"Under Empty Skies Falconers Weep"
The author of this article under the "scrutiny" of the Lasgush Poradeci memorial in Pogradec, Albania, 2013. Photograph by Daut Dauti.
In 1903, Guillaume Apollinaire went to London, pursuing his great muse, a governess named Annie Playden, with whom he had traveled in the Rhineland. I say pursued, although in our less innocent age, Apollinaire's devotion to this young woman who claimed to have insistently rejected him might, unfortunately, be described as "stalking." The pair had met as household servants. The governess and the poet, whom she knew by the nickname "Kostro," from his born name Kostrowitsky, were employed by a German countess, the English girl to teach the children her language, Apollinaire to instruct them in French.
Annie Playden was interviewed much later in her life by LeRoy Breunig and other American scholars of French literature—in encounters that seem almost caricatural of university manners in the United States—and it appeared she knew nothing of Apollinaire's literary ambitions. Her portrait of him is distinctly unsettling; according to her, he took her to the top of a mountain and threatened to throw her off if he would not marry her. He also repeated to her Oscar Wilde's remark "each man kills the thing he loves" in a way she considered sinister. He was subject to intense jealousies and violent rages. She claimed his attentions caused her to flee England for America, and a long stay in Santa Barbara, California. And although she, undoubtedly truthfully, claimed she came from an extremely proper English family and had never had the slightest physical intimacy with him, Apollinaire wrote to at least one friend claiming he slept with her.
Of course, he would not have been the first man (or the last) to indulge in that lie. But our interest is elsewhere. When he went to see her at her family home (twice), the French poet stayed in London with his friend, the Albanian writer Faik Konica, who published Albania, a review to which Apollinaire contributed. Faik Konica, while obscure to the outer universe, was a major Balkan political and literary figure. He was born in Konitza, near today's Greek-Albanian border, in 1876. Although a Muslim aristocrat or beg, he was a pupil—as were the Albanian Catholic poets Gjon Sinishta (1930-1995) and Martin Camaj (1925-1992), whom we shall also examine—at the Jesuit Xaverianum College in Shkodra, the main city of north Albania. He also studied in the French Lycée at Galata Seray in Turkey, and in France, before coming to the U.S., where he gained a master's degree in arts and letters from Harvard, in 1912.
In 1897, at 21, Konica founded Albania in Brussels. Published until 1909, it has been described as nothing less than "the first modern Albanian journalistic enterprise… colossal" in its significance, by a historian of Albanian media, Blendi Fevziu.[i] Faiku, as he is universally known among Albanians, served after 1929 as his country's diplomatic representative to Washington. He died in 1942, and was buried in Boston. In 1995, with great ceremony, his remains were returned to Albania and reinterred in Tirana, the capital. His writings were extensive, and he is considered one of the greatest Albanian prose stylists.
Apollinaire was drawn to Faiku, and described him in his Anecdotiques as follows: "Of all the men I have known and remember with the greatest pleasure, Faik Konica is one of the most singular… (He purified) the Albanian language of corrupt and parasitical terms that found their way into it." [ii]
Apollinaire's memoir of the Albanian author is filled with a wonderful humor. He wrote, "Faik Konica took great pains with the publication of Albania. On the cover, as an emblem, it bore the arms of the future kingdom of Albania." This escutcheon, showing the double-headed eagle of the 15th century Albanian patriot Gjergj Kastrioti, or Skanderbeu, had been rediscovered by Faiku. According to Apollinaire, Faiku had it designed "by a French sculptor, whose name I forget and who died a few years ago in the outskirts of New York by a fall from a balloon."
Further, Apollinaire recalled, "Because of the meticulous care with which Faik Konica wrote his articles, and his slowness, his magazine always appeared considerably behind time. In 1904 only the issues for 1902 came out, and in 1907 the 1904 issues appeared quite regularly."
Apollinaire wrote, "Faik Konica had a passion for pseudonyms. He changes them very often... when I knew him he called himself Thrank Spiroberg... That lasted only two or three years. Then he took another pseudonym which he used to sign a very solid, very well-written book, entitled A Treatise on Artificial Languages. That new name was Pyrrhus Bardhyli." I should note that I have been unable, as yet, to locate any reference to this work or the pseudonym in Faik Konica's works or biographical studies of him. However, Faiku had edited Albania under the name Thrank Spiroberg, and he contributed two essays signed with that pseudonym to Apollinaire's own "little magazine," Le Festin d' Ésope. These were titled, "Outline of a Method of How to Succeed in Winning Applause from the Bourgeois" and "The Most Colossal Mystification in the History of the Human Species." I have yet to examine the French versions of these works but they have never been published in Albanian, as far as I am aware.
"As we waited for lunch, which was always late, my host would play for me twangy old tunes, sitting at his desk with lowered eyes and a serious air," Apollinaire wrote of Faiku. Although Apollinaire described Faiku as a devotee of the clarinet, the oboe, and the English horn, the instrument in question may have been the fyëll, a traditional medium of Albanian music that is, indeed, typically played in exactly that manner, as if no audience were present. "Lunch was à l'albanaise; in other words, interminable... The lunches lasted so long that I was unable to visit a single museum in London—we always arrived just as the doors were closing."
Apollinaire lived in Faiku's house while pursuing Annie Playden, for whom he wrote "La Chanson du Mal-Aimé" ("The Song of the Poorly-Loved"). Of that work, perhaps the greatest love poem of this century, I will say no more. It is up to readers, and especially poets, to know those things; but one might add, in retrospect, that she was as poorly-loved as he, considering his cavalier behavior with her. The poet himself confessed, "many of the expressions in the poem are too severe and abusive."
Apollinaire took Annie, his young and unwinnable love, to Faiku's house, all the way across London from her family's dwelling on Landor Road, also immortalized in Apollinaire's poem "L'Emigrant de Landor Road." In 1962, in her late '80s, interviewed by American academics in a suburban house on Long Island, she recalled that Faiku's female companion made up a bed for her and the poet, but that she said, "Oh no, I can't do anything like that. I must go home, my mother is expecting me." It is doubtful that Annie Playden would even consent to kiss him. Then he walked her back to her house, and returned rejected through the streets of London to Faiku's residence.
His affection for Faiku gave rise to many interesting details. Apollinaire wrote, "I once again spent some time in London with Faik Konica, who had married and was living at Chingford. It was spring, we took walks in the country and spent hours watching people play golf."
Francis Steegmuller, a leading English-language biographer of Apollinaire, commented, "not that Faik Konica seems to have been in any way disreputable. Still, his eccentricities underline Apollinaire's own. Including the eccentricity of taking all the way across London, to visit this revolutionary, with whom he had chosen to stay, a girl who had to be home by nine..."
Steegmuller had trouble taking much of the whole topic seriously, and could not be expected to do adequate research on Apollinaire's Balkan pals; the biographer offers a pedantic but wrong "correction" to Apollinaire's description of his friend, and, after translating most of the poet's portrait of the Albanian patriot into English, suggests that it was "at least half invented, probably." In reality, it was 95 percent accurate, and the rest may be accounted for by miscommunications between Apollinaire and Faiku. Steegmuller went on to refer to "buffooneries," such as the following: "one evening Apollinaire tried everyone's patience by bringing with him [to Alfred Jarry's salon] a guest who was, or whom he declared to be, the editor-in-chief of a newspaper in Salonika, and solemnly requesting that particular consideration be shown this personage because his newspaper was "read by the Sultan himself."
One can easily imagine the testy laughter this apparent stunt provoked—except that, given Apollinaire's associations with Faik Konica, it is very likely the guest was exactly who and what the poet claimed he was. He might even have been another notable Albanian patriot who would become quite famous in the West, the former Ottoman diplomat Ismail Qemali Vlorë.
But that is another story altogether.[iii] There is already much about these tales that is distinctively "Apollinairean": the poet, who was an outsider of mixed Polish Jewish and Italian ancestry, as the companion of a representative of a nation completely unknown in western Europe then, and little better known now; Apollinaire as an enthusiastic collaborator of Albania, an obscure periodical which he seems to have viewed as no less worthy than the major Parisian journals for which he wrote. The saga of his tormented involvement with Annie Playden, and of her own life, also possesses a rather Nabokovian quality. Above all, there is the Borgesian sense of parallel universes, of events behind a curtain, of a secret history that underpins much of the contemporary sensibility. This sense is always present in the contemporary Balkans, which seems like a kind of counter-Europe—something beyond the title of the "other Europe" so often used to describe the eastern half of the continent.
To emphasize, there is something for which there seems no literary label, though perhaps it is also "Nabokovian," but with another sense, in the contrast between the destinies of Annie Playden and Faik Konica in Apollinaire scholarship. The American experts found it easy to locate and interrogate Apollinaire's muse later in her life, writing about her eyes which retained the striking blue color that inspired the poet. Yet the life of a great Balkan intellectual and historical personage was treated with cheerful disregard, as Albanians in general were dealt with by the Western cultural hierarchies until the sudden intrusion of the Kosovo war, in 1998-99, into global awareness. How curious that Annie Playden should have gone for much of her life, as discovered by the scholars, without knowing anything about Apollinaire's writerly interests and later attainments; but how dismaying that the poet's links to the political destinies of a whole nation should have been completely overlooked, or, at best, treated as a subject of trivial amusement.
It is nearly impossible to convey to a foreign audience the emotion with which Albanian readers, especially Kosovars, would view these seemingly minor incidents. The collected works of Faik Konica were edited by the outstanding Kosovar intellectuals of recent years, including Ibrahim Rugova, leader of the Kosovar civic resistance to the Serbs for a decade and probable future president of Kosovo. For Albanians it is as if Americans were to read that Thomas Jefferson was an intimate friend of William Blake, and that Blake had written The Songs of Innocence and Experience at Monticello, with Jefferson's works having then been edited by Abraham Lincoln.
There is another issue: the silence imposed on Faiku and his reputation by the Albanian Communist regime of Enver Hoxha. Mainly because of his residence in the U.S., but also because of his Catholic education (which was absolute anathema to Hoxha), Faik Konica was prominent on the long list of authors who could not even be mentioned in Albania from 1945 to 1991, except negatively. I learned of the whole history of the Apollinaire and Faiku anecdotes because ninety years after Apollinaire's trip to London, I read a denunciation of Faiku by Ismail Kadare, the Albanian author who became world-famous on subsidies from Hoxha—who is, in fact, the only Albanian writer known in the world today, and whom I shall also discuss further on. Kadare assailed Faiku in terms I believed were hallucinated, as the "patron of European decadents."[iv] Then in Illyria, the New York Albanian newspaper, I found a reference to Faiku's friendship with Apollinaire. I looked it up in Apollinaire's works, and there it was.
But this anecdote serves for more than an example of a coincidental meeting among notable personalities. Central European and Balkan literary verse traditions have nearly always developed in response to currents in the West. Yet this poetry has always had an extraordinary strength and beauty, as if, in contact with a stimulating force from the exterior, the poetry of the "other Europe" liberated hidden energies. Notwithstanding the cult of folk poetry that has been maintained locally, especially by Serb writers, the greatest south Slavic and Albanian poets are glorious imitators of foreign models, not drinkers at the wells of popular tradition.
The earliest Balkan literary authors, as opposed to authors of religious works or memorial epigrams, and the creators of anonymous epics and popular ballads, appeared in the cities of the Dalmatian coast during the Croatian Renaissance of the 15th and following centuries. They included Marko Marulić (1450-1524), born in Split, and author of an epic in hexameters, Judita, first printed in Venice in 1521.[v] Marulić's contemporaries and successors included a number of other talented versifiers, such as Hanibal Lucić (1485-1553), Petar Hektorović (1487-1572), author of a notable poem on fishing, Marin Držić (1508?-1567), and Ivan Gundulić (1589-1638).[vi] A vigorous tradition of poetry in Latin also existed in Croat Dalmatia at this time and for some centuries afterward, in which some of these poets also participated. Marulić, for example, wrote a Latin epic on the exploits of King David, Davidias, that was not printed until the middle of the 20th century.
An impressive trilingual anthology, The Croatian Muses in Latin, with versions in English and Croatian accompanying the Latin originals, was issued in 1998, in a major series of English volumes printed under the rubric of Most/The Bridge, a literary review presenting Croatian writers in foreign languages. Unfortunately, these useful books are unavailable outside Croatia; finding an Anglo-American distributor for them would be a worthy task, as they include some of the most significant works I will discuss here. (I would also point out that some of the most important English-language volumes discussed here, printed in Croatia, Kosovo, and elsewhere, are not even to be found in the Library of Congress.) A school of Jewish authors in Latin also flourished in Dalmatia in the 16th century, exemplified by the Portuguese expellee João Rodrigues, known as Amatus Lusitanus (1511-1658), author of a work extolling the Republic of Ragusa, or Dubrovnik, and it would be equally useful for a similar selection of his work to appear under Croatian auspices.[vii]
The first modern poet in the South Slavic area was also a product of external influence: France Prešeren (1800-1849), lawyer by profession, founder of Slovene literature and even of Slovene nationality—rather like, to extend our earlier comparisons, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Andrew Jackson in a single personality. Prešeren was an extremely great poet, whose biography and work are exemplary of the influence of Romanticism in the Balkans. But, as a representative of a minor language, with no more than three million speakers in the whole world today, he has, predictably, been ignored outside Slovenia and the former Yugoslavia. Thus, his name does not appear in the notorious World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time,[viii] which manages to include one Slovene, Veno Taufer, no born Croats, no Bosnians (of any faith), two Serbs—the irritatingly ubiquitous Vasko Popa (1922-1991) and a very great poet, Branko Miljković (1934-1961), whom the Croats also claim with some justice—one Macedonian, Slavko Janevski, and no Albanians.
