The Cyclist Conspiracy – Svetislav Basara

The_Cyclist_Conspiracy_-_Svetislav_Basara_cover

The fragmentary history of the Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross. Members receive dream instructions from future members, and arrange events so as to prevent the reconstruction of the Tower of Babylon.

This book was presented to me as “the best of Serbian sarcasm”. It may well be, and it certainly has overtones of sarcasm throughout. The concept is absurd, the construction interesting, the writing strong. Serbian authors seem to tend toward the experimental, and I give full marks for that. Unfortunately, I find that they often also assume a depth of shared knowledge that I don’t, in fact, share.

Basara’s book is deep and incisive satire, often very funny. The deeper levels, though, are probably only available to those with long exposure to Slavic and Serbian history. Despite having lived in Serbia for several years, and in the region for many more, it was clear to me that much of the book’s subtext was passing well below my metaphorical feet. At the same time, this is not one of those deliberately opaque, ‘more-educated-than-thou’ books. Basara is not making a point of erudition; he’s just assuming you’ll be able to work out his puzzles.

There are some weaknesses in the book. The experiment doesn’t always work. It’s presented as a hodge-podge of historical documents, including essays, letters, poems, and sketches. Mostly that works, but sometimes it does in fact feel like a random selection of whatever the author had to hand. The reading sometimes drags, less a journey of discovery than a trudge of endurance. By nature of the structure, there’s little in the way of a plot, and there’s not much forward motion. Much of the time, though, it’s interesting.

The translation is mostly excellent; occasionally puzzling.

If you’re the kind who wants action on every page, who blows through philosophical ramblings or soliloquies, don’t read this. If you’re just looking for escapist light reading, this isn’t the book. If you’re well grounded in Christian and Serbian history, willing to read with frequent resort to Wikipedia, or just willing to grapple with ideas until you can pin them down to your satisfaction, I recommend the book. It’s interesting, rewarding, and has as many levels as you can hope for.

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