Heartwood 2:9 – The Cyclist Conspiracy

Svetislav Basara’s The Cyclist Conspiracy is a strange and imaginative collage-like “anthology” that draws on all kind of “historical documents” to tell the tale of select members of the Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross. The bicycle is shown to be symbolically linked to Christianity (it looks like a cross when viewed from above, for one thing) and the Little Brothers, as they’re called, meet in the space of dreams to influence events – even those that happened in the past, such as planning the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand fourteen years after the fact.

The book is composed of greatly varied chapters that take the form of memoirs, letters, proclamations and more, and it includes such things as maps, illustrations, technical drawings, and photographs. There is even correspondence from historical figures such as Sigmund Freud and a lost Sherlock Holmes story. These are all ingeniously woven together by Basara to give the book cohesiveness despite the great diversity of subject matter, characters and styles.

Make no mistake, this is one whacked-out book – an unorthodox mix of theology, mysticism, politics, time-travel, the dream world, poetry, architecture, and an overarching concern with documentary evidence and the vicissitudes of cultural transmission – all of which brings to mind Borges, Pynchon and Calvino. There’s a clear sense that Serbian author Basara is writing from an Eastern European crossroads – a perspective that extends to the historic crucibles of Byzantium and Babylon, while also reflecting on the detritus of 20th century wars and Stalinist totalitarianism.

It should be clear, if you’ve read this far, that this book won’t appeal to everyone. Far from it. As Damian Kelleher notes in his detailed review:

It was something of a risk for Geopoetika to choose Basara’s The Cyclist Conspiracy as one of their titles to translate into English. The risk lies in the inherent niche appeal of the title, for this is by no means a mass market book. It will scare away the faint of heart, and it will confuse and confound those looking for a ‘good read’ and nothing else. What it will do, however, is secure a small and loyal following, a group of readers who will read it again and again, pouring over its mysticisms and its esoteric connections in an attempt to unravel the mystery of the conspiracy. There is so much here, so many places, and times, and characters, and references, and the ties that binds them – bicycles and time – are both absurd and universal. One can imagine a twenty year old student, fascinated with literature and becoming aware of its possibilities, discovering The Cyclist Conspiracy and holding it deep within their heart for decades. It is a book that will appeal to few, but those who enjoy it, will love it greatly. It is a Serbian Gravity’s Rainbow, a Central European monument to history, to culture, to excess, and to the remarkable connections between everything and nothing.

That should help you decide if the book will fall within your appeal range – or maybe encourage you to stretch it.

As a librarian, I was, of course, instantly taken with the opening sentence: “Endless are the secrets of provincial libraries.” I also found it hard to resist the notion of an inseparable destiny that links a book, its author, and its reader – where manuscripts may remain hidden for ages until they “fall into the hands of the person for whom they were intended.”

But the parts I loved best were those that focused on the mystical and symbolic world of the bicycle and bicycling (which are to bicycling what Michael Murphy’s Golf in the Kingdom is to golf). More of this would have been welcome, but Basara’s ambitious scope takes him far beyond mystical bicyclism.

The image at the top of this post is my photo of Lyonel Feininger’s 1912 painting The Bicycle Race (somewhat cropped, unfortunately). And then there’s Open Letter’s beautifully minimalist book cover – maybe it’s just the cyclist conspirator in me, but to my eyes, this is cover of the year.

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