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‘No-Signal Area’: a piercing novel on the villains and victims of capitalism

‘No-Signal Area’: a piercing novel on the villains and victims of capitalism
Image: Ike Okwudiafor

19 June 2020

In No-Signal Area, Croatian writer Robert Perišić wants to unsettle his readers. Information is sparse: we are in the town of N. in a former Yugoslav republic, but we aren’t told which one. Reception is patchy: our sense of time is negotiated by events on TV (the Arab Spring, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan), as opposed to hard data. We are given only fragments of dialogue like a phone call dipping in and out of good service. It’s the feeling of being “nowhere, yet trapped” as one character suggests. It’s the feeling of being stuck inside a system, oppressive in its intangibility. It’s the ideal arena for Perišić to write about capitalism, whose survival depends on a tacit concealment.

Two men, Oleg and his cousin Nikola, arrive in N. Remote and derelict, N. has the atmosphere of a Western film set: its inhabitants, most of whom are unemployed, drink at the incongruously-named Blue Lagoon bar; the town’s playground is stripped bare save for a creaky seesaw. Products of the region’s first capitalist generation, Oleg and Nikola intend to revive an obsolete turbine factory. They have agreed a sale for two turbines with a North African leader currently under Western sanctions, information they keep secret from the workers and the prying media. They promise the workers revival, success and the freedom to run the factory as they please in a vague gesture echoing the policies of “self-management” that existed during socialist Yugoslavia. This is not a gesture born of socialst nostalgia, but rather a cover story for Oleg and Nikola’s ignorance. After all, the best view of capitalism is from the comfort of the boardroom.

The scheming duo’s energy is reminiscent of Irimias and Petrina, conspirators-in-chief of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s masterpiece, Satantango, in which they convince the inhabitants of a remote hamlet to give up their possessions and follow them into the unknown, promising wealth and happiness. Though Satantango takes place in the Hungarian countryside, and No-Signal Area is set across the former Yugoslavia, their respective settings share a similar self-contained unknowability, a nowhere-ness that renders these worlds impenetrable, static, in limbo. Just as we struggle to see inside, they too find themselves dislocated from their surroundings. These are ripe conditions for the poor and vulnerable to be swayed by charismatic swindlers.

Identity here is something to be bought and sold, to be tried on for size, and exchanged

As the workers trudge back to the factory, we are introduced to a cast of men, bruised and battered by war. On the war itself, Perišić holds some distance, describing its texture (“evil spread like a virus among the warring parties”) as opposed to naming specific events or sides. War victims, however, bear their scars prominently. There’s Sobotka, the chief engineer, who’s cut off from his family, Branoš and Erol, who both became embroiled in some unsavoury business during the war, and Slavko, the local madman. As the narrative delves back into their respective stories — hopping from one year to another, from one voice to a second — their return to the factory slowly becomes understood as an act of refuge, a way to reckon with a traumatic past and, perhaps, find a way out of limbo. “Just because something happened, it doesn’t mean it is over,” writes Sobotka in a letter to his daughter, which constitutes one of the book’s most arresting passages. “You have to go back to the past, like in a dream, to touch them, to unfreeze them like the machines in the factory.”

Is this a form of consent from Sobotko and the workers, a willingness to be used professionally, in order to recover personally? Does it make Oleg and Nikola’s project any less unethical? This power dynamic is further complicated by the ambiguity over who is actually in charge at the factory — them or the workers. But that’s what Perišić is trying to show us. Within a system such as capitalism, it is near impossible to choose to be either a victim, or a perpetrator. You have to sign up to both. “Only decent men and murderers look at you directly,” Oleg observes, reminding us the line between good and evil is often not a line at all.

Perišić is excellent on the flimsiness of identity, its artifice, positioning it as a material that can be melted down, reworked and reshaped to suit the audience. “He would’ve circled,” the narrator writes of Nikola, “twisted everything around, until eventually even he wouldn’t know what he was talking about, or who he was representing – himself, or a version of himself for public consumption.” Identity here is something to be bought and sold, to be tried on for size, and exchanged, if something better comes along. Isn’t that capitalism’s promise? Later, his girlfriend Šeila, offers a more trenchant breakdown of things: “You came here, you acted like good capitalists, and now you’ve already gotten used to playing the role… It may be time to take off the mask.”

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In the latter half of the book, Sobotka discovers a pile of letters from Slavko’s daughter, Nedra, who, though suspected of insanity herself, might offer us a more truthful characterisation of identity: “I exists and does not exist” she summises, exhibiting an appreciation for nuance, which Oleg and Nikola lack. Nedra’s letters are written in overflowing, elaborate sentences (expertly translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać), and in them, we find possible clues to what Perišić is really getting at, namely: self-delusion as an escape from the struggle of reality. “The only way you can explain yourself is by lying, so everything tends to be explained by recourse to lying… everything is a phantasm, everything that was and everything that is, and nothing is easier than going crazy, stepping aside and saying nothing, walking your dog,” writes Nedra. Perišić’s writing here bends towards disorder, in a style that once again recalls Krasznahorkai and his expansive prose. But what the book loses in form, it clarifies in meaning. Through Nedra’s letters, Perišić collapses the very world he created, and reveals a difficult truth at the core of existence. For isn’t Nedra, and the book, really asking: to what extent can we remain in the discomfort of light, before retreating into darkness? To what extent can we face the world as it is, and not as we want it to be?

The epigraph to Satantango reads: “In that case, I’ll miss the thing by waiting for it.” If only Oleg and Nikola had read this at the start of their journey. For in the final pages of No-Signal Area, Oleg – whose whereabouts and safety have become a cause for concern – delivers a similar thought in an email to Nikola: “I wasn’t in the light enough,” he laments. It is a profoundly regretful, poetic, and sharp statement all at once, as if Oleg suddenly realises he’s been chasing shadows all along. No-Signal Area, like Our Man in Iraq, Perišić’s greatly acclaimed first novel, depicts a region transitioning from socialism to capitalism, with wit, insight and grace. But it is Perišić’s grasp of human self-delusion, fear, and denial, that makes No-Signal Area a timeless, stateless work, that beckons its readers to step into the light.

No-Signal Area was translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać, and published by Seven Stories Press. Get your copy here.

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