It seems all too predictable that World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time would slight Balkan authors; and I do not pretend that the survey I present here is exhaustive, since it reflects my own preferences and prejudices. But I believe it unarguably a major injustice that Prešeren should be consigned to global oblivion. I will confess that having heard Slovenes of all classes and attainments proclaim his praises over the years I was more than a little skeptical, figuring this was merely a case of local pride in a local yokel. I was absolutely wrong. Having now read his work in the original as well as in (inadequate) translations, I fully recognize Prešeren as worthy to stand among the finest poets of the 19th century, in any language. Prešeren is profoundly self-critical as well as lyrical. Unfortunately, the only translations of his work now available are a sort of doggerel, now tinkly, now galumphing, that cannot do him justice; nevertheless, even in those rags his treasure shines through.
Prešeren's printed work is relatively slender, because he had the misfortune to come under the influence of a Slovene linguistic crank, Jernej Kopitar, who induced him to burn his early manuscripts—one of several transgressions for which Kopitar himself deserves to burn in hell throughout all eternity. Prešeren wrote sonnets, ghazals, and an epic, Krst Pri Savici (The Baptism On the Savica)—in other words, a fairly typical Romantic output. But he is most famous among Slovenes for his "Zdravljica" or "A Toast," which has become the Slovenian national anthem, as an expression of his standing as the real creator of a Slovene national identity. His sad-eyed portrait appeared on the [pre-Euro] Slovenian 1000 tolar note.
Prešeren wrote with great delicacy in his language, which he sought to promote, and with effect and emotion about his coethnics; but he cannot be pigeon-holed as a mere poetic patriot, much less a narrow nationalist. While his outstanding work, Sonetni Venec (A Wreath of Sonnets) begins and ends with the line "Poet tvoj nov Slovencam venec vije" ("For Slovenes, I as poet will reap a wreath,"), he was an authentic humanist and universalist, in accord with early Romantic values. Thus, the real theme of Sonetni Venec is his unrequited love for a Ljubljana woman. Among his other works, he wrote a touchingly beautiful poem, "Judovsko Dekle" ("The Jewish Girl"), about a maiden "born a daughter of Abraham" who falls in love with a Christian, but who puts loyalty to her religion before her desires. The poem is splendid in its simplicity, but also remarkable in its depth of insight, and deserves an article-length study of its own.
Prešeren, whose own love life was unhappy because of his rebellious habits and literary ambitions, clearly identified the devotion of the Jewish girl to a higher duty with his own refusal to conform to the narrow-minded society of 19th century Ljubljana. In addition, although it is unstated, one must imagine he saw in the unredeemed status of Jewry in the Habsburg lands, no less than in the world at large, a parallel to the misfortune of his own small and neglected people. What a lesson that the Slovenes made his life miserable, as they truly did, and then recognized in him the greatest advocate of their nationhood! "The Jewish Girl" is especially fascinating because 19th century Slovenia, unlike the other South Slav lands, had virtually no significant Jewish communities on its territory, and the poem is actually set in Moravia. Of all the poets whose works I have read since first approaching the Balkans in the mid-1980s, none more cries out for decent translation and serious commentary in English than France Prešeren.[ix]
Romanticism and the South Slavic Poets
Romanticism swept the South Slav nations in the 19th century, a topic belonging more to the political history of the region, and of the evolution of "Yugoslav" (i.e. South Slav, from Jug, south) identity. This subject is adequately treated in many books, and I will not review it at length here.[x]
However, it should be noted that French Romanticism was to become the long-dominant influence in South Slavic literary life, partially for political reasons. The history of the Balkans had changed forever with the conquest of Slovenia and northern Croatia, which were Habsburg possessions, by the armies of Napoleon, in 1806. As elsewhere in Europe, the eruption of Bonapartist modernity undermined the entirety of the old order. The first seeds of a new, common "South Slavic" identity were thus planted, for the French conception of the nation, as a unifying factor suppressing local distinctions, began to penetrate the minds of the Slovenes and Croats. Two years before, the first significant anti-Ottoman rebellion had broken out in Serbia.
Although the French were expelled from the Adriatic and the region returned to traditionalist, Habsburg rule, in the 1830s-40s a movement known as "Illyrianism" was born as a call to unification of the entire South Slav family, initiated by a Croat intellectual, Ljudevit Gaj. It was under the influence of the "Illyrians" that the "Yugoslav" name for all these diverse peoples was coined. The 19th century Romantic notion that all the South Slavs, like the French, the Italians, and the Germans, could voluntarily forsake their cultural differences and become a single nation was especially strong among the Croats.
Likewise, the "infiltration" of literary Romanticism was seen in the best poetry written in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina in the late 19th and early 20th century. Its exponents included five poets identified, each in a distinctive way, with Bosnia-Hercegovina: Silvije Strahimir Kranjčević (1865-1909), Aleksa Šantić (1868-1924), Jovan Dučić (1871-1943), Musa Ćazim Ćatić (1878-1915), and Augustin "Tin" Ujević (1891-1955). Dučić and Ujević, as well as Antun Gustav Matoš (1873-1914), who lived in Paris and died in Zagreb, were also dedicated vagabonds. But Kranjčević was a political nonconformist forced to migrate around Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Ćatić was somewhat "French," i.e. Romantic and radical. The latter was the first Bosnian Muslim author to break with Oriental (Turkish, Persian, and Arabic) literary forms, which, with undeniable distinction, had dominated Bosnian Muslim literature until that time.[xi]
None of these authors are known outside former Yugoslavia, even in occasional translation. In the case of Kranjčević, a fin-de-siecle literary rebel born in Senj, Croatia, but who died in Sarajevo, this is perhaps justifiable. Kranjčević's "Parnassian" style, although marvellous, is extremely difficult to translate; Matoš, a very great poet reminiscent of Apollinaire or Cendrars, is also resistant to translation. Both these poets were identified in their time with the renaissance of Croatian national identity. But none of the others should elude study and appreciation by foreign readers. Šantić, a Serb from Mostar in Hercegovina, wrote many poems that were set to music and adopted into the repertoire of Muslim popular singers. His "Emina" seems a variation on the theme of Prešeren's "The Jewish Girl"—it is a gorgeous verse about a Serb youth who briefly ("in a single glance") sees the unforgettably beautiful daughter of a Muslim imam. The sung version has become inextricably associated with the town of Mostar and has even been called the unofficial anthem of the old, multiethnic Bosnia-Hercegovina. It begins,
Last night, when I came back from the warm bathhouse,
I walked past the garden of the old imam,
Where, there in the garden, in the shade of the jasmine,
With a copper vessel in her hands, stood Emina.
Muslim singers like the famous Himzo Polovina typically let out an "oh" of awe at the beauty of the girl, before pronouncing her name.
"Emina" is widely performed today, with a certain sadness considering the destruction visited on Mostar during the recent war. Musa Ćazim Ćatić also wrote love poems that have been set to music and become popular as Muslim love songs, or sevdahlinke, a Bosnian term derived from the Turkish word sevdah, for love, but which also indicates pain, passion, grief, and torment. One of the most beautiful and popular sevdahlinke, which I have here done into English, is his "Kradem ti se u večeri," ("I steal to you in the evening"):
I steal to you in the evening,
In the evening, under your window,
To throw you a bunch of hyacinth,
So that flowers may tell you,
How much, how strongly I love you;
I'm dying, my love, for you.
You do not care about my suffering,
For the pain within my heart.
The flower withers, youth dries up,
Sevdah fades into nothingness.
May Allah give you to another,
While I'm dying, my love, for you.[xiii]
(This translation conforms to the sinuous, Oriental melody of the song.)
Jovan Dučić, a Serb born in Trebinje in eastern Hercegovina—an exquisite town now completely "cleansed" of Muslims – lived in Paris before joining the Serbian diplomatic service. He died in 1943 in Gary, Ind., once known as "Serbian Gary" for its large émigré population. Curiously, his reinterment in Trebinje toward the end of 2000 provided the first instance in which Serbian reform leader Vojislav Koštunica visited Bosnia-Hercegovina. Dučić also wrote wonderfully about love, as in his "Pesma Ženi" or "Poem to a Woman," which begins:
You are my moment, and my dream, and radiance,
My word in the tumult; my footstep, and sin;
You're only beautiful while you are secret;
You're only true when I'm desperate to have you.
Augustin Ujević, who signed his name as "Tin" and is familiarly referred to by that nickname alone, was a different sort of poet. A complete Bohemian, he lived on the edge of survival for years, in Paris as well as Belgrade, Sarajevo, Split, and Zagreb. A political as well as literary free spirit, he was associated with the extremist youths of the Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia) movement, which organized the assassination of Austrian crown prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo in 1914, bringing about World War I. According to the contemporary poet Vlado Gotovac, Tin gloried in being called "the Baudelaire from Imotski," a rural district of Croatia where he had his early schooling. His work is extremely varied, and of all the poets in this group, his verse is that which, for its versatility and popularity, seems most unjustly neglected by foreigners. His "Pomorci" ("Seafarers"), which I have translated here, describes the emigration of Croatians from the Dalmatian coast, including to the New World:
Oh sea, unplowed field, on which neither basil nor quince bloom,
sea with the smell of iodine and the corrosion of salt,
glorious image of nature, in your deeps I sink with my pain
like a treasure that will never emerge from the pearls' hidden place.
Easy it is to weep, but fine to be serene as the sun and the sea,
Adriatic, on your shore the fishermen's nets lie ragged;
and you remind me of the mythical monsters of the prophet Jonah,
long ago they called out: Venice; and now, America;
Companion to the genius of the Atlantic and the Pacific!
Old is the song of the galley slave, the toiler at the oar,
new is the song of the worker, from California;
I don't know which is sadder,
But certainly each is sad, monotonous, nothing relaxing.
War dies out, far away, in forgotten borderlands,
where neither mourning nor sadness nor reason will loom large,
All there is monotonous like your soft waves
And words from the high seas write over the shore.
But only they could do it, free captains,
whose grandparents were pirates, on the waters freely singing;
you people will never again be chained
and you will be able to die knowing you will be happy.
In the embrace of the waters martyrs of the waters,
under the world's storms devotees of the sea,
worldly yes from bright deaths no greater pleasures will come
and yes the costume of fate alone is necessary.
And when the birds come with the serene song of their wings
on the limitless sea the sails will appear festive.
So in some dilapidated temple with the smell of old age
on whatever shore stubbornly eaten by water
iodine and lightning flashes spurt at a distance in the heat
breath of the sea so clean over priestly garments;
and there under glass, little pictures of true things only,
with flags of the whole navy in the little jobs,
a pledge from the sailor's house out of the age of unknown coins;
a prayer to God, with folded hands in the Boat.
Yes, I know the wind... on the sea... from the springtime of wind...
Billows... deafening murmur... and creaking...
Dust... from whence comes dust on the sea...
Dust... in the eyes blood... yes reddened eyes... blind...
blood flowing in the eyes from the dust the sea throws up...
bloody powder... bloody waves... bloody rain...
what cracks in the ship...
What, if not their firm bones like people's bones
when bursting under strangling pressure
the ship cracks up... falls into the abyss...
and there remain neither planks nor pallets in the shipwreck...
no grass grows on the surface of the sea...
like the fanciful greenery at the bottom of the pit
or graveyard moss there in the grey of the mountain.
The Croat dissident Communist Ante Ciliga (1898-1992), an early escapee from the Soviet GULag and author of one of the best analyses of the Bolshevik horror, The Russian Enigma, recalled at the end of his life how, as a 15-year old high school student in Mostar, still under the Habsburgs, he "went running to enroll" in a French language course. Ciliga's first great influence had been Matoš, especially his articles in the Croatian press, from Paris, on French intellectual life, including Baudelaire and Rimbaud.[xiv] In the aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, extreme modernism extended its roots in Yugoslavia, which had come into existence in 1918-19—first in Slovenia under the influence of various European movements, then in Serbia with the emergence of a Yugoslav Surrealist group, which commuted between Paris and Belgrade.
Once again, then, the penetration of the South Slavic region by a major new intellectual trend began in Slovenia, on the Italian and Austrian frontier, where the earliest extreme avant-gardist, Srečko Kosovel (1904-26) appeared. In his brief life, Kosovel gave Slovenia quite a shock with his boldly experimental work, even though it was frankly derivative of the tendencies in France, Germany, Russia, and Italy. He worked through three phases of what might have seemed like fashionable imitation—impressionism, expressionism, and constructivism—except that he adopted all these styles at the same time, and understood each in his own way. Like Prešeren before him, he was somewhat neglected during his lifetime. Living in a zone where Slovenes fell under Italian rule after 1920, Kosovel, again like Prešeren, united a dedication to the spirit of the new with a defense of Slovene nationhood against the aggression of Italian fascism, which included raids on Slovene cultural institutions in Trieste. Thus, he was also influenced by futurism, but reacted strongly against its Italian imperialist and fascist pretensions. He launched his own unsuccessful literary journal, Lepa Vida (Beautiful Vision). However, only about 40 of his poems were published in his lifetime, and his most interesting collection, Integrali (Integrals)—poems sometimes reminiscent of Apollinaire's Calligrammes, elsewhere of the more extreme futurist examples—did not appear until the late '60s. We are lucky to have a complete English edition of Integrals, published in Slovenia.[xv] Here, from that translation, is Kosovel's poem "Europe is Dying:"
Europe is dying.
The League of Nations and the apothecary,
both are a lie.
On a grey road I appear.
Brown leaves are falling from trees,
and only one thing I fear.
When these trees are black, no longer verdant
and grey fields
and small houses
and I will scream
then everything, everywhere around
will be silent.
