but worth it, for its powerful mixture of philosophy, drama and surreality.The world of Konrad Rutkowski is not an enjoyable or pleasant one, but it needs to be explored if we ever want to have a chance of rising above the morass of human existence.
Just as a little aside, the book is subtitled “A Sotie” – no, I didn’t know what that meant either. Apparently it’s an old word for a short satirical play. Well, satirical this certainly is, even if it’s not short and not really a play!