‘Song of Kosovo’ by Chris Gudgeon

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

One of the lacunae in the porosity of Canadian literature is the dearth of contemporary war narratives. We have big and often prize-sucking books about WWI (Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, Hugh Maclennan’s Barometer Rising, Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers, Timothy Findley’s The Wars) and WWII (Dennis Bock’s The Ash Garden, Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, Findley’s Famous Last Words, Colin McDougall’s Execution, Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient). But where are the Canadian novels that deal with more recent conflicts?

There just aren’t as many. The aforementioned novels were listed off the top of my head; I could think of only one small war novel in the same league of popularity as the WWI/WII CanLit book club centrepieces, namely Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, a novel set against the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Some research turned up Jim Bartley’s Drina Bridge. What else is there? Perhaps there are other novels about this period and place in history that elude my Google abilities but the point is that the great Canadian novel of the Yugoslav/Kosovo conflict is probably yet to be written. Ditto the Rwandan genocide; my cursory researches failed to turn up a single novel about that awful conflict. And what about Afghanistan?

In contrast, nonfiction has its eyes firmly fixed on the prize of the narrative material of the Balkans, Rwanda, and Afghanistan. Nonfiction books constitute the canon of works involving the listed regional conflicts. There are too many titles to name as context, though Roméo  Dallaire’s Shake Hands With The Devil is this country’s Rwandan genocide nonfiction book club centrepiece and Michael Ignatieff’s Virtual War is this country’s Balkans think-piece. As for the Afghan conflict, the nonfiction race is still too close to call. Several new eyewitness books are published each year, one of which is perennially included on the long and short lists of Canada’s metastasizing big pot nonfiction prizes. The biggest and best known of these – the Charles Taylor prize – has one such book on the 2012 long list, March Forth: The Inspiring True Story Of A Canadian Soldier’s Journey of Love, Hope, and Survival, though two other long listed titles, Robert Fowler’s A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara With Al-Qaeda and Noah Richler’s What We Talk About When We Talk About War (this last also from Goose Lane) can surely be considered brothers-in-arms.

I shall make an old claim, for old time’s sake: though nonfiction can be a direct conduit to the truth, it can also become the reportage of beauty. Fiction has the imaginative possibility to become an encounter with the real thing. Fiction takes the worst of humanity and through a moral lens offers a false but also eyewitness account of something true. Though nonfiction is becoming incredibly complex in terms of technique and the lines have long been blurring to the point of indistinguishability between fiction and nonfiction (viz. David Shields and John D’Agata) it’s fair to say that in the main the great nonfiction writers are novelists (and vice versa). Chris Gudgeon himself is on record that he

essentially approach[es] fiction and non-fiction the same way. There is a story to be told, and the first step is to discover what that story is. There is also a balance that needs to be struck between some kind of objective truth and some kind of invented reality in both fiction and non-fiction. While it sounds counter-intuitive, non-fiction – especially history and biography and, most especially, autobiography – are fiction of the highest order, not so much because they are based on imaginative invention (although, that is part of it) but because they are based on conscious focus and deliberate manipulation of the “facts.”

Yet Canada’s nonfiction writers of the three conflicts tend in the main to the descriptive and are reduced to the myopia of the personal; and the writing can’t meet fiction’s higher aesthetic bar. Here’s Dallaire:

It was an absolutely magnificent day in May 1994. The blue sky was cloudless, and there was a whiff of breeze stirring the trees. It was hard to believe that in the past weeks an unimaginable evil had turned Rwanda’s gentle green valleys and mist-capped hills into a stinking nightmare of rotting corpses. A nightmare that, as commander of the UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda, I could not help but feel deeply responsible for.

The first three sentences in the paragraph boast four copulas, making for more than one per sentence. The day is described in cliché: being “absolutely magnificent,” the day is meant to contrast with the paragraph’s later cliché of “unimaginable evil,” an infelicity compounded by the later cliché “feel deeply responsible for.”  For those of you with the Dallaire text, read just a page more to stop at “Having delivered our precious cargo of innocent souls” or, if not convinced, go just a few lines more to “this child had the face of an angel and eyes of pure innocence.”

There is a story that the “real” nonfictional stories of individuals won’t tell and the time is at hand in Canada for our novelists, be they diasporic or Canadian-born, to tell the stories of our nation as it is involved in conflicts abroad through the medium of fiction. The time is at hand because the current Canadian government has heavily invested in military myth-making, spending money in 2012 to outsize the 200th anniversary party for the war of 1812 so as to fund contemporary NATO participation in Afghanistan by means of nostalgia. Though Canada may not be a warrior nation, the stories our government feeds us reinforce current foreign policy.

