Capitalism as Religion: On Borislav Pekic’s Houses

by Ryan Ruby

Houses_2048x2048Over 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.

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David Shrigley: Brain Activity

by Sue Hubbard

Until 13th May 2012, Hayward Gallery, London

The term black humour was first coined by the Surrealist André Breton in his 1940 anthology of texts, which traces the literary history of the satire of death. In 1896 Alfred Jarry’s Absurdist play Ubu Roi ushered in Surrealism which created a platform for political and psychological disruption against the events of the early 20thcentury, particularly the atrocities of the First World War. Satire provided a way of facing death as well as subverting authoritarian thinking.

Ds5aAbsurdist humour forms the basis of David Shrigley’s art practice. His drawings with their dead-pan one line jokes, his videos and taxidermy have created a whole new category that sits somewhere between popular culture and fine art. It’s as if the jottings of a nerdy comic loving teenager had been plastered round the Hayward Gallery. Some of his drawings are very funny indeed: the pair of feet that says ‘clap your hands’, the wall painting of a man where his ankle has been labelled ‘tooth’, and his penis ‘chimney’. Or the sign high on the gallery wall that simply reads: Hanging Sign. Yet as I write this down something is stripped away. It just doesn’t sound so funny – but it is. Often it is simply the tension between the object, the context and the text, the stating of the obvious in a way that’s never quite obvious until Shrigley does it, that creates the humour. There is also something very English about it. His are the sort of jokes you might find in those old school boy comics the Dandy and the Beano or in Monty Python.

A course in Environmental Art at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s and early 1990s seems an unlikely springboard for such zany work. Yet it appears to have provided a sense of context for his absurdist interventions. Leisure Centre (1992) depicts a white flimsy cardboard box with a cut-out door on which he has written LEISURE CENTRE. Placed in the middle of a muddy building plot it implicitly comments on the paucity of local authority services. Another placard stuck in dry ground announces RIVER FOR SALE, whilst a sheet of paper pinned to a tree simply reads: LOST. GREY+WHITE PIDGEON WITH BLACK BITS. NORMAL SIZE. A BIT MANGY-LOOKING. DOES NOT HAVE A NAME. CALL 2571964. The bathos and pathos of this little narrative are almost worthy of Sam Beckett.

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