“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.

Literary algebra: The commercial + the literary = the not-quite

December 16, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Ever since commercial fiction has outsold its literary counterpart (which, for those who are unsure, means always), people have argued about what exactly constitutes “literary” fiction. How esoteric/highbrow/impenetrable does a work of fiction have to be to qualify as a “literary” novel? My colleague and buddy Nathan Whitlock has charged into this minefield with characteristic abandon in a recent column for Maisonneuve magazine. Whitlock kicks off his argument by pointing to a review of Lori Lansens’ novel The Wife’s Tale, commissioned by yours truly for Quill & Quire (where Whitlock and yr. humble correspondent share a pod-like cubicle) and written by James Grainger.

Now, I consider Grainger to be one of the sharpest critics in this country, but his review – which was generally positive – nevertheless roused the ire of Lansens’ agent, Denise Bukowski, who accused the reviewer of getting his facts wrong (the review erroneously stated that Oprah Winfrey had optioned the film rights to Lansens’ first novel, Rush Home Road)* and, more egregiously, of committing what Whitlock refers to as the “Sin of Distinction”: “after listing some of the authors who had been picked either for Oprah’s Book Club or … the U.K.’s Richard and Judy Book Club, Bukowski fought back against Grainger’s ‘patronizing’ notion that Lansens was working within chosen boundaries.” Whitlock summarizes the whole farrago this way:

This dust-up was a visible manifestation of a larger problem dogging Canadian publishing: the semi-utopian belief that literature is a garden that not only welcomes all comers (true enough), but contains no hedges or fences, is equally accessible from corner to corner, is blind to difference and immune to personal bias. Authors of all stripes mingle freely, and woe to him who suggests there are fundamental differences between what they write and for whom it’s intended.

The temptation to conflate various kinds of novels that are in fact distinct in execution and intended audience, Whitlock contends, should be avoided; critics need to “be more discerning” in “understanding (or perhaps admitting) that fiction comes in many forms” and they must be “unequivocal about what a given book is, and … catholic enough in their professional tastes to fairly assess diverse authorial intentions.” By describing the commercial aspects of Lansens’ novel, Grainger was simply performing one aspect of the critic’s job: situating the work within a particular category or tradition. Where Bukowski erred was in assuming that this implied any kind of value judgment.

Whitlock puts his finger on the reason a certain kind of middlebrow novel holds sway over CanLit these days: the dominant trend favours a kind of hybrid novel – what he refers to as the “Not-Quite Novel” – the literary equivalent of Dr. Moreau’s man-beasts: books that are “too thorny and/or sober to entertain, yet too conventional and broad to last.” The result of this artificial generic enjambment is novels like The Book of Negroes: ambitious tales about weighty subjects told in a manner that is straightforward and unchallenging. By refusing to completely embrace one aspect or the other – the commercial or the literary – the novel ends up doing justice to neither.

If I have any difficulty with Whitlock’s argument, it would reside in my feeling that he goes too far in pursuing an overly rigid dichotomy between “commercial” novels – those “big-plot, lots-o’-story books” – and “literary” ones (by which I take it he means difficult, more stylistically adventurous books that eschew story in favour of character development and syntactical pyrotechnics). The implication seems to be that “thorny and/or sober” books can’t entertain, while “conventional and broad” books don’t endure. What, then, is one to do with Dickens (who has been called the Shakespeare of the novel), whose writing was enormously commercial in the author’s own day, yet endures down to the present? (Whitlock covers himself here, referring at one point to “the strange things that time and distance can do to artistic categories,” but this admission seems to take a bit of the sting out of his argument.) How does one account for a book like Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, an Oprah pick that is unequivocally a “big-plot, lots-o’-story” novel, but seems to have a certain amount of staying power (first released in 1996, this month it was selected as one of the five contenders for the 2010 edition of Canada Reads)? And since Whitlock himself brings up Steven Galloway, how are we to categorize that author’s 2008 novel The Cellist of Sarajevo? It’s a story-driven book, but it also has frankly “literary” properties: a weighty subject (the Siege of Sarajevo), well-drawn characters, and evident attention to the prose on a line-by-line basis. (Whitlock might characterize this as a hybrid, or a Not-Quite Novel, but I consider it to be generally better than that.)

Recent years have seen a retreat from the kind of obscurantist anti-novel that began in the Modernist era and found its apogee in the French nouveau roman as practiced by authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet. In its stead, we are witnessing a resurgence – and newfound critical acceptance – of novels that privilege story over technical experiment – witness the critical accolades being heaped upon Stephen King’s latest novel, Under the Dome. King is a self-admitted commercial writer, and it’s unlikely the broad spectrum of his readers would be entertained by, say, the prolix digressions and postmodern approach of David Foster Wallace (despite the fact that, to a certain sensibility, Wallace is giddily entertaining). This, of course, is Whitlock’s point: different writers employ different styles and appeal to different audiences. But I wonder whether the broad categories he sets out may in fact be somewhat more permeable than he seems to suggest they are.

*It was Whoopi Goldberg. What idiot was in charge of fact checking that? … Oh. My bad.