BEF 2011/17 – Academician Sisoye’s Inaugural Speech [Macedonia]

29/04/2011

Macedonian writer Blaže Minevski has written a ghost story.  “Academician Sisoye’s Inaugural Speech” is not a story about ghosts (well, in its way, it is that) but one seemingly told by a ghost, by something less, even, by a narrator – Sivakov – who lays claim to evanescence.  Floating in free space, as it were, this story is in no way vaporous or nebulous, but pulses with comedy, vibrant and exuberant, charming and ludic.

Academician Sisoye has made it.  Finally, he is a member of the Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he is due to give his inaugural speech today.  Everything is ready, he has been preparing for ‘precisely six months,’ and nothing has been left to chance, nothing entrusted to his slumbering memory.  Sisoye is confident that his speech on the movement of atoms through organisms will earn him his place in the Academy and the plaudits of his peers.  Sisoye “just [needs] to deliver his inaugural speech and he would at last be admitted to those hallowed halls.”  But Sisoye never even makes it out the front door of his house.

Sisoye’s story is narrated by his “greatest antagonist, Academician Slavko Sivakov,” and so must  be read with caution, each word weighed and measured.  Sivakov’s Sisoye is part Pythagoras, part Democritus; a believer in the deadly effects of the cuckoo’s call and the raven’s caw, and an exponent of the indestructible atom, the indivisible universal unit.  Sivakov’s Sisoye believes that our existence is an epiphenomenon, the gestalt of our assembled atoms in motion, and our deaths bring about the dissolution.  Spinning with such speed, our bodies atrophy as they begin to pull apart.  Sivakov makes Sisoye out to be fatuous and comically pathetic, a figure to be laughed at, not with.  Well, mostly, that is: Sivakov employs an irony to take the sting from his satire:

“’Who knows what Slavko Sivakov will turn into [when his atoms dissociate], after he and those other senile academicians from his macabre little clique prevented me from becoming and academician for ten whole years…’ Sisoye thought and smiled, winking as if making jokes with an invisible companion…”

Sisoye’s inaugural speech, as written by Sivakov (based, he attests, on Sisoye’s own notes), is ridiculous fun.  Sisoye says,

“None of us know if we bear within us an atom of a fly that died a thousand years ago or an atom from the pumpkin that the wife of Kosan, the scribe of the Macedonian King Vukashin, baked between her torrid thighs in 1366.”

And,

“’Therefore, dear colleagues, if we are descended from monkeys, and monkeys in turn from bananas [because the one ate t’other], which came first – the chicken or the egg?’”

And not just his words, but Sisoye’s actions, as told by Sivakov, paint him a shade silly:

“He stood on his toes so the audience could see the handkerchief perching jauntily in the breast pocket of his coat.”

…..

“Sisoye…took a quick gulp of mineral water; it sloshed in his glass and a little spilled out.”

At the end of his speech Sisoye’s audience of academicians levitates and rises through the roof of the hall and out into the sky.  He opens his eyes, but his audience has disappeared, risen like helium, lighter than air.

At this point of Sivakov’s narration we discover the truth: Sisoye died even before leaving his apartment that morning.  The text we have been reading was composed by Sivakov, a colleague and rival of Sisoye’s.  There is in the farcical representation of academician Sisoye by Sivakov an element tragical – we don’t know the “real” Sisoye.  The only testament of this man’s life is the misrepresentation (and we can be sure it is one), to a greater or lesser degree, by an academic rival.  We imagine him slumped at his table with some of his personal effects before him, including the speech he was to give that day, cold and breathless from a heart attack.  Overexcited?  Nervous?  Sivakov ventures no conjecture.

Minevski’s story is in danger of floating away like a helium-filled balloon.  The story,  we assume in the first, is Sisoye’s.  But he dies and we know it to be Sivakov’s telling.  And then the final words of the story provoke a disorientation, “And of course many thanks to you as well, because you are paying attention to me as though I exist, though I know I don’t.”  If that is true, then whose story is this?  To what consciousness is it tethered?  But, of course, it’s a lie.  We don’t believe Sivakov that he doesn’t exist because, Descartes’ cogito ergo sum notwithstanding, he has all but admitted his unreliability as narrator.  And so “Academician Sisoye’s Inaugural Speech” evades evaporation and condenses to a solid story that rises as one of the strongest thus far in the Best European Fiction 2011 anthology.

‘Academician Sisoye’s Inaugural Speech’ is translated by Will Firth.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.

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