The central question in this profound and complex short novel is: what is the nature of evil? All its chapters occur during or after the Nazi occupation and Holocaust in Serbia. External events appear directly and through characters’ letters and diaries, and mingle with their dreams and hallucinations. Inter-scenic movement is unpredictable and filmic. Borders between inner and outer reality are flimsy and porous.
The first of several narrators, Albert Weisz attends a conference in Belgrade. Its theme is, “Crimes, Reconciliation, Forgetting”. He hears an unnamed stranger argue that Hannah Arendt’s phrase “banality of evil” is a dangerously reductive rationalisation. Evil, claims the stranger, cannot be so glibly encapsulated. Evil is incalculable, all-pervasive, metaphysical. All individuals and families — “indeed entire peoples” — he argues, have “a mysterious power watching them, a power called a daemon. It guides them, it saves them or it destroys them”.
The book, impeccably translated from Serbian by Christina Pribićević-Zorić, presents apparently disparate and random events that gradually connect; and this interwoven quality, by strong implication, embodies the workings of the invisible “daemon” behind and through events. Meaningful connectivity is subtly suggested through Kabbalistic hints and synchronicities. Some chapters have ironic subtitles functioning as self-commentating metatexts, such as: “in which a mysterious event is described but nothing is explained”. Everything is in doubt, including life itself.
Various narrators take up one another’s loose threads. This twining (or twinning) of multiplicity and interconnectedness creates similar effects: to emphasise the inevitable commonality of suffering; to expose the tenuousness of any hold on reality by a rational “I”; and to indicate the pervasiveness of evil as a ruthless power that can suddenly — and relentlessly — embroil anyone.
Whether readers will be completely convinced of the implication that incomprehensible evil functions as a (or even the) primary force in human affairs is a moot point; but, at a metaphysical level, such an interpretation of the Holocaust itself remains entirely possible, albeit one that is profoundly discomfiting. Precisely how or why destiny or random accident can erupt with such callous intensity and apparently motiveless malignity into these characters’ lives (and by implication into ours, too) is ultimately as incomprehensible as in a Sophoclean or Shakespearian tragedy.
Filip David’s question, then, remains open: how are we to understand evil, if at all? While he ventures no answer, by maintaining an unflinching gaze towards this fundamental, existential conundrum, he has written a masterly book. It meshes a rigorous intelligence, all the more effective for being acutely understated, with an eerie exploration of “the corridors and labyrinths of many criss-crossing worlds”.
The entire book is steeped in ways of being and thinking that are intrinsically Balkan, in which epiphanic beauty and unmitigated horror can both burst open through the seams of humdrum reality at a moment’s notice.
Richard Berengarten’s book ‘The Blue Butterfly’, based on the Nazi massacre of Kragujevac in October 1941, won the Jewish Quarterly–Wingate Prize for poetry in 1992