Andrej Nikolaidis (trans. by Will Firth)
Istros Books, paperback, £8.99
115 pages, 978-1908236128
The blurb of Andrej Nikolaidis’ The Son describes the novella as following “one night in the life of a hero with no name”. It is perhaps more accurate to describe the narrator-cum-protagonist as an antihero, at times reminiscent of Patrick Bateman with his interest in serial killers and a fixation with creating soundtracks to moments in his life. However, it is arguably this that makes the book all the more triumphant; in spite of the narrator’s scathing, snobbish views on humanity, we are compelled to read them. Nikolaidis’ decision to leave his main character anonymous is equally intriguing, with the reader gaining access to his innermost thoughts and childhood torments while never actually learning his name. He is cast as an everyman figure, with would-be rants about “Drowning in humanity” transformed from selfish grumblings into something allegorical and universal.
His sense of superiority to all of mankind also creates a kind of levelling effect: if all are lesser beings than him, then all are held in equal contempt, without discrimination. In a particularly wonderful passage, Nikolaidis writes,
“Everyone is driven by the eternal Why: the physicist in a Zurich laboratory, the art historian in the Vatican Library and the whore in Ulcinj. They’re all equally far from, and thus equally close to, an answer…”
Similarly, the narrator concludes that “Human misfortune doesn’t derive from a social system or geographical location, but from existence itself”; in other words, as Uroš the drunkard’s refrain asserts, ‘It’s all the same’.
The characters’ sense of despair is symptomatic of a thematic loss of faith; human relationships and a relationship with God are held in equal contempt. However, at times the book has a distinctly religious (or rather antireligious) flavour. The atheist narrator scorns his father for hiding away from the world and immersing himself in St Augustine’s Confessions, Samir the religious fanatic is beaten in the street, and the Christian virtue of forgiveness is constantly portrayed as a hindrance or a vice. The narrator insists that “Those who forgive us are our harshest judges”, something affirmed by the passing tale of the thieving son who murders his father because he cannot stand him constantly excusing his kleptomania. Likewise, forgiveness is presented as a foolhardy trait when the reader encounters Uroš, a man who forgives his childhood tormentor and invites him into his home, only to discover later that his wife has run off with the ex-bully. The narrator’s journey into the night, which stands at the centre of the narrative, seems to confirm his damning critique of religious values, plunging him into a world of suffering.
Nikolaidis’ exploration of faith and religion extends to the book’s title, which recalls one arm of the Holy Trinity. In a series of biblical allusions, the narrator compares himself to an inverted Jesus: “I’m like Christ on the cross, who instead of love for the mob who stoned him feels only disgust”, and – in keeping with his misanthropic attitudes – a moment of fondness for a family of lepers coincides with his fantasy of leading an army of the diseased across the world, wreaking universal death and destruction. He shuns Christ’s teachings of love, instead spewing a potent hatred that at once frightens and exhilarates.
More obviously, the book’s title refers to the troubled relationship between the narrator and his father, and the novella can be seen as a semi-Freudian exploration of this rocky affair. However, the book is filled with failed father-son relationships, from the murderous son to the narrator’s old school-friend who laments his estrangement from his boy, to an unborn child whom the father refuses to raise. In a book short of matriarchs, Nikolaidis instead offers his readers father figures in abundance, skilfully dissecting their psyches, their failed hopes and dreams.
Considering this plethora of miseries, it is somewhat relieving to encounter a sudden volte-face towards the end of the book, as the narrator starts to assess his cynical ways and question his misanthropic views. Unfortunately, the narrator’s change in tone lacks depth, and while revelations are by definition sudden, Nikolaidis’ prose seems less convincing and sincere in the latter part of the tale, perhaps because it is somewhat under-developed. Thankfully, Nikolaidis redeems himself with a wonderfully poignant ending, its cyclical nature providing a satisfying sense of symmetry and closure.