The Yugoslav Surrealists
The fullest explosion of the European avant-garde spirit among the Yugoslavs after World War I occurred among the Serbs, but was centered in Paris. The Yugoslav Surrealist Group around the young poet Marko Ristić (1902-84) participated in the circle around André Breton from very soon after the latter's publication of the first Manifeste du Surréalisme in 1924, and seems to have been the first of the many satellite groups to appear in the Bretonian orbit. The group had published extensively in the Belgrade "modernist" journals Putevi (Roads) and Svedočanstva (Testimony); and Putevi had published excerpts from Breton in 1923, making it also, apparently, the first journal in a Slavic language to take notice of the new Parisian developments. The first printed manifestation of Yugoslav surrealism in Paris itself seems to have been the appearance of a poem composed in French by Ristić, "Se tuer" ("Killing Yourself"), which appeared in the fifth issue of La Révolution Surréaliste, in October 1925. The poem, which is rhymed, belongs neither to French nor to Serbian literature; it is clearly the creation of someone to whom French was a second language, which granted the author a certain fresh awareness of the humorous possibilities of improbable plays on words and alliterations of a kind different from more typical surrealist discourse. The Bosnian literary critic Hanifa Kapidžić-Osmanagić, who is an expert on Serbian surrealism and the doyenne of Bosnian literary criticism today, considers it untranslatable into Serbian.
There are several other interesting aspects about the history of the Yugoslav Surrealists. Like their French mentors, they became Communists, though most of the Yugoslavs remained within the party. But their fate was different, and to understand it we must skip one or two decades ahead. Surrealism flourished in a number of countries that had not previously experienced major avant-garde movements, such as Romania and Greece, as well as in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. But Czechoslovakia and Romania, which produced excellent surrealist poets and plastic artists, saw all of them on the margin within their countries; then, they were either bought off or driven into exile by the coming of Communist rule after 1945. By contrast, the Greek surrealists, exemplified by Odysseus Elytis, Nikos Gatsos, and others, completely conquered literary life on their territory and ended up as national idols, with Elytis winning a Nobel Prize, but had no impact in painting or sculpture.
Yugoslav surrealism was weak in plastic creation, but greatly influenced the poetic idiom in the country, as represented by such names as Alexander Vučo (1897-1985), Dušan Matić (1898-1979), Milan Dedinac (1902-57), and Oskar Davičo (1909-89), all of whom, but especially the last, became major cultural figures. Vučo and Davičo saw translations of turgid novels they wrote about the Tito Partisans during the second world war published in Britain in the 1950s, in a series that included one magnificent work, the Croatian literary master Miroslav Krleža's Return of Philip Latinovicz, alongside which they look very pale.[xvi]
Few of the Czechoslovak, Romanian, or Greek surrealists committed to Communism with the seriousness of the Yugoslavs. But in addition, none of the other groups benefited from a situation such as existed in the Yugoslav Communist movement under Tito. The Yugoslav surrealists, once they had proven their loyalty to the party, rose to great prominence in the Yugoslav cultural and political hierarchy. One of them, the poet Konstantin (Koča) Popović (1908-92), author of some of the most luxuriantly novel surrealist texts, later served in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War and became a leading officer in Tito's Partisan army, and then a major figure of the Yugoslav state.
Popović would live out what was arguably the most "surreal" career of any surrealist anywhere. Aside from serving from 1953 to 1965 as Yugoslav foreign minister, he was several times head of the Yugoslav delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. Most remarkably, during the period of extreme tension between Stalin and Tito after their break in 1948, he conducted negotiations with Western military representatives, in his capacity as Chief of Staff, for modernization of the Yugoslav Army in anticipation of his country siding with NATO in a war against the Warsaw Pact. In 1932, he and Marko Ristić had collaborated on a surrealist "Project for a Phenomenology of the Irrational." Unlike their surrealist comrades in Czechoslovakia and Romania, the Yugoslavs obviously had nothing to fear from cultural commissars after 1945. (The Yugoslavs were likewise the only contingent of International Brigaders in a Communist country that avoided being purged and murdered en masse, and which also attained high positions).[xvii]
Miroslav Krleža and Yugoslav Surrealism
However, this "liberalism" on Tito's part, at least in the cultural field, also existed, in part, because the battle between modernism and Stalinism had been fought with great tenacity in the Yugoslav Communist milieu even before World War II. The hero of the fight to defend modernism was the outstanding Croatian essayist, novelist, and poet Miroslav Krleža (1893-1981), an early and leading Communist himself and an extremely popular figure in his homeland. The historian Ivo Banac has written that Krleža's work "was one of the principal means by which Marxism acquired intellectual weight, not just in Croatia but in all Yugoslavia." Indeed, the Croat Communist chieftain Vladimir Bakarić, cited by Banac, declared that Krleža "did more for the progressive movement than the party in its entirety."
Krleža was close to Ristić and Davičo, and in 1939, soon after the main Soviet purges, Krleža launched a new literary review, Pečat (The Seal) in Zagreb. Its editorial board included Ristić and two other authors already labelled "Trotskyites" by none other than Tito himself, who had taken over control of the Yugoslav Communist apparatus as a Stalinist, at the height of the purges in 1937. In Russia the "Trotskyite" charge was a death sentence; in Paris, Breton, the mentor of Ristić, had become the most prominent defender of Trotsky in the European literary scene. In reality, there was no Trotskyist movement in Yugoslavia. The truly noble Krleža defended his accused compatriots, and more; he went on the offensive, and in December 1939, with Stalin and Hitler now allied and World War II having begun, dedicated an entire issue of Pečat to a polemic, "Dijalektički Antibarbarus" ("The Dialectical Antibarbarus") in defense of artistic freedom, against the Stalinists in the Yugoslav party's intellectual cadre.
The former surrealist Koča Popović, sadly, rallied to the orthodox elements, which included, as one of their leaders, none other than the Montenegrin writer Milovan Djilas, later to gain world fame as a critic of Communism. But in those days Djilas was a fanatical and even violent Stalinist, and Krleža later admitted that Djilas' behavior in the intraparty quarrels over modernism inspired him with a literal anxiety for his physical well-being. Nevertheless, the Croat author pressed on as if utterly fearless. Krleža's group was purged from the party in 1940, but not all the party members were willing to concur. The author Kočo Racin, considered the creator of modern literature in Macedonian, was expelled from the party because he declared that while he was willing to separate from the Krleža group, he could not denounce them, since, in his words, "because of him… I became a Communist, which for me means: I became a man!" The brave Krleža also opposed the Soviet invasion of Poland and Finland. But Tito was not Stalin, and Krleža, Ristić, and Davičo were eventually returned to favor, without, let it be said, any apology or renunciation on their parts. Indeed, Tito later turned against Djilas, who after his fall from the heights of party power, reinvented himself as a democrat and pursued a new career in the West. Popović died during the Bosnian war; some had spoken of him as the only figure among Tito's heirs who could have kept Yugoslavia together, but it was too late, for him as for his country.[xviii]
Four Major Figures: Popa, Miljković, Mihalić, Kocbek
The Serbian poet Vasko Popa is often grouped with the Serb surrealists, although he was born a generation later. Popa has become a product rather like the Yugo car; he is a symbol of Yugoslav culture throughout the world, translated and promoted everywhere. His admirers included the late Octavio Paz. I must say I have never understood or concurred with this enthusiasm. I find Popa irritating to an extreme. His little verses seem to me to be merely clever notations without the charm of surrealist dreams and fancies. It was as if he consciously set out to imitate the brevity of the Anglo-American poets after Pound, not very differently from the way Djilas set out to sell himself to Western readers as an anti-Communist. But it is impossible to avoid him; naturally, he appears in the World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time winners' list, with nothing less than verses on Kosovo and other Serb nationalist myths, including "The Battle on the Blackbirds' Field" and "St. Sava's Journey," the latter dedicated to the founder of the Serb Orthodox Church. In this he also resembles Djilas, who was quite a flamboyant Serb chauvinist.
In the wake of the carnage in Kosovo, no matter how one feels about the policies pursued by Yugoslavia and the West there in 1999, all such manifestations have a distressingly "Wagnerian" feel. One wonders why, out of the Yugoslav matrix, only Serb literature, including such stars as Popa, has been sold in the West—and with so heavy a burden of nationalist sentimentality. Certainly nobody has gone out of their way to translate the love lyrics of the Serb surrealists. And it is extremely doubtful that Croatian verses on the 10th century King Tomislav would have gotten much of an audience among Western poets and readers, much less have excited the enthusiasm of Octavio Paz.
I consider the Serbo-American poet and translator Charles Simic, a Pulitzer Prize winner, to be an accomplice in this campaign of intellectual propaganda. For example, his The Horse Has Six Legs: An Anthology of Serbian Poetry, spares us Popa on St. Sava, but also ignores Šantić, Dučić, the latter really an absurd oversight, and Davičo. However, we are offered a selection from the surrealist Vučo on the Slavic Christianizers Cyril and Methodius, icons of Serb nationalism (even though they were Macedonians), with the charming lines,
Grab the lustful second wife of some Moslem
Before the rapacious mocking scissors of madness…
Although I may be accused of political correctness, I find the sentiments seemingly expressed here more than a little distasteful in the light of the Bosnian war of 1992-95, in which quite a few wives of Muslims encountered literal "scissors of madness" in the hands of Serbs. Further along, we find an unabashed promoter of maudlin Serb legendry, Milorad Pavić (1929-) represented with a poem on the "Great Serbian Migration 1690," another favorite item of nationalist Serbism. Pavić is considered a fraud by many readers in the former Yugoslav lands, but Simic's promotion of him is inexhaustible.
But the worst failing of the Simic enterprise is that its chief executive officer has a tin ear. The same anthology includes a really terrible mauling of a poem by Branko Miljković, whose date of death (1961) Simic also manages to get wrong. A great many people worthy of trust consider Miljković the best Yugoslav poet after World War II, and it is interesting to note that because he died in Zagreb, Croats also claim him. The poem in question, "Frula," is titled "Shepherd's Flute" by Simic and appears on page 83 of The Horse Has Six Legs. I will leave it to readers to look his version up. Here is mine, from which I have taken the title of this essay:
The gentle fevers of flowers, disturbed,
you sense. Behold, oh plants you bow again.
Seeking the drunken south and a disappeared summer,
Hurry, sing to the holiday of the world.
Repeat the day because the ungrateful body
returns shadow to the sun and twists the song.
Give a bird back to the lonely man.
Under empty skies falconers weep.
Summon wild ducks from the mountains by tradition.
Merge the senses with a song so they shall not decay
In the bodily night. Let less and less be
Visible so that you realize memory.
Empty my knees and seize my heart
Hurry, circle, sing, deceive bad fortune
Smederevo is open, birds are cooing
Under empty skies falconers weep.
Smederevo is a city; the poem is rhymed in the original, which makes a considerable difference. It is a difficult poem in Serbian, to say nothing of English; Miljković was a difficult poet, who also distinguished himself as a translator of Osip Mandelshtam into Serbian.[xix] Yet if such a poem merits attempting in translation, it is worth a better try than that made by Simic. Simic proves he is merely lazy when, for example, he allows the first word in line five, "ponovi," "repeat," to be printed as "repent."[xx]
The fine Croatian poet Slavko Mihalić (b. 1928) also fared poorly in his refashioning by the Simic tin works. The Mihalić collection in English, Atlantis: Selected Poems 1953-1982, translated by Simic with Peter Kastmiler, includes the same lame and anemic presentation, although Mihalić is one of the best Croatian poets of the post-1945 period. Kastmiler bungles the end of Mihalić's beautiful poem "Približavanje Oluje" ("Approaching Storm") by rendering the lines, "Dakako ovo će mjesto u mojem sjećanju ostati svetu/Molim te brže koračaj i nemoj se osvrtati" as:
Of course this place will remain sacred in my memory.
Please walk faster Vera and stop looking back.
In fact, the name "Vera" does not appear at the conclusion of the original poem, though it does at the beginning and elsewhere. I would render the whole poem as:
Look at those clouds, Vera, why are you silent
I'm not, by God, an animal, but here's the rain
How it suddenly gets colder
We're far from town
Of course, Vera, I can never forget what you've given me
Now we are one, so how should we speak
Yellow clouds typically mean hailstones
All is now still, the crickets and the wheat
If you wish, we can stay here
I'm afraid for you, for me it's nothing
Lightning is dangerous in the fields
And we're now at the highest place (and so damned alone)
Tonight the farmers will curse at the grain scattered by the storm
I wouldn't be able to depend so much on change
Don't cry, Vera, it's only nerves
And they sense the storm
I'm telling you, life is in every way much simpler
Here are the first raindrops, now the deluge begins
Button your skirt, watch out, even the flowers close up
I'd never forgive myself if something happened to you
Obviously, this place in my memory will remain holy.
Please hurry up and don't look back.[xxi]
I am quite fond of this poem; it summarizes much of which I have experienced in the human landscape of the Balkans, and seems to stand as a general statement of existential experience in modern times. Its diction is original and complex. But the Simic "industry" seldom, if ever, conveys the special qualities of the original. His style of translation is less Slavic than slovenly, as if he realizes that most American poetry readers will never attempt the originals, and therefore he may foist on them whatever comes first from his pen.
Mihalić was a founder of the Most/The Bridge enterprise, in 1966, but was fired from it in 1972, during the repression that followed the "Croatian Spring" of 1971 – a brief period in which restrictions on national culture in Tito's Yugoslavia were relaxed. He has also translated into Croatian another Slovene whose work we are lucky to have in a good English translation, the Catholic social poet Edvard Kocbek (1904-81). I recommend a reading of Kocbek's work to all who really want to grasp the contradictions of South Slavic history. He manages to encompass virtually all the qualities of his forebears and contemporaries: folklore, epic traditions, Slovene nationality, nature, the struggle for freedom, deep religiosity, dedication to truth, and an exceptional lyric sense. The collection Edvard Kocbek, translated by Michael Biggins, has so many fine verses in it I find it difficult to choose an example. Here is one untitled poem from it:
We walk, exhausted and deeply changed.
