In that sublime realm where literature and architecture meet, Hugo’s Notre Dame and Calvino’s Invisible Cities occupy the high throne. I nominate Pekić’s Houses to sit with them.
One would expect this book to be political, Borislav Pekić being a founding member of the Democratic Party in Serbia. And indeed, it is.
Belgrade’s turbulent history of clashing ideologies is not an undertone in this novel but a counterpoint to an unusual but brilliant motif that is architecture — which is, of course, political.
What took me by surprise, despite the obvious title and the summary about an eccentric character who loves houses more than the average person does, was the non-perfunctory view on the subject. The discourse ranges from houses being compared to human souls, to the ideal harmony of a building with urban space and its character, to how preservation is of great importance to a place, to criticisms on the sacrificing of aesthetic quality for the sake of profit, to describing a particular house as like an erratum, a coarse printing error in the elegant context of the street, and even to the communion with buildings as if they were alive, which in fact they were!
Of course I can’t say that those books about architecture made me fall in love with houses. They only explained to me why I love them. From them I was schooled in houses’ physiology, their circulatory system, their epidermic defensive envelope, even their stomachs, their sensitive stomachs, not to mention their life process… From books, then, I had come to know the mysterious process of a house’s conception, initiated long before its violent birth on the building site.
Arsenie Negovan is an imperfect but intriguing man who will irritate you or gain your sympathy. He makes a name for himself as a builder and a lover of houses, but after an existential maelstrom, he withdraws himself from the world and allows himself to be oblivious to the unrelenting flow of time for twenty seven years.
When at last he decides to come out of his self-alienation, he is an old man in the process of writing his will, and he soon begins to suspect a great divide between the world in his mind and the world in reality.
Houses is one of the most intelligent novels I have ever read. With the absence of chapter breaks, I found myself being pulled steadily towards its exceptionally executed finale. Its abstract metaphors grant liberal spaces for contemplation as they convey nagging questions on possession, and on building and ruin, whether concerning a city, society, a house, or a life.
While most of its readers describe the progression of the story as a descent into madness, I choose to see it as an awakening.