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:

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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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An anarchist in Soviet Russia

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Dame Rebecca West

My Disillusionment in Russia by Emma Goldman is certainly one of the lesser know books on my list of classics to read, so it is worth explaining how it got there. The first reason is Rebecca West (and this is not the first time she prompted me to read a book). After reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and loving it, I searched around the internet for short pieces of her writing, and one of the first things I found was her introduction to Goldman’s book. One line from it had stuck with me from reading this introduction a couple years ago: “We must let each people seek God in its own way.” (I had forgotten the less inspirational-sounding next line, “and refrain from persecuting it in its search by such indirect methods as interference with the natural flow of trade.”) Although the line sounds relativistic or indifferent, at the very least, West is making the bold claim that the Revolutionary project in Russia is a search for God. Continue reading

Rosmersholm and new ideas poorly conceived

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Henrik Ibsen

My third classic is Rosmersholm, a play written by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian writing in Danish. I only discovered this play after discovering that Rebecca West was only the pen name of the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, one of my favorite works of literature, and that she took this pen name from a character in Rosmersholm. She was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, but she changed her name to Rebecca West while she was about 20 so that she could write articles in Freewoman, a feminist magazine, without raising suspicions in her mother who did not want her reading it. Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, her first published novel, contains themes similar to Rosmersholm: unhappiness in marriage, the impossibility of leaving it, and the suspicion of a feigned mental condition.

Continue reading