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:
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.
And 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.
It was one year before the Kosovo War in 1999 that Ismail Kadare, an Albanian author, wrote a little book set around the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. For a book that comes in under 100 pages, it touches on a wide range of themes closely related to Balkan identity. Even the word “Balkan” itself sounds strange to those identified by it, for the inhabitants of Southeast Europe are not accustomed to using a common word to identify themselves, the designation “Balkan” being imposed by the Islamic armies who do not see the diverse nations and people, but only another peninsula to be conquered.
Perhaps the book’s most perfect image of the South Slav identity conflict are the bards who accompany the armies going out to fight the Ottomans. You have Serbian and Albanian on the same side (Albania was mostly Catholic at this time and Serbia was Orthodox), and the Albanian bards are singing songs about defeating the Serbs while the Serbian bards pluck out tunes about defeating the Albanians. Some of the soldiers are disturbed by this and ask, “Why are singing songs about defeating our allies? Why don’t you sing about fighting the Turks?” And the bards respond that these are the only songs they know, so that even if they are not quite appropriate for the occasion, they are battle songs and they will have to do. Later on in the book, the same bards have a chance to perform before foreigners in the West who are horrified that they could sing songs against each other, even after suffering the same fate.
With this book, Kadare gives an illustration of why the Balkan world is so fascinating to me. He contrasts the distinctive heraldry and adornment on the Serbian side with the facelessness and homogeneity of the Ottoman conquerors. When the bards present their woes later on, a sympathetic woman compares their suffering with that found in the Greek tragedies, more rich and horrible than common troubles. So also in the 1990s, did the Southern Slavs experience wars and conflicts
I will certainly be reading more of Ismail Kadare, and I recommend this work to anyone wanting to read literature from Southeastern Europe.