"Bound by Ancient Chains": The Role of Myth in Four Contemporary Works of Albanian and Serbian Literature

Michelle Levy, Xavier University of Louisiana

When Mostar's medieval Turkish bridge, the Stari most, was bombed into oblivion in 1993, the multi-ethnic peoples of a dying nation grieved. Today bridgeless Mostar is full of ghosts: the bullet-holed facades and gutted buildings, the once vital young men whose faces hang from white markers in still graveyards, the sonless parents, heavy-eyed, who now inhabit a divided city. Throughout Kosovo, Albania, and those republics carved from what was once Yugoslavia, villages and cities, individuals and families, share the fate of Mostar, existing in a past-embedded Now intensified by recent history. It is, thus, understandable that their art should depict a present haunted by an undead past, as in films like Kusturica's Underground (1995), Dragojevic's Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996), Manchevski's Before the Rain (1996), and Paskaljevic's The Powder Keg (Balkan Cabaret, 1998). So, too, have their writers registered those recent horrors born of modern politics and ancient memory. Let us examine how four works of contemporary Albanian and Serbian literature (newly published in English or French translation) mirror that potent mix of past and present, myth and history, which continues to shape the future of the Balkans even into the new millennium.

Ismail Kadare's Elegy for Kosovo (1998), Vangjel Leka's La Poudrerie (1999), and Vuk Drashkovic's Knife (1982 and 2000) directly interrogate history as they image a shattered present, while the poetry cycle of Aleksandar Lakovic, Return to Chilandar, more obliquely reflects the past and records its impact on contemporary life. Revisiting key moments in Balkan history from before the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to the present, these four texts link collective memory to myth and underscore its potent force in shaping Balkan history and art. But Elegy for Kosovo and La Poudrerie directly implicate myth as catalyst for ethnic violence, as does Knife (though its graphic images risk inciting that very violence the novel itself repuidates), whereas Return to Chilandar invokes as means of Serbian renewal precisely those ancestral myths of victimhood which Kadare, Leka, and Drashkovic isolate as potential seeds for continued Balkan strife.