Let’s play Desert Island Art Books and Exhibition Catalogues. OK. I choose: Bojan Sarcevic’s Une Heureuse Régression (A Happy Regression). In a place riddled with poisonous snakes and insect-borne diseases – indeed, on a desert island – this is probably the most useful object you could bring along. It is a comprehensive survival guide, containing all the technical skills you need to know if you find yourself caught in a hurricane, adrift at sea, stranded on a mountain or stuck in any other situation where you would need to know which tubers are edible or how to prepare a landing-site for your own helicopter rescue. The tips are accompanied by descriptive drawings and instructive diagrams of slingshots, bone tools and animal snares. It may not make a good soundtrack, but at least it would keep me alive longer than Elton John’s Tiny Dancer (1971).
There’s just one catch: the entire book is written phonetically in a heavy Eastern European accent. Zo zee reezult luks zumting lyk dis. Not zo eze to zurvyv now, eez it? Sarcevic’s book speaks of the gulf between language and understanding, which, as an artist from Sarajevo living in Berlin, may be rather close to his personal experience. Sarcevic translated the guide into a parody of ‘English as a lingua franca for Europe (ELFE)’ – a proposed new English spelling system for the European Union. In many ways it’s emblematic of the muddle that the EU could – and has – become. In the melting-pot of European cultures the tools for basic survival could be, as they are in Sarcevic’s book, lost in the linguistic mire.
The clash between profound misunderstanding and basic survival skills can be slapstick humour, or it can be deadly serious. The implied comedy – or impending disaster – is all in the time it takes to decipher the instructions. Imagine you’re on a camping trip gone horribly wrong. Taking the lead, you read from Sarcevic’s book, but you wind up sounding like a TV psychic giving out late-night life-saving advice, or like my Czech grandmother dispensing her old wives’ tales. A child is choking? According to the book, ‘Hold apside dovn by hels and stike 4 blovs vith hel of yor hend, betvin ze sholderblayds.’ Dying of thirst? ‘Urin and sea voter: Never drink eider – never.’ Sarcevic may be inspecting a deep cultural wound: would you want to be stuck in a sinking boat with someone who can’t speak your language?
The book is a faithful translation of a survival guide, so it’s theoretically useful, if a bit outmoded. If I ever ended up by a river by myself with no food and no way to leave, I now know how to build a ‘botl trap’, for instance: ‘Onse in, fish kan’t get aut.’ The final essay (in normal English) is written from the perspective of a man who thinks he’s asleep on the grass in a park, but upon waking up he can’t move. What we realize, but what he seems unable to grasp, is that he’s actually the victim of a disaster, pinned underneath bodies and rubble. Seen from the victim’s side, the joke becomes quite serious. The knowledge in this parodic art work could be the difference between life and death for any one of us. Iv onlee vee kood reed it.