None of us remembers where or when, but
somewhere we sang around a poplar and slept beneath
steep hills; sometimes we go downward as though
for night work at a mill, at others we climb up,
as if expected at a winepress.
A windmill jerks, its faint creaking follows
us down the valley floor. There is no center to this
dark space, I constantly strain forward,
my loved one is far off. A cold shudder courses through
my body, how much I would like to see her smartly, autumnally
dressed, ready for a night journey, we have so far to go.
The biography of Kocbek demonstrates that not all was love and liberty in Tito's Yugoslavia. Although the author participated in the antifascist struggle in Slovenia and held major responsibilities in the regime after 1945, the publication of a collection of four short stories, Strah in Pogum (Fear and Courage), in 1952, led to his exclusion from politics and a bar on his publications, the latter for more than a decade.[xxii]
Kocbek got in trouble in Communist Yugoslavia because of his Catholic humanism. Of course, given that Tito was the dictator, it is a strange aspect of the country's literary history that, because of his opposition to Stalin, some "non-conforming" Yugoslav authors, especially in the later period, took a strong pro-Soviet position. Although the Croatian woman poet Irena Vrkljan (b. 1930) cannot be considered a Stalinist, she did commit to print a long and unfortunate essay on the Russian poetess Marina Tsvetayeva, Marina or About Biography, that has been published in the West. In it Vrkljan identifies her own biographical details with those of Tsvetayeva, in a syrupy, sophomoric manner, which is no great sin; she also offers an interesting description of the early death of Branko Miljković. Yet a major aspect of her book involves a seemingly wilful obfuscation of the most tragic and even outrageous aspect of Tsvetayeva's life—namely, the long association of the Russian author with a Stalinist secret police spy and assassin, Sergei Efron.[xxiii]
An identification with Russian authors is not unknown among other, more sensible and serious Yugoslav poets, as well as among some downright fools. One of the former was the Croat Vlado Gotovac (1930-2000), a major moral and political as well as literary figure. A dissident, Gotovac was also identified with the rise of the Croat patriotic movement in the 1970s, and the "Croatian Spring" of 1971; he was imprisoned in Communist Yugoslavia and nearly killed. After the proclamation of Croatian independence in 1991, he became an outstanding opponent of Croatian autocrat Franjo Tudjman and was again almost killed, when he was assaulted on the podium while running against Tudjman for the country's presidency. He was a delicate poet and absolute antitotalitarian who identified totally with Osip Mandelshtam, in contrast with Vrkljan's crush on Tsvetayeva. In a conversation with me in 1999, he said, "Mandelshtam is the only possible model, the only model we need today."
After his death, I myself contributed translations, composed in collaboration with the Croatian writer and cultural activist Mate Maras, to a memorial collection of Gotovac in translation, although I doubt Vlado himself would have authorized it, as he was uncertain about whether his work would survive Englishing. His work is concise, often brief, but profoundly eloquent. The commemorative volume, simply titled Vlado Gotovac, was published by Most/The Bridge in 2003. I am proud to describe it as the most beautiful book in the series.[xxiv]
Vlado Gotovac was a gentle, reflective personality. One of his best poems reads (in my translation):
I never thought of leaving the angel
The angel that can do nothing for me
The angel that can do nothing against me
The angel that glimmers constantly throughout my space
The angel that does not save me from either pain or happiness
The angel that only excuses
I will never end my combat with this omnipotent spirit
I would need him for one more life
If I die let it be in time to help him
Another outstanding poem, "Lazarus' Canticles," begins:
From the bottom of the darkness of the exiled
Who after being wise hunters turned into servants
I have salvaged my song.
The memorial volume includes a memoir of his experience in prison, when Communist guards seized from him a copy of the poems of Mansur al-Hallaj, a ninth-century Islamic mystic executed for heresy in Baghdad, after declaring "ana ul-haqq," or "I am God [in the divine attribute of Truth." But "Hallaj was not thwarted," Gotovac explained—by which he meant that the voice of free inquiry will always prevail, uniting a medieval Muslim poet like Hallaj with a modern Catholic poet like Gotovac. Much has been said in praise of the Sufi poet Rumi, but I know nothing more eloquent in celebration of Islamic spiritual traditions than the recollection of Gotovac, who placed Rumi, along with such other Sufis as Hallaj and Suhrawardi, on an equal level with St. Augustine, Holderlin, Melville, Apollinaire, Mandelstam, and others as the master writers of civilization. That sort of unity is Croatia at its best and the reason Vlado Gotovac needs to be remembered. He died in Rome; like the next author I will discuss, as well as the best Albanian poets, such as Lasgush Poradeci and Martin Camaj, he was deeply influenced by Italian poetry.
The Croatian poet Viktor Vida (1913-60) died before Gotovac, and in very different circumstances: he committed suicide in Argentine exile. But he also stood for an ideal of Croatian national integrity and opposition. His early work appeared in Krleža's Pečat, and possessed an anticlerical and leftist flavor. However, during the second world war he worked in Italy in a news agency associated with the collaborationist regime in Croatia, and with the coming of the Tito regime he chose not to return to his native land. He worked for some time in the Vatican, and his verse took a religious turn. Nevertheless, he remained in some sense a man of the left, and was treated as such by the émigré social-democratic intellectual Bogdan Raditsa, a former Tito official, among others.
Regarding his move to Italy during the fascist era, at a time when his native town, Boka Kotorska was a section of Croatia annexed to Italy, thus making him an Italian subject, Vida wrote, "I didn't go to Italy with the intention of voting in the elections there, but simply to retain my physical integrity…Thousands and thousands did the same thing, [for] one reason or another, and well-meaning and reasonable people do not make a fuss about it." (It should be noted that Boka Kotorska was annexed a second time, and is now part of Montenegro, rather than Croatia, although its population continues to speak Croatian.)
Regardless of his personal philosophy, however, Vida was a profoundly gifted writer. The above excerpt from a late polemic appears in his extremely valuable Collected Poems, translated into English and published in Croatia in 1998, also in the Most/The Bridge series.[xxv] Unfortunately, however, the 'Americanization' of world poetry that has induced Slovenes and others to write unrhymed and unmetered verse has also encouraged the translation of beautiful verse that was composed in rhyme and meter as if it were written in free verse. I previously indicated this problem in the case of Branko Miljković. Here is my adapted translation of the poem "Sužanj vremena" ("Time's Captive"), which appears in the mentioned edition:
I don't know, what I am, where I am, where I am going,
only this mysterious body is my witness,
that from Fullness I was torn away, into time
between Nothing and Everything, wandering and alone.
I don't know, where I am, nor if I may be dreaming, I dream
a staircase of Night in the desert of the living, and ivy
winds around my trunk, and from my eyes I clear it, remove it
and lift the eyelid of the dream from the crevice, where "I" falls.
But He through the wall of jasper stares unblinking
in all my motions and rings he gives me a sign,
that for me he conceived the world, the sun's cup, the wing of darkness.
I feel time like sand falling in an hourglass,
as at the doorway of moonlight, an unnoticed ray.
The black bird of Night settles on my shoulder
Modern Bosnian literature
As should be seen throughout the present essay, translation is a difficult art, especially when dealing with poets from a cultural context so different from ours, as North Americans. The challenge of translation was recently illustrated by the publication of an English version of Kameni Spavac, or Stone Sleeper, a major volume by the Bosnian poet Mehmedalija Dizdar (1917-71), known exclusively as "Mak," a name he took during the Partisan movement in World War II. Mak is considered the greatest Bosnian versifier of the 20th century and an outstanding patriotic figure, in that he enunciated a modern national myth about the forebears of the Muslim Bosniaks.
Bosnia has always followed a separate Balkan path. A borderland between Croatia and Serbia, Bosnia has resisted the pretensions of both to conquer it. The Bosnians themselves may have been a separate Slav "tribe," who arrived in the region contemporaneously with the Croats and Serbs, in the sixth century, or they may have been a remnant of the pre-Slavic Illyrians, ancestors of the Albanians. Unlike the Albanians, the Bosnians may have become Slavized in language. But it is clear they always considered themselves Bosnians first. They even produced their own mysterious, independent Christian sect, the "Bosnian Church," sometimes mislabeled "Bogomils" after a Bulgarian apocalyptic cult with a very different character. The main characteristic of the Bosnian Church seems to have been that, as Bosnians wished to be neither Croats nor Serbs, their faith was neither Catholic nor Orthodox. With the conquest of Bosnia by the Ottomans in 1463, thousands of former adherents of the separatist church converted to Islam, with their descendants remaining Muslims until the present.
The pre-Islamic Bosnians left the landscape strewn with a remarkable type of above-ground burial monument, stone sarcophagi known as stečci, carved in high relief and apparently depicting the dead, their professions, their wealth, and their religious affiliations. Mak used the stečci as the basis for an epic. Francis R. Jones has rendered Mak's verse in English, in a luxurious volume produced in Sarajevo in 1999. But Mak was a dedicated and inspired reinventor of language, whose work often draws on alliteration and archaic forms that elude effective translation.
A sample of Jones' reworking of Mak's unique diction demonstrates why a judgement on the success of the project is difficult. The original of the following text begins "Koliko kola od dola od dola." "Kolo" is a circle, as well as a Balkan traditional dance; in Bosnian, "dol" is a valley or hollow, and pain or suffering (i.e. sorrow) is "bol":
How long the kolo from hollow to hollow
How long the sorrow from kolo to kolo
How long the dread from stead to stead
How long the tombs from coomb to coomb
How long the blood we are judged to pay
How long the deaths till the judgement day
How long the kolo from hollow to hollow
How long the sorrow from kolo to kolo
Kolo to kolo from sorrow to sorrow
However much of the original brilliance of his innovation is lost, nobody can understand Bosnia without reading Mak; and recognition as a great and enjoyable versifier is due him.[xxvi]
Global attention to the Bosnian war has brought a number of other useful volumes into print in English. Perhaps the most important among such titles is The Scar On the Stone, edited by Chris Agee, which includes an excellent and representative selection of recent Bosnian poetry, much of it directly influenced by the 1992-95 war. I would recommend the book, which includes excerpts and commentaries by Mak and by Francis R. Jones, without qualification, and will only indicate two writers I believe deserve special attention, in that they represent two sides of Sarajevo literary life.
The first is Abdulah Sidran (1944-) whom I, along with thousands of his own fellow-citizens, consider the best poet writing in Bosnia today. Avdo is also a successful screenwriter, and author of the script for the 1997 film Perfect Circle, the first postwar Bosnian film, directed by Ademir Kenović, and shown throughout the West (although it never gained an American distributor). Sidran was quite famous for his patriotic activities during the war, but he is also a great stylist with a marvellous, if modest, sense of the history of his own country. His Bosnia is less mythical than that of Mak, and his language is more straightforward, but his work has great richness. A well-translated bilingual volume of his verse with a clunky English title (The Blindman Sings to His City) has appeared (and sold out) in Sarajevo, and should find a British or American publisher. In it, we find this version of one of Sidran's best poems, "The Nightmare," written long before the war, but incorporated with immense effect into the script of Perfect Circle:
What are you doing, son?
I'm dreaming, mother. I'm dreaming, mother, that I'm singing
And you ask me, in my dream, what are you doing, son?
What are you singing about, in your dream, son?
I'm singing, mother, that once I had a house.
And now I have none. That's what I'm singing about.
How I had a voice, mother, a voice and a tongue.
And now I have neither the voice nor the tongue.
With the voice I have not, in the tongue I have not,
I'm singing a song, mother, about the house I have not.
A second author appearing in The Scar On the Stone is a counter-example to Sidran: Izet Sarajlić (1930-2002). While Sidran is authentically associated with Sarajevo, Sarajlić, an individual of extraordinary vanity, went to great lengths to seek to identify himself with the city. However, his path was crooked. He was born in Doboj, in central Bosnia, a town brutally "cleansed" of Muslims by its Serbs. Before the war began in 1992, Sarajlić, although of Muslim origin, wrote in normative Serbian dialect and was so aggressive in his identification with Russia and Soviet poetry that he was thrown out of the Tito-era Writers' Union for a time. Since the recent war, he republished his verse in the more popular Bosnian dialect, and in reissuing his work he was also careful to excise certain embarrassing items. For example, Sarajlić had published a poem dedicated to his friend, the poet Radovan Karadžić, written, of course, before the latter attained fame as an indicted war criminal responsible for the shelling of Sarajevo and the massacre of 12,000 of its citizens, including 1,100 children. The poem was reportedly composed on the occasion of Karadžić's departure for a fellowship in the U.S., where he studied Walt Whitman. Sarajlić's homage to his friend included the line, "U tom veku napisan je Pasternak i potučen Hitler," meaning, "In this century Pasternak wrote and Hitler was beaten." The Soviet patriot Sarajlić went on to praise our century and denigrate the 17th century and Shakespeare.
A certain amount of nonsense has been written suggesting that Karadžić led the attack on Sarajevo because he was frustrated at his lack of recognition as a poet, but in reality the homage of Sarajlić shows that Karadžić was not without status in the hall of mirrors that constitutes the Sarajevo literary establishment. As the war was about to begin, Karadžić was once even shielded from a beating in the Writers' Club in Sarajevo by Sidran, on grounds of club hospitality rather than friendship, let it be said. The book in which the Sarajlić "letter" to Karadžić appears includes an encomium by an associate of Karadžić in the assault on Sarajevo, the former literature professor Nikolai Koljević. (Koljević returned to Sarajevo after the war and committed suicide. Karadžić awaits arrest and trial.)