Never mind the ”national imaginary” as the academics call it. Focus instead on the novel as our aesthetic domestic policy and our understanding of the foreign, or: how Canada is in the world is as much how Canada is within itself. Our stories are the same because we share them and we see that they are the same. But what stories are being shared? What stories do we need? What are we to ourselves, from a there to a here?

The joke is that Canadians love war novels. This is an – excuse the pun – historical fact. But novels about recent regional wars aren’t being published and this is, frankly, money left on the table for our fiction writers. Though the Canadian expenditure in WWI and WII was greater than that of the regional wars, though most multigeneration-deep Canadians have at least one relative who died in WWI/WWII (and hence the greater emotional draw for the bereaved to write a novel about the family dead) these don’t make for valid excuses. Canadian novelists have fled to the relative safety of the tradition of the static “big war” novel and have left the non-canonical “small war” novel alone. There are enough books of nonfiction out there to serve as the research materials for novelists to bring the wars home, to do some explaining of the facts to us.[1]

Chris Gudgeon is an underappreciated writer of books of nonfiction that have clicked past double digits in number (in particular, The Natural History of Milton Acorn is a ripping good book). He enters the small war novel fray with Song of Kosovo, his first novel, though a book of short fiction came out in 2004 also with Goose Lane. His novel is a first-person monologue delivered by Zavida Zankovic, a press-ganged Serb who has a typical career as a soldier during the Yugoslav War. Zavida’s desire (making for a weak engine of the novel) is to return to Tristina, his childhood love and the girl he’s wrenched from when he’s pressed into service.

The first (and best) section of the novel delivers the backfill of Zavida’s childhood; the second section of the novel concerns Zavida’s general war experience as a soldier; and the third section of the novel deals with Zavida’s desertion, pursuit, and capture by Albanian forces. The latter section displays a minor change in tone and style (incorporating magic realism and gothic elements) as compared to the preceding sections. Gudgeon insists on a few devices to give the narrative aesthetic coherence:

(1)   Restless inclusion of ethnic/ancient Serb history so as to ironize, justify, and lampoon events current in the timeline. Some of this material is archival but a lot of it is likely manufactured. These inclusions often have comic effects but the sonorous insistence of the “Song of Kosovo” as metaphor and the extended extollings of this song make for many boring, faux-sonorous paragraphs.

(2)   Stress is placed upon the alterations wrought by war through the metaphor of ubiquitous soldier drug and alcohol use.

(3)   Zavida’s mother and father are used as archetypes that conform to Serbian folk myths.

(4)   Periodic hallucinations occur involving a folk Serb hero.

(5)   Religious traditions are recurrently invoked, especially Buddhism. These invocations are always parodic. By the end of the novel the individual religions become mongrel and incomprehensible so as to ironize the supposed pretexts of the Yugoslav war.

The sub-conceit of the novel is that it itself is a text, written by Zavida to Nexhmije Gjinushi, a counsel who will represent him at an Albanian warlord’s self-conducted criminal war crimes proceedings. (Forget for a moment the sponsoring meta-conceit, that of the author Chris Gudgeon who supposedly encountered this text in its original Serbian while living in the immediate post-war Balkans and who has now translated it.) The sub-conceit provides a frame, but an intrusive one; on some pages Zavida refers to Nexhmije Gjinushi, a hot Islamic babe, by name three times. No doubt the author meant to reinforce the fact that the text is a retrospective address to an interested audience, but the effect is clunky and unwieldy. In English, such a name is a mouthful; but even if the name were more familiar, invoking “Nexhmije Gjinushi” as frequently as Gudgeon does saps the narrative of developing energy, removing momentum and returning us to the quiet loneliness of Zavida writing his text in his quarters.

The justification for the pathological use of “Nexhmije Gjinushi” as refrain is that Zavida begins to have feelings for her, so the intention is to personalize the narrative through use of the name. In other words, there is a passionate reason for getting the story out to its supposed recipient, a passion meant to translate to the reader (the real recipient). Zavida wants to tell her, and only her, what he thinks, feels, and has done; the surface reason is so that she can better represent him in court, but the underlying reason is either carnal or creepy depending on your view, and since style influences one’s view, creepy might be your verdict.

