Books: Debut novel an ambitious tale of the Kosovo War

Books: Debut novel an ambitious tale of the Kosovo War

By Julian Gunn, Times Colonist November 26, 2012

Song of Kosovo

By Chris Gudgeon

Goose Lane Editions, 328 pp.; $29.95

Song of Kosovo is a remarkable first novel. Victoria author and screenwriter Chris Gudgeon has written a fever dream of a book about the Kosovo War, the final crisis in the despotic rule of Serbian/Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milose-viç. It is exhilarating to see a new Canadian novelist attempt a work this ambitious. Gudgeon has many non-fiction works to his credit, and he has clearly learned to work the English language in many registers.

In Song of Kosovo, he has uncannily captured the tone of a European novel in translation. The nearest Canadian parallel might be Jack Hodgins’ rollicking magic realism in The Invention of the World. There are also echoes of that great 18th-century picaresque, Tristram Shandy.

The novel’s protagonist, Zavida Zankoviç, is haunted by Serbian history. Haunted by a place, the Field of Blackbirds, where the Battle of Kosovo occurred; haunted by what he sees as the Serbian romance of defeat; and haunted most blatantly by the dead folk hero Milos Obiliç, who turns up at inconvenient times and forces Zavida to pray for victory. Zavida himself resists this mythologizing of conflict. As he writes in his confession from a warlord’s prison: “the uncivil war, the Operation Allied Farce … this did not begin on the Field of Blackbirds 650 years ago; its genesis was in the dusty boardrooms … where, barely a decade ago, a handful of very smart men with glorious Balkanoid hairdos figured out what was wrong with the world.”

Song of Kosovo is scabrous and scatological. It is full of lavish grotesques, like a Gothic church loaded with gargoyles, and these images become more gruesome as the novel progresses. In one clever set piece, a visit to the Pavlov museum in Russia exposes the sadism of the famous dog experiments. Yet in the end, the core of the story is surprisingly simple. Putting aside the novel’s hyper-realistic antics, entertaining as they are, Song of Kosovo is about a young man con-scripted into the army and forced to witness and participate in atrocities. Zavida Zankoviç is glib and occasionally lyrical, but he’s not particularly compassionate or insightful. He is remarkable only because of the harrowing things that happen to him, and his resilience in enduring them. We want him to live because we want his humanity, and our own, to survive the war.

Not everything Gudgeon attempts is a success. The Prelude, in which the author discovers Song of Kosovo as a lost manuscript, awkwardly front-loads a mass of cultural and historical context. Sometimes the chronology seems slightly off, or possibly I’m confused by the lack of specific dates. Sometimes, too, the cultural touchstones seem more like references a North American would make. The history, the politics, and the folk mythology are there, but the details of local popular music and literature seem to be missing.

About a hundred pages into any novel, the “so what?” mark arrives. The author has created a world for us, and hopefully done it well. Still, at a hundred pages, unless we have some idea why it matters that we keep going, we start to drift away. Just at this point, Song of Kosovo gets dramatically more grim. The absurd violence of the first part of the book (think exploding toilet) suddenly intensifies into ghastly visions of shrapnel, of sexual violence, of mass murder. The best and most macabre sequence in the book comes when the conscripted soldiers attack an Albanian village. In a series of brief chapters, just a few pages each, Gudgeon manages to wield his light, antic tone to devastating effect, playing it against the fear and violence in his story. From Zavida’s comic ineptitude as a soldier, the narrative moves inexorably towards the vicious actions of the army and its leaders. Just at the moment of crisis, Gudgeon has his narrator interrupt himself. He tells a seemingly unrelated story, describing an awkward gesture he’s just made in the novel’s present day, some months after his tale.

When we’re suitably distracted, he returns us quietly to the scene in the woods, and presents us with an understated vision of horror. This scene is the “so what?” of this novel for me; the convergence of well-wrought prose and a painfully clear vision of human brutality.

Song of Kosovo is an ambitious book, and its flaws are the flaws of a lofty goal not always reached, rather than a mediocre goal fulfilled. I’d much rather read the former book than the latter.

Victoria writer Julian Gunn is a graduate student in English literature.

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