Sarajlić remained an admirer of the former Soviet Union and the extreme left. Told that his poem "Sarajevo," a rather mediocre but popular work that many locals have committed to memory, should be translated into English, he replied "Arkan govori engleski" (i.e. Arkan, the notorious war criminal assassinated early in 2000, spoke English). Well, in fact, Arkan spoke the same Serbian dialect in which Sarajlić once wrote, while the American diplomats who saved Sarajevo from collective martyrdom at the hands of Sarajlić's friends spoke English. One could even paraphrase his poem about Karadžić to say that "Sarajlić wrote and Karadžić was beaten," except that one would hesitate to honor the former by comparing with Pasternak. But Sarajlić benefited from the forgetfulness of his neighbors, who preferred to treat him as a picturesque old man. On the same occasion in which he delivered his opinion about Arkan, Sarajlić went on to make fun of the sound of the English language, and to say contemptuously that he would prefer that his poetry be translated into Czech, Polish, or Russian. A few days later, he called in the press for Sarajevans to celebrate the release from jail, in Italy, of an ultraleftist terrorist, who had done nothing discernible to save Sarajevo, but whose liberation filled Sarajlić with happiness. Predictably, Sarajlić was nauseatingly idolized in Italy and elsewhere by leftist authors who wanted to "say something" about the horrors of the Bosnian war while maintaining a defense of Titoite Communism.
In The Scar On the Stone, it is perhaps predictable that the meretricious Sarajlić appears in a translation by Charles Simic. The inclusion of this old fake in the collection is not an error, for he did represent a certain darker side of Sarajevo. (I have written about this elsewhere.) One of the truly quintessential Sarajlić items therein is a short verse in which the author described a young man during the siege of the city, playing the guitar while a rocket flies over his head, and then asks, "Is he Sarajevo's future Bulat Okudzhava?" This apparent non sequitur introduces into Sarajevo's tragedy the figure of a Soviet poet of the 1960s. One could with equal justification equate the young man with Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Paco de Lucía or a traditional Muslim musician, but that would not involve lip service to the Russians, which was always Sarajlić's main interest. The poem ends on a distinctly sour note that is characteristic of Sarajlić, in which he proclaims the worthlessness of art. Strangely, Sidran drew exactly the opposite conclusion from his experiences in the siege of Sarajevo, which is why Sidran is the city's hero, while Sarajlić, at the end of his life, still clawed for adulation.
As for the identification of young war victims with future geniuses; it is a banal formula, but the poet and fiction writer Nedžad Ibrišimović (b. 1940) offered a sharper version of it in his short novel The Book of Adem Kahriman, which is a little classic of modern Bosnian literature, and almost a prose poem. There he writes, describing a Serb massacre of Muslims burned alive in a mosque, "If an Inquisitor burns a child in a mosque, how does he know he has not burned a Newton, and if in effect he has consigned a Newton to the flames, when will the četnik [Serb terrorist] realize Newton was Muslim?"[xxvii]
Other, and like Ibrišimović, better personalities, are represented in The Scar on the Stone, although he is absent from it. They include the Islamic poet Hadžem Hajdarević (b. 1956), who has also edited a textbook, although it is jarring to find Gottfried Benn, to whom one of Hadžem's poems refers, identified as an "18th century German poet" in a footnote in The Scar on the Stone. The volume includes a substantial selection of work by Semezdin Mehmedinović (b. 1960), whose Sarajevo Blues has been published in the U.S., and who presently lives in Washington, DC, where he works for the Voice of America Bosnian service, and several poems by the gifted Bosnian Croat poetess Aneta Benac-Krstić. Indeed, the Sarajevo scene boasts many more excellent poets, amounting to a roster too long to present here.[xxviii]
I have left to the last, in my survey of South Slavic poetry, the figure of the Slovene poet Tomaž Šalamun (b. 1941). Šalamun has had a success in the United States that separates him from the Slavic world; and indeed, this alienation is justified, because Šalamun's style is slavishly derivative of the Anglo-American poets. He was assisted in remaking himself by the enemies of literature that inhabited the Iowa Writers' Workshop, such as Robert Hass and Bob Perelman. Here one sees the post-modern equivalent of the Romantic influence on Prešeren and that of the European avant garde on Kosovel, except that in the latest case the influence has been unproductive if not negative, leading to a dead end.
Šalamun's 1988 Selected Poems presents a marvellous exemplar of everything wrong with the present Anglo-American attitude toward poetry in smaller and lesser-known languages. Edited, of course, by Simic, it includes a really offensive introduction by Hass. The latter sneers at the very idea of Slovene literature, as well as at American cultural attaches during what happened to be the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Hass knows nothing of Prešeren and Kosovel, and, incredibly enough, admits to never having heard, as late as 1982, of the Russian futurist poet and theoretician Velimir Khlebnikov.
But of course Hass knows about Popa, and he is glad to find that Šalamun has read Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery with appreciation, so that the whole encounter is really about a reaffirmation that, after all, it is American verse and its adopted token foreigners that count the most. When Hass tries to situate Šalamun in Europe he has recourse only to those other "honorary American" and even Americanized poets whose names are seen as standing in for whole traditions going back centuries: Brodsky, Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub, Popa (naturally), etc.
That Brodsky should have attained success in this manner in no way reflects on him; but it reveals everything about Hass and those like him that, to emphasize something that cannot be repeated too many times, while he could discourse on Brodsky at length, he had never heard of Khlebnikov. Hass's introduction to Šalamun also commits the notable gaffe of romanticizing an individual named Gojko Djogo, who played the dissident poet under Titoism but then went on, within three years of Hass's reminiscence of him, to become, like Karadžić, a leader of the most extreme and terroristic Serb nationalist militias in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Hass's valentine to Djogo was reprinted without emendation in 1997, which is unsurprising; why should Hass, occupied with the destruction of poetry in America, have bothered to keep up with such details as the attempted destruction of Sarajevo? Fortunately, Hass has only murdered sensibilities, while Djogo is responsible for real deaths.
But the real problem is that the time of benevolent innovations from the West passed, with the end of the epoch of fruitful modernism in the United States. Šalamun, promoted by the Simics, Hasses, and Perelmans of the American academy, has the same fate in mind for Balkan poetry that Sarajlić seeks to realize by his Russophilia: to distance it from its soul. It seems almost impossible to get the American poetry bureaucracy to grasp that young American poets might have more to learn from Branko Miljković than Balkan poets have to learn from Robert Hass. The second edition of Šalamun's first book, Poker, included a preface linking his name to that of Julian Schnabel, for God's sake! Nothing could better exemplify the rot that has spread abroad from New York.[xxix]
The whole matter is reminiscent of the American media treatment of the Kosovo war, which, as far as the punditocracy was concerned, wasn't about the Albanians and Serbs, but about us; about our military forces, our possible use of ground troops, our political differences, and the scandals of our president. To the guests on political talk shows, the Albanians driven from their homes—and the Serbs then driven from their homes after the intervention ended—were extras in a movie, objects rather than subjects.
Modern Albanian poetry
Although I began this survey with an Albanian author, Faik Konica, I have also chosen to leave a discussion of Albanian poetry, both in Kosovo and in Albania proper, for the end. There are two reasons for this: first, Albanian is not a South Slav language and the Kosovar writers were never considered part of Yugoslav literature. They were not even included in the most general anthologies, which may say more about the status of the Kosovar Albanians in the country of which they were subjects (many were denied citizenship under Yugoslav rule) than almost anything else. Second, Albanian poetry is utterly unknown outside the Albanian community worldwide.
And yet, Albanian literature has produced some of the most powerful, eloquent, concise, and lyrical poets of our time. Only the barest glimpse of this glory is available to English readers in less than a handful of books. These are An Elusive Eagle Soars, an anthology compiled by the greatest Albanologist of non-Albanian origin alive today, Robert Elsie; the translated works of the very great Martin Camaj, who was my good friend, and volumes, also translated by Elsie, issued by the Dukagjini publishing house in Peja, Kosovo, which are unfortunately not distributed in the U.S. In particular, Dukagjini has issued two books that will bring immense joy to all Albanians and all friends of Albanians, among whom I count myself. These pathways of delight are slender volumes, but are rich with illumination: The Highland Lute, Cantos I-V by Gjergj Fishta, translated from Lahuta e Malcís, the Albanian original, and Free Verse, by the poet known as Migjeni. Both are presented bilingually, with the Albanian original and the English translation on facing pages.
I will begin with the volume of Migjeni because it includes so many remarkable gifts for the English reader, although Fishta preceded him chronologically. Migjeni (1911-1938) was the founder of the modernist style in Albanian, a worthy contemporary, in the regional context, of Srečko Kosovel. Both died young. But these two have much more in common, and share much as well, in biographic and literary terms, with other avant-garde poets who appeared around the world at that time. One might even describe them as participants in a global literary revolution.
Young poets like Migjeni, Kosovel, the Italian Giuseppe Ungaretti (teacher of Martin Camaj, and a major influence on Viktor Vida), the French surrealists, the Russian futurists, the Spanish "generation of 1927," and the Catalan Joan Salvat-Papasseit, emerged from the horrors and disillusion of the first world war with a fresh and novel literary sensibility. They sought to overturn all existing values; to write against every existing literary canon and convention; to break down the barriers between thought and language, between dream and reality. They were revolutionaries of the word, and worthy grandchildren of Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Lautréamont.
The values and achievements of the French pioneers of literary modernism, it might be said, took two generations to penetrate the minds of ambitious young poets in languages like Albanian, Slovenian, Catalan, and even Italian and Russian—and to produce the entirely new conception represented by the surrealist style. But this process of saturation of more distant cultures and later generations was given an immense impetus by the shock of the first world war. In that vast machinery of bloodshed, a war carried out without recourse to any appeal but those of militarism and brutalization, young intellectuals were shattered. Taking up their pens, they confronted a morality in ruins, and responded to it with rebellion. This new sensibility even touched nations and literatures, such as those in Spain, that had been left outside the actual combat.
Migjeni and Kosovel stand apart from others, in my view, for two reasons. First, they introduced modernism to their literary cultures quite abruptly; neither Albanian nor Slovenian had passed through the intervening phases of symbolism and other, more genteel varieties of aesthetic experiment. Second, they had an enormous and somewhat mysterious success in merging the avant-garde with a refined sense of language, which both Albanians and Slovenes may have gained from the influence of nearby Italy. But Migjeni is distinctive from all the rest of them, in another way: by the human immediacy of his work. Although poets like Kosovel expressed the postwar revolt through formal experimentation, the verse of Migjeni shows endearing, Albanian qualities absent from the works of most of his foreign contemporaries: tragedy, candor, and sympathy for the oppressed. He comes to us, in effect, as the first writer in Albanian addressing the rest of the world, as well as readers in his language.
Elsie's magisterial talent as a translator is magnificently displayed in this volume. How touching it is to read the stirring and serpentine lines of Migjeni in English:
Song of the West, song of man drunk with self-confidence,
Song of another faith, with other temples and solemn rites,
In which from morn to night human brains and feelings melt,
In an apotheosis of iron: the souls pass through smokestacks.
The story of Migjeni is known to all Albanian readers. He was born Millosh Gjergj Nikolla, of Serbian heritage. Indeed, as the outstanding Albanian scholar and mentor Arshi Pipa pointed out, Albanian was Migjeni's second language, and "he did not know Albanian well. His texts swarm with spelling mistakes, even elementary ones, and his syntax is far from being typically Albanian." And yet, he speaks powerfully to all Albanians. Elsie praises him as "not confined by narrow nationalist perspectives" and "one of the few… to bridge the cultural chasm separating the Albanians and Serbs." Linguists will, correctly enough, condemn me for ascribing subjective qualities to differing tongues, but may we dare to imagine the young Slav found in the Albanian idiom a specially lyrical, musical, and free spirit more conducive to his insurgent temperament?
And no mistake should be made: Migjeni was a revolutionary, but in art rather than politics—and that is the only kind of revolution that remains defensible. Elsie quotes a conversation between the poet and a "Trotskyite" friend, in which Migjeni said, "My work has a combative character, but for practical reasons, and taking into account our particular conditions, I must manoeuvre in disguise." Migjeni's heart remained that of a protestor and a defender of human vitality and raw truth: it was thus that he introduced into Albanian literature a number of previously-unknown topics, including anticlericalism and sexuality. But the universal tone and relevance of his work are shared by other Albanian modernists, including the Kosovar classics Esad Mekuli, Beqir Mysliu, and Ali Podrimja. I think again, in this context, of the special relationship of Apollinaire and Faik Konica. The companionship of Apollinaire and Faiku is a harbinger, for me, of the acceptance of Albanian into European literature, on equal terms and with equal rights. That entry will be facilitated by these volumes produced under Elsie's loving care.
The Albanians seem to be unique in Europe, in possessing two distinct, autonomous, and truly vigorous literary languages: Gheg, spoken and written in northern Albania, Kosovo, and western Macedonia, and Letrarë, a "unified" national idiom. Migjeni wrote in Gheg, and Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940), a Franciscan priest, whose Highland Lute, Cantos I-V, is the second bilingual offering from Elsie and Dukagjini, is the greatest of the pre-modernist Gheg poets. Fishta is also one of two Albanian national poets—the other being Naim Frashëri, a Bektashi Sufi Muslim who wrote in Tosk, the dialect of central and southern Albania, which has been subsumed into Letrarë. The Highland Lute is an epic of national resistance to Serbian aggression. Fishta has accompanied me, so to speak, throughout my journey into Albanian letters, which commenced when I was introduced to the poet Gjon Sinishta in San Francisco in 1990, and began collaborating with the Albanian Catholic Bulletin, which Sinishta published. Sinishta was the "Albanian Solzhenitsyn," as the standard-bearer of Albanian Catholic traditions in exile; he died in the United States at 65.
