Blesok no. 101-102, November-December, 2015
THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THE LABYRINTH IN CONTEMPORARY MACEDONIAN SHORT STORY
THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THE LABYRINTH IN CONTEMPORARY MACEDONIAN SHORT STORY
Translated from Macedonian
by Milan Damjanoski
Telling a story is very much like entering into a labyrinth: both the story teller and the reader at that point are taking on a series of risks. The former with every subsequent word can set or alter the course of the story, but with every new step he or she can stray, wander, get off track… The story as is told may lure the reader into its dark corridors, offering him the chance to become “someone else” after reading the book, but it can also leave him with the feeling that he has been slain multiple times by the Minotaur. Some story tellers discreetly place Ariadne’s thread in the hands of their readers, while others delight in the notion that the reader is bound to wander for a long time through the bends and paths of their story.
The ancient mythical image of the labyrinth has encased a multiplicity of different symbolism even in archaic mythologies and the oldest literary documents. In the conclusion to his renowned study The Book of Labyrinths, Paolo Santarcangeli points to the indelible link between space and time produced by the labyrinth within its universally widespread mythic-ritualistic complex. As seen from a Bakhtinian perspective, the labyrinth in the context of literature represents a chronotope which markedly reflects “the essential mutual connection between temporal and spatial relations” (Bahtin 1989, 193). This is likely the reason that the labyrinth has always been an irresistible challenge in the artistic journeys of the spirit to a series of canonised authors of prose in the 20th century: from Joyce to Kafka, Eco to Tabucchi, Borges to Gide, Blanchot to Robbe-Grillet. According to ancient mythology, the labyrinth is the masterpiece of the skilled architect Daedalus, the construction of which was ordered by the King Minos of Crete, the son of Zeus and Europa. This colossal edifice was compared to the royal palace in Knossos (16th century BCE), which according to archaeologists and architects comprised of around 1,800 rooms and covered an area of 16,000 m The labyrinth became emblematic of the material and spiritual culture of the Minoan civilization, even though the labyrinth as a symbol can be found worldwide and in a number of religious and esoteric systems.
The primary function of the labyrinth is to serve as a site for initiation. In the Hellenic myth, the labyrinth is a unique grandiose prison, “an inscrutable jumble of corridors” (Graves) in the centre of which lies imprisoned, at the order of Minos, the Minotaur, the monstrous creature with the body of a human and the head of a bull, the son of Pasiphaë and Poseidon’s bull. According to the myth, the labyrinth’s creator Daedalus was also held prisoner there together with his son Icarus, whose escape (from the labyrinth) has been depicted in the eighth canto of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “However, the key situation in the myth related to this symbol has been turned upside down – states Vlada Urošević in his essay “The Road to the Centre and Back” – the main goal here is to find a way out of the maze of corridors and into a free space. The basic goal of entering a labyrinth – getting to the centre – is overlooked here and turned into something irrelevant” (Урошевиќ 2001, 16).
Unlike the mythical episode about the escape of Daedalus and Icarus from the labyrinth, the myth of Theseus certainly contains all the key stages of the initiation scenario: entrance, successful location of the centre, the battle and conquest of the Minotaur, as well as getting to the outside and in the open air – all of which would not be possible without the invaluable help of Ariadne’s thread.
In the mythical-ritualistic context, the labyrinth is an esoteric space where the initiate through a series of rites of passages transforms, i.e. is reborn again. In the imaginary world of the labyrinth of special importance is the fact that space/time itself are subject to metamorphoses/transformations, which can be seen in literature/art where the labyrinth has been modulated into a set of more or less related chronotopes: closed space, prison, the realm of the dead, underground site, city, library, museum, etc. Finally, the labyrinth has also been subject to transformations within the world of the contemporary Macedonian short story.
The City as Labyrinth
“The Minotaur Awaits” by Aleksandar Prokopiev
In the short story “The Minotaur Awaits” by Aleksandra Prokopiev, published in the collection of stories Sailing to the South (1988) (the title clearly indicating its mythological theme), a seemingly prosaic search for an “exotic fruit shop” and wandering through the streets of an unknown City unexpectedly is transformed into movement through the Labyrinth:
He continued to walk around the City and even though he had the impression that he was going around in circles, the names of the streets were always different. It was as if he was walking down the mysterious corridors of the Labyrinth. Alighting all around him were street lights, lights from houses, shop windows, car lights. He stepped deeper and deeper, while the night breath of the City assaulted him with tattered dreams which broke like pieces of old newspapers, then came back like multitudes of waves. He was sinking, more angry than scared, not paying attention to his steps that fell short, sensing that he was about to make the large leap – but into what, he still didn’t know.
