Flight of Fancy

Love, rage, war and frustration against a Balkan backdrop.

It blew right into the lake. Like the blackbird, Kos, in its title, Chris Gudgeon’s new novel, Song of Kosovo, suddenly took wing on me and flew. That I had left it unattended on a chaise cushion where a violent gust of wind picked up both and deposited them in the drink is a feeble explanation for what happened. No, I prefer to think that, like that blackbird, the book took off on its own, and then, akin to the spirit of Chris Gudgeon’s story, dove, as if picked off by some stray bullet, right into the water, hitting the realm of the northern walleye with an at once alarming and droll thwack.

I was about a third of the way into the tome, puzzling over its purpose, characters and gist. Yugoslavia, or what was left of it at the end of the last, the 20th, century, is Gudgeon’s setting. We all know that it was in the Balkan peninsula, Sarajevo specifically, that the century had its real beginning in 1914 with that shot heard round the world; and where in 1999 the century seemed to be ending with the terrible troubles in Kosovo, that desperately unhappy province, as the communitarian dream that had been Yugoslavia burst asunder. Serbia was always the centrepiece of that South-Slav vision and the Serb identity is consumed by images of Kosovo. It was at Kosovo Polje, or “blackbird field,” that the most renowned battle in Serb history, against the Turk, had been fought in 1389. And it was the fate of Kosovo that brought the American-led NATO war planes to rain bombs on Belgrade six centuries later. In the Balkans, Christianity and Islam, West and East, past and future collide repeatedly. Here, Gudgeon implies, is a mirror to our own larger dilemma of meaning and purpose. “Kosovo is history … and History is nothing but Kosovo,” remarks the ghost of a mythic knight in Gudgeon’s tale.

So, as evocative setting for musings about life, love, labour and loss, verily la condition humaine, the Balkans are perfect. However, at the point I had reached, when I left the book on the dock, the bits and pieces in Gudgeon’s churning mindscape—a would-be, but at that stage unconsummated, marriage of Salvador Dali and Hieronymus Bosch, or maybe Monty Python with Rowan and Martin—had made little impact on me. Even the tone seemed laboured at times. Then the bird suddenly took flight. It flew brilliantly, if briefly, before it crashed.

When Zavida Zanković, son of a Serb family for which dysfunctional is the gentlest of descriptions, discovers a love interest in Tristina (a play on the Kosovar capital Pristina), the story, like that blackbird, takes off. The surreal of the opening sections now merges with a picaresque absurdity. As the journey skyward begins, all the issues on which our civilization is built—romance, family, nation, work—come momentarily into view. Then Zavida is dragooned into military service—and the bullet hits, followed by the devastating plunge. In the songbird’s dizzying descent every one of our sundry catchwords is obliterated—leadership, humanity, identity, love, gender, you name it. Rather than being antithetical, civilization and barbarism turn out to be one and the same. In a cascading torrent of imagery, symbol and black humour, Gudgeon disassembles all the mantras of our maniacal masquerade.

In his hands we scream with both pleasure and pain. Then we bluster. As in all funereal settings, the speeches and dirges have no purpose but to fill an otherwise terrifying silence. Gudgeon’s little story is like a wake for our own bigger story, full of words and witticisms that are essentially empty. Franz Kafka said that all words were lies, and yet he felt he had to write them down to prove this. He, anorexic, dreamed of starting a restaurant in Palestine. Chris Gudgeon gives off similar vibrations. Maybe he dreams of starting a word factory. He is a confrère of Dada, a sibling of Joseph K.

Some years ago the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm ended his spectacular history of the 20th century, The Age of Extremes, with the word “darkness.” He wanted to provoke us into first rumination and then action before the blackness descended permanently. Gudgeon ends his story with a different benediction—he wants us not to rise up in revolutionary action but simply to “forget.” Only in forgetting—in forgetting history above all—is there any chance of tranquillity and peace, indeed of survival. For Gudgeon all contemporary meaning is preposterous, and all the traditional lines of demarcation and definition, including those between fiction and non-fiction, are nonsense. Any quest for truth or certainty is likely to lead to its very opposite, horror.

His exasperation has been building. He conveyed it in an earlier collection of bizarre stories, Greetings from the Vodka Sea, and before that in a range of work, described as non-fiction, that included an account of lottery winners, an unconventional treatment of fishing in British Columbia, and a biography of the antagonistic and controversial poet Milton Acorn.

Of course, frustration with the human condition has a long lineage reaching back at least to the literature of angry disillusionment following World War One, and even to the clowns and jesters of the Middle Ages. Shakespeare could say: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” Gudgeon’s voice, a blend of The Good Soldier Schweik and Borat, of Tom Stoppard and William Burroughs, echoes Gary Shteyngart’s recent Absurdistan (2006), a raucous tale about a fat Russian oligarch with a trash-talking black girlfriend from the Bronx. What is history for this mindset of disenchantment but a myth we construct about the past, full of nothing but pus and excrement. Bodily functions are more meaningful than the palaver surrounding nation, religion or destiny. James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom revels in the quality of his fart. Gudgeon’s antihero finds temporary peace only when his girl, the “Red-Haired Angel of the Salivating Dogs,” is squeezing the blackheads on his back.

I am glad I fetched the script out of the lake. Several rolls of paper towels and the heat of a wood stove allowed me once again to turn the pages. At times subsequently I laughed like an idiot, at both the fate of the tome and the storyline. Chris Gudgeon has a quite extraordinary imagination and an impressive feel for language and timing. Moreover, he has done his homework (although, I am told, the latter has been entirely virtual). Yet in a sense the soul of the book, like that blackbird, rather than being resuscitated by my salvage efforts, sank like a stone into the darkest depths of my northern lake.