The legacy of Fishta is symbolized for me by two moments I can never forget. In 1999, while fighting continued in Kosovo, I went briefly to Peru, where I was alone and depressed, but where, for the first time, I dialed into an internet site that included a recording of Fishta's own voice, reading from The Highland Lute. In the dark, poor, and silent city of Lima, where the Indian masses seemed to have lost the brilliant creativity I know so well from Mexico and Central America, the voice of Fishta came as if from within my own heart, and I was moved to tears.
Then, in Kosovo in 2000, while working toward the organization of an interreligious council, I brought together Baba Mumin Lama of the Bektashi Sufi order and Pater Ambroz Ukaj of the Franciscan order. Both were heroes of the national defense against Serbian terror, and both had seen immense suffering inflicted on their communities. Baba Mumin took Pater Ambroz's hand and said, "You have Fishta; we have Naimi."
I must necessarily, then, become much more personal in discussing The Highland Lute. I have waited a long time for this publication. Is it too much to hope that the whole work may appear in English? Fishta was a genius in his use of the epic meters of northern Albanian oral verse, as described by Elsie, and his work reminds us of Longfellow, as well as Homer and Virgil. But above all, this volume is precious for its evocation of Albanian heroes. Fishta sings of his main hero, in a beautiful English rendition,
Oso Kuka, man from Shkodra,
Left in Shkodra none his equal,
None in keeping faith and courage
As is custom in Albania.
A hirsute man with eyes all bloodshot,
Whiskers drooping to his gun belt,
When he speaks, the mountains echo,
When he calls, the flatlands tremble,
When he seizes his grim sabre,
Such the whiz when it is brandished,
Lightning you'd think flashed beside you!
About Fishta we all, Albanians and their friends, have our tales to tell—how the Communists dug up his corpse and threw it into a river; how his memory remained alive among the people of Shkodra, so that when the first reading of his work was held in the sacred city of Albanian Catholics, after Communism fell, and a young actor faltered in his recitation, the verse was picked up by elder folk in the audience. Copies of The Highland Lute were kept hidden, under mattresses and in closets, in Kosovo under Serbian rule. Today there are only two words to say about Fishta: read him.
I will conclude these remarks with some comments more personal than any other. Throughout my career as a writer I have dedicated myself to investigating the lost, forgotten, obscured, censored, and suppressed traditions of men and women struggling for freedom. I wrote "secret histories" of an American labor union that fought against Soviet infiltration; of the Nicaraguan contras and their battle against Leninist domination; of Spanish anarchists and other independent leftists who also held out for a radical proletarian vision free of the psychosis of Stalinist power; of the libertarian culture of my own territory, California; of Kosovo in its unparalleled fight for dignity and liberty. Lately I have published a book on the war for the soul of Islam, between traditional believers and Wahhabi extremism. And I will see published a volume on my own effort to preserve and protect the last traces of Spanish Jewish culture in the Balkans.
In all these projects I have dealt with the "mysteries of text." I researched histories that did not appear in books, but which were preserved, in the most fragile form, in forgotten files and archives, susceptible at any moment to being thrown into the trash, and some of which I rescued from dumpsters where they had been cast aside. Other sources included pamphlets distributed to a few individuals, overlooked and neglected; books that presented the truth in the face of lies and dissimulations, as in the case of the Spanish civil war; and "texts" I lived myself, in my California. When I visited Bosnia-Hercegovina in the aftermath of the Serbian attempt at genocide there, I confronted the fearsome reality of books burned wholesale, and I paced the streets of Sarajevo seeking one, just one, copy of certain lost classics. There, also, I learned in the most poignant way that songs, epitaphs on tombstones, newspapers, and other ephemera may be all that remains of a great and pure tradition. The Catholic poet Gjon Sinishta, whom I came to see as my second father, taught me more than anyone else what it means to rescue a culture deemed lost; in his case, that of the Gheg-speaking Albanian Catholics.
When I went to the Balkans to live in 1999, by a curious set of circumstances, I had to sell most of the vast collection of books I had left in California, and which covered such subjects as labor history, Marxism, the Spanish civil war, Latin American politics, and much in the way of Judaica and Islamica. Yet I somehow felt liberated. In Sarajevo I learned that I needed to keep only books that could not be replaced, in terms of wisdom as well as accessibility. In the first category I place the Torah and Ketuvim in Judeo-Spanish or Ladino, the idiom of the Iberian Jewish exiles, with a few other rare volumes of Sephardica, the Gospels, Qur'an, and a book left to me by Sinishta: the Albanian Sufi Baba Rexheb's classic, The Mysticism of Islam and Bektashism. Books I could not read had I not myself saved them from Serbian vandalism in Sarajevo include the great scholarly works on Sephardic culture by the Bosnian scholar Muhamed Nezirović, who succeeded Gjon Sinishta as my greatest mentor.
And of course, as I shall here elucidate, I could never part with Martin Camaj's limpid, inimitable works. I remember my poor, sick father reading Martin's poem "Shiu mbi lume" (Rain on the River), in my adaptation, and telling me quietly, "it's so beautiful." Both my father and Martin died too soon after that, to be followed, too closely, by Baba Rexheb and by Gjon Sinishta.
I have long pondered this paradox—why a man who loves writing as much as I do should feel oppressed to have too many books in his possession. In the end so many are useless, when we realize, faced with a great moral challenge, how little of value has been said about war, terror, genocide, survival, and freedom. And then, of course, there is the practical fact that virtually any book may be had today through websites.
Recently, I came to understand another reason I no longer feel a need to surround myself with books. In the Albanian language, free publishing is still, a decade after the fall of Communism, only beginning. A steady stream of translations into Albanian from other languages pours across the mountains from Shkodra and Tirana into Prishtina, the Kosovar capital, and elsewhere up and down the Albanian lands. Meanwhile, Robert Elsie must continue his great work of translating the classics of Albanian into English. The books I need most, then, are books aborning, and books to come—soon, I should hope. One such will be, God willing, an ample translation into English of the works of Naim Frashëri, the model of enlightenment and progressive thought for Muslims in our time. Books are no longer inert for me; they are now existential. How curious it is to write these words! The Albanians stand at the threshold of glory—of the definitive recognition of their culture in the family of European nations, and in the great cultures of the planet. I am greatly privileged to witness this epoch, and for that, I extend my humble thanks to my friends, the translator Robert Elsie and the poet and publisher Eqrem Basha (of the Dukagjini publishing house), among so many others.[xxx]
In Kosovo, during the period of resistance to Serbia, writers and especially poets played a major role in galvanizing the national movement. Ibrahim Rugova has already been mentioned, but many other such figures came to prominence as representatives of Albanian aspirations. The Albanian-American scholar Sami Repishti has described this as "the coming of age of the intellectuals," in which the mass education created by Titoism made possible the "shedding [of] the overbearing complex of inferiority, the image of an 'an uneducated and uneducable populace'… created by vicious and persistent Serbian propaganda for over a century."
Thanks to the general neglect of Albanian literature in the outer world, the poets and other authors who were read by Kosovar Albanians in those years have yet to become known outside their own community, except in a fragmentary way in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. But their work is generally distinguished by delicacy, wit, insight, and an incisive style. Not for them the crafting of pseudo-populist or ideological verses; rather, they seemed to follow the example of such dissident intellectuals as the Czech Vaclav Havel, who, of course, went from artistic modernism to the presidency of his country.
Migjeni and Fishta were northern Albanians, but are associated with the whole Albanian literary tradition. Of the leading Albanian-language authors who rose to prominence in the former Yugoslavia, including Kosovo, the poet, critic, and translator Esad Mekuli (1916-1993) was born in the town of Plava, in the Gusinje region of Montenegro, which lies within the Albanian culture area. Mekuli has been called "the father of modern Albanian poetry in what was once Yugoslavia" by Elsie, and his influence in Kosovo remains immense. He studied veterinary medicine at the University of Belgrade, before serving as a Partisan in the second world war.
After the war, he was the founding editor of Jeta e Re (New Life), which became the leading literary journal in Kosovo, and was its guiding personality until 1973. Interestingly enough, he was commissioned to translate a violently anti-Muslim Montenegrin epic, The Mountain Wreath, into Albanian, in cooperation with the writer Zef Nekaj, who later emigrated as a political exile to the U.S. Mekuli also produced Serbian translations of many Albanian works. One of Mekuli's most famous verses, as translated by Elsie, asks:
Is it the Albanian's fault that he lives under this sky
Under this sky, in the land of his ancestors?
But Mekuli's best work is psychological and even somewhat surrealist, rather than political. A favorite of many Kosovars is his 1935 poem "Longing for the Unattainable," which begins (in my translation),
Clouds play high above like lambs on the hills,
while longing for the unattainable is held within me.
(A possible alternative title, Nostalgia for the Infinite, may be derived from a painting by Giorgio de Chirico.) Here it must be stipulated that Albanian authors, no less than other literary personalities in socialist Yugoslavia, benefited from the absence of a strict canon of socialist realism under the Tito regime. Those who lived in Hoxha's Albania were, of course, by no means so lucky. On the other side of the mountains, writers were held to the standard articulated by the court novelist Kadare: "In their spirit, in their content, even in their style and intonation, many of the works of the present day decadent bourgeois literature are reminiscent of the Bible, the New Testament, Qur'an, the Talmud, and other tattered remnants of the Dark Ages." Given such attitudes in Tirana, it is no wonder that Kosovar Albanians preferred to consider themselves "Titoists," as in the case of Rugova, rather than "Enverists."
Indeed, Kosovo produced a far more developed modern literature in Albanian than Albania proper, at least until the end of Communism in the latter territory, in 1991. Elsie notes that in the closing decades of the century up to 70 percent of book publication in Kosovo was poetry. Outstanding younger poets included four whose first books appeared in 1961: Din Mehmeti (1932-), Fahredin Gunga (1936-), Adem Gajtani (1935-), and Ali Podrimja (1942-). Podrimja, in particular, became well-known in Yugoslavia, and even internationally; Elsie described him as "the most typical representative of modern Albanian verse in Kosovo." If Esad Mekuli was the T.S. Eliot of the Kosovars, Podrimja was their Allen Ginsberg. With biting sarcasm, he answered the question posed a generation before him by Mekuli:
It is the Albanian's fault
Who sketches his own face under
And breaks windows and stirs up muddy water
Who speaks Albanian, who eats Albanian, who shits Albanian
It is the Albanian's fault
The Albanian is the one at fault
For all my undoings
And for my broken tooth
And for my frozen laugh
So therefore: BULLET
Podrimja's language tends to be hard, terse, and economical. He allows us extraordinary insight into the difficulty of being Albanian, of belonging to a culture surrounded by enemies, of speaking an isolated language, as here in "Our Names:"
stumbles over them
looks for them with torches
(Modified from Elsie's version)
And here again in "Ballad of Man:"
I know a man
wandering naked through the world
instead of a tie
he knots a snake around his neck
instead of a shirt
he wears a wolf's skin
he spends all his time
undressing and undressing
in a public place
nobody sees him
he wanders naked through the world
a Man who lost everything
(Modified from Elsie's version)
Podrimja also writes beautifully about the archaic nature and ancient legacy of Albanian culture:
Return to the verses of Homer,
return to where you came from
now is not your time, return,
free men from themselves
and shadows, free them from masks
and flights, free them from insomnia
and silence, free them from fever
and rain. Now is not your time!
Return to the verses of Homer!
Troy has fallen and the Marseillaise
has long been unsung by men.
(Modified from Elsie's version)
The list of major poets could be extended to include Azem Shkreli (1938-1997), Rrahman Dedaj (b. 1939), Mirko Gashi (b. 1939), and Sabri Hamiti (b. 1950), as well as the writer considered by many of his contemporaries the most talented and significant, Beqir Musliu (1945-1996). Musliu followed a rigorously surrealist line, with such works as "The Hidden Pagoda," beginning, "Someone has built a pagoda at the top of the Accursed Mountains," a reference to the starkly beautiful but underpopulated and intimidating range that delineates the border of Montenegro, Albania, and Kosovo. Like these mountains, the aforementioned poet Eqrem Basha (b. 1948), spans borders; author of short poems characterized by a dry wit as well as lyricism, he was born in the Macedonian town of Dibra, which has an Albanian majority, and is viewed as a participant in the literature of both Macedonia and Kosovo.
The greatest modern Albanian poet, Lazar Gusho (1899-1987), who called himself Lasgush Poradeci, lived in Albania proper but is revered by all Albanians. I include "Lasgushi" among the half dozen or so greatest poets of this century in any language. His sensitivity, his understanding of nature, his music are unparalleled in Albanian. It is interesting to note that his early education was in Romanian, a language with certain characteristics in common with the otherwise isolated Albanian, and that he spent his much of his youth in Romania, which at one time was a center of the Albanian intellectual diaspora, and where he was strongly influenced by Latin modernism. One of his finest poems, "Mbarim Vjeshte" ("End of Autumn") which could refer to him, reads (as I translate it, with necessary help from my friend and colleague, the Albanian-American journalist Ruben Avxhiu):
He's flown off, the last stork, magnificently, with a sad heart,
Looking old at dawn over the snowy mountains…
Gone and dissatisfied, and with his strong beak
He abandoned his nest to his master, rapping at the gate…
Thus it won't seem that the fated one often returns to fields after plowing,
Back to furrows turned and turned again by cattle from the mountains,
And the fallow soil is silent, with the gray mouse gone,
While the spotted viper died by the desert swamp.