(Anthology of Macedonian postmodern short story, 259)
This short story by Aleksandar Prokopiev is in fact a re-enactment of the pre-historic relation between the labyrinth and urban space. Whereas the labyrinth is a paradigm for a closed space in which you enter, stay for a certain period of time and then exit, urban space incorporates within itself the inside-outside dichotomy. The artistic transposition of this mythical image imposes the need for the city to be depicted also as a closed space, thus making the city streets and alleys the corridors of an endless labyrinth. In the story “The Minotaur Awaits”, the urban space reveals its labyrinth-like nature due exactly to the fact that the main character enters it for the first time and that the plot takes place in a nocturnal and phantasmagorical setting. The narration also showcases the transformation of the city into a labyrinth (closed space) through the descriptions of the sky: “The sky above him closed like the doors of a giant hangar “.
One of the themes of Prokopiev’s short story underlies the experience which Hélène Cixous defines as “inside on the outside” (dedans de dehors)“. “To enter an open space (city, garden) this is what it truly means not to go inside: to be inside without being inside, every inside has one inside within, but also an outside in that inside and so it goes ad infinitum” – says Cixous. In fact, the paradox set out in “The Minotaur Awaits” lies in the impossibility to establish precisely the exact point of the passage between the inside and the outside. Unlike the traditional myth about the journey into the centre of the labyrinth where Theseus kills the Minotaur, the adventure of the main character in “The Minotaur Awaits” is predetermined by the quest for an exotic fruit shop. This leads to the urban space functioning as a sort of decentred labyrinth in which one of the three female characters reveals to the hero the secret that “the path to the goal is always unpredictable, no matter how easy it seems at the beginning “ (ibid, 259).
Consequently, we may conclude that Prokopiev’s short story provides a vivid illustration of the connection between the categories of the chronotope, story and character (“the character is always essentially chronotopic” – underlines Bakhtin 1989, 194): the metamorphosis of the chronotope into an urban labyrinth results also in the transformation of the main character. In this modified space, he faces an initiation trial (“fateful test of your courage”), identifying himself with the mythic hero Theseus, so much so that it is not by accident that when he receives the sword and the spool of thread he wants to identify the women with Ariadne! Just like the labyrinth, the city is a man-made work of architecture, designed and built as a space of and for initiation, a place of reckoning. It is this semantics which is quite consistently orchestrated in the short story “The Minotaur Awaits” by Aleksandar Prokopiev. The City there is a dynamic labyrinth which is constantly changing, just as its visitors are changing.
Art as a Labyrinth
„Water, Labyrinths “ by Dimitrie Duracovski
A myriad of various forms and transformations are also articulated in the short story “Water, Labyrinths” by Dimitrie Duracovski, published in the book Black Prophets (1996). Namely, the text itself is structured as a very complex intertextual, i.e. intermedial labyrinth: the three parts of the narrative body not only are replete with “other” literary and visual texts, but an integral part of the short story is represented by the thirteen reproductions of paintings placed as footnotes, images which effectively complement and complicate the semantic charge of the narrative text.
This makes “Water, Labyrinths” by Duracovski a short story which should in no way be read in a linear manner, quite the contrary – it leads you down an unpredictable, exciting, mysterious and obscure path. The relation between the texts and the paintings is exceedingly complex and emphasizes the labyrinth-like nature of the act of perception of a work of art. In the first part of the narrative text through the act of ekphrasis (description of the paintings), the narrator provides a detailed description of the painting of a certain “huge edifice” (castle, cathedral) first rising above the water, then sinking down into the lake, comparing it to a labyrinth. Here it is important to point out that the reproduction of the said work of art is juxtaposed to the text, thus not only implicitly calling upon the reader to compare the visual text and its literary description, but also inevitably making him or her realize that besides the fact that this architectural building primarily resembles a semi-sunk cathedral (with two domes and a roseta), in the text this space has acquired all the main attributes of a labyrinth!
Secondly, as part of an illusion on the lake coast, following a suggestion by the narrator (this section of the prose text is narrated in the second person, akin to the novel Second Thoughts by Michel Butor), the reader as his double finds among various props (comb, mirror, spool of red silk thread) a large shell with an engraved drawing of a Labyrinth signed with the initials of Leonid Šejka: “You carefully open it and notice inside it an engrave drawing of some sort. The drawing is a depiction of a labyrinth, different than any of the labyrinths that you have seen in old books. In the corner of the drawing, two letters: L.Š.” (Дурацовски 1991, 37).
The complex meta-textual dimension of Duracovski’s short story can, in fact, be seen in the other insertion of another author’s text – the letter from Branka Kukić to Jelena Do, dated 19 The purpose of the letter lies in the very attempt to solve, to interpret the meaning of Šejka’s drawing, by having Kukić analyse the visual text which is, also, reproduced in Footnote no. The interpretation is based on its key symbols, presenting “several suppositions about the terms with which Šejka operates in his drawing entitled the Labyrinth” (ibid, 39). Particularly indicative are the terms which serve as the focus in the description/interpretation of the work of art: City, Spool, Brain (or Guts), Hand, Cross, the Minotaur.
