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from the January 2017 issue: Bad Behavior

Change Is the Only Constant: Writing from Macedonia

In this issue of WWB we present five pieces of prose by authors from Macedonia, a landlocked country in southeastern Europe bordered by Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, and Kosovo. Macedonia is a successor-state of socialist Yugoslavia and has been independent since 1991. It is slightly larger than Vermont.

The country has a population of just over two million. The majority (about 60%) are ethnic Macedonians, who speak a Slavic language closely related to Bulgarian and Serbian. There is a sizeable Albanian community (about 30%), which constitutes a majority in a number of municipalities, as well as Turks, Romani (Gypsies), Serbs, and others. There is a significant diaspora of ethnic Macedonians in North America, Australia, and western Europe as a result of decades of economic migration.

 Macedonia bears many traits of a multicultural society, and a spirit of tolerance is widespread, but the country has been in economic, social, and political crisis for almost as long as anyone can remember. Macedonia was hailed as a regional haven of peace during the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992–95) and Kosovo/Yugoslavia (1999), but problems came to a head in 2001 with a spate of ethnic-Albanian insurgency. The internationally brokered Ohrid Agreement of the same year aimed to improve the rights of ethnic Albanians. Although the Agreement brought nominal peace and stability, it has cemented the divisions within the country. Ethnic Albanians are still discriminated against in many ways; on the other hand, many ethnic Macedonians feel it would be beneath their dignity to learn Albanian. It is still a long way to a real, engaging form of multiculturalism. The capital city Skopje is divided into a mostly Macedonian half and a largely Albanian half—the division can be seen and felt, north and south of the Vardar River.

Macedonia was one of the least developed regions of the former Yugoslavia, and many of the country’s industries (mining and metallurgy, textiles, agriculture) have not adjusted well to global economic trends. There is significant foreign investment and some new production facilities, but working conditions here are often abysmal. Unemployment is high and the ongoing brain-drain of the younger generation is a big issue. An ongoing dispute with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia has seen Greece veto Macedonia’s accession to the European Union, adding to the feeling of frustration in many sectors of society.

Large protests erupted in late 2014 after it was revealed that the right-wing nationalist government of President Nikola Gruevski (in office since 2006) had been wire-tapping citizens in a big way. A “colorful revolution” saw a number of public buildings and monuments copiously pelted and squirted with paint. The wire-tapping scandal was only the straw that broke the camel’s back: widespread corruption remains a problem, and there are various other grievances such as the government’s diverting of resources from the infrastructure budget to fund oversized monuments and neo-Classical buildings in the capital, e.g. a column topped by a huge sculpture of Alexander the Great in the city’s central square. (The Ancient Macedonians of Alexander’s time were not Greeks, as the nationalists never tire to proclaim, but neither are today’s Balkan-Slavic Macedonians related to the Ancient Macedonians in any meaningful way—the government’s strange approach to identity building has incensed many people both at home and abroad.) Parliamentary elections were held on December 11, 2016, resulting in a close finish between the governing party and the opposition bloc lead by the Social-Democrats. Forming a new government is expected to be difficult.

Macedonian literature has a long tradition going back to common Slavic times. The first Slavic texts (mainly translations from the Bible) were produced by the monastic brothers Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century based on the Slavic idiom spoken in the hinterland of Thessaloniki. There has been a long tradition of folk poetry, but Macedonian in its relatively unified contemporary form is very much a product of the codification carried out in 1944–45. This process laid down which of the words and forms from the various Macedonian dialects would constitute the new standard language, and it helped distinguish Macedonian from the closely related Bulgarian. Even today, Macedonian and Bulgarian are mutually comprehensible.

Given the small size of the Macedonian market and the country’s poverty compared to most of Europe, government funding is crucial for most literary projects and the publishing sector in general, although it functions rigidly and without a clear strategy. No authors are able to make a living from writing fiction or poetry. Almost all of them work at least part-time as journalists, teachers/lecturers, publishers, etc. This is perhaps a blessing in disguise because many authors feel relatively free to write as they see fit, both in terms of style and content. There is little pressure to conform to “market expectations” because market mechanisms do not function in the same way as in large Western economies.

