By David Keyworth
I do not have any immediate plans to travel to Mongolia, but if I did, I would not refer to this fictional guide/novella.
This is not a criticism of Svetislav Basara’s book. It does not set out to be a conventional volume of any kind. Instead, its 117 pages are concerned with the metaphysical ramblings and the “reality-dream dichotomy” of the punningly-named narrator, Ulan-Bator.
‘The Mongolian Travel Guide’ was first published in 1998 and it is dedicated to the victims of Sarajevo. Its absurdist style must in part be a response to the chaos of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the carnage of the Balkan Wars (1991 – 1999).
Despite its theological and philosophical preoccupations, the prose style is enjoyable. I cannot vouch for how it reads in the original Serbian, but in Randall A. Major’s translation, the sentences are short and sharp.
Humour comes in the form of bathos. A matter-of-fact pay off always undercuts the existential agonising. “Cupidity and video recorders have completely ruined the world,” comments Luke, a priest, in conversation with our narrator.
Despite the economy of the prose style, my attention often wandered. The intellectual ramblings are stimulating, but intriguing characters tend to come and go before we get to know them. In this sense, the book is perhaps too faithful to the transitory experience of being a tourist.
Overall, I was happy to follow the intoxicated narrator (“I mercilessly destroy myself with alcohol”), down the literary route he chose. But sometimes his lengthy detours tested my patience.