On David Albahari’s recommendation, I have just finished reading Svetislav Basara’s novel The Cyclist Conspiracy, translated by Randall A. Major and published by Open Letter.
Simultaneously, I’ve been reading the galley proof or proof copy of Sam’s and my book Wild Rides and Wildflowers: Philosophy and Botany with Bikes—a cyclist conspiracy of quite a different sort.
At least I think it is of quite a different sort.
While Sam and I are reliably unreliable narrators, the narrator of the first text in Basara’s book is omniscient (if apocryphal). Charles the Hideous begins the tale of his kingdom with these sentences: “Although the square kilometer as a unit of measure has not been invented yet, my kingdom stretches over 450 square kilometers. But no one knows that.”
History is the subject of the book, and members of a cyclist conspiracy are the actors in that history. As Charles the Hideous predicts, various thinkers will do their best to make sense of that, including, he prophesies, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sigmund Freud, Oswald Spengler, and Joseph Kowalsky.
Historians of the movement have only fragments to work with, most prominently the design of the bicycle or velocipede. In 1347, for instance, the Inquisitor of Paris followed rumors of a Satanic society to the riders of two-wheeled vehicles:
The machine which master Enguerrand publicly and shamelessly rode through the streets of Paris, proved that he was inspired by Satan who is the author of all evil things. Frere Guillaume describes it like this: “Instead of two wheels connected by an axel, one next to the other like on a normal cart, master Enguerrand has built a vehicle where the wheels stand one behind the other connected by a beam which is topped by a seat. It is clear to everyone that such an apparatus cannot stand upright, and it certainly cannot be ridden. And yet master Enguerrand, obviously with the aid of the powers of darkness, accompanied by the great noise of frightened children screaming, rides down the steep streets on this hellish contraption and scandalizes all those who pass there.”
That, I think, might also be a good blurb for Sam’s and my book, at least the wild rides part.
In Basara’s text, various writers summon the basic forms of the bicycle to document their theories about a transhistorical conspiracy whose members communicate through dreams.
As the page to the right notes, the bicycle is teeming with ancient symbols.
The representation of the male soul differs from that of the female soul only by the addition of the crossbar to the frame of a woman’s bicycle.
It is difficult to discount the conclusions of this learned discourse.
History, the novel argues (playfully), is discontinuous.
That would apply to our book as well.
With an inconclusive story about Sherlock Holmes, a troubled Freudian analysis, the Collected Works of Joseph Kowalsky (complete with poems and prose), Basara’s novel (can this be called a novel?) delights and disconcerts as it reveals the dementias that so predictably disrupt our lives. At the end of the book a “Secret List of Members of the Evangelical Bicyclists” includes several Serbian writers, including Milos Crnjanski, at least one Serbian assassin (Gavrilo Princip), an almost mythical bicycle racer (Eddy Merckx), Zarko Radakovic’s friend the performance artist Slobodan Milivojevic-Era, and Homer Simpson.
In conclusion, because Sam’s and my Wild Rides and Wildflowers is appearing after Basara’s book, we did not make the list of conspirators. But our work too can be read as a case study of this important assertion: such an apparatus cannot stand upright, and it certainly cannot be ridden.