Nicola Barker: I Am Sovereign

Nicola Barker is having fun. She has waved good-bye to the traditional novel form and is experimenting left, right and centre. She is playing with words and characters, and we are the audience privileged to witness the joy and games.

You might deduce from that how much I enjoyed her latest ‘anti-novel’ I Am Sovereign. It is short, sharp, often hilarious and it might feel like it has less philosophical heft than some of her previous novels… but that’s not a bad thing. It is far less dense and therefore more accessible: in short, a great introduction for those who have yet to discover Barker’s work.

The action takes place over the 20 minutes or so that a typical house viewing might take place (although there are some things which delay the process, but still no longer than 30 minutes). The house in question is a rather run-down two up, two down on a grimy street in Llandudno and belongs to Charles’ late mother. Perhaps the reason the house isn’t selling is because Charles insists on ‘helping out with the viewings’, much to estate agent Avigail’s disgust, since this 40 year old, introverted teddy-bear maker is both chronically shy and prone to inappropriate over-sharing. For instance, he keeps mentioning an attempted burglary that took place at the property over 12 years ago, and forcing popcorn makers and other superfluous gadgets onto hapless prospective buyers.

When Wang Shu, a busy Chinese woman, constantly on the phone, and her daughter Ying Yue view the house, a mysterious and violent oyster shell incident occurs, which makes nearly all those present question their lives, their identities and their ambitions. And that’s before you even take into account their obsession with certain You Tube stars and self-development gurus. It all becomes funnier still and even more chaotic when the author grapples to regain her authority over her characters, as they disagree with her interpretation of things or even refuse to allow themselves to be portrayed at all in the book.

… it is necessary at this moment in the novella (henceforth referred to as I am Sovereign) to warn the reader that Nicola Barker (henceforth referred to as The Author) has been granted absolutely no access to the thoughts and feelings of the character Gyasi ‘Chance’ Ebo (henceforth referred to as The Subject). At his inception, The Subject seemed not only a willing, but an actively enthusiastic participant in the project, yet after several weeks of engagement became increasingly cynical and uncooperative, to the point of threatening to withdraw from the enterprise altogether if The Author deigned to encroach, unduly, upon his ‘interior life’.

You will find all the trademark Nicola Barker playing around with fonts and appearance of the text on the page. Yet somehow, it never feels too gimmicky. Things that might annoy me in other writers just make me giggle in this case.

You need to be in the right mood for a Nicola Barker novel, but when you meet it head-on, without knowing too much about it, without any expectations and an open frame of mind, what a beautiful collision (between fiction and reality) it makes!

#EU27Project: Slovakia’s Jana Benova

It has been difficult to find any Slovak authors in translation; by contrast, there is an abundance of Czech literature for the English-speaking reader to choose from. So I was happy to see that the small family-run indie publisher Two Dollar Radio from Columbus, Ohio, has published Jana Benova’s Seeing People Off, translated by Janet Livingstone.

Jana Benova is well-known not just in her home country, but also a winner of the European Union Prize for Literature, widely translated into other European languages other than English. She is a playful, experimental writer, with a fizzy, poppy style that one might expect from a younger writer (she is of my generation rather than a pure-bred millenial, by which I mean somebody born in the 1990s).

The original title of this novel is Café Hyena, and that is the meeting place for a group of artistic friends in Bratislava, in particular two couples who share an income which allows them to pursue their literary endeavours.

They had a system where one of them would always work and earn money while the others created. They sat around in the café, strolled around the city, studied, observed, fought for their lives. The fourth, meanwhile, provided the stipend. Just as other artists get them from ; the Santa Maddalena Foundation in Tuscany, the Instituto Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, the Fulbright Foundation in the USA, or the Countess Thurn-Taxis in Duino.

The Quartet are formed of Elza and Ian, who live in the much maligned district of Petržalka on the ‘wrong’ side of the river, and Rebeka (Elza’s childhood friend) with her husband Lukas Elfman. They are the post-Communist generation, but refuse to subscribe to the desperate capitalist hustle that seems to have engulfed everyone else. They feel they are not selling out on their artistic ambitions.

Elza and Ian were Bratislava desperadoes. They didn’t work for an advertising agency and weren’t trying to save up for a better apartment or car. They sat around in posh cafés. They ate, drank, and smoked away all the money they earned. Like students. (Slogan: Only genuinely wasted money is money truly saved.) They joined that carefree class of people who buy only what they can pee, poop, and blow out – recycle in 24 hours. It was because of those desperate people that the cafés and restaurants in the city, where everything costs a hundred times more than it should, could stay open.


Petržalka is a real neighbourhood of Bratislava, a sea of concrete tower blocks, home to 100,000 inhabitants. Somewhat ironically, it borders Austria, and in recent years has been repainted in an effort to shake its grey image. It is probably no better and no worse than hundreds of other Communist developments across the Eastern bloc, which cannot be torn down because it would leave so many homeless. Yet the author describes it like a circle of hell and makes fun of it relentlessly – the thin walls, eccentric neighbours who try to know everything about you, how easy it is to get lost in its identical alleys. To Elza, it feels like banishment from the ‘real city’ and the bridge connecting Petržalka to the Old Town is full of dangerous temptation to jump in. The river is ‘too close’ and ‘calls you’. Could that be because Petržalka is the place where losers go?

Elfman claims that the genius loci of Petržalka is the fact that, in time, everyone here starts to feel like an asshole who never amounted to anything in life. A guy who couldn’t take care of himself or his family.

So the Quartet takes refuge in their (often aimless) discussions and in their imaginings. Elza is obsessed with Kalisto Tanzi, a charismatic actor who might be her lover or perhaps a figment of her imagination. Elfman drinks excessively even by the group’s standards, while Rebeka ends up in a psychiatric ward. Very small and fast dogs seem to pop up in this strange mosaic-like collection of memories, insights, observations and anecdotes. We also catch glimpses of Elza and Ian’s childhood and youth. Just to confuse matters even more, Elza is in the process of writing a book called Seeing People Off, and the narration switches at some point from third to first person.

Confused? So you should be! This is certainly not conventional storytelling, but it is quite successful in capturing a certain type of person, place and time. Something that is difficult to articulate but that you recognise as vignette succeeds vignette. I might prefer a novel with a clearer story arc, but I was caught up in its verve and (sometimes black) humour. It certainly catches the mood of much of contemporary literature (see for example Attrib and Other Stories by Eley Williams, or Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation).