Svetislav Basara: The Cyclist Consiracy

I’m a fan of conspiracy theories in literature.  I love the antiquities and the act of imagining what secrets have been lost to history — or hidden from history.  My problem is that I’m a bit ignorant of the best books on the subject, whether fiction or nonfiction, that have fun but are well written, appropriately dark, and interesting aside from being about some secret (suggestions are welcome).  We are given the wrong impression that if one wants to deal in historical secrets hidden in plain view, one has to read Dan Brown and his like (I have gone there, I admit), but those types of cookie-cutter books don’t get the job done.  I’m happy to say that I found what I was looking for in The Cyclist Conspiracy (Fama o biciklistima, 1988; tr. from the Serbian by Randall A. Major).  I mean, who among us can resist a book that begins, “Endless are the secrets of provincial libraries.”

Review copy courtesy of Open Letter.

The Cyclist Conspiracy is a fun, mad-dash read through letters, lost manuscripts, research papers, stories, poems, dialogues, diagrams, and anything else you can imagine compiling for a book about some secret and ancient cult of cyclists. 

The first thing in the book is an Editor’s Preface, signed by S.B.  Here S.B. briefly tells about an autumn evening he spent looking through the piles of books and papers in the cellar of the Municipal Library in Bajina Bašta, where he had retreated to take “refuge from sadness the cause of which I still cannot mention.”  There he came across The Manuscript of Captain Queensdale, published in Zürich in 1903.  This book, which has taken who knows what path to get to the cellar of the Bajina Bašta’s Municipal Library, is the third of only six copies printed.  Indeed, publishing six copies and then sending each copy someplace in the world where it would find the right reader seemed was to be the book’s standard mode of dissemination because that right reader would then publish six copies and send them around, etc.  S.B. has breached this protocol — any one of us can buy and read this book now – but he did this for a purpose:

In handing this collection over to the reader, I realize that several years ago, searching for colored pebbles, I came across a pearl, but also that the pearl had been awaiting a proper owner and found an improper one instead, who would turn it into a glass bauble by reduplicating it in an insufferably large number of copies.  The only justification is that, in our time, which falls within the autumn of the year of years (about which Captain Queensdale speaks), even the sparkle of a glass bauble shines through the darkness gathering on the horizon.

The book then steps back into history to the reign of the apocryphal king (because he himself wrote history so that he would appear to be apocryphal (or he really is apocryphal)) Charles the Hideous, a man who can see the future and the past.  One day, a group of Two-Wheelers exiled from Paris come to Charles’ court.  They bring a clay tablet containing The Book of Javan the Son of Nahor (“to those yet unborn”).  They tell him of a great project: the Tower of Babel will be rebuilt.  This is just the beginning.  Charles invokes Freud, and later it turns out Freud himself is a member of the conspiracy and a character whose writings will appear in this book.

Much of the fun to be had here (but not all) is in finding new characters and following their relationship with the cyclists.  For example, who is Captain Queensdale, whose manuscript S.B. found at the beginning?  He was a ship captain who, in 1761, was the sole survivor of a shipwreck.  He ended up on an island north of Iceland where he finds a community of cyclists.  Who published that manuscript in Zürich in 1903?  That was Rheiner Meier, another of the novel’s characters, and a bit of a skeptic.  Here is his introduction to the six volumes he had published and sent around the world:

It is possible that the whole thing is a joke.  Someone with an English sense of humor (the copyist is English) is doubtlessly willing to undertake extensive and expensive preparations in order to, after his own death, make fools of a small group of unknown people.

We are also pleased to find a missing Sherlock Holmes story, entitled “The Final Case of Sherlock Holmes: The Maniacal Cyclist.”  A small piece to the puzzle that is The Cyclist Conspiracy (though the first where we see a cyclist going around smashing random clocks), this brief story was a large part of the fun.

And it keeps going through journals, treatises, illustrations, constellations, symbology, etc.  We learn about a master plan to build the Grand Insane Asylum, which will have capacity for 20 million.  Indeed, the conspiracy is so large that one can be part of it and never know it.  The pieces of the puzzle keep coming and with them come switchbacks, half-truths, contradictions, blatant misinformation — in other words, history.

So, yes, this is a fun, though intricate (requiring some give and patience) read, but there’s more to it, a darkness suggested about the workings of men and the presence of history in the present.  There are many reasons the bicycle is the chosen symbol to represent so much, but we know it could have been almost anything else.  What feels right, fated, even fore-known, is arbitrary, and the Grand Insane Asylum, whose details are lovingly described by a certain inmate, seems a good fit for more than 20 million.  Indeed, why didn’t S.B. just retreat to that library cellar?  Because no matter what the sadness was that drove him there to begin with, there’s something invigorating about chasing down darkness on this scale.

6 thoughts on “Svetislav Basara: The Cyclist Consiracy

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Well, here’s another book I’m going to have to get hold of. I was already very interested and then you go and end your review with this:

    ‘Because no matter what the sadness was that drove him there to begin with, there’s something invigorating about chasing down darkness on this scale.’

    Which sounds like it might easily be attributed to Bolano, which may well be neither here nor there, but automatically puts me in mind of the exact location where ‘the stuff’ tends to be for me. Anyway, great review Trevor.

  2. leroyhunter says:

    Anyone who has ever read The Third Policeman knows only too well the dark centrality of cycling to human history and the soul…

    Fine review Trevor, this sounds intriguing!

  3. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Lee and leroyhunter.

    Leroy, I had no idea. I may come to wish I’d been left in the dark.

    Lee, I didn’t think of Bolaño while reading this. That may be a missed opportunity on my part, because you’re right: being invigorated by chasing darkness is a big part of Bolaño’s work. I do think there are differences and trying to articulate them might be fun, so here goes.

    The Cyclist Conspiracy, despite being a mish-mash of contradicting documents whose veracity cannot be determined, is somehow more tidy and controlled than Bolaño. I guess I feel that Basara’s darkness, while huge, universal, is still not even close to the proportions of the darkness Bolaño suggests in his books. To go further, though Basara’s darkness is large and convoluted and secret, it feels more knowable than Bolaño’s, which can really only be sensed imperfectly, giving us the sense that knowing that darkness would be instant madness and death.

    I’m praising Bolaño here at the expense of Basara, which is not my intent, but if I put the two side-by-side I’d go with Bolaño. However, given my esteem for Bolaño, coming up short next to him is kind of a meaningless measurement :) .

    I still think you’d like this one.

  4. Lee Monks says:

    Very interesting…I always think of Bolano, perhaps bizarrely, as a kind of Lovecraft of psychology: rather than show you the awe-inspiring tip of a giant tentacle he leads you to the precipice of a place that, as you say, promises oblivion, an amorphous tenebrous force we can sense close by and must arrest or pay dues to to exist. I like that unknowability and hints thereof, rather than tidier versions, but I’m still very keen to read Basara.

  5. stujallen says:

    I had this down as one to get ,will do seems little left field ,sure the is a cyclist cult in some part of china the divine order of de railer or such like sound of brought together material reminds me of the sarah milano novel from about ten years ago encyclopaedia of snow that was mean to have been found in the snow rather like this book ,all the best stu oh great review by the way as there is no like button to say that

  6. kimbofo says:

    As a mad commuter and recreational cyclist, this sounds exactly like my cup of tea. (I wonder what it is about cycling and conspiracy theories — last year I read Vault by David Rose which was all about road cycling, army snipers and nuclear espionage.)

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