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Aleksandra Mokranjac. Illusionism.

Aleksandra Mokranjac. Illusionism. Belgrade: SKZ, 2010, 315 pages.

When Aleksandra Mokranjac, the author of Illusionism, decided to study architecture, it was as if she had decided to devote herself to architecture both as a science and an art--a wholly unique art of dealing with time, or to be more precise, with Chronos. This art, and more so its matter--the matter of time-has shaped Aleksandra Mokranjac's creative thought as unusually nimble and swift. The storyteller felt as though she was a descendant of the ancient mythological figure of Daedalus, as if she were flying through thoughts, but in a modern way. Playing the role of a writer, Aleksandra Mokranjac has a premonition that the mythological wings she strives to take from the mythological figure of Daedalus are dangerously meltable, as her wings of time are far more meltable than wings made of wax--in an instant, time is gone, disappeared, and lost forever. For this reason, our novelist has strengthened her flight by an accumulation of knowledge which is meant to support her passage through time, for instance, from the ancient Hellenes to modern times in the 21st century.

If our aim is to present the novel Illusionism, published in 2010, we should by all means at least briefly consider Aleksandra Mokranjac's first novel Transcription (1) published in 2006, which could be perceived as an introduction to her prose. With the title of her book, the author from the onset informs the reader that the focus of the book is the transfer of content from one language into another--the transcription--although, she does not want to indicate which transferred contents are at issue. However, it is the transfer through literary language to the inner stream of consciousness of a modern human being, a young woman, who explores the meaning of messages she receives from ancient times.

While we got acquainted with modern mythological characters of Ariadne, Theseus, and Minotaur, who were making their way through the labyrinth of past times towards modern times in the novel Transcription, in Illusionism we get acquainted with Maja and Andrej and with their few friends with similar tastes. Born in the 1960s and 1970s into highly educated families of Belgrade, they themselves are also accomplished experts and do not consider their knowledge important--it is a given. As Eurocentric possessors of many curiosities, they feel at ease in Europe, they weightlessly stroll around the cities of the Old Continent: in a minute they find themselves in Paris, and then in Venice or in Bern. They enjoy striding along both famous and not-so-famous streets in these cities, without missing their chance to drop by cafes, galleries, exhibitions, bookstores, concerts, and famous old cemeteries. Since we learn that they all, especially Maja and Andrej find culture to be a form of spiritual survival, and they find every culture, both past and present, both European and non-European, to be their major foothold, it is not difficult to anticipate that Maja and Andrej recognize each other as spiritual kinsfolk through exchanged codes of culture. However, this process of recognition may take some time since Maja and Andrej perceive themselves to be close relatives of Ariadne and Theseus from Aleksandra Mokranjac's previous novel because both Maja and Andre, the enchanted explorers, who are psychologically shaped by the keen eye of the modern narrator, stepped into their own inner labyrinth in the same manner as the characters adopted from Hellenic myth. For this reason, the two main characters of Illusionism, already deep in the labyrinth of their contemplative and emotive roads and byroads, following their stream of consciousness like many other complex characters of modern novelists, wander in search of an exit from the labyrinth or maybe a solid center which could substitute for the exit. At the same time, they reveal to each other that both of them have intuitively realized that their labyrinths are partially congruent just as their exchanged codes (i.e., the quotes of the same verses, the choice of the same chosen writers, painters, composers, and their many other identical or similar favors) are in total correspondence because they belong to the same world of explorers of spiritual values, which have diminished substantially today.

Contrary to Crete, as in Transcription, the cities from which a person flies into the labyrinth are those such as the modern and noisy Paris, the eternal "city of lights," the incomprehensive mysteries of Venice, Bern, the city miraculously organized by human reason, or in contrast to these cities with western glamour, from Belgrade, the Balkan gathering place, the city which is still characterized by a breath from the East. Actually, these sites are all equally suitable for taking off into one's own depths and towards the depths of the significant other, the one one yearns for: except that both flight and wandering are unpredictable, the thought is torn to pieces or twisted by many spirals. The paths of life Maja and Andrej tread, as well as their meeting points, keep merging or temporarily parting--being torn apart just like the narration, which is all in pieces. However, as a paradox, the presumed gaps are being filled quickly in the rhythm of the same narration, the rhythm that reveals a lot and becomes more rapid, increasing in the specific meaningful contents as this broken narration draws to an end.

In Aleksandra Mokranjac's novels, a patient reader, although coming from an era of great impatience, gets a fine literary work, a kind of lacework, either Ohrid or Brussels lace, only the lace is made of sentences connected by gaps which serve to express strong emotions and shattered and scattered knowledge and perceptions of different aspects of reality. All this is brought together by introductory texts preceding every chapter i.e., by short extracts from Mstislav Rostropovich's texts written in his deep respect for Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach. Allow me to cite the first of Rostropovich's quotes left in the original language in the novel, which the author dedicated to her mother:
 They engrave in our memory that spirit is nothing because only
 matter exists. But all that is material visibly disappears, and
 hence the achievements of man's genius pass through centuries
 without even being touched by particles of dust. Such achievements
 will not be lost in time.

If we are willing, we can perceive the meaning of Rostropovich's words as an unspoken message of this novel, and maybe even as an addition to the explanation from the first page of Illusionism, when, at the very beginning of her narration, Mokranjac mentions the word epektasis which, as the author says, means progress towards the end. And what is anyone's life if not the progress towards the end, and every novel a form of a spiritual life? Perhaps everything is the illusion of being, illusionism as the real reality, as the reality of the novel we speak about here. Is it all a pseudo-appearance, as Crnjanski whispered in his verses? This question runs through the whole novel, and for this reason such a novel cannot be read in one day as our storyteller has suggested--and it should not be, and by any means it must not be. This novel requires much more since it gives more.

(1) Aleksandra Mokranjac, Transcription, (Belgrade: Geopoetika, 2006).

Reviewed by Svetlana Velmar-Jankovic, *

* Excerpts from the book presentation by Svetlana Velmar-Jankovic, Belgrade, January 23, 2011.
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Author:Velmar-Jankovic, Svetlana
Publication:Serbian Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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