reviewed by Anthony Adler
Trieste barely features in Little Red Transistor Radio from Trieste; it exists offstage, like The Archers’ Borcester or Fortinbras’ Norway, merely as a place from which a little red transistor radio is purchased and smuggled. In the eponymous first story of Dragan Todorovic’s collection, Trieste is the crack through which light is let in to the narrator’s home (to borrow a turn of phrase from the appropriately doleful Leonard Cohen); it is the source of the first Western music that he hears, and a diminutive sally-port into the adult world of sex and politics that engulfs him as he ages. The city is never mentioned again, though at the end of the story, twenty six years later, the narrator finds ‘a tightly-crammed electronics shop at the airport [in Paris, and] buys a little red transistor radio’, the symmetry made poignant and bathetic by surrogacy and commodification. He listens again to Yellow Submarine on Radio Belgrade, and its import is entirely ambiguous. He has escaped, if that is the right word, into exile, unless he is simply expatriate, to start a new life or rekindle an old one, to be alone or to be less lonely. For all its escapist cheer, Yellow Submarine celebrates a utopia of the drowned, and there is something of the submariner to each of Todorovic’s protagonists: always somehow in transit, making themselves at home in alienating environments because there is no alternative, roaming within the strictures of hierarchy, and engaged with their own environments through glass, through sonar, or through radio-waves; they are always flattened by the pressure bearing down on them, whether it is political or personal or existential.
Laced with desperate resignation, from the photographer meticulously recording the aftermath of other couples’ outdoor trysts to the shopper trapped in a world being devoured by a hypermarket.
Todorovic’s work is laced with desperate resignation, from the photographer meticulously recording the aftermath of other couples’ outdoor trysts to the shopper trapped in a world being devoured by a hypermarket:
You suddenly decide you want to go back to the hypermarket.
You want to buy some bleach and cocoa. You want to make a bomb that would scatter chocolate shrapnel when it explodes. Then the world would be one with its essence: looks like chocolate, tastes like shit.
And you also need bread and milk.
And you need that shine.
The gag is fairly typical of Todorovic: mordant, wry, almost gleefully glum, and so drily delivered that the humour is almost camouflaged. Often, though not in this case, the joke perches on a subtle quirk of syntax, as in the case of the university student who ‘fails his first exam in January since his girlfriend is practising fellatio’ and the ‘journalist [who] disappeared a week later, and has mostly not been found.’ Perhaps less admirably, Todorovic’s sensibility seems to have only two settings – dark and smutty – which I found a little waring. It was largely for this reason that I found myself in full-blooded disagreement to Maureen Freely’s blurbed claim that the collection is ‘deeply, deliciously consoling’; ‘deliciously dark yet somehow without cynicism’ would be closer to the mark.
I am not yet done with the little red radio. It – or at least, instances of objects of that type – crops up in ‘Postcards from Past Winters’, and recorded music pervades the entire book. The radio becomes both siren and anchor. The physical environments in these stories seems almost entirely shorn of emotional import (with two notable exceptions), so music steps in to fill the breach, opening little wells of sound that take on the duty of providing a home for the heart. (Perhaps this is why Trieste is entirely spent once it provides the radio.) Todorovic excels at using incidental detail to give readers access to his characters’ emotions, and he is at his best when he uses popular music to achieve this – which is probably why I enjoyed the title story and ‘Postcards from Past Winters’ more than anything else in the collection.
It doesn’t hurt that these two that have the strongest sense of place and are the most naturalistic, either. This is not because I abhor abstraction in fiction or require realism, but simply because the other stories just didn’t quite hit the spot. ’14 Years’ is excellent and unsettling, and is the sort of anti-institutional, lewd, politicised, absurdist, Kafka-esque short story that Marge Piercy and William S. Burroughs might have written together if they’d somehow been trapped in the same hotel room for a week; unfortunately that’s a description for something that I’d never actively choose to read if I could possibly avoid it. ‘Deathroom III’, in which an unsuccessful artist shuttles between his mother’s hospital deathbed and a hypermarket which is inexorably annexing the world, spends too much time on a whine about posterity and not quite enough on bringing its disparate elements, each of which was separately well-realised, together as a whole.
‘Camera Obscura’ and ‘What I’ve Seen’ suffer from similar flaws, but also suffer from problems that are specifically related to genre. ‘Camera Obscura’ is powered by the spooky object trope that will be familiar to any mainstream horror fan. A mysterious handmade camera from a village swallowed by the Iron Curtain takes photographs in which some subjects are invisible to all but the photographer, who then discovers that he no longer casts a reflection in mirrors. There is a great deal more substance to this story, which deals with depression and voyeurism, but Torodovic frustratingly fails to weld any of it to the soul-stealing vampire camera plotline (if that’s what the camera is – the story is a little light on these sorts of details). ‘What I’ve Seen’ doesn’t manage to make much of its projected metaphysics, and doesn’t quite make its man-in-a-coma structure intelligible on first reading.
They both also suffer from the downside of Todorovic’s laudable sparseness and lack that compelling spark of detail that is needed in a good short story – particularly ‘What I’ve Seen’, in which dialogue spoken over the unconscious patient is devoid of the specificity that it needs to sound convincingly medical. Generally, there’s a lack of clarity to the prose and a confusion in the diction; they’re less well realised than the other stories in the collection, and do very little that’s new. Perhaps it’s the subject matter of ‘What I’ve Seen’, which features the fallen angel Azazel and the one of the narrator’s alternate selves, but I can’t help thinking they’d both be better served as comics – something in the style of Mike Carey’s Lucifer, or Hellblazer, or the stand-alone issues of Sandman, perhaps. Both are stories that revolve around images, both could make good use of the opportunities offered by visual storytelling that could make up some of the deficiencies of the present prose versions, and Todorovic’s laconic narrative style would be a good fit for the clipped, boxed text of comic panels.
Little Red Transistor Radio from Trieste has its faults, but they are mostly minor, and easily overlooked. The design and print quality are a little disappointing, especially in comparison with the same designer’s work on Nine Arches Debut New Poets Series, but the quality of the work shines through. Judging short stories is hard. Casting about for inspiration, I found the following in Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine’s anthology Short Story Masterpieces:
A good short story gives pleasure and satisfaction to anyone who is curious about, and sympathetic with, his fellow men, anyone whose feelings are fresh and can respond to the funny, the pitiful, the noble, or the terrible, anyone who is concerned with the meaning of his own, or other people’s experience, anyone whose imagination is strong and healthy enough to create, from the words put before him by the writer, people, things, and events – the color of life. […]What [matters] is that the movement and color be delivered to us with force and freshness, and that the writer who delivers these to us make us feel, somehow, significance in the process. [sic]
It’s as good a yard-stick as any; and though the stories of Little Red Radio from Trieste are quite a way from those collected by Warren and Erskine in 1954, they certainly meet the criteria that those two august gentlemen set out. There is pleasure, and satisfaction, and significance; the funny, the pitiful, and the terrible; and there is meaning in abundance. I look forward to Todorovic’s next collection.