“To the madness that is Serbia!”

January 29, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Song of Kosovo. Chris Gudgeon; $29.95 cloth 978-0-86492-679-1, 320 pp., Goose Lane Editions

Song of KosovoWhen people think of war in the context of CanLit, it is typically the First World War that comes to mind. But lately, a group of writers has been finding inspiration in the Bosnian war of the 1990s and the NATO bombing of Kosovo. Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Jim Bartley’s Drina Bridge, and Lesleyanne Ryan’s Braco have all mined the area and its turbulent recent history for material. Significantly, however, each of these authors has chosen to treat their subject in a style that is more or less naturalistic; realism and a strict fidelity to the historical record are the orders of the day.

Chris Gudgeon takes a different approach in his galloping, galumphing novel about the toll that the Milosovic regime, and NATO’s response to it, takes on one family. While Gudgeon does not entirely disavow naturalism, he marries it to an approach that is, in part, frankly absurdist, as befits a place with such a tumultuous history and mythology.

In Gudgeon’s conception, the two are never very far removed. Myth informs Serbia’s history as directly as it informs the experience of the novel’s protagonist, Zavida Zankovic, a young Serbian man who exists by dealing drugs and other contraband on the black market before being abducted and forced into military service.

Zavida is frequently visited by the ghost of Milos Obilic, a warrior who fought in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, “the pivotal, albeit highly mythologized, moment of Serbian history.” After slaying the Ottoman leader, Sultan Murad I, on the field of battle, Obilic himself was killed, though as Gudgeon recounts it, he was not merely decapitated: “They cut Obilic’s body to ribbons, fed most of him to the dogs, and paraded his head and massive genitals on top of spiked standards.” Describing Obilic’s importance to Serbia, Zavida puts it this way: “Everyone’s shit stinks after three days, as we Serbs say, and Obilic’s shit is the grandest, warmest, vilest pile of crap of all.”

Zavida’s insistence on the centrality of myth to the Serbian experience extends to his description of his pious mother, whom he compares to the Kosovo Maiden, “famous for wandering the battlefields of Kosovo in search of her betrothed.” The Kosovo Maiden, Zavida avers, is “a fixture in the popular imagination … rivalled only perhaps by the velvet Christ and those poker-playing dogs.”

Humour is an antidote to the degradation and violence that the Serbian people are heir to, first at the hands of Milosovic, then at the mercy of NATO’s bombs. “To the madness that is Serbia!” is a toast that is invoked in a tavern before the first bombs begin to fall. During the bombing, as NATO B-52s alternate their lethal payloads with packages of CDs and propaganda leaflets, Zavida asserts, “I’m really beginning to like this war.” At another point, the planes drop bags of condoms printed with the word “democracy”: “I handed the package to Tristina. ‘Bill Clinton sends his regards.'” The humour Zavida and his fellow Serbs engage in is frequently tinged with the kind of virile machismo that runs through the culture. “The Americans would never attack,” one line of reasoning goes. “Their President, after all, liked jazz music and fornication. He was practically a Serb.”

But the humour and mythology that serve as coping mechanisms are ultimately ineffective at keeping the violence of history at bay, and Gudgeon is adept at showing the extent to which this violence is not only quotidian, but also bears the qualities of rank absurdism. In one instance, a group of men continue drinking in a tavern as the bombs fall, only gradually coming to realize that one of their number has had the top of his head sheared off by a piece of shrapnel.

“History is a blanket we wrap ourselves in,” Zavida’s father says at one point. “It warms us at night but offers no real protection against bullets or fear.” The fear of constant, random violence is an important motivating factor in the Serbian psyche, Gudgeon shows; actions that may on the surface appear utterly irrational carry a strange kind of logic in a world that has abandoned all reason or predictability. Zavida’s father, an alchemist who quite clearly suffers from bipolar disorder, creates a public spectacle when he builds a bonfire out of a collection of books and proceeds to immolate them and, potentially, himself as well. In a place so beaten down by the depredations of history, the impulse to eradicate the historical record in a purgative fire seems almost understandable.

“How ‘true’ is this story?” Gudgeon asks in the novel’s opening pages. “That is, what elements of this story embrace a verifiable, measurable, and shared reality, and what elements are fabrications, the work of a semi-deranged mind, a prankster, a literary poseur?” His answer, ultimately, is that it doesn’t matter. What the author has created is not a work of documentary realism, but rather a collection of sense impressions of a country and a people undergoing catastrophic suffering. But Song of Kosovo is not a nihilistic book. By rejecting the dictates of strict reportage and producing instead an impressionistic work that combines history, myth, and legend, Gudgeon has written something that cleaves closer to emotional reality than naturalism ever could. The novel is tough, mordantly funny, but, above all, honest.