These symbols not only refer to a mythical subtext, but also to the relation of the author to a broader symbolism of the labyrinth both in art, as well as in the esoteric (Kabbalah, Christian, Hindu) tradition. For example, with regards to the relation between the city and the labyrinth the interpretation states that: “The foundations of the City that we can discern in Šejka’s Labyrinth are the foundations of a holy city. It could be the City of Rome whose ur-basis, ur-foundation was a labyrinth. Or the City of Jericho which, because of the ignorance to the Path was razed to the ground, and now remains an eternal insoluble labyrinth” (ibid). This example alone shows that facing the remnants of the past, as well as the hermeneutic process itself resembles a labyrinthian trial, leading to each key symbol to be interpreted from a different perspective: the spool, hand and the Minotaur all are seen as allusions to the Classic Greek myth. On the other hand, the parallel between the symbolism of the labyrinth and the human insides (brain or guts) is based on the Hindu traditions, whereas the analysis of the cross is grounded in Christian symbolism.
Inversely, the interpretation of the painting has no pretensions to create the illusion that it is final, quite the contrary, this line of thought culminates with the dilemma: If Šejkа did not comprehend the labyrinth as an Exit, then why does the drawing contain so many human attributes: City (holy space, defended from the forces of evil), Spool (the demiurge Ariadne’s thread), Brain and/or Guts (centre of human integrity), Hand (pointing to the road sign), Cross (the centre, point of contraction of the world and the being)? (ibid, 41)”. The interpretation of the painting in Duracovski’s short story, furthermore, engages the symbol of the labyrinth in the context of Umberto Eco’s theory that “the labyrinth-network” is postulated as the image of the culture of interpretation: “The universe of semiosis, that is to say the universe of human culture must be perceived as a labyrinth of the third type: It is structured as a network of interpretants… It is virtually endless because it takes into account the multiplicity of interpretations by various cultures…” (as quoted in Билјана С. Црвенковска 2004, 105).
In the third part of the short story “Water, Labyrinths” the addressee (reader?) is introduced into the interior of the building described as “The Castle”: “You watch the group slowly move and ceremoniously enter through the open gate. Unbeknownst to them you join them and enter last in line. The massive gate noiselessly closes behind you (…) You are left alone“. Even though the identity of the mysterious building is yet to be revealed – which can be also read as an allusion to it being a veritable afterlife metaphysical space – it gradually assumes the features of a labyrinth: “You are confused by the great number of corridors, some intersecting, some running in parallel, some ending with a wall, some continuing endlessly. You think of the labyrinth drawn on the shell you found on the lakefront. You sense the magic attraction of the endless corridors. Slowly, you let the silk red thread unravel. This is the only way to find the way out. “ (ibid, 42).
The corridors and chambers in the building are full of paintings and scenes reminiscent of various famous works of art (Woman n Blue Reading a Letter by Vermeer or Ambassadors by Holbein, several paintings by Šejka, etc.), while the person who enters it undoubtedly has the primary role of an observer. Moreover, Duracovski’s short story implicitly thematises the museum as another modern variant of the mythical edifice.
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (in a lecture given at the Paris University 3 in February, 2005) states that, even as early as the 19th century, museums became the modern shrines, modern labyrinths, while the modern pilgrims are in fact – the tourists. “Most European cities are, in fact, Museums” – Agamben made this salient point in his lecture.
Man as Labyrinth
“The Fourth Point” by Goce Smilevski
The semantic relations between the labyrinth, city and artistic creation are also well established in the short story “The Fourth Point” by Goce Smilevski which is published in A Day in Skopje, Anthology of Short Stories Inspired by Skopje (1998), an anthology edited by Lidija Kapushevska-Drakulevska. The short story juxtaposes the narrative sequences concerning the suicide of the young poet Anonymous Unknownson (in the urban chronotope of present day Skopje) and a series of reminiscences of the mythical escape from the labyrinth by Daedalus and Icarus.
The connection between the two “stories” is established through the chronotope of the labyrinth: in the poet’s study, also known as sky-cage, Anonymous “ was making a strange path, a path ever so more looking like a labyrinth” (Ден во Скопје 1998, 190-1). Similar to Prokopiev’s short story, the very act of naming of the chronotope of the labyrinth inevitably implies a link between the characters in the story and the myth: “in the labyrinth, he would be transformed both into Theseus and the Minotaur, he was at the same time the hero and the beast, he became both the killer and the victim” (ibid).
