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The Montenegrin political novel: dark thrillers, melodrama, and the decadence of the rich and the powerful

The Montenegrin political novel: dark thrillers, melodrama, and the decadence of the rich and the powerful
Image: Robin van Holst via Unsplash

27 August 2020

When the population of Montenegro voted by a narrow margin in 2006 to cede from the last manifestation of Yugoslavia (“Serbia and Montenegro”), there was an air of euphoria in the pro-independence camp and in many Western countries. Europe’s newest state was born, renewing the Montenegrin sovereignty of 1878-1918, gained after fighting against the Ottoman Empire.

Soon after seceding from the joint state with Serbia, Montenegro applied for membership in the EU and joined NATO in 2017. These moves were controversial with many of the country’s ethnic Serbs — 28 per cent of the population — who objected to NATO membership. Serbia considers Montenegro part of its sphere of influence, as does Russia, a longtime Serbian ally. An attempted Russia-orchestrated coup took place in Montenegro in 2016. Meanwhile, a new law adopted in late 2019 to regulate the status of churches and other religious property riled the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church, leading to protests and a diplomatic cold war between Belgrade and Podgorica.

Authors living in the country certainly have a lot to write about, leading to a new wave of socially-critical fiction. The Calvert Journal has picked three pioneering novels at the vanguard of this new trend, dealing with the capital-P political system: parliament, parties, and the web of forces behind the scenes.

Paranoia in Podgorica by Balša Brković

Born in Podgorica in 1966, Balša Brković is a journalist, author, poet, and political activist. His 2010 novel Paranoia in Podgorica, subtitled “Noir from the Noughties”, was an immediate success and sold over 10,000 copies in its first few months alone. Noir is an appropriate epithet for this very readable novel, which is a blend of dark political thriller, literary humour, and full-on social critique.

The story is told by the protagonist, Maks, a one-time teacher and now librarian, who likes a slow start to the day, browsing the newspaper and drinking a few espressos after a joint. He lives with his devoted girlfriend Vilma, a culinary journalist and de-luxe caterer. But Maks is unwittingly drawn into a vortex of intrigue, with the mysterious murder of an opposition-minded professor and its unravelling making up the storyline.

The plot thickens when a former student of Maks’s tells him that a young woman found dead with the professor was his girlfriend. Later, the student himself is found dead too.

The best parts of the novel are those that describe the debauched and orgiastic party scenes which take place under the influence of “modified marijuana” (a wink to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which apparently inspired Brković’s choice of title).

Brković‘s work points to state-organised cigarette smuggling, corruption, police who blackmail or eliminate unpleasant witnesses, and the decadence of the rich and powerful. The novel seems to have shocked figures who recognised themselves in it, and it has been ignored by the mainstream media — all of which adds to its intrigue as a highly subversive book.

Till Kingdom Come by Andrej Nikolaidis

Andrej Nikolaidis, born in Sarajevo in 1974, is a novelist, columnist, and former political advisor. He has won a number of national and international literary prizes, and his 2014 novel, Till Kingdom Come, was published in English by Istros Books in 2015.

The novel begins with a deluge of Biblical proportions, and so the first-person narrator and his friends head for safer ground and proceed to get very drunk. Our hero is David, who lives in the coastal town of Ulcinj as a freelance journalist and writes articles critical of the powerful. After penning a provocative article on the suitability of serial killers to be presidential candidates and the state’s right to kill, David is called to a meeting with the Minister of the Interior – an intimidating yet tantalising prospect – and is stunned to meet a lucid, if pragmatic intellectual who offers him a job as his speechwriter.

Soon afterwards, a man arrives claiming to be David’s great-uncle from Bosnia. What he says sows seeds of doubt in David, who was raised by his grandmother and believed his mother to be dead: a story backed up by photographs, a family history, and a Jewish name. But the inkling that this past could be a lie sets David on a journey of self-discovery and speculation, and when his great-uncle is found dead soon after their meeting, David wonders: has he jeopardised a secret?

Nikolaidis’s prose is polished, witty, and rich in caustic humour. The complex plot is enhanced by the protagonist’s “spatio-temporal lapses”: at one point he is walking through Podgorica, and then he finds himself in London. The metafictional excursions which this allows and the author’s speculations about the role of the occult in acts of cruelty throughout history are intriguing, but Till Kingdom Come is a serious book. Nikolaidis is a highly respected political journalist who mercilessly dissects post-Yugoslav Montenegro, with no holds barred and no modesty-saving cosmetics allowed.

Minister by Stefan Bošković

The dramatist, scriptwriter, and prosaist Stefan Bošković, born in Podgorica in 1983, is the Montenegrin winner of the 2020 European Union Prize for Literature. His latest novel, Minister, is a scathing take on the political system in the country today.

The novel follows nine turbulent days in the life of a naive young intellectual, Valentino Kovačević, Montenegro’s Minister of Culture. His demise begins when he accidentally kills an artist during a theatre performance in which he has been invited to take part. Trapped in a web of corrupt domestic movers — particularly from the Russophile camp under the umbrella of the Serbian Orthodox Church and pro-Western forces — he realises he is essentially spying for his high-level EU contacts in an attempt to cultivate good relations which might serve him in the future.

A current political controversy is the thematic linchpin of the novel: in 2005, the Serbian Orthodox placed a prefabricated church atop a historically significant mountain in a multiconfessional area and claimed power of definition over the region. Valentino needs to be seen to be upholding the Montenegrin government’s stance, that this was a hegemonial act of vandalism, while also fulfilling his promise to backers that there will be no change to the status quo during his term of office.

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Valentino struggles with running the ministry, with his own family situation, and with himself. There is a stark portrayal of the almost feudal relationships of patronage and loyalty in the political elite, and devotion to the all-powerful premier.

Bošković writes in a breathless, minimalistic style with startling imagery. Media coverage of Valentino’s quandary and hashtag texts he writes in preparation for his memoirs provide a flux of different perspectives. The novel combines elements of political thriller, noir, and a strong psychedelic strand. The alienation of individuals in society is another theme, and every now and then the reader might ask who is going crazy: the minister, society, or they themselves.

Several other Montenegrin novels deserve mention. Olja Knežević’s well-received Milena and Other Social Reforms (2011) takes a decidedly political look at the country. The bright young protagonist thinks she has “made it” when she lands a job as the President’s interpreter. But the new position comes at a cost, and Milena is caught up in a machinery of crime, graft, and human trafficking. Dominik (2001) by Milovan Radojević is set in the medieval principality of Dioclea, which encompassed parts of present-day Montenegro. Full of suspense and reminiscent of Eco’s The Name of the Rose, this novel deals suggestively with the idea of Montenegrin statehood.

History is dangerous, as Balša Brković’s father, Jevrem Brković, can confirm. His novel The Dioclean Lover, published shortly after independence in 2006, almost cost him his life. Despite its literary form and the use of pseudonyms, one chapter portrays the links between the ruling political elite and organised crime. Shortly after publication, three armed men waylaid Brković and beat him up. His driver-cum-bodyguard, who was waiting in a car nearby, rushed to his aid, but was shot dead. The attackers fled. The assault was likely a reaction to the book.

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