The Balkan Flip

by Rick Harsch, including

Adriatica Deserta

Kramberger with Monkey

200 pages plus 159 pages


The Balkan Flip

two novels by Rick Harsch

Adriatica Deserta

A sort of absurdist vagabond novel of genocidism, Adriatica Deserta takes place in Zadar, Croatia, where a rather bland fellow from the United States shows up and becomes oddly involved with a few mysterious, seemingly random, expatriots from around Europe. The US has recently been plane-bombed and the war in Afghanistan has just begun. One of the gentleman who hangs out at the cafe »Our Man« begins to frequent, Hugh Ramsbottom, tells Our Man a story about a genocidist in Paraguay. Implications ensue.

As a writer I am occasionally asked for tips. I wrote this book in bed with broken ribs and a receding concussion over a three week period in 2001 after falling victim to what appeared at the time to be a partisan trap. In retrospect, I believe it was just an odd place for barbed wire to be strung, and the flight I went on, head-first, knocked out, rib-wracked, was a result of gravity admixed with lack of care and the joy of running abnormally fast down a steep slope.

Nonetheless, looking back on it now, I can’t say that there is a better way to prepare for a novel, as when I re-read Adriatica Deserta, much of it came across as serendipitous surprise.

Kramberger with Monkey

Originally sub-titled ‘Still Life’, it later became ‘A Comedy of Assassination’. The prevalence of assassination in the Balkans was certainly an inspiration, but one tends to take certain prevalences too far, and so very soon after the book starts the authors begin to get knocked off, which wreaked havoc on my attempt to establish points of view. After the narrator and a main character throughout, Todd Fullmer, if I recall, an assassination expert who writes for the magazine Political Sleaze, finishes the first chapter, he is assassinated and I am forced to go from first person to third. Such sabotage persisted throughout the novel, which tries to be about the first political assassination in the history of free Slovenia, that of a wealthy returned gastarbeiter named Ivan Kramberger, a populist who travelled the country selling his own books, driving a Bugatti he put together himself, and with a pet monkey on his shoulder (of course the monkey was assassinated, and it appears he simply replaced it). Fullmer apparently was on assignment to Minsk to research the assassinations of journalists like himself, and he is delighted to find an assassination to report on in Slovenia. His editor is not and threatens to reduce him to a hack at the New York Times.

Much monkey business occurs, and to this moment I can’t say what it all means, but I have some very informed guesses and was pleased by their generosity and tendency to carry the narrative where necessary.

Ivan Kramberger is an oversized real character from a small country who traveled incessantly while campaigning, so I have been inundated by people who knew him, many of whom were sorely disappointed that this book is literature and not an investigative biography.

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