A lot more literature is translated into Macedonian than is translated out of it. Given the richness of Macedonian writing, it would be lovely if Western publishers were a little bolder.

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Our feature opens with “Nectar” by Rumena Bužarovska (1981), a story from her third and latest collection of short stories, My Husband (Mojot maž), published in 2014. Bužarovska, who works as a lecturer in American literature at the university in Skopje, is increasingly gaining international attention. She was one of the ten authors chosen for “New Voices from Europe” presented by Literature Across Frontiers at the London Book Fair 2016.

The narrator of “Nectar” is a woman who has married her gynecologist, a charming but arrogant man sixteen years her senior, who paints in his spare time. The story looks at gender roles in a conventional heterosexual family, shows how the husband exploits his professional position in relation to the wives of friends, and takes us on interesting excursions about male and female creativity. At the end we find out that the narrator actually writes poetry—the husband’s egocentrism and his wife’s conformity have pushed this under the carpet—and she avenges herself for his hubris with a subtle revelation.

There are quite a number of female prose writers and particularly poets in Macedonia, but they receive little recognition from the mainstream. In this and many other ways, Macedonia is a very patriarchal society.

We then present “Fog” and “Fire” by Nenad Joldeski (1986), one of the winners of the 2016 European Union Prize for Literature. Joldeski’s first degree was in economics, after which he studied comparative literature. He currently works in the IT sector. These two pieces, written in dense and intense, almost poetic language, are taken from his second book of short stories, Everyone Has Their Own Lake (Sekoj so svoeto ezero), 2012. The texts in this book revolve around existential themes and “imperiled urban scenes,” as Joldeski says in an interview—perhaps a reference to the government’s megalomania and monuments disfiguring inner Skopje. “Fog” is dreamlike and disturbing, while “Fire” examines the instability of identity and the need to share narratives about belonging. Both pieces have more than a hint of Kafka.

Next we have an extract from the novel The Lighter (Zapalka) by Natali Spasova (1989). Spasova is a relative newcomer and one of the few female voices in Macedonia’s male-dominated literary scene. This fresh and lively novel published in 2014 is structured as a series of separate tales by different narrators/protagonists, whose dissimilar lives are connected by one small object: a Zippo cigarette lighter. An entertaining book full of surprising developments, and perhaps a reflection of Macedonia’s turbulent past—and present.

We round off this feature with the tale “The Bird on the Balcony” by Petre Dimovski (1946) from his latest book of short stories entitled Dawn in the Painting (Zora vo slikata), 2015. Dimovski, who recently retired, worked primarily as a teacher and journalist, but has also published fourteen novels, eleven collections of short stories, and won most of Macedonia’s literary prizes. He organizes an annual literary festival in Bitola, Macedonia’s second-largest city.

At a simplistic level, “The Bird on the Balcony” is a boy-meets-girl story couched in rather passionate, flowery language. But there is an interesting historical twist: one of the two protagonists of this story set in the early twentieth century is a young Turkish cadet at the Ottoman military academy in Bitola (now part of Macedonia): Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This gives an interesting dash of spice, and the story provides a good thematic and stylistic counterpoint to the three pieces above by younger writers. It alludes to the changing fortunes in this part of the world. Until the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Bitola was a regional capital of greater significance than Skopje. As well as being a commercial hub, it was also known as “the city of consuls,” since many European countries had consulates there. But when the borders were redrawn in the Treaty of Bucharest in 1913 and Bitola ended up at the southernmost tip of Serbia, its decline to a provincial town was essentially sealed.

Together, the five pieces in this feature give a diverse taste of contemporary Macedonian prose, which is vibrant both domestically and in the diaspora. There is much to be discovered. Publishers in the English-speaking world would do well to shrug off their reticence and present readers a real south-Balkan smorgasbord.

© 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.

 

January 2017
Bad Behavior
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