A thick fog covers the Plain of Blackbirds

Julian Evans

  • Trois Chants Funébres pour le Kosovo by Ismail Kadare, translated by Jusuf Vrioni
    Fayard, 119 pp, frs 6.90, April 1998, ISBN 2 213 60180 1

Ismail Kadare knew what was coming six years ago. ‘The Albanians have kept extremely calm in Kosovo,’ he told me, ‘because they know that the Serbs are only waiting for a sign of provocation to start a terrible massacre. Milosevic is biding his time. All his plans are ready. He is encouraged by the passivity of the European nations and the US ... The Slavs are very good at these nationalistic campaigns. Someone aggressive makes a move, puts extreme pressure on a neighbour, and the civilised world, which is tired out, accepts.’ Reading his words, published in the Guardian in February 1993, you could be excused for taking them (as I did when I heard them) as an indication of great foresight. Having talked to him several times since then I would now put it differently: his remarks spring not from foresight, but from terrible hindsight. What we are seeing on our television screens and reading about in our newspapers has happened before.

Almost all the Muslims ... were expelled from the Morava valley region: there had been hundreds of Albanian villages there, and significant Albanian populations in towns such as Prokuplje, Leskovac and Vranje. A Serbian schoolmaster in Leskovac later recalled that the Muslims had been driven out in December 1877 at a time of intense cold: ‘By the roadside, in the Gudelica gorge and as far as Vranje and Kumanovo, you could see the abandoned corpses of children, and old men frozen to death’... By the end of 1878 Western officials were reporting that there were 60,000 families of Muslim refugees in Macedonia, ‘in a state of extreme destitution’, and 60-70,000 Albanian refugees from Serbia ‘scattered’ over the [Ottoman] vilayet of Kosovo ... This was not, it should be said, a matter of spontaneous hostility by local Serbs. Even one of the Serbian Army commanders had been reluctant to expel the Albanians from Vranje, on the grounds that they were a quiet and peaceful people. But the orders came from the highest levels in Belgrade.

It was from a local Catholic priest that the Daily Telegraph learned of a massacre at Ferizaj, where the Serbian commander had invited the Albanian men to return to their homes in peace, and where those who did so (300-400 men) were then taken out and shot. The fullest and most chilling account was given by Lazër Mjeda, the Catholic Archbishop of Skopje, in a report to Rome of 24 January 1913. He said that in Ferizaj only three Muslim Albanians over the age of fifteen had been left alive; that the Albanian population of Gjilan had also been massacred, although the town had surrendered without a fight; and that Gjakova had been completely sacked.

Both passages come from Noel Malcolm’s Kosovo: A Short History. The first describes the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from territories taken over by Serbia in 1877 and 1878; the second the conquest of Kosovo by the Serbian Army 34 years later. In 1912, Kosovo was still under Ottoman rule but about to become an autonomous state after a revolt of Kosovar Albanian chiefs; by a horrible irony it was this Albanian revolt which, by enfeebling the Ottoman garrisons, enabled the Serbs’ anti-Ottoman campaign to be rapidly won.

Anyone who wants to look into the origins of Serbs and Albanians – Ptolemy’s Serboi in the northern Caucasus; the Albanian Illyrian-or-Thracian argument – and of their enmities should read Noel Malcolm’s brilliant account, on which I have drawn extensively in this review. The main elements of the present situation – the festering of Serb nationalism, the ideology of the ethnically pure state, the rhetoric of external threat – have relatively recent roots: as recent, in fact, as Serbia’s struggle for independence in the 19th century. On the Albanian side it was not until the events of 1877-78 and, more conclusively, the policies pursued immediately after the 1912 conquest that a thoroughgoing hostility towards Serbia was created.

The inclusion of Kosovo in Serbia’s territorial aims was in part justified by the claim that Kosovo is ‘the cradle of the Serbs’. When I spoke to him in 1993, Kadare was adamant that the claim was unfounded: ‘the Serbs – the Slavs – came to the Balkans in the eighth century, when the Albanians and the Greeks were already there.’ Noel Malcolm, who cautions against arguments conducted on the basis of which ethnicity has been where longest, nonetheless bears him out: of the eight centuries between the arrival of the Serbs in the Balkans and the final Ottoman conquest in the 1450s, Kosovo was under Serb rule only for the last two and a half.

