Review by Kiran Bhat
Writer: Marko Vignjević
Publisher: Ethos Books
Release date: 2020
The space that man inhabits is small, and yet the lunacy that man experiences in his life, that appears nigh infinite. A lot of said lunacy comes from the smallness of our space, and yet our ever-brimming ego urges us to do as much as possible as one can inside of it. It is because of that ambition that we fail. And yet that urge to be recognised, that longing to shine the brightest despite our flame being around for just a millisecond of eternity’s time, it somehow makes life feel worth living.
If there is a novel that speaks to that ambition, and the futility around it, it is Shezlez the Self-Proclaimed, which purposefully nihilistic look at how far a human can go by detailing the trials and tribulations of an everyman named Shezlez, who goes on to run a political party in an un-named location. From the get-go, it is clear Shezlez is not a man of privilege or power. We are introduced to him waiting in a queue in the dead of winter, trying to figure out who is parents are in a municipality headquarters – he was born out of wedlock. He doesn’t get any of the information he wants. ‘As he [heads] back home—the long way around for he wanted to walk—he [notices] homeless people around him, and he thought about what it would be like to end up alone, with no one to take care of him.’ A genuine moment of connection with the humble and meek inspires a sense of change in Shezlez. He wants the world to be different, but he doesn’t know how.
Shezlez starts by writing political speeches, and he attracts the attention of people much bigger than him. Master Gero and Gerai draft him into their political party, and shortly, everyone from his best of friends to girlfriend become involved. What makes the book work is that there is a sense even from the beginning that Shezlez is not meant to go very far. He is meant to struggle, he is meant to fail, and we are with him on that journey, whether he likes it or not. The book very openly inquiries into the futility of moving up in life. The narrative openly questions at times,
‘Why are people satisfied with what they’ve got instead of trying to fulfil society’s aspirations? Expectations which were given so long ago that no one remembers where they came from but rather lives them out like a chore, and simply does so by reflex.’
The narrative is deceptively simple. Vignjevic writes with each chapter moving the story along, alternating perspective between protagonist Shezlez, girlfriend Irma, and fellow campaigners and friends Jabukodonosach and Obrad. Largely the language is bare-bone, and works to move the story along, but once in a while, Vignjevic chances upon some really beautiful reflections. For example, Chapter 5 begins on the line, ‘a grey dawn broke out with the sun, and with it Shezlez woke up. His mouth felt like an open wound with the image of Irma clear in front of his eyes.’ Describing a mouth as an open wound is an incredibly unique image, and it is an image that does a lot of work for Vignjevic’s character, melding Shezlez’s frustration and heartache and hopelessness into something rooted in the body and throat.
However, a lot of the times, while Vignjevic’s decision to render his character statically works in keeping his narrative always in movement, very little interiority is given to the characters. It often feels like Vignjevic’s characters only exist to react to what happens around them. The most glaring example of this is in Chapter 9 when Vignjevic narrates only in Irma’s perspective. He fills the sentences of these paragraphs with lines, like ‘What if Shezlez didn’t want anyone else to live with him?’ or ‘Some time had elapsed since Irma joined Shezlez’s party. She was amazed by his charisma and the way he could control the crowd.’ Literally Vignjevic says in quite direct exposition, ‘These were the things which preoccupied her mind, and for better or worse, these were the things that made her act as she did,’ as if Irma literally only exists to dote over Shezlez. There is no such thing as a female who exists only in respect to her thoughts about her life partner, and so I would have preferred if Vignjevic had drawn Irma much more three-dimensionality, as a person who has her own concerns, family struggles, and insecurities.
I don’t want to spoil the ending, nor do I want to reflect too much on the risks Vignjevic takes in his last paragraphs. I will say that I did not feel like the ending came naturally or organically, and I felt that there were a lot of artistic decisions that Vignjevic took that I could not understand. What still makes this novel work, however, is the simplicity of the language and the narrative structure, and the sheer amount of honesty with which Vignjevic muses on. As Vignjevic makes his characters reflect on time and time again, ‘does the ideology of a society emanate from the motives of one man and, if this is the case, is such a state of affairs sustainable and does it serve the progress of the same society?’
The answer is not clear by the end of the book, but one thing is certain. Vignjevic is a writer of great philosophical intent, and Shezlez the Self-Proclaimed while leave the mind whirring on its questions many a day after the final page has been read upon.
You can buy your copy here.
Kiran Bhat is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India. He has currently traveled to over 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. He is primarily known as the author of we of the forsaken world... (Iguana Books, 2020), but he has authored books in four foreign languages, and has had his writing published in The Kenyon Review, The Brooklyn Rail, The Colorado Review, Eclectica, 3AM Magazine, The Radical Art Review, The Chakkar, Mascara Literary Review, and several other places. His list of homes is vast, but his heart and spirit always remains in Mumbai, somehow. He currently lives in Melbourne. You can find him on Twitter @WeltgeistKiran.