The trouble with Song of Kosovo is that Gudgeon has intentionally created a text with the feel of translation. This is an interesting conceit in itself but the problem with extended prose narratives in translation that set out to enforce a kind of distance from English is the distance from English. (One wonders about the author’s actual familiarity with the source language and if he can really ape a bad translation of it. This creates problems of the optics of authenticity which I don’t care about, personally, but which create distance from the material to begin with – a bit of a risk.) The style of the novel is awkward and inconsistent. Zavida’s thoughts are often quite sharp but his dialogue-in-event is an odd mix of late-century American slang and crudity. And of course there is outright bad writing:

One minute I was biding my time – a teenager, true – but still clinging to the edges of childhood as a child, not exactly innocent, but rather unaware and unconcerned about the greater world around me. The next I was thrown, violently and quite literally, into the world of adults.

The force lifted me off the toilet seat and drove me head first into the bathroom wall, no difficult feat…

Count the clichés: Zavida is “biding his time.” He uses the word “true” within a crutch of hyphenation. He “clings to the edges of childhood” which is hackneyed and a cliché in the first two thirds of the phrase but certainly hackneyed overall. There is a “greater world around” him. And then he’s “thrown” into the world of adults, but this isn’t any old throw. It’s a violent throw. And, comically, the throw occurs in the context of the “literal”, which as a word is a stone’s throw from “literature,” which this passage certainly isn’t. I include the novel’s subsequent paragraph beginning “The force lifted me” simply for the “no difficult feat” filler that suggests Gudgeon is indeed writing this way on purpose, for to include a dead phrase like that takes actual concentration. At this point the fact that Zavida was propelled “head first” seems like a lesser aesthetic crime and so is allowed to pass, just as on p. 43 I spot “as it were” and “In any case” and “or whatnot.”

When Zavida writes to his attorney or deliberately provides a showy context for events he’s about to dramatize, stepping out of the narrative, he is stilted and formal. This stiltedness can occur for pages at a time; minutes pass by for the reader in which nothing is accomplished except authorial throat-clearing in the form of Zavida’s throat-clearing, accentuating the creepiness of Zavida’s relationship with the counsellor. Zavida focuses upon his counsellor with a courtliness that offers her to the reader as specimen. Things aren’t helped here by the fact that Nexhmije Gjinushi never comes alive as a character; she’s mostly rendered from Zavida’s consciousness, from his point of view. The novel’s first person monologue often expands into stretches where Zavida interacts with others with a less limited perspective, furthermore in the present tense, but the novel’s scenes with the counsellor are for the most part summarial and in the past. Except for the very early going, we have only Zavida’s word for their relationship.

One of the mysteries created by the novel’s frame is the nature of Zavida: young man when press-ganged, how did he become part of a war-crimes proceeding? What is the nature of this proceeding? What did he do? He seems like such a harmless good guy. How did he end up under guard, facing trial? These questions represent the tension of the translated narrative. The sustained and odd courtliness of the translation suggest an old school evil, a possible evasion of events and atrocity by the narrator through elaborate circumnavigation of the truth. The text as the fog of translation of an evasive man, in other words. But the truth comes out as a gradual awareness that Zavida was merely wrapped up in the usual thing. He served as a drug-taking grunt as opposed to a commander and didn’t do anything particularly distinguishing. This tension continues in a fascinating way until the conclusion of the book because the reader must wonder why Zavida’s incarcerated. What, really, did he do?

Enter the twist. Without giving away the plot, Gudgeon creates a fascinating twist that earns its success through the layering and interweaving of father-son interactions and general family narratives, the stuff and cause of the war itself. Zavida’s father Dobroslav is the novel’s proxy main character, the one most alive, the novel’s spirit. He suffers from insanity (likely bipolar disorder) and creates reliable havoc that informs the craziness of all origin stories and all war stories. So electric a personality, and very funny to boot, Dobroslav overshadows his son’s narrative in a way that is intentional and which, without Gudgeon’s conclusion, would represent a mistaken choice. Gudgeon dotes on Dobroslav, and who can blame him. Dobroslav is gold, and his predominance in the backfill section of the novel (on p.78 I asked in the margins “When is this story going to start?”) suggests that Gudgeon was torn about which story he really wanted to tell. Dobroslav anecdotes are meaty in the narrative and difficult to isolate in miniature but the following, in which Dobroslav attempts alchemy (though ends up making explosions, a witty metaphor for war) will do. Dobroslav lectures his sons,

“The ancients believed that the process of turning base metal into gold, bringing insufficiency into perfection, consisted of four stages. The first, nigredo, the blackening or putrefaction that worked as surely on metal as it did on a decomposing body or soul. It is the state of where we are in the world, so far removed from that pre-chaotic golden spark.”

