The Dawning, by Milka Bajic-Poderegin
I now have a pile of books that is really pretty daunting; there are nine sitting here waiting for me. But I have an interesting reason; I've been working on a guest post and it's taking up most of my blogging time. It's for a much more professional kind of blog, and I'm quite nervous about the whole thing. Stay tuned!
I think I mentioned that my husband and I spent a weekend at Tahoe recently, and the long drive back and forth gave me some fabulous reading time. I spent much of it immersed in this lovely novel. I found it at my library and thought it would make a good pick for my reading around the world project; the back cover copy said it was set in Bosnia. Well, it turned out to be a good deal more complex than that once I really got started!
The Dawning was written in Serbo-Croatian about (mostly) ethnic Serbs, set in what was then Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is now Montenegro. I finally decided to count it as my Montenegro title. Milka Bajic-Poderegin wrote it in the early-mid 1960's (presumably under the Communist Yugoslavian regime) and died in 1971; it was first published in 1987 and was her only novel, but she had planned it to be the first in a trilogy that would extend through the end of World War II.
The setting is quite specific: the real village of Plevlje, which is now a good-sized town. We start in the mid-nineteenth century, under Ottoman rule, and end just as World War I ends, but much of the story is spent at the start of the twentieth century, at a time when Austrian troops were occupying the area in cooperation with the Ottomans. It's quite confusing to those of us without a basic grasp on the history, but luckily there is a foreword to help.
The story starts with Savka's wedding; she is barely 15 and hardly knows her new husband, Tane, but she gradually settles in and comes to love him. His murder while traveling for business is a great shock, from which she never really recovers, but she takes solace in her children. (The murder struck me as interesting because the servant comes back and blames the Turks, who he claims ambushed them, but Tane's brothers are anxious to avoid blaming the Turks, despite seeing them as oppressors. They are certain that the servant is guilty.)
Savka's daughter, Jelka, is the center of the novel. As a young woman, