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Milos Tsernianski, Migrations – Guardian

13/12/1994

In this rather wild and lyrical novel the sounds of Serbia are plangent and unremitting; men and women sing a duet where the “doleful sorority” of soldiers’ chanting, and the “keening and howling” of women – half-crazed when their men leave for war, mad with grief when they fail to return – answer one other. No picnic you may think, but if you’re looking for a little light reading, a novel about Serbian history is hardly the place to turn. That Serbia can never be released from its warring history is the point of Migrations’ leitmotif of “an endless blue circle”, seen first by Vuk Isakovic as he lies on the banks of the Danube waiting for battle to begin. Serbian laments, Tsernianski reminds us – those of a fighting stateless nation – echo through the ages.

First published in 1929 by one of that truculent nation’s most influential writers, Migrations is set in the middle of the 18th century, at a time when Serbian soldiers were fighting under the Austrian army against the French and the Prussians, and their families were being used to colonise the Krajina (the same borderland being fought over in Bosnia and Croatia today), to create a buffer zone capable of holding back the Turks.

The novel traces three lives over a disastrous year – Isakovic, a worn-down soldier leading his regiment of “savage, blood-thirsty men” across Europe’s frontiers; his younger brother, Arandjel, a predatory merchant; and Dafina, Isakovic’s wife, whose affair with his brother-in-law precipitates a bungled abortion that leaves her bleeding to death.

Migrations is a lyric, a form that feeds off the emotions, and Tsernianski’s use of it here (the writing is flamboyant and ripe) offers little to help the contemporary reader make sense of the spectacular brutality of the Serbian soldiers. Dafina does slightly better in this respect: although her femininity (“those quivering breasts, those strong thighs”) is as one-dimensional as the super-virility of Isakovic’s marauders (“What men! What hairy men!”); her infidelity is shown to arise out of frustration at being always left behind as a woman, waiting for men and powerless to act.

Sexual warfare frames all of the novel’s important relationships, most obviously fuelling the tensions between the Orthodox, Serbian soldiers and their Catholic, Austro-Hungarian rulers. With Maria Theresa sitting on the throne, the Viennese court at first seems directly at odds with Isakovic and his brutish men; the courtiers are strange and exotic creatures with “great shrubs of flowers, feathers and painted faces, bared breasts”. But in the face of these rococco displays of feminine power, the Serbian warriors, who are given to punching horses and cracking open men’s skulls with their bare fists, become oddly emasculated, succumbing to the seductive artificiality of their effeminate rulers.

Like his wife before him, Isakovic starts to feel himself powerless to control his life or that of his men. Deracinated and despised, the Serbians find their nationhood looked upon as “an obscure thing, in whose existence the imperial officers [do] not feel the need to believe.” Encountering the existential despair of the exiled and displaced throughout history, Isakovic bemoans the futility of life. Sick of his endless border-crossing and its constant dislocations, the hope Isakovic clings to – the star in his “endless blue circle” – is an old Serbian dream: one final migration taking him to a home in “boundless, snow-swept Russia”.

There’s no point in looking for an explanation for the sorrows of Serbia in Tsernianski’s novel. Reading Migrations, I was reminded of Milan Kundera’s argument that the lyric was a form one should regard with suspicion because while its intensity of feeling is beguiling, it is also intoxicating. Perhaps what we need from Serbia today is writing that is more dispassionate, a little cooler.

A version of this review appeared in the Guardian as ‘Sad Serbs’ on 13.12.1994.

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