 Father produced an ornately detailed ink drawing of what I presumed was the beginning of the universe, although it looked rather more like the face of a bearded owl.

 “The second stage is albedo, the process of burning off the impurities in a metal, a lightening or whitening of the essence, although it could be more correctly thought of as a process that restores the metal’s capacity to reflect pure light.”

 By now, Dobra had lost interest and was adding his own flourishes in red crayon to father’s drawing of the dawn of time.

“The third stage, citrinitas, sees that reflective capacity completely restored, with the moon the defining metaphor, a wondrous object in its own right, but a reflective glory only, with the capacity to illuminate but not enlighten. For the alchemist to achieve citrinitas, a tempering or seasoning that can be best imagined as the yellowing (this is the literal origin of the word) of the pages of a book, was rare indeed, and suggested as much his own spiritual progression as any achieved alchemic artistry. Finally, rubedo. Yellow and now red emerging into gold, the perfect, restorative union of the elements, of One with God. Purity re-attained.”

 ”Will I make gold from nothing one day, Father?”

 “Don’t be stupid, son. Only a great man can contain the power of purity.”

The comedy here is obvious: the deluded father talks dismissively to his wide-eyed son while a younger son defaces the document containing the origins of the universe (with added points for Gudgeon having this crayon be red, ancient symbol of blood and a foreshadowing of the coming war). Moreover, the document is described as a “bearded owl” which has the right touch of the bizarre. Furthermore the religious theme is interwoven well and made through the pseudoscience of alchemy a palpable, physical thing. The moment of dialogue in which the clipped “Finally, rubedo” appears has the right timing and punch to make the whole passage plausible, giving it the right variation. But the most important point to make about the scene is the very close attention Gudgeon pays to details using dialogue surrounding action. (Gudgeon writes beautifully when he focuses upon the physical details of objects and geography.) Religious data and zany beliefs become part of a fictional fabric that nonfiction isn’t, in the main, blessed with. Dobroslav is a gold that nonfiction authors won’t oft encounter, and if they do, then they’ll Gudgeon him into passages like the above.

But Dobroslav disappears for quite some time, leaving us with about two hundred pages of Zavida out of the physical shadow of his father. There is no unmasking of Zavida as monster as anticipated; instead, the reader is left with Zavida as Zavida always was, a young fellow keenly interested in sex and unable to emerge from the dominance of the larger-than-life Dobroslav. Gudgeon mostly avoids war scenes in favour of family anecdotes (at one point Zavida enters the life of another family in the countryside) and hot attorney entreaties. The war is therefore brought to the reader through its effects as opposed to direct representation, channelling the lives of the affected characters as a kind of folk narrative. The result is a war novel not so much about war as about the people caught up in war, which is as national a project an author can have.

But the criticism that can be made here is that the family narrative that is the real backbone of the book is less a subplot than subplot usurping the main plot (Zavida’s supposed war criminality). The result is that the family subplot is stretched too thin to make a book. Gudgeon has a good idea, dramatizing a war through family dynamics, but he’s never certain of which elements of his book fit where. The reader can be episodically locked in a room with Zavida perseverating about his counsellor, or the reader can experience a mostly linear war narrative that doesn’t stack in terms of power, or the reader can be thrilled with the antics of the Zankovic household. The parts don’t work together as well as they should. Only in terms of the twist is there any sense of an interlocking mechanism.

I’m not sure Song of Kosovo is the “big” Canadian small war novel. But it does experiment with the idea of translated text, it can be riotously funny, and the mystery of Zavida’s non-monstrousness is suspended with sly panache. Gudgeon has written a book that displays all the skills of a very good novelist, though these skills are not orchestrated yet. His many books of nonfiction have always betrayed a novelist’s eye, an ability to make scenes live though detail, many of them imagined. I get the sense that the next novel will be even better.

[1] One of the ironies of the big war/small war divide is the divisive figure of Michael Ondaatje. Writer of the most successful big war novel this country has ever seen, he’s also written Anil’s Ghost, a good small war novel (Sri Lanka’s civil war).

Goose Lane | 324 pages |  $29.95 | cloth | ISBN #978-0864926791



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