by Ryan Ruby
Over the past four centuries, the novel, that most most broad-minded of all media, has asked us time and time again to contemplate the humanity of those who by virtue of their profession, their views, their proclivities, or their character count as some of the most despicable examples of our species. There must be tens of thousands of pages devoted to representing the inner lives of torture-loving libertines, bored aristocratic seducers, grave-digging scientists, vengeful ship captains, ax-wielding ex-students, medieval religious fanatics, vainglorious ivory traders, social-climbing salonières, pedophiles with fancy prose styles, pedantic hot dog vendors, priapic misogynists, blood-thirsty scalpers, sadistic slavers, intellectual cannibals, and self-appointed masters of the universe, not to mention the scores of characters who, for one reason or another, have judged their souls to be so worthless that they were willing to sell them to the devil.
But before I read Borislav Pekic's Houses (translated by Bernard Johnson from the Serbo-Croatian in 1978 and re-released this month by NYRB Classics), I'd never come across a novel that had the chutzpah to draw its protagonist from the ranks of what is surely, as we're now reminded on a daily basis, the lowest of the low: the realtor.
The proud owner of Pekic's savage farce is Arsénie Negovan, scion of an old Belgrade family, Vice-President of its Chamber of Commerce, a Francophile and a recluse who surveys his properties with a pair of military binoculars from the living room of the house he shares with his wife, Katerina, and his maid, Mademoiselle Foucault. We meet him in 1968, shortly after his first foray into town since the Yugoslav coup of 1941, and shortly before his death, as he scribbles his last will and testament on the backs of old tax receipts and rental contracts, in what will be an unsuccessful attempt to dispose of his assets and to persuade his executors and readers that he is of sound mind and body.
Of course, precisely because he is the protagonist of a novel, Negovan does not buy and build to turn a profit. He is not motivated by anything so base as the desire for luxury, comfort, security, or status that property sometimes confers on its owners. Instead, like many of the monomaniacs in his literary ancestry and a few of his colleagues in the real world, Negovan bases his business practices on the hilariously uneven foundations of a specious, self-spun philosophy. Just as Raskolnikov has his essay on crime, Humbert Humbert his treatise on nymphets, and Donald Trump his art of the deal, Negovan elaborates a “philosophy of Possession” to justify his obsessive and often cruel behavior.
His is a thoroughly spiritual greed and if, in commerce, “you have to proceed by roundabout routes, defiles, and shortcuts, and avoid resort to measures a more idealistic man would gladly avoid” it is because “commerce is war…in defense of Possession.” Especially if you are greedy on behalf of “the nation and people,” the unfortunate consequences of such shortcuts and measures—as when one of his houses collapses, killing seven; or when he profits from the 1929 stock market crash; or when one of his evicted tenants jumps out of a window; or when he murders a leftist demonstrator with his own hands—can be accepted with a “clean conscience.”
Negovan's less familiar ideas about Possession rest on a distinction between single-phase from dual-phase ownership. In the former, a man buys a building for purpose of living in it, working in it, selling it, or renting it out. This popular view of real estate is, to him, nothing short of “blasphemy.” Lacking reciprocal relations with their property, single-phase owners are so “alienated from their own possessions” that they “no longer operate in real objects” but rather in “the vague, alien, shadowy affairs” of the stock market.
“True” or dual-phase ownership, by contrast, can be derived from the following “axioms”:
1. I do not own houses, we, I and my houses, own each other mutually.
2. Other houses do not exist for me; they begin to exist for me when they become mine.
3. I take only houses when they take me; I appropriate them only when I am appropriated; I possess them only when I am possessed by them.
4. Between me and my possessions a relationship of reciprocal ownership operates; we are two sides of one being, the being of possession.
The difference between single- and dual-phase ownership is also likened to the difference between the ways God is represented in the Old and New Testaments: as “an impersonal concept of omnipotence” on the one hand, and as “the real, incarnate God which believers experience in their very soul” on the other. A textbook anti-Semite, Negovan is opposed to both “Jew-Bolshivism” (which denies private property altogether) and “Yiddischer Bankers” (who turn ownership into “mere power over empty, hollow, emaciated figures”). Having inherited rather than borrowed his start-up capital, his economic ideas have more in common with Ezra Pound's “Usura Canto” than with the biannual reports of the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Despite his genuine patriotism and his acute horror of house-leveling bombs, during the war, he maintains warm relations with Yugoslavia's Nazi occupiers, not only because the Germans “kept excellent accounts and paid adequate compensation for what they destroyed,” but because he shares their worldview.