The other reason Kosovo was so important, the reason the 1912 victory against the Turks (and Albanians) was greeted with euphoria in Belgrade, had to do with the persistent, unifying myth of Serbian history. No ideological landmark looms larger in Serbian historiography than the 14th-century battle of Kosovo, at the end of which a Serbian army under Prince Lazar was defeated by the Ottoman troops of Sultan Murat. For centuries the vanquished Serbs have held up their defeat as a cue for mourning and renewal. It is germane to what is going on now that they are encouraged by Slobodan Milosevic to base their identity, not on a common-or-garden victory – as they might have done after 1912 – but on a glorious defeat, with all its connotations of vengeance. Rebecca West noticed this habit of clinging to victimhood in her Serbian guide, Constantine, in the late Thirties:

It was as if he were a very sick man, for he was sleepy, fretful, inferior to himself, and quarrelsome. He could put nothing in a way that was not an affront. Now he said: ‘We will stop at Grachanitsa, the church I told you of on the edge of Kossovo plain, but I do not think you will understand it, because it is very personal to us Serbs, and that is something you foreigners can never grasp. It is too difficult for you, we are too rough and too deep for your smoothness and your shallowness. That is why most foreign books about us are insolently wrong.’

The most foolhardy aspect of Nato’s bombing, apart from clearing the territory for Milosevic and uniting moderate Serbs behind a dictator it has succeeded in transforming into a patriot, is that it will reinforce for decades to come the widespread feeling among Serbs that the world is out to get them.

It is the ‘myth of Kosovo’ that Kadare – a southern Albanian – has taken on in Trois Chants funèbres pour le Kosovo. Laying himself open to charges that he is ‘insolently wrong’, he has sought to retell the story of the battle and its aftermath. This is not an easy task: there are few things that can be said about the battle with total certainty (though the lack of facts has itself allowed Balkan chroniclers great creative latitude). We know that it lasted ten hours; that there were heavy casualties on both sides; that Lazar and Murat were both killed, and that at the end of the day the Turks held the battlefield, the ‘field of blackbirds’, campus merulae in the Latin chronicles.

The most important point of disagreement between Serbian myth and Kadare’s retelling has to be decided in his favour. In the eyes of the Serbs it is they and they alone who were defeated. Contemporary accounts differ as to exactly who fought with Prince Lazar, but it is certain that a Balkan coalition of some kind faced the camels and grey-dressed ranks of the Turks. There was Tvrtko, King of Bosnia, with his army; there were Albanian forces, possibly under the command of two princes, Balsha and Jonima (though Malcolm believes that Balsha was in Montenegro on the day of the battle); and there were others: Wallachians under the voïvod Mircea, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Czechs and Franks. There are also likely to have been Serbs on the Turkish side – Kraljevic and Dejanovic, rulers of Macedonian and Bulgarian territories who were Ottoman vassals – along with some tribal Albanians. In other words, Serbs and Albanians fought as allies on both sides.

Kadare is not trying to slant the confused historical position in the Albanians’ favour. The three elegies, like his other fiction, seek to establish not necessarily an exact historical truth but one based on an amalgam of ascertainable fact and the authenticity of literary tradition. His novels and stories, even the darkest, most urban and political, are more like folk tales than anything else; one of his gifts is to transform everyday events into archetypes, ordinary incidents into spiritual and mythical (not false-mythical) events. In person, he is nerveless and articulate in political argument; as a novelist he also has the virtue of being able to ignore his own intellect.

