Decadence, arrogance and loss of innocence in Serbian's Vietnamese novel

By Di Ca   October 17, 2019 | 05:22 am PT
"The Cathedral Street" by a Serbian author insightfully encapsulates the highs and lows in the life of a French expat in Hanoi.

Author Marko Nikolic admits to some autobiographical influences on the novel’s protagonist, Nicholas, who initially comes to Hanoi to work in a hospitality company with an underlying agenda to mend his broken heart. 

His romanticized notions about a peaceful, exotic Asian country are neutralized with a culture shock as he leaves the airport towards the capital: grey skies and an intrusive driver who asks the most personal questions including how much he makes a month..

And on the road, chaos rules. The sound of impatient honking invades the ears of the new visitor from all sides. A motorbike clash flashes right before his eyes as he tries to calm down and pretend as if nothing ever happened.  

Book cover of The Cathedral Street.

Book cover of "The Cathedral Street".

Author Nikolic leads readers into the world of "The Cathedral Street" with a somewhat sarcastic sense of humor, opening up the journey of exploring Hanoi by a typical, fresh Western guy.

The street corners, people he meets and all the tales he encounters fascinates him with their stark cultural differences.

As a good looking European man who spends money generously, Nicholas feels as if he is the center of the universe. Hanoi seems to revolve around him, feeding his ego with admiration and excitement for "the European man."

Following the advice of a French friend who has been a long term resident, Nicholas feels the need to affirm his social position. He despises backpackers who come to Vietnam just to teach English, dress poorly and always gather to drink cheap beer on street corners, making lots of noise.

Nicolas spends his money extravagantly in luxurious bars and restaurants since such spending is only a small fraction of his income. He beds many women who are easily charmed by the handsome, savvy, fashionable and romantic Frenchman and only too ready to satisfy his sexual desires. 

Along the journey, he comes across a woman called Tra My, a waitress in a well-known coffee shop on Cathedral Street. The woman, with lovely dimples, gives Nicholas a sense of peace and gives him genuine affection when he’s around. Yet, too wrapped up in himself, fearful of making commitments and wary of cultural differences, Nicholas is not ready to give the relationship a name.

When Tra My confesses that she loves him, Nicholas is unable to handle its significance and tries to avoid responding to her words, setting him up for future anguish.

In the later part of the book, Nikolic tones down his sarcasm. 

The novel starts to get deeper with reflections and dilemmas Nicholas faces when he realizes he has lost his true love and purpose of his life. 

Nikolic has lived in Vietnam since 2014 and started to write "The Cathedral Street" a year ago, in Vietnamese.

Within 300 pages, he shows a strong command of Vietnamese vocabulary, especially in the many proverbs and idioms he uses. The author also demonstrates deep reflections on cultures, with their pros and cons. While real landmarks add authenticity to the novel, his assessment of the complicated expat mental makeup is likely to ring a bell with readers. 

Nikolic maintains that Nicholas is constructed from many people and events he’s come across. 

"Nicolas is me, or to put it better, the old version of myself. Nico showcases all actions, thoughts and mistakes I made in the past as well as the suffering he eventually has to bear. "The Cathedral Street" is a story of failure, revealing the life of a man who simply took advantage of life rather really live and reflects on it," Nikolic said.

Author Marko Nikolic.

Author Marko Nikolic.

Nikolic was rejected outright when he took his manuscript to the publisher. Armed with a letter showing many flaws in his work, he went into another three months of research and reflection, edited the manuscript and submitted it again. This time, he earned a publishing contract.

Nguyen Hoang Dieu, the editor of Nha Nam publishing house, said: "'The Cathedral Street" is appealing because it shows a rebellious yet sharp perspective of a French guy who lives in Vietnam. A romantic love story, insightful social observations and a tormented journey to find oneself ... all this is incorporated in a story written in very natural Vietnamese by Marko Nikolic." 

Marko Nikolic was born in 1987 in Serbia. He has a Master's Degree in Pedagogy from the University of Belgrade, Serbia and the University of Latvia. He is fluent in four languages, English, French, Russian and Vietnamese. 

Marko has been teaching English in Vietnam since 2014 and currently lives and works in Hanoi. His passion for writing craft sparked when he was 14. He has published two books in Europe. The Cathedral Street marks a new milestone of his literary journey as his third novel in yet another language, on another continent.

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