Swept by cold winds, the earth lies under frost,
In the dry forest the north wind blows, nervous and wild,
But singing more and more… there! somewhere, sly and tiny
Over fences and briers a wren flies gladly!…
Oh, such grace the stork had, so noble in his sad height,
As he paced back and forth, like a bridegroom with a crown!…
And with him the crane, marching at his side,
Eyes uplifted, with prudent step, as if his bride!…
Lasgushi's work was of incalculable importance to the later generations of Albanian youth. As Ruben Avxhiu recently commented to me, "When I was in high school I learned that he died; I was so surprised! In all the textbooks it was implied that he died sometime before the Communists came to power. He was very important for us, the last generation under Communism. We grew up in a world where all the past great poets had disappeared, even from the black market in books."
The anthology An Elusive Eagle Soars includes Elsie's rendition of an amazing poem by the Hoxhaite author Kadare—amazing in its bold badness. It is titled What Are the Albanian Mountains Thinking? and its essential message is antireligious. According to Kadare, the mountains are thinking about Albanian nationalist symbols such as rifles and children, but they are also thinking evil thoughts about priests and mullahs who allegedly oppressed the people, decadent authors who did not write populist verse, rifles and more rifles, more nasty religious symbols, rulers, priests, and traitors who also happened to be priests, another bunch of decadent poets who did not notice the poverty of the masses, more rifles and more children, and more bad churches, rulers, monasteries, and priests who wanted to preserve the original forms of the Albanian language. Finally, rifles, rifles, and rifles again, with the summary declaration: "Albania was waiting / For the Communist Party." Meanwhile, the chorus of acclamation for Kadare continues in the West; Noel Malcolm, a political writer whom I believe knows better, described him in The New York Review of Books as "as the most innovative of Albanian writers," thereby, doubtless unintentionally, consigning Lasgushi, Faik Konica, and many other Albanian authors to the Orwellian memory hole.
Martin Camaj, whom I consider the second of the two greatest 20th century Albanian poets, after Lasgushi, and also among the finest modern poets in any language, was a gifted linguist and textual analyst, who taught Albanology at the University of München. But more importantly for me, he was a mentor in poetry and in Albanian studies, and a friend.
Martin was the successor to a number of the men execrated by Kadare—prominent Albanian Catholic authors who, like Martin, wrote in the Gheg dialect of Albanian. They included Lazër Shantoja (1892-1945), a great poet of faith as well as physical passion (and its voluntary renunciation), Dom Ndre Zadeja (1891-1945), and Mons. Vinçenc Prennushi (1885-1949). Martin's exile, first in Yugoslavia, then in Italy, and finally in Germany, was by no means unrelated to this stylistic datum: the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha had sought to suppress the Gheg literary tradition, first by executing all of these Catholic writers and more, including the aged author of the first novel in Albanian, Ndoc Nikaj (1864-1946), and two outstanding folklorists, Bernardin Palaj (d. 1946, also an important poet) and Donat Kurti (1903-1983). These men, a mere handful among a long list of martyred Catholic clerics and laity in Hoxhaite Albania, had laid the foundation for Albanian literature as we know it, and after the fall of Communism in Albania proper they were granted the recognition and republication they deserved, although much of their work had already been revived in Kosovo.
But Hoxha, supported by the novelist Kadare, also acted to impose Letrarë as the sole, standard literary idiom. Hoxha's fanaticism on this subject had effects among Albanians everywhere. For example, although Kosovars continue to identify themselves as Ghegs, and to speak Gheg, most today publish in Letrarë. The adoption of this form by Kosovars was perceived by them as an expression of nationalist affirmation in the face of Slavic cultural pressure.
Martin was proud of his Albanian roots and his Albanian speech but he was unwilling to surrender, as a poet and scholar, to the chauvinist propaganda of Enverism. For him, the role of the poet was to defend and maintain literary style as a repository of collective cultural memory, not as an ideological vocabulary suitable for placards to be carried in party demonstrations. And as a scholar in linguistics, he saw as his first duty to record and analyze the origins and transmutations of language, not to promote a set of prescriptive canons.
In addition, Martin was a Catholic believer who completely rejected the postures of the Communist elite. For these reasons, he is barely known to the Albanian reading public today, except as a name, and when he is read, his fondness for the alleged archaisms of the pre-Hoxha Gheg dialect are alienating for many.
Nevertheless, Martin Camaj drew upon a very pure and personal stream of poetic music. His verse transforms the remembered rural landscape of his childhood, in a style characterized by brevity, compactness, intensity, and ecstatic insight. He is, indeed, a Christian mystical poet of a kind rare in Balkan modernism. Summarizing his personal outlook on literature, as well as his defiance of the party-state, he wrote, "in my poems and prose I side spontaneously with the individual rather than with the collective…my interest remains the destiny of the human being."
Martin was born in Temal, in the remote Dukagjin region of the north Albanian Alps, near the Drin River whose severe flooding isolated the area each winter. As a child herding sheep, Martin was discovered by the village priest. The priest told Martin's father the child was more suited to intellectual than physical work, and the reaction of the rural family was predictable: Martin's elder brother angrily told him it was better to learn "the language of snakes" and to forget about studying Latin. But after overcoming his family's opposition, he was educated in Shkodra at the Xaverianum College.
The Jesuit Xaverianum schooled many other north Albanian intellectuals, including Gjon Sinishta. Martin was extremely close to Gjon, as well as to another outstanding Albanian emigre in America, the poet Arshi Pipa (1920-97). Pipa's poetry is classical in form and wrenchingly eloquent in its condemnation of Communism and its description of the suffering of religious and other dissidents. His most important verse collection is Libri i Burgut (The Prison Book), printed in Albanian in Rome in 1959 and reprinted in Tirana in 1994.
After the second world war Martin witnessed the closing of the Xaverianum by the Hoxha regime and the mass trials and executions of Albanian Jesuits. He fled to Yugoslavia and entered the University of Belgrade, but later pursued postgraduate studies in Italy. He gained his doctorate in linguistics at the University of Rome, in 1960, under another exile scholar and poet, Ernest Koliqi, with whom he also worked on the leading Albanian émigré literary journal Shejzat (Pleiadi). His doctoral dissertation was a study of the early Albanian Catholic author, Gjon Buzuku, whose Missal is the first printed Albanian book. Further, he studied at Rome under Giuseppe Ungaretti, whose "hermeticism" left a permanent impress on him. Martin Camaj served as professor of Albanian studies at München from 1970 until 1990, and died in a Bavarian mountain village, Lenggries.
Significantly, Martin published his first collections, written in classical forms, in Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo: Nji fyëll ndër male (A Flute in the Mountains) in 1953, and Kânga e vërrimit (Song of the Lowlands) the following year. These books were reviewed in the Prishtina daily Rilindja by Gjon Sinishta, who then edited the paper's literary section (and who also discovered the work of the Kosovar Albanian dissident writer Adem Demaçi at that time). Martin's first books were considered the beginning of a new style of poetry in Kosovo. This was possible in Kosovo because, to repeat, notwithstanding the difficulties of the Slav-Albanian relationship, particularly in the 1950s, Yugoslav publishing imposed no bans or guidelines in areas of literary form. But both books were already suffused with nostalgia for the north Albanian mountain landscape which Martin was certain that could never see again. In 1958 he published his first novel, Djella, in Italy. He produced several more volumes of fiction and verse in Germany, Italy, and the U.S., including his selected poems (Poezi 1953-1967), which appeared in Munich in 1981. Bilingual anthologies of his work have appeared in English, German, and Italian. His last book, Palimpsest, was published in Albanian and English in the U.S. in 1991.
As a scholar, Martin Camaj worked to the highest standards. He authored several studies in Albanian linguistics, along with a well-known foreword to the Albanian-English bilingual edition of the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini, the great compendium of highland Albanian customary law, first printed in the U.S. in 1989. Martin wrote that the heart of the Kanun is besa, the "sacred promise and obligation to keep one's given word," which he described as "a term rich in meaning and use." Besa further encompasses "word of honor, faith, trust, protection, truce" and "hospitality, which involves uncompromising protection of a guest, even one with whom the host is in a state of blood-feud," as Martin commented.
Martin pointed out, "the permanence of the Kanun may be seen in its influence on Albanian folk literature—not only in a simple documentary form, but far more in terms of ethical and esthetic expression. Albanian customary law appears in a specific way primarily in epics and legends – in both form and content, the oldest types of Albanian folk literature." He went on to cite a characteristic stanza from a classic poem about the extraordinary Balkan culture hero Gjergj Elez Alia, an epical personality beloved to Muslim Bosnians (who know him as a Muslim warrior, Djerzelez Alija, particularly identified with Sarajevo) as well as Albanians. In this text, which like Albanian verse in general is of a clarity and beauty that cannot be easily rendered in other tongues, Gjergj Elez Alia, ill from injuries incurred in battle, must fight an "Arab" or other invader over honor:
For nine years I have taken the path to the grave.
But your arrival, giant, has made me turn aside.
You demanded my sister before the duel,
You demanded the herdsmen surrender their herds,
And I come to this duelling field to show you
That our forefathers a Kanun gave us:
Arms are first tested, before property is given,
And sisters are never surrendered
Until I am dead on the field of combat.[xxxi]
While such masculine sentiments may seem both appropriate and disquieting in view of the present chaotic state of Kosovo, I do not believe Martin Camaj could ever have blindly defended the ultranationalist excesses occurring there today. He was too much of a humanist, too kind, and too generous. For him besa meant mercy, not revenge, and in this he was truly a Christian poet.
I moved from Sarajevo to Kosovo while completing the first draft of this essay, and in pondering the brutalities that have occurred in the latter territory, I offer an anecdote of my own. I thought not to hang a photo of Branko Miljković on the wall of my rented apartment in Prishtina, for fear the Albanian landlady or cleaning lady would misinterpret its significance—or gossip about it. Finally, loving his work as I do, I put up the picture, but cut off the caption with his name. In Kosovo today, Serbian poetry is better left in anonymity, even by an American visitor. As Macbeth murdered sleep, pushed by his evil spouse, so Milošević has murdered the prestige of his people's greatest writers; and the Serb dictator was also urged on by his sinister wife. Here is one of my favorite works of Martin:
Rain on the River (Shiu Mbi Lum)
The mist descends slowly from the mountains
And raindrops fall upon the river;
Against the clouded sky a pine tree sways;
The soul craves easement, the limbs seek slumber.
Leaves and the cloak of the shepherdess merge into water
And raindrops fall upon the river;
Ripened desire drops from a branch;
The soul craves easement, the limbs seek slumber.
Flames spring from twigs in the hearth
And raindrops fall upon the river;
My ears are weary of voices;
The soul craves easement, the limbs seek slumber.
(Adapted from translation by Leonard Fox.)
Martin never saw post-Communist Albania; his exile lasted until his death. I gave a eulogy for Martin when he died. I learned more from him about poetry than from anybody else I ever knew. He had my besa; I will mourn him until the end of my life. It was in search of the sources of the wisdom imparted to me by Martin and by Gjon Sinishta, who also became my teacher, that finally, in 1999, I went to the Balkans to live, and to learn the lessons I have tried to impart here.[xxxii]
* * * * *
[ii] Citations from Guillaume Apollinaire and interview materials on Annie Playden, see Steegmuller, Francis, Apollinaire, Poet Among the Painters, 1963. Also see Destani, Bejtullah, ed., Faik Konitza: Selected Correspondence, 1896-1942, London, Learning Design Ltd., 2000, and my short work, Schwartz, Stephen, Ëndërrime në shqip/Dreaming in Albanian, Skopje/Shkup, Fakti, 2003.
[iii] The memoirs of Ismail Qemali Vlorë constitute a classic of Balkan and Ottoman historiography. The first edition appeared as Story, Somerville, ed., The Memoirs of Ismail Kemal Bey, London, Constable, , an expensive rarity. The volume was reprinted as The Memoirs of Ismail Kemal Vlora and His Work for the Independence of Albania, Tirana, Toena, 1997. The memoirs describe Ismail Qemali Vlorë's collaboration with Faik Konica on Albania.
[iv] Kadare, Ismail, "The Literature of Socialist Realism is Developing in Struggle Against the Bourgeois and Revisionist Pressure," Tirana: Albania Today, 3, 1977.
[v] See notes on Marulić in Pavletić, Vlatko, 100 Pjesnika Književnosti Jugoslavenskih Naroda, Zagreb, Mladost, 1984.
[vi] On Gundulić, see Pavletić, ibid., hereafter Pavletić (I). Selections from Lucić, Hektorović and Držić as well as the Latin tradition are included without biographies in Pavletić, Vlatko, Zlatna Knjiga Hrvatskog Pješnistva od Početaka do Danas, Zagreb, Matica Hrvatska, 1991, hereafter Pavletić (II).
[viii] Ed. by Washburn, Katherine, John S. Major, and Clifton Fadiman, New York, Norton, 1998
[ix] For the life of Prešeren, and Slovene originals of his poems, but not the translations, see Prešeren, France, Poems/Pesmi, Klagenfurt/Ljubljana/Vienna, Hermagoras Verlag, 1999.
[x] I will, however, recommend my own Kosovo: Background to a War, London, Anthem Press, 2000, and the various works cited therein.
[xi] For biographies of Kranjčević, Šantić, Dučić (with the original of the poem cited here), Matoš, and Ujević, see Pavletić (I).
[xii] For the original text of Šantić, see Šantić, Aleksa, Emina, Sarajevo, Sarajevo Publishing, 1998.
[xiii] Ćatić's lyric is performed on the CD Mostar Sevdah Reunion, World Connection, WC 43011; a better rendition by Himzo Polovina is unavailable outside Bosnia-Hercegovina.