The protagonists of two of the Trois Chants funèbres, the rhapsodists Gjorg and Vladan, Albanian and Serb respectively, employed in Lazar’s army to sing the glory of their princes, never talk politics. Their antagonism, expressed in unchanging formulas, becomes hilarious on the eve of the battle:

Meanwhile, each in his own language, the rhapsodists had begun composing their songs. They closely resembled those of long ago, and even the words were very similar. The old Serb men sang, ‘Oh, see how the Albanians are readying their weapons against us!’ and in the same way the bards from Albania took up the warning: ‘Arise, Albanians, the Slavs are on their way to attack us!’

   Protests were heard. ‘Are you mad, or just pretending? The Turks are about to descend on us like a ton of bricks and you keep trotting out the same refrain: “The Serbs are out to get us, the Albanians are out to get us.” ’

   ‘Yes, yes. Of course we know that,’ the rhapsodists replied. ‘But that’s the form we model our songs on, and that’s how we’re going to carry on. Those forms aren’t like moulds for making weapons, that change every ten years. Our models need at least a century to be changed.’

Two of the elegies describe the day of the battle, and what happens to our rhapsodists in their wanderings afterwards. Close attention is paid to the death of the Sultan, Murat, who in Kadare’s version is killed by his own Ottoman vizirs (in defiance of the chronicles attributing his death to a Serbian knight) so that his expansionist son Bajazet can mount the throne. The third story is a coda, a ‘prière royale’ by the spirit of the Sultan whose blood and entrails have been buried, according to a Balkan custom adopted by the Turks, on the battlefield.

Coagulated blood loses none of its power. Even reduced to powder on the wall of the lead vase, it only becomes more savage.

   Curse you, Balkan peoples who forced me in my old age to set off towards this plain where I was to leave my life. Curse you especially for having inflicted on me such loneliness!

British audiences might find Kadare’s fable a slight tale, but this would be a mistake: almost every sentence offers a deeper understanding of life in the Balkans. ‘That spring, the whole world bristled with rumours. To fill the silences, there was no need for a caravan carrying cheeses to pass by, nor a messenger. The voids filled up by themselves ... lacking fresh news, people went back over news of previous years.’ Reading this, I was reminded of a recent report in the Independent by the Albanian journalist Gjeraqina Tuhina about Kosovans in exile, in which she describes how, in Skopje’s cafés, unable to discuss what was happening, people were seriously talking about being back in their homes in two weeks. Another example is the brotherliness of Gjorg and Vladan, the two rhapsodists. Until the rise of Serbian nationalism in the 19th century, there was assimilation across ethnic barriers in almost every direction. Many Albanians were Serbianised in the Middle Ages; in some areas Slavicisation continued into this century. In the other direction, Kosovo Slavs became Albanianised and/or Islamicised through marriage, though such mingling was then adduced by nationalist Serbs as indirect evidence that Albanians were really Slavs, and this was used to strengthen the Serb claim on Kosovo.

The first elegy, ‘The Old War’, is the story of the battle; the second and longest of the three, ‘A Great Lady’, traces Gjorg and Vladan’s path in the following weeks. Separated in the commotion of battle, the clamour of cross and crescent, they are in due course gratefully reunited. Vladan (the Serb) has thrown away his gousla, Gjorg (the Albanian) has kept his mournful single-stringed lahouta; neither has a country; and so they head north, refugees, collecting former comrades and companions en route. During a discussion of the ‘Kosovo question’ with a Hungarian mercenary, Vladan looks straight at Gjorg: ‘This misfortune, dear brother, we sowed it ourselves. We have cut each other’s throats for Kosovo for so many years, and now others have taken it from us.’ Barely able to hold back his tears, he asks Gjorg to allow him to play his lahouta. Reluctantly, the Albanian accedes to his comrade’s unprecedented request. Either his hand will obey the instrument, or the instrument will submit to his hand. The Serb plucks the string and, unaltered, ‘like old tombstones’, the words are heard again: ‘Serbs, arise! The Albanians are taking Kosovo from us!’

