An endless blue circle. In it a star.


Milos Crnjanski, Migrations. Translated by Michael Henry Heim. Harcourt Brace, 1994. 0-15-159556-9

In recent years Yugoslavia has come to be associated with a particular kind of barbarism; but there was a time – not so very long ago – when it was associated with a particular kind of dream. This dream, like most dreams, is said to reveal a neurosis on close examination. In retrospect, Josip Tito, the architect and commander of postwar Yugoslavia, looks like a Serb chauvinist and regional hegemon, fed on dreams of revenge and retribution exacted on his Croatian enemies – real and imagined – carried over from the war. Yugoslavia’s former position as a maverick in the communist world now resembles desperate manoeuvring by a regime isolated from potential friends and enemies by its own intransigence and peculiarity: an odd sort of outward-looking North Korea, held together by force of personality and stubbornness. The Non-aligned States Movement has now joined Esperanto among the apparently ludicrous intellectual follies championed by Tito in an attempt to conceal his dreams of turning the Balkans into a Greater Serbia. A standard narrative congeals behind most accounts of Yugoslavia’s downfall: that the Yugoslav fiction began to unravel after Tito’s death; that ancient animosities bubbled up to the surface in an environment of criminal political instability; that Slobodan Milosevic tapped the latent aggression and nationalism of the Serbs to sustain himself in war. In this version of events, ‘Yugoslavia’ was a dark dream, which emerged from and vanished back into a miasma of ethnic violence.

It is easy to see the logic in this argument, and to recognize its advantages for countries outside the Yugoslav region: it allows the recent Balkan wars to remain primarily Balkan – a tragedy produced by local actors using local materials, and of primarily local significance. But still an iconic Tito remains in the memory: not so much a memory of the man himself as of the dream to which he appended his name. Was this dream really all nonsense and delusion?– this hope that one corner of Europe could establish ethnic balance in a system of uneasy toleration, on the model of what was accomplished in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the Caliphate? This is a region in which the main actors of European history encountered each other directly in war and peace: Eastern and Western Christians, Jews and Muslims, inheritors of the Latin, Greek, and Slavic languages and cultures. Their relationships were always complicated, and often tense, with this tension sometimes swelling into acts of extreme hostility. Yugoslavia was an attempt to create a place where these dramas could come together. On paper, the goal was political rather than cultural unity; in practice, political and cultural dramas both assumed different, often symbolic forms. The fact that the postwar version of this experiment occurred under communism meant that a separate, ‘secular’ bureaucratic and party political machinery grew up in the mix of older religious, cultural, and historical actors. The mythological Tito stood at the controls of the machine: the political machine, as leader of the party; and the historical machine, as the saviour of a country he helped to invent.

Postwar communism replaced prewar Serbism as the deus ex machina meant to hold Yugoslavia together. After communism failed as a political system, there came a point when the various people who had comprised the Yugoslav polity began to assert their own regional and ethnic identities, as identities separate and distinct from a ‘Yugoslav’ identity. Were they revisiting or reinventing the idea of a nation-state? Were they cultivated people playing with nationalism, only to find that nationalism blew out their windows and burned their cities? These are both partial truths, among many things that came together in the wars. We should recall that Tito helped to invent, or to reinvent, the idea of Yugoslavia: he was not the only political or intellectual figure to embrace the ideal of a secular polity in which the people of the Balkans could live in relative peace and security. Yugoslav intellectuals were always aware of their particular origins – as Serbs or Croats, for example, or as various sorts of Muslims or Jews – and often fashioned themselves as uneasy blends of more than one competing identity. It seems clear, however, that until recently these intellectuals understood themselves to be ‘Yugoslav’ Serbs or Croats, Bosnians or Slovenes – as diverse members of a common polity, not as ethnicities trapped in an unjust and unloved superstructure.

Nationalism – as it emerged in the region in the early 1990s – represented a political failure: when the governing elite failed to create a political system to replace communism as the ‘secular’ agent in the Yugoslav mix. The disintegration of Yugoslavia is an example of what can happen when the political class in a modern Western state suffers a total collapse. It is necessary for politicians to have a moral vision and a sense of their own mission and responsibility – and that this vision and sense must somehow relate to the business of politics and statecraft. Those responsible for collective security in Yugoslavia turned against the dream of a multiethnic polity. In the process they destroyed the country their political responsibilities should have compelled them to preserve. We should understand that this is not a local issue: it teaches us that modern states are more fragile than we like to believe. A version of what happened to Yugoslavia could overtake any country where the political class abandons its moral commitment to the polity it is meant to govern.

There was a time when we could speak of a ‘Serbo-Croat’ language without blushing; the tail end of this time produced Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Milos Crnjanski’s Migrations. Crnjanski was born in 1893 and died in 1977. He experienced migrations and traumatic disruptions in his own life: he was a soldier in the First World War, in the last Habsburg army; he lived in exile in London from the end of the Second World War until 1965. His work as a writer involved several forms and several languages: I know him mainly as a novelist, but he is equally important as a poet and translator; he also wrote journalism and plays. Crnjanski is one of the key figures in Serbian Modernism; and his 1927 collection of translations from Japanese helped establish the haiku form in Yugoslavia. Contemporary critics call him – accurately enough – a Serb writer; I suspect that Crnjanski himself would have preferred to be a Serb in the context of Yugoslavia. In broader terms, he is part of the South Slav tradition; to take it broader still, he was a Southeast European writer. If we broaden his context too much, it will become impossible to get hold of Crnjanski himself; we should perhaps stop at Europe, and place him as one of the great European writers of the late century. Looking at Migrations from this height, we can see its deep significance for Western culture as a whole.