[xiv] Schwartz, Stephen, "Ante Ciliga 1898-1992," New York: Journal of Croatian Studies, 1993-94 [1997.].
[xv] Kosovel, Srečko, Integrals, Tr. By Nike Kocijančič Pokorn, Katarina Jerin, Philip Burt, Ljubljana, Slovene Writers Association, 1998.
[xvi] Vučo, Alexander, The Holidays, and Davičo, Oskar, The Poem, both tr. by Alec Brown, London, Lincolns-Prager, 1959. On Krleža's Latinovicz, see Schwartz, Stephen, "Five Yugoslav Classics," New York: The New Criterion, May 2000, reprinted in my Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook, London, Saqi, 2005.
[xvii] Biographies of Matić, Dedinac, and Davičo, see Pavletić (I). A useful account of Serbian surrealism is Kapidžić-Osmanagić, Hanifa, Hrestomatija Srpskog Nadrealizma, Sarajevo, Svjetlost, 1970. On Popović, see Kapor, Čedo, Za Mir i Progres u Svijetu, Sarajevo, n.p., 1999 (memorial volume on Yugoslavs in the Spanish civil war); on the International Brigaders in Yugoslavia see Alba, Víctor, and Stephen Schwartz, Spanish Marxism vs. Soviet Communism: A History of the P.O.U.M., New Brunswick, Transaction, 1988.
[xviii] On the Pečat affair, see Banac, Ivo, With Stalin Against Tito, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1988; on Krleža, also see Schwartz, "Five Yugoslav Classics," op. cit. in note 16.
[xix] A selection is included in Bogdanović, Nana, ed., Moderna ruska poezija, Preveli Danilo Kiš i dr., Beograd, Nolit, 1975.
[xx] Simic, Charles, The Horse Has Six Legs: An Anthology of Serbian Poetry, St. Paul, The Grey Wolf Press, 1992. On the intellectual misadventures, which is a kind description, of Milorad Pavić, see Anzulović, Branimir, Heavenly Serbia, New York, NYU Press, 1999. The original of Miljković's poem appears in Pavletić (I).
[xxi] Mihalić, Slavko, Atlantis: Selected Poems 1953-1982, Tr. By Charles Simic and Peter Kastmiler, Greenfield Center, N.Y., The Greenfield Review Press, 1983. For the original of "Approaching Storm" see Mihalić, Slavko, Sabrane Pjesme, Zagreb, Naprijed, 1998..
[xxii] Edvard Kocbek, Translated by Michael Biggins, Ljubljana, Slovene Writers' Association, 1995.
[xxiii] Vrkljan, Irena, Marina or About Biography, Tr. By Celia Hawkesworth, Zagreb, The Bridge, 1991. This work has also been published in the U.S. by Northwestern University Press. Further on the Tsvetayeva case see Schwartz, Stephen, Intellectuals and Assassins, Anthem Press, London, 2000, and Brossat, Alain, Agents de Moscou, Paris, Gallimard, 1988.Sergei Efron was a writer of some talent who had been linked with the terrorist People's Will movement of tsarist times, and had been Tsvetayeva's lover beginning in her teenage years.
With the coming of the revolution, Efron had joined the anti-Bolshevik armies. Tsvetayeva returned to Moscow, intending at first to join him; but she was forced to stay in the Red zone. She was respected as a poet by the Bolshevik intellectuals, although Efron's service on the other side was well known. She professed to hate the Communists and wrote many poems in honor of the White soldiery. But she also worked briefly for the Bolshevik government, under, of all people, Stalin.
In 1921, while she was still in Moscow, Tsvetayeva received news that Efron had survived the civil war and emigrated to Czechoslovakia. Marina immediately joined him.
In the late 1920s Efron began to express pro-Soviet sympathies. These became so pronounced as to make Tsvetayeva an object of suspicion in the Russian exile community in Paris. Eventually, Efron became involved with a Russian-speaking Paris group operating as a front for the secret police or N.K.V.D., the Union for Repatriation of Russians Abroad.
The political life of the Efron family seems to have proceeded at a rather lazy pace until the assassination in Switzerland—on September 4, 1937, at the height of the Soviet purges—of a middle aged man bearing a passport identifying him as a Czech citizen named Hans Eberhard.
Eberhard's real name was Ignacy Porecki. He was also known as Ignace Reiss, and was a senior official of Stalin's secret police. A veteran of the Communist International or Comintern, as well as Red Army Intelligence (G.R.U.), he had played a crucial role in Soviet espionage in the West.
Ten weeks before his death, Reiss had begun a protest against the purges in the U.S.S.R., which had just decapitated the Red armed forces, and from which Stalin had ordered extended to Republican Spain, in the middle of its civil war. Reiss broke with Stalin in a thundering letter, returned his decorations, proclaimed his solidarity with the exiled Leon Trotsky, and warned against an extension of the N.K.V.D. into the West, specifically, the Spanish Republic. His liquidation came almost immediately.
The Reiss murder was a central event in the history of Soviet intelligence operations, leading to more deaths and involving personnel also assigned to the murder of Trotsky. A complicated trail led the Swiss police, seeking Reiss's killers, to France. With the cooperation of the French police, the center of the terrorist group was located in Paris, in the office of the Union for Repatriation of Russians Abroad and in the person of Efron.
Efron escaped the police net and returned to the U.S.S.R. via Republican Spain, but the scandal alienated many Russian exiles from Tsvetayeva, including the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who agreed with the widespread belief that she was a knowing and deceitful Soviet agent. To make matters worse, Efron's group was also connected with a conspiracy to murder Trotsky's son, Lev Sedov, and to the sensational kidnapping of White Russian general Yevgeny Karlovich Miller. The Reiss, Sedov, and Miller cases have become subjects for academic commentators on Tsvetayeva's work. The single question with which all have wrestled centers on how much she knew about Efron's activities.
Efron had fled to the U.S.S.R. Her daughter Ariadne having preceded him, Tsvetayeva herself, with her son Grigory, nicknamed Mur, returned to her homeland. For some time she and Efron enjoyed the patronage of the N.K.V.D. But Efron's performance in the Reiss case had not been brilliant. He was eventually purged and executed. Marina committed suicide in 1941, after the German invasion of Russia forced her evacuation to the interior of the country. Desperate, she hanged herself.
The mystery has long remained: how much did she know? The question may never be answered in full. But a key document, long considered lost by specialists, lies in the archives of the Hoover Institution in California: the record of the French police interrogation of the poetess. It does not provide a full picture of her state of mind at the time of Reiss's murder, but it should help correct many inaccuracies and fantasies, including tales of hysterical recitations of verse to the French detectives which have been purveyed by some "scholars."
The document shows that Tsvetayeva said her husband had left France to volunteer in the Spanish Republican Army. She also said she had no idea what he did when he occasionally left Paris, and never asked him about his business.
These I believe to be lies formulated by Tsvetayeva to protect her husband. Efron was a weak individual, extremely dependent on Tsvetayeva, with no business or income apart from what he received from her and from the N.K.V.D. She must have known he was headed "home," to the U.S.S.R., where she soon followed him.
Throughout their relationship Marina had betrayed Sergei Efron, pursuing numerous affairs, including one with another Soviet spy, Konstantin Rodzhevich. But at the end she remained loyal to Efron in the face of the police.
In this late act of her drama, Marina Tsvetayeva accomplished not an act of baseness, but of nobility. She protected the man to whom she had sworn her life. The Stalinists created a morality that sought to punish spouses and offspring for their relatives' actions. But it is not in the tradition of Western law to condemn a wife for her refusal to bear witness against her husband. That her courage and sacrifice would be crushed and deformed by the evil of Stalinism seems to have been, as in so many other cases, an inevitability.
Nevertheless, Efron was undeniably guilty of horrendous acts. Unfortunately, however, Vrkljan chose to sweeten the pill by writing simple-mindedly, "Sergei wanted only one thing: to go back to Russia… Did Sergei do something wrong in 1937 in order to 'earn' his return? Rumors about his spying activities spread through Paris. Marina… never believed them. Was Sergei the victim of anti-Semitic circles in Paris? Did they hate him also because he wanted to go back? Hatred towards Marina as well therefore, because of her pride and defiance? Was Sergei a broken, sick man already, before 1937, before he was shot in 1941? No one can answer these questions any more now. At least that justice should be left for someone who cannot defend himself."
Vrkljan is entirely wrong in this entire paragraph. First, she has no standing to speculate on Tsvetayeva's state of mind. Second, the suggestion that "poor Efron" was a victim of his simple patriotism is worse than stupid; it is despicable. Third, the assertion that these questions were destined never to be answered reflected the obtuse outlook of those Communist faithful who really thought that the system would never fall and that the archives would never be opened. In reality, and in addition to the above-mentioned French police document, we now have the entire file of the Soviet secret police on Sergei Efron.
The alleged martyrdom of Efron as a Jew is a refrain in Vrkljan's concoction. Earlier in the narrative, she writes, "Neither friends in Russia nor abroad wanted to accept Marina's choice: a sick man and a Jew. That is the darkness which lies over Sergei. Everything else to date is rumor." This gives the strong impression of being a deliberate lie. The involvement of Efron in the murder of Reiss and the plot against Trotsky's son—neither mentioned in Vrkljan's book—was anything but rumor, from 1937 on. Nabokov was no anti-Semite, and his suspicions about the couple were well-known. Vrkljan should reissue her book in revised form, at least.
[xxiv] Vlado Gotovac, Ed. by Tea Benčić-Rimay, Zagreb, Croatian Writers' Association, 2003. For purchase of Most/The Bridge books, see note 7. An alternative e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
[xxv] Vida, Viktor, Collected Poems, Tr. by Magda Osterhuber, Zagreb, Croatian Writers' Association. For the original of his poem, see Vida, Viktor, Izabrane Pjesme, Zagreb, Erasmus, 1994.
[xxvi] Dizdar, Mak, Kameni Spavac/Stone Sleeper, Tr. By Francis R. Jones, Sarajevo, Did, 1999.
[xxvii] I had the honor of cotranslating this work into Spanish for publication in Mexico; see, Ibrišimović, Nedžad, El Libro de Adem Kahriman, Tr. into Spanish with Antonio Saborit, Mexico City, Breve Fondo Editorial, 2000. It was named Book of the Year in Translation by the leading daily Reforma. This was, amazingly and perhaps somewhat disgracefully, its first publication outside Bosnia-Hercegovina.
[xxviii] Agee, Chris, ed., The Scar on the Stone, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Books, 1988. Sidran, Abdulah, The Blindman Sings to His City, Sarajevo, International Center for Peace, 1997. Mehmedinović, Semezdin, Sarajevo Blues, San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1998. I have previously written on Sidran, the two sides of Sarajevo, Ibrišimović, Mehmedinović, and such other and fine Sarajevo poets as Amir Talić, Ismet Bekrić, Admiral Mahić and Hazim Akmadžić in my essay "Muddling Through in Bosnia," The New Criterion, February 2000, also to be incorporated in my to be reprinted in my Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook (see note 16). Sarajlić's poem on Karadžič appears in Sarajlić, Izet, Rođeni 23, Streljani 42, Sarajevo, Veselin Masleša, 1988, along with the commentary by Koljević.
[xxix] Šalamun, Tomaž, Homage to Hat and Uncle Guido and Eliot: Selected Poems, ed. By Charles Simic with an introduction by Robert Hass, Todmorden, Lancs, Arc Publications, 1997 (second edition of Selected Poems, 1988.) Šalamun, Tomaž, Poker, Ljubljana, Cankarjeva Založba, 2000.
[xxx] Migjeni, Free Verse, Pejë, Dukagjini, 2001, and Fishta, Gjergj, The Highland Lute, Cantos I-V, Pejë, Dukagjini, 2003. My comments on these volumes first appeared in the New York Albanian-American newspaper Illyria, in a two-part text, "New Books from Else and 'Dukagjini,'" March 4/6 and 7/10, 2003.
[xxxii] Elsie, Robert, Ed. and Tr., An Elusive Eagle Soars: Anthology of Albanian Modern Poetry, London and Boston, Forest Books/UNESCO, 1993, includes works, among those cited here, of Camaj, Mekuli, Mehmeti, Gunga, Podrimja, Shkreli, Dedaj, Hamiti, Basha, Kadare, and Poradeci. All of the same poets, along with Gajtani, Gashi and Musliu, but excepting Poradeci, Camaj, and Kadare, are also included in Podrimja, Ali, and Hamiti, Sabri, The Sad Branch, Prishtina, Rilindja, 1984, an excellent, if short, bilingual collection unavailable in the U.S. Another important volume is Ali Podrimja, Who Will Slay the Wolf, Tr. by Robert Elsie, New York, Gjonlekaj Publishing Co., 2000. For the original of Poradeci's poem see Poradeci, Lasgush, Ylli i Zemrës, Prishtina, Rilindja, 1990. Also see Camaj, Martin, Selected Poetry, Tr. By Leonard Fox, New York, NYU Press, 1990, and Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit/The Code of Lekë Dukagjini, ed. by Shtjefën Gjeçov, Tr. with an introduction by Leonard Fox, New York, Gjonlekaj Publishing Co., n.d. On the attempted destruction of Albanian Catholic culture, as well as on Pipa and Koliqi, see Sinishta, Gjon, The Fulfilled Promise, Santa Clara, n.p., 1976. Pipa published several works of political history in English. Also see my article, "A Certain Exhaustion," The New Criterion, October 2000, incorporated also in my Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook (see note 16). For Malcolm on Kadare, see Malcolm, Noel, "The Palace of Nightmares," The New York Review of Books, November 6, 1997; for Kadare on literature, see note 3.
Amended beginning February 2012