An Elegy for Kosovo by Ismail Kadare

Before I talk about Three Elegies for Kosovo by Ismail Kadare, the first winner of the Booker Man International Prize, I want to give a little background about the setting:

tsar lazar

An icon of Tsar Lazar that I found on my own journey to Serbia

One of my favorite books of all time is the vast Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, a philosophically and historically packed narrative of a journey through Yugoslavia in the 1930s. The title refers to two images that appear late in the book and perhaps leave a greater impression than any other part in the book. Whereas the black lamb becomes for West an image of the ugliest aspect of the Southern Slav, the grey falcon is a symbol of their loftiest aspect, which holds eternity in greater esteem than world success, and yet not without tragedy. Partly from laziness and partly for conveying the effect of oral history, I will retell the story of the grey falcon as I remember it from Rebecca West and other sources, so as to form something of a background to Kadare’s little novel.

It is 1389 on the eve of a great battle with the Turks. The Serbs and their allies are prepared for battle in the Kosovo Field. It is in the region of Kosovo that one find the head of the Serbian Church and many of their monasteries. The Serbs were led by one known as Tsar Lazar, not a king of the royal family, but the effective ruler of Serbs.

kosovo fieldAnd so, it is said that on the eve of battle, Tsar Lazar saw in the sky a grey falcon coming from Jerusalem with a swallow in its mouth, only it was not a grey falcon, but the Prophet Elijah! And it was not a swallow, but a book written by the Mother of God which he carried with him. And so, Tsar Lazar received this book and read in it a promise and a decision. The armies may go out tomorrow for battle and obtain both victory and earthly glory. Or they can celebrate the Divine Liturgy, having every soldier receive the sacrament, and then they will go out to battle with Turks, and nearly every soldier will die, but they will thereby obtain eternal glory.

And so, Tsar Lazar ordered the beautiful carpets to be laid out, for an altar to be brought forth and set, and for the priests to vest for the Divine Liturgy. The next day, Tsar Lazar nearly every soldier on the side of the Serbs fell in battle and the Serbs became vassals to the Islamic Ottoman Empire for centuries to come. And yet the Serb identity did not die. This defeat of the Serbs was immortalized in Serbian poetry and included within this were the words of Tsar Lazar: Cursed be every Serb that does not fight for Kosovo. And so one could hear echoes of these songs ringing even in 1999, during the brief Kosovo War, as the Serbs attempted to expel the Albanians from the region of Kosovo before this action was halted by foreign intervention. Continue reading

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O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

wheat bouguereau“Now that I think of it, most of my girls have married men they were afraid of. I believe there is a good deal of the cow in most Swedish girls.”

O Pioneers! is the first volume of the Great Plains trilogy by Willa Cather. It centers on a Swedish family migrating to Nebraska at the turn of the century, and their struggles and triumphs, with the land and with the neighbors that surround them. She portrays not just Swedish people and customs, but also the neighboring Bohemian, French and Germans immigrants. As the novel goes on, some of the character become more “American”: only speaking English at home, leaving customs aside that attract the neighbors’ attention, and always seeking out the latest must-have invention or fad. The more charming characters are those who keep something of the old country, whether it is the old grandmother who only speaks Swedish and is afraid to use the bath tub, or the barefoot horse doctor who has vision and spells but is perfectly harmless. Continue reading

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

decline and fallThe Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh splits nearly into two parts: the first is spent in an all-boys school, the second in a prison. The two parts side-by-side give the impression that the settings are not as entirely different as one suspects. The first half of the book spends a long time introducing each of the characters and the second half of the book takes its time killing each of them off. Characters have silly names, such as Lady Circumference.

A problem with funny writing is that the joke might not make sense after a couple years, or in the case of Decline and Fall, after 90 years. Continue reading