In our neoliberal age, dominated by the financialization of capital and official multiculturalism, this worldview is likely to strike readers as thoroughly troglodytic, but in his fanatical devotion to possession, ownership, and property Negovan remains a representative man. Businessmen, however they amass their wealth, are hardly the efficient, rationally self-interested, profit-maximizing, value-neutral utilitarians they imagine themselves to be. More often they sacrifice their mental and physical wellbeing, damage their prospects for friendship and personal happiness, and put the safety of their environment, their communities, their families, themselves, and even their fortunes at risk in their zealous submission to the dictates of accumulation. They respond, often violently, not only to competition from their fellow businessmen, but to any heretic who questions the sacredness of the profit motive. Not only as individuals, but as a collective, as a class. As Walter Benjamin observes in his essay “Capitalism as Religion,” capitalism is “a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme that ever was” which “serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.”
Negovan would not, however, recognize this as a criticism. He happily admits what the businessman of capitalist mythology would rather repress and, given the metaphors he uses to describe it, he'd probably have no qualms classifying dual-phase ownership as a theological concept. If anything, the equation between capitalism and religion would strike him as insufficient, because, as we have seen, there are many varieties of both capitalist and religious belief. You would not be wrong to detect in his four axioms similarities to the ecstatic mysticism of medieval Christianity, wherein the “unity of two otherwise opposite beings, in which, as in ideal love, it would no longer be possible to distinguish possessor and possessed” is the goal of the homeowner as well as the true believer. The outside world may regard him as the corrupt and somewhat crazy Vice-President of the local Chamber of Commerce, but in his eyes he is the St. Teresa of Real Estate. His worship of property is not just liturgical, it's libidinal.
Under capitalism, women are treated like property. Negovan treats property like women. His wife is right to suspect that his business is only a “civic alibi”—and an entirely insubstantial one at that—for his erotic passion for houses. Not only does Negovan give each of his houses a woman's name, he describes their architectural features as if they were parts of the female body (the houses, in fact, are much more vividly rendered than any of the human characters in the story), and uses the tropes of first love, adulterous affair, and marriage plot to narrate his relationships to them. When “Agatha” falls down, he feels greater sorrow for her loss than for those who died in the accident. Later, as he frantically scrambles through a mob to reach the auction where “Niké,” the house with whom he has been carrying on an adulterous affair, is being sold off by his cousin, he is horrified by the thought that other buyers are fixing “their eyes on [his mistress'] innards like the most tentacles of an octopus.” His failure to acquire “Niké” (in light of the description, the French homophone is more apt than the Greek goddess) that day turns him into an invalid; and it is to save “Simonida,” “with her fine, dark countenance, her milky complexion beneath deep blue eyelids, and her full-blooded lips pierced by a bronze chain, African style” from destruction that inspires him venture outside again after twenty-seven years.
Objectophilia, or object sexuality, may be a real phenomenon, but to categorize Negovan's obsession in these terms would only turn Pekic's satire inside out. What would it look like if capitalism were actually practiced as a religion? What would it look like if the “lust for acquisition” were to be taken literally? Insofar as Negovan is the answer to both of these questions, he is not so much an aberration as an essence. Scratch the surface of any realtor, Pekic is saying, and you'll find a Negovan.
Pekic's book is as often as gaudily and shoddily constructed as one Negovan's houses: the front door of exposition faces the backyard rather than the street, the joints and girders of his transitions between narrated past and narrated present are not flush, and the heterogeneous forms of discourse he employs fail to follow their satirical function. And, like “Agatha,” Houses ultimately collapses under its own weight. But in Negovan, Pekic has added a memorable face to the distinguished gallery of literature's rogues, a face in which we will not have to strain our eyes to see resemblances to those currently hanging in the gallery of life.