Friday, January 30, 2015

Elegy for Kosovo by Ismail Kadre; translated by Peter Constantine (1998)

I know next to nothing about the Balkans, and the most I probably knew was in the midst of the wars there in the 1990s, and that's slipped away.  I have close Serbian friends too, so I probably should retain more, but alas.  (I also feel that what little I know probably surpasses what most of the general American populace knows, but that's another blog post).  Elegy for Kosovo is about a famous battle that took place between the Turks and the Christians of the Balkans in 1389 at Kosovo, the results of which (the Turks won) have haunted the region (and the world, really) ever since.  The Balkans are quiet for a while, but like a the volcano Vesuvius, periodically magma bubbles up and bombastically and horrifically erupts.

The dictionary defines "elegy" as a lament; also a mournful, plaintive, melancholy poem, also a lament for the dead.  While not a poem in the traditional sense, the book - really three connected short stories - is almost like a lay (which is fitting, because the middle story is about minstrels brought along to the battle by the Christians to sing victory songs, and what happened to them after the defeat).  Mournful, beautiful language (I wonder what it reads like in the original Albanian).  The first story, particularly, reads like nonfiction only in storyteller form.

Elegy for Kosovo: StoriesElegy for Kosovo: Stories by Ismail Kadare
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My trusty dictionary (.com) defines elegy as: "a mournful, melancholy, or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead."  While not a poem in the traditional sense, Elegy for Kosovo - really three connected short stories - reads like an epic lay.  That's fitting, since the middle story is about war minstrels brought along to the famous battle of Kosovo in 1389 to sing songs of victory, and how even in defeat they can't shake away their songs of war.  This is indeed a mournful book, but quietly strong and elegant in language (I'm not an expert in translations, but I would say that Peter Constantine's translation is quite magnificent; I'm curious as to how much more beautiful this would be if I were fluent in Albanian). It's not the kind of book that will reach out and grab your attention; it's much too stately for that.   It is definitely a lament, for the battle of 600 years ago, and a lament for today, as in the beautiful, haunting words at the end:  "O Lord, hear my prayer!  Take away all the mud around here, for even a few drops of blood are enough to hold all the memory of the world."


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