Colleagues are wonderful things: you can have a casual conversation in passing one morning and suddenly discover that the person you catch sight of every so often in the canteen or say hello to on the stairs is an expert in a whole host of subjects you know nothing about. Over my time freelancing at newspaper and magazine offices in and around central London, I’ve shared water coolers with salsa dancers, filmmakers, fell runners, actors, poets, and many more besides.
In a place like London, colleagues can also be a great source of information about books from other countries. And so, when I discovered that Tijana who sat behind me for a time at the Guardian was Serbian and a booklover to boot, I lost no time in asking her for suggestions.
Tijana went one better than simply giving me a list of recommendations. On a trip home a few months later, she picked out a translation of a book she had enjoyed and posted it to me. And so it was that I found myself clutching a copy of Srđjan Valjarević’s intriguingly titled Lake Como.
The novel follows a Serbian writer who takes up a Rockefeller scholarship for a month-long residency at the luxurious Villa Maranese by Lake Como in Italy. Surrounded by academics, thinkers and artists on similar bursaries, the protagonist, who is there on the pretext of writing a novel, spends his days sleeping, getting drunk, watching football and chatting up a waitress in a local bar. He seems destined to fritter his time away, yet as the weeks pass his observations and interactions with the people around him take on a meaning that in many ways transcends the work he might have done on his own.
Frank, irreverent and at ease with his shortcomings, Valjarević’s protagonist is an extremely likeable character. Whether he is describing his part in the application process for the scholarship – ‘I was drinking beer as I wrote a short outline of the novel, I made it all up, and my friend Vlada translated it into English and then corresponded with them for a while instead of me’ – or the fabrications he uses to get out of the centre’s dreary cultural evenings and concerts, the hero is refreshingly honest and often very funny.
Such humour is just the tool Valjarević needs to puncture the earnestness of the Villa Maranese and reveal the absurdity of much that goes on there. Whether he is dodging the fierce questions of the Kyrgyz literature expert determined to press-gang him into giving a lecture, sympathising with the Nigerian poet who has travelled all the way from Africa only to spend his residency laid up with back pain, or taking advantage of his peers’ simplistic assumptions about the horror of his life back in Belgrade, the hero’s interactions show up the surreal elements and contradictions that lie beneath the worthy veneer of life at the Villa Maranese. Perhaps most telling of all is the chapter where the writer invites the waitress and his other friends from the village to dinner at the house and discovers that, despite living next door to the fabulous grounds, they have never before been able to go inside.
Yet the novel is far from a hatchet job on pompous cultural schemes. Indeed, the paradox at the heart of the book is that, despite his ostensible abuse of the terms of his scholarship, the writer gains much of value during his residency: he makes meaningful connections, both with people in the village and with several fellow guests; he has moments of transcendent experience, from seeing a golden eagle to hearing the tune of bells in a town he can no longer visit played by another resident; and he begins to re-evaluate the way he lives.
The result is a moving and surprisingly searching consideration of nationality, art, identity, culture and human endeavour. It is at once one of the funniest books I’ve read this year and one of the most profound. If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s well worth the effort.
Lake Como (Komo) by Srđjan Valjarević, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić (Geopoetika Publishing, Belgrade, 2009)