The OF Blog: Goran Petrović, An Atlas Traced by the Sky

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Goran Petrović, An Atlas Traced by the Sky

The Serbs are a people seldom satisfied with just one life, so they double and even multiply it several times over.  And as if that were not enough, they doggedly persevere in their own dreams or live in several places at once, always with the same tempestuous ardour.  It is no wonder, then, that Serbs, who expend themselves so relentlessly, die easily, hastily and hungrily, exactly the way they live.

Undoubtedly, this might be called a good custom, were it to end there.  But it does not.  It seems that it is in death that the Serbs are at their most dangerous, as if there too they exist.  Not only do their beards and nails grow, as on any corpse, but so do their bodies, and stories about them spread and multiply even more than when they are alive.

The prevailing view among our people here is that this wild and dangerous race should not be stopped from living dreams or living several lives in one and the same place.  It would be especially good to move them from fast living to slow, and thus dilute their unruly nature in favour of calm waters that can be restrained. (p. 120)

As a child growing up in the 1980s, I can remember my early fascination with atlases.  I remember turning to the back (or sometimes the front) of my dad's social studies books (he taught social studies and PE for around three decades) and memorizing places and countries.  There were historical atlases of Egypt, the Hittite Empire, the Greeks, the Persians, and the Romans, each with their own special colors on the maps.  There were places outlined with little dots and others with larger ones; the capitals received stars.  There were colors, later on, that we had to do in my 9th grade World Geography class (1988-1989) of the 15 Soviet republics.  Fifteen colors to represent entities that had has much in common with each other as the arbitrary choices of colors we used for our crude maps.  Atlases ultimately are but our own futile attempts to place our stamp on a wild, uncontrollable, and even almost completely incomprehensible world.  Yet we still persevere in this fiction, believing somehow that it matters.

In his 1993 debut novel, Serbian writer Goran Petrović utilizes atlases as a means to create a series of connections that are in turns artificial and more natural than life itself.  An Atlas Traced by the Sky charts the dreams and manipulations of a handful of characters who inhabit worlds and possibilities, tracing their own atlases of the worlds they experience through the clouds above the open-roofed house in which they live.  Like the clouds that float across the sky, thickening, elongated, or dissipating as they move, the images and the metaphors for human life embedded within them also shift and transform as the reader moves from one page to the next.  An Atlas Traced by the Sky is not a linear work, far from it, but the effort the reader expends in processing what Petrović's characters are describing ultimately rewards greatly those who pay close attention to what is transpiring.

An Atlas Traced by the Sky perhaps best can be described by that most nebulous and troublesome of literary terms, "postmodern."  There certainly are elements of postmodernist literature within its 236 pages.  The conflation of dreams and realities, of narrators who inhabit one role in one dream/reality sequence only to play another role elsewhere, references to real and imagined works of art and literature (with an impressive list of writers cited in a bibliography that includes Borges, Calvino, Eco, Pavić, Basara, García Márquez, Cortázar, Ende, and dozens more), and the conflation of time, space, and reality all help shape a work that is ever mutable.

Such works can be off-putting to readers who want to establish an emotional connection to the characters and/or narrative(s).  For the most part, An Atlas Traced by the Sky's characters are appealing because in their construction of their atlases, their desires, fears, and dreams are illustrated with a refreshing clarity that makes their journeys through the worlds they outline and inhabit intriguing for readers.  Although there are a few places where the reader might want to pause and re-read (as I did at several points during my second reading of the book in English – I read it twice before in Spanish), for the most part the twists and turns can be followed by careful readers who are wary of accepting what is described at face value.

Petrović imbues his narrative with a host of reference to writers from the past 75 years.  Concepts developed by the writers I cited above (and others) can be seen unfolding as the characters chart their own paths.  Perhaps the concluding section sums it up best:

Even the biggest piece of paper is bound by edges.  However, if the cartographer is adept, no road will be cut by a margin.  And if he is imaginative as well, then it is here that the road will actually begin... (p. 227)

The same too can be said of outlining our lives and dreams.  If a narrator is skilled enough, and Petrović here proves to be so, then the lives and dreams of the novel's characters can be said not to be cut by the margins of the narrative, but instead their roads begin here.  It is this sense of openness within the confines of a described atlas, even one traced by the sky, that makes An Atlas Traced by the Sky a novel that can be read and re-read multiple times, with more revealed each time.  Highly recommended.

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