What is very indicative in this instance is that the narrator explicitly desires to play the role of Ariadne, passing over the thread to the hybrid character – Theseus/Minotaur. According to Smilevski’s short story, it was right in the centre of this imaginary labyrinth “that the two parts of the same being should meet, the Minotaur and Theseus, thus forming a third – Icarus” (ibid, 191). This way, “The Fourth Point” follows a long literary tradition (starting from T. Gautier and C. Baudelaire to W.C. Williams and J. Ashbury), to connect the image of Icarus with the destiny of the artist (poet/painter): both (the mythical Icarus and the poet Anonymous) escape the labyrinth by soaring high above it, not content with flying in the middle, resulting in the fatal fall from the sky.
According to the Encyclopaedia of Symbols, “generally speaking, analytical psychology thinks that the labyrinth represents the psychological and spiritual journey which a person needs to set on within himself or herself” (349). Just like in every initiation rite, entering the labyrinth is related to the theme of symbolic death, whereas in the finale of Smilevski’s short story “The Fourth Point” there is a suggestive indication of the visual likeness between the architecture of the labyrinth and man’s internal labyrinth: “his brain so closely resembles a labyrinth with all its synapses leading to nowhere and everywhere” (ibid, 195). At the same time, the experience of facing a labyrinth as a chronotope subtly intersects with the secrets of artistic creation.
The Labyrinth of the Dream
“Small Box” by Vlada Urošević
As the title of the only comparative study fully devoted to the phenomenon of the fantastic short story in Macedonian literature convincingly asserts – the book In the Labyrinths of the Fantastic (1998) by Lidija Kapushevska-Drakulevska – there is a primordial connection between the chronotope of the labyrinth and the genre of fantasy.
In this context, a specially illustrative example can be found in the short story “The Small Box” by Vlada Urošević, published in Hunting for Unicorns (1982), which is thematically closely followed by the short stories in the collection My Cousin Emilija (1994). Corresponding to the main postulates of the so-called “oneiric fantasy”, this short story by Uroshević metamorphosizes a Skopje hamam/warehouse (the Daut Pasha Hamam) into a veritable labyrinth (“in the interior of some complicated building”) through the oneiric experiences of the narrator and Emilija. (Short digression: in the context of oneiric fantasy, Urošević’s short story “The Small Box” can be compared to the short prose “The Dream of Daedalus, Sculptor and Architect” from Dreams about Dreams by the Italian storyteller Antonio Tabucchi).
In Urošević’s short story, the hamam not only is granted the status of an oneiric chronotope (“I think that everything I dream is happening there”), but on a more general level dreaming is explicitly compared in several instances to “walking through the darkness of the labyrinth”. Obviously, the entrance into the hamam contains several elements of the initiation into puberty. 1) Namely, the narrator first mentions that entering the hamam is akin to entering a sacred space, which is by definition different than the secular space: “closing the door behind us, it seemed to me that we are leaving behind all known things, the safety of everyday life, of the world (…) you could feel that we are moving inside a closed space (…) it seemed as if we are traversing into other regions, in areas subject to other climates“ (ibid, 204-5). 2) What is also very indicative is the fact that both the narrator and Emilija get the feeling that they should try to reach the centre of this unknown space, which certainly corresponds with the basic goal in the symbolism of the labyrinth: “We were headed deeper and deeper towards the centre of the large building, fighting our way through piles of old junk (ibid, 205)“. 3) Hover, instead of meeting the Minotaur, the narrator and Emilija meet an old lady who has been imprisoned for centuries in the hamam, thus leading us to conclude that the space of the labyrinth-hamam in the story functions as a mediator between the different ages: “There, on the other side of the door, remains the unbelievable, incredibly attractive, yet at the same time dreadful world of a by-gone era through which this lost bride of some Turkish Pasha was aimlessly wandering for centuries” (ibid, 207). Consequently, when seen through the prism of the chronotope, the short story “The Small Box” by Vlada Urošević once again serves to reassert the very complex relation between the chronotopes of the labyrinth, city and museum, as well as the mysterious relations between time and space both in dreams and in reality.
Following the analysis of these impressive pieces of prose, we feel we can state freely that in contemporary Macedonian short story the chronotope of the labyrinth enjoys a wide array of transformations and hybrid variants: labyrinth-city or city-labyrinth; labyrinth-warehouse; labyrinth-hamam; labyrinth-afterlife; labyrinth–museum; labyrinth-work space; labyrinth-man… Dreamed or imaginary, internal or external, concrete or conceptual, drawn or interpreted, the labyrinth in the Macedonian short story has grown into one of the key metaphors of the modern perception of urban space. The contemporary Macedonian short story also throws light on the primordial connection between the semantics of the initiation of facing the labyrinth and facing the act of creation, the structure of the artistic text, the complexity of the act of reception and interpretation of art phenomena. Contemporary Macedonian short story articulates the creative potential of the imaginary of the labyrinth which dates back several millennia.
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