In this cyclical enmity, each side mirrors the other. On the basis of Kadare’s novella alone, no one could be surprised to learn that, six hundred years later, Albanian intellectuals were being attacked for their nationalist leanings, or that in the mid-Eighties Albanians were being accused of the widespread rape of Serbian women in Kosovo. The starting point for that campaign, incidentally, was a polemical history of Kosovo by Dimitrije Bogdanovic published in 1985, which accused the Albanian population of trying to create an ‘ethnically pure’ province. Ill-feeling was whipped up by the media reporting of the ‘Martinovic case’, an episode in which a Serb farmer was rushed to hospital in Pristina to have a beer bottle removed from his anus. Martinovic claimed to have been attacked by two masked Albanians. Albanian sources offered an alternative explanation: that he was a homosexual who had suffered an accident. In Belgrade media coverage associated Albanian aggression with personal humiliation and this led naturally to the theme of raped Serbian women. Subsequent independent statistics showed that the figures for rape in Kosovo were 40 per cent lower than in Serbia itself, and that fewer than five Serbian women a year were victims of Albanian men.

I very nearly didn’t notice – such is the apparent even-handedness – that Vladan is always first in the battle of the refrains. The two protagonists are treated with equal sympathy: they are both ‘prisoners of their past, but from its old chains neither was able nor wished to free himself’. They meet a Turk on their journey from Kosovo, a confused, tragi-comic figure who doesn’t know whether he’s a Muslim or a Christian: tried by an Inquisition court, he is put to death – surely a judgment on the tolerant as well as the foolish – for attempting to ‘accomplish the unaccomplishable, to have a double religion, no doubt obeying the counsel of the devil’.

Continuing north, challenged often, searched for hidden icons, symptoms of plague or counterfeit coin, the pair finally stop at a castle whose lord, used to summoning French and German troubadours to his feasts, invites them to play. After songs of Roland and Siegfried, another blackly comic scene ensues as Vladan and Gjorg duly perform the only song they know:

A thick fog covers the Plain of Blackbirds;
Serbs, arise, the Albanians are taking Kosovo from us!
– O! what a thick fog is all around us.
Stand up, Albanians, Kosovo is falling into the hands of the Slavs!

Ridiculed for keeping up their old enmity when the Balkans are in tatters, they draw their knives, but one guest, a pale lady of great age, demurs. She asks them for a story, if they are unable to sing any other songs: ‘The places where you live, they tell me, hold many curiosities.’ And the truth is finally out: though the wanderers regard storytelling as little better than street-sweeping in comparison with their art, they begin, and their protector, thanks to her education, knows the meaning of the stories they tell: sacrifices at bridges, furies disguised as washerwomen, idlers in taverns, the avenger forced to participate in the funeral feast for his victim. Explaining to the other guests the significance of what they are hearing, she encounters the medieval equivalent of popular ignorance: like a pop-culture inversion of the High Court judge who has to ask who the Beatles are, the lord of the castle enquires: ‘And what exactly is a Greek tragedy?’

To find out how Kadare’s neat and tragic knot is tied, linking ancient Greece and medieval Europe with today’s torment in the Balkans, you will need to read the rest. A couple of phrases give an idea of how he makes the connection between modern Balkan barbarism and the treasure of the Greeks:

Fragments of the crown fallen from the antique sky had been brought to [the old lady] by these unhappy men, faces seamed and weathered by war ... That region which we took to be Europe’s backyard in fact constituted its storeroom. It was there that the root stock from which everything had been created could be found. And that was why it must not be abandoned, at any price.

At the age of 11, Kadare copied out Hamlet word for word and since that time has not deviated from his belief in ‘great universal literature’. If he has always sought to occupy the moral high ground in his career, well, he had reason to under Enver Hoxha, and he can be excused for doing so on this occasion. In any case, he is a serious, not a solemn writer: The Palace of Dreams is a political fable; Chronicle of the City of Stone a childhood memoir; The File on H a detective novel; Broken April a rural folk tale; The Pyramid a historical allegory; there are also essays and poems.

The main goal of these three fables, as of his other work, is to transmit a message about freedom, in the sense that to write truthfully is to set something free. In this short book – and whoever retains the English-language rights should release them as a matter of urgency – Kadare has set Kosovo, the battle, the myth, free from the chains of untruth.