Ignorance and an obscure emotional attraction are the twin hallmarks of my own blind, nocturnal groping around the form of Southeast European literature. I am convinced that this literature is vitally important to the Western tradition – that its themes and insights can help us understand who we are; which is to say that it advances the business of talking about what it means to be alive, and the struggle to live well. I can begin to explain myself by isolating two characteristics of this writing from Crnjanski’s novel: lamentation and longing.

There are three main characters in Migrations. The first, Vuk Isakovic, is a soldier in the Habsburg army, serving the Empress Maria Theresa. In the course of the novel, his ambitions collapse in a wreckage of disappointment and futility; we learn that he was once a dashing and admired young officer, but he is now a bloated, weary professional soldier. The other two main characters are his wife, Dafina, and his brother, Arandjel. The action of the novel follows events that transpire when Vuk Isakovic is called off on a campaign from the spring of 1744 to the summer of 1745: his regiment marches across Europe from Bosnia to Strasbourg; after several apparently pointless battles, they return home, decimated, and fated to be dispersed in the wider Austrian army. While his brother is away, Arandjel Isakovic forces himself on Dafina, but she falls ill and dies after a miscarriage; their story offers a domestic civilian parallel to Vuk Isakovic’s failures and frustrations on the wider European stage. Vuk Isakovic longs for peace and stability, and dreams of finding this relief in Russia. Arandjel’s object of desire was Dafina: at first as a conquest; but, as she lies dying, she becomes the object of his dreams, as Russia is for his brother. Dafina herself dies imagining the figure of Vuk Isakovic, and recalling her life as a succession of events over which she had no control.

Throughout the book, a fourth main character develops in the undifferentiated image of the Serbs themselves: soldiers moving from place to place, described in language which makes them appear more animal than human; families left behind, who seem to live in constant fear and lamentation. Crnjanski’s Serbs are an emotion rather than a people: an aggregate of lamentation for the dead – dead sons, a dead homeland, and dead hopes – and longing for something better than what they have. Vuk Isakovic embodies the paradox of the Serbs: lamentation drains his energy and leaves him powerless; but his longing for a better life never leaves him, and he continues to hope and to dream. Crnjanski makes it clear that this dreaming life is dangerous: it kills Dafina, and shatters Arandjel; the soldiers and their families experience similar extremes of emotional and physical damage and death. Somehow, Vuk Isakovic survives, in body and in spirit: the novel ends with him asleep and dreaming, finding relief from suffering in his hope for the future.

After their last battle of the campaign, Vuk Isakovic’s soldiers pull back across the Rhine: ‘All they left behind on the far side of the Rhine was dust and smoke, which dissipated quickly.’ Even so, Isakovic retains the ability to dream: he continues to believe that his life is part of a grand but correctable error – that he was born for something better than the life he has, that something is out of balance. Migrations begins and ends with chapters called ‘An endless blue circle. In it a star’. In the beginning this is what Vuk Isakovic imagines he sees before setting out from home, when he wakes from a troubled sleep and looks up at the sky. The star, perhaps, is something he must invent to sustain himself and guide him home. By the end of the book, the vision has extended to Arandjel, who sees blue circles and stars in Dafina’s eyes. Finally, it appears in Vuk Isakovic’s dream: the endless blue circle of longing, within which Isakovic himself is the star – a seed of hope for the future; a point from which future generations will start along an endless arc through time. Crnjanski implies that although our past may be dust and smoke, we preserve the ability to dream a shining future. It may be futile, but it is what we have.

Perhaps owing to a fear of closely packed consonants, Harcourt Brace adapted Crnjanski’s name to ‘Tsernianski’ for their edition of Migrations. This gesture did not help this edition to stay in print; although, to be fair to Harcourt Brace, 1994 was probably not the best time to bring out a translation of a classic Serbian novel. At that time, Serbs were becoming objects of fear and confusion. It is not easy to experience empathy with people far away, whose lives we do not understand, and whose difficulties appear incomprehensible. Still, it does not take much work to discover that the world of Crnjanski’s novel is a world we all hold in common. Reading Crnjanski is not an exercise in exotica – it is not a vision of how our distant relations struggled to survive in their swamps and mud houses two hundred years ago. It cannot be part of an attempt to rescue something noble of the Serb identity from the wreckage of the Balkan wars – wars that were about politics and criminality, not culture. Crnjanski’s achievement is to demonstrate that we are all Serbs: in our longing for relief in a world of lamentation. This is an essential part of the imagination of people everywhere, and the Balkan context permits an unusually rich scope for variation on this theme. Yugoslavia was many things, including a dream of security and balance: a pool of dreams which imagined people at peace in their homes. We may think that this dream is now at an end; but we can learn from Crnjanski that the circle of longing is endless, and that the star does not have a name.


C.F. Ryal, 2002年07月13日

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