WITH THE DEATH in London of Borislav Pekic the literature of the Yugoslav lands has lost one of its most eloquent and deeply intelligent writers. An incisive, sceptical but richly creative mind such as his is an asset to any culture at all times, but in this period of chaos and destruction such as that currently engulfing his native Yugoslavia it can offer a lifeline of sanity in the face of despair.
Pekic was born in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica in 1930 and educated in Belgrade. In 1948 he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his activity in the Union of Democratic Youth of Yugoslavia. He served two before being pardoned. This experience left him permanently disaffected, but with an enduring concern with the shaping power of ideology and myth. He describes this process of political maturing in a two-volume work The Years the Locusts Devoured (1987-90).
In 1970 he moved to London, to devote himself in peace to his writing, while returning frequently to Yugoslavia, where he was a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Art. With the beginnings of a restoration of democratic processes he spent more time in Belgrade and his native Montenegro. He was a founding member and vice-president of the Democratic Party. Widely translated, he was awarded all the most prestigious Yugoslav literary prizes and was vice-president of the Serbian PEN.
A writer of breathtaking fluency, Pekic is remarkable for the variety of approaches and genres in which he treated his central theme. This may be expressed as the crisis of West European civilisation and particularly that of the middle class, which he saw as in large part responsible for the ways of thinking that produced the crisis. For Pekic the whole European intellectual tradition was profoundly compromised. One of the constants of his work is the tragic fate of the individual struggling against the constraints and pressures of outside forces: 'The New Face, Nazism, The Firm'.
Pekic's first novel, A Time of Miracles (1965), represents a brilliant start to his literary career and contains many of the themes of his later work, under the epigraph 'There is nothing new under the sun.' The novel examines the impact of Christ's miracles on their subjects: Jesus himself never having wondered what effect his disruption of their lives may have entailed as he moved on to fulfil the dictates of 'The Book'. More importantly, Pekic chooses to confront not simply the requirement to conform to a rigid ideology, but the dangers inherent even in a beguiling humanist doctrine because any set of abstract beliefs may also be turned into its opposite.
Pekic's opus is vast: novels, stage, television and radio plays, film scenarios, essays and articles, two volumes of Letters From Abroad (based on BBC broadcasts from London) and a collection of 'Gothic' short stories, The New Jerusalem (1988). Ideas erupted in his fertile mind with such speed that he would work on shorter pieces of writing as a form of relaxation in the course of composing his substantial works - the 'minor' works acting as a counterpoint to the major statements.
This intellectual energy meant also that he exploited a variety of genres in order to explore his themes from different angles: two of his novels (How To Subdue the Vampire, and Defence and the Last Days, 1977) are dedicated to two of the finest contemporary Serbian prose-writers - Danilo Kis and Dragoslav Mihailovic respectively - and Pekic's tribute extends to reproducing something of their style, so that the three novelists are engaged in a particularly complex expression of the theme of the individual's confrontation with totalitarianism.
The genre-novel Rabies (1983) - a 'catastrophic' thriller set at Heathrow - fulfils a similar function of counterpoint in relation to the seven-volume The Golden Fleece (1977-84). Together with the trilogy 1999 - a pastiche of Orwell, published in 1984 - and the two-volume Atlantis (1988), which may be described as a 'negative Utopia', these three 'post- modernist' works mix 'high and low' styles.
The Golden Fleece itself, in scale and substance, links Pekic with the great names of central European literature: Mann, Musil, Broch, Kafka, Hesse. Like them Pekic acknowledges the important mission of literature as an expression of the consciousness of the age and focuses on the crisis of the European middle class. The novel traces the history of a typical Balkan commercial family. Pekic is not concerned with history for its own sake, however, but with what sets it in motion. He describes his novel as
an attempt in an artistic form to talk about anthropological aspects of European civilisation that early on opted for materialism and rationalism, rejecting the spiritual alternative, symbolised by the mythic metaphor of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece.
Pekic's deeply serious and brilliantly witty writing may be read as a warning to humanity through time to be on its guard against 'systems' of all kinds. In essence his work is inevitably pessimistic as art can never propose alternatives: it can only assist in promoting clarity of vision.