Migrations

Milos Tsernianski

translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Michael Henry Heim
Harvill Press 1994 [1978]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004 http://dannyreviews.com/
In the spring of 1744 Vuk Isakovic assembles a three hundred strong Slavonian-Danubian unit and leads it to fight for Austria against France along the Rhine, leaving his wife Dafina with his brother Arandjel. Migrations (published as Seobe in Belgrade in 1978, but written in 1929) describes their lives over the next year.

Vuk is an unlikely soldier, overweight, prone to weeping, and no longer fully engaged by his profession. Denied the promotion he hopes for and looked down on by German-speaking and Catholic notables, witnessing the death or injury of his men in pointless battles or through harsh military discipline, his enthusiasm for war wanes.

"The futility of his life, the folly of having a wife and children and a home to return to, of everything he was doing, grew clearer to him the more he watched the men trudging deaf and dumb through foreign lands with no idea where they were being led. Weak with humiliation, he suffered frequent bile attacks; his blood would rush to his head for no reason. Muttering to himself, barely moving his mustachio, he was uncomfortable in the saddle. Unlike the officers in front of him, who, delighted by the richness of the spring, paused to admire every inn, every orchard, every wrought-iron castle gate overgrown with ivy, and the acacias and small prickly roses, he rode on as if lost, surly, sallow, swollen, his head bobbing above his enormous stomach, his brain a muddle of letters to Patriarch Sakabenta, petitions to the Court, quarrels with his brother, Arandjel, and desperately bitter self-recrimination. Thus he saw neither the petals falling from the fruit trees like fragrant rain nor the people streaming through the streets or flocking to their windows to marvel at his huge sturdy mount, his gaily singing officers, their unsheathed swords and their strange, peasant dress all of the same cut and colour."
Arandjel, a merchant, has a rather different view of the world, but his passion for his sister-in-law leads her to an untimely death and him to a disillusionment of his own.

The events it describes are almost unrelentingly bleak, but Migrations never becomes depressing and its mood is more lyrical than tragic. Milos Crnjanski (the more common transliteration of the author's name) keeps a distance from his characters, capturing the sweeping vistas of a world larger than their petty concerns. His rich prose describes scenery and landscapes and the lives of ordinary soldiers and peasants, credulous and superstitious but inspired by their faith. And there are some unforgettable scenes — battle vignettes, a soldier punished by having to run the gauntlet, a visit to a monastery, an attempt to exorcise a ghost using a hawthorn stake.

Migrations is imbued with the spirit of Serbian nationalism — with Russia as a distant, longed-for hope and Orthodoxy as a support in times of travail — but never unappealingly so. The style also takes some getting used to, but the result is a memorable and distinctive novel, understandably one of the great classics of Serbian literature.

November 2004

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- books about Eastern Europe + Eastern European history
- more Serbo-Croatian literature
- more historical fiction
- books published by Harvill Press
%T Migrations
%A Tsernianski, Milos
%M Serbo-Croatian
%F Heim, Michael Henry
%I Harvill Press
%D 1994 [1978]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0002730049
%P 201pp