This article first appeared in Total Croatia News.
Hats off to Slovenian author Goran Vojnović! I have just finished reading his best-selling novel Yugoslavia, My Fatherland which he creates with great literary skill and the insight of an excavator. He exposes human foibles down to their bedrock, and I hope he never writes about Australia because I'll be ducking for cover. The guy's a genius, but he has made me sad.
For the cynical, war-weary people he describes are not the Yugoslavs I remember when, as an adopted Croatian searching for the half of myself that originated there, I visited from Sydney in 1985. I desired to like Yugoslavia, I hoped that it would welcome me, and it is wonderful how often expectations like this bear fruit. To me Yugoslavia seemed fresh and new, its people warm and welcoming. After our trip, as the train trundled towards the Greek border and the magic still lingered, I watched these men and women tending their fields in the twilight and willed myself to retain that final image. Though Vojnović might argue that I saw only what I wanted to see, Yugoslavia in 1985 was no more an illusion to me than if I had mistaken a lush Bosnian valley for the dry eucalypts that soar from the river beds at home.
I'll tell you why: because, one October afternoon three years ago, in a second hand book shop along a dusty street in Rijeka, I bought a book of poems written between 1941 and 1945 by Croatian Yugoslav Partisans. In these verses I rediscovered the country I had loved.
During those years, Yugoslavia was again at war – again divided along ethnic grounds – but there was one crucial difference from the war of the 1990's, and that was the stated aim of the winners: to create a pan-Slavic army to replace the old regional fighters. When I wrote my own novel about Yugoslavia, I named it after the book, Po Šumama i Gorama, Through Forests and Mountains (Penmore Press, 2021). It is the first of a trilogy about World War 2 in Yugoslavia and is set in Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia. The second and third books are set in Croatia, in Split and Vis. I wrote Through Forests and Mountains to investigate the story my adoptive mother told me in 1970 about the Partisan women who fought alongside the men, and to reflect the Croatian Poems that had so captivated me.
What are their themes?
The most frequent is freedom. Running parallel to it are camaraderie and sacrifice for a cause higher than one's self. Beneath these, and most important to me, was love of the land the Partisans were fighting for, and that land is described in beautiful terms, just as I remembered it.
The forests have become the graves of our fallen comrades, the sons of our land, and on them flowers have sprouted. We twitch the gentle stems, we roll up the small flowerets and think it takes us back to the warm streams of our childhood.
Cyclamen by Anđelka Martić, August 1943
The column of soldiers walks into the blizzard of angry ice with blistered feet and swift, firm steps. In their hearts they carry spring blossoms and their deadly rifles are loaded with freedom.
The Battle at Twenty Below Zero. VIII Dalmatian Brigade
The words of the old oak from At the Grave by Andrija Nemit
I am honoured and proud of these young lives. They stood up for freedom and justice. They gave themselves for the freedom of the young. They did their courageous duty before the world for the homeland. And little birds will give them glory in the summer. Let them glory in who they are. They gave their lives for the freedom of the people.
Lastly, some memorable lines about women from A Woman Under Arms by Franjo Mraz
I hate the days of my leaden past and my unhappy youth. Now that I have a gun in my arms, you who burn my house and kill my sons, I promise I’ll pay you back, because I am no longer a slave. Oh my rifle, I will never part with you! You will be with me at the end of my wrist until my last day. Tremble, look, and listen to the woman warrior, the woman Partisan.
One of the pitfalls in translating the surges of the heart that are at the root of poetry is that one becomes involved with the poets themselves, takes them home, so to speak, and thereafter commences a meditation on who they were and what their lives were like. I, their advocate, suffered righteous anger on their behalf, I rose to the justice of their cause, debated with the sceptics, fought the fascists until, at last, from sheer emotional exhaustion, I extricated myself from their embrace and returned to the twenty-first century. But I did not return alone. The Partisans came with me.
The poems and my own experience tell me not to accept war and ethnic hatred. I was adopted in 1960. When fifty years later I discovered my birth mother's history, it was a mixture of Slovenian, Croatian, Italian and Venetian. My mother herself identified as Yugoslav, and later as Croatian. She was born in Tar, Istra. She told me that the family name Mikatović came from an island down the far south coast and meant ‘son of Michael’. Recently I discovered that Mikatović is a contraction of the Greek, Michael Taxiarhis, or Michael the Brigadier, the archangel, the commander of the armies of heaven. This island my mother spoke about was the Island of Flowers in the Bay of Kotor, upon which once stood an Orthodox monastery dedicated to this saint. Thus we have, Mikatović, son of Michael the Archangel.
‘In recent centuries,’ wrote the Australian Ambassador Malcolm Booker in 1994, ‘European…Empires that have competed for access to the Balkan corridor have constantly provoked dissension…in pursuit of their own interests. This has created a social and political climate in which every community fears and distrusts every other.’ He concludes, 'The only hope for peace among the Balkan peoples is for them to be left alone...to develop their uniquely beautiful and productive region.'
For many summers, dear brother,
Our land has cried bitterly.
She has been in slavery
And her bitter tears have flowed.
You are a Serb, my dear brother,
But to I, a Croat, you extended a hand.
In the fight we went together
And to the bulwark of our land we came,
Scattered darkness and confusion,
Strengthened brotherhood and love,
Killed the traitors.
We are the children of one mother,
Therefore we bind our many faceted fists,
and make the final attack marching one way.
Wherever you are fighting, brother Serb,
I send you a warm greeting.
To the end I will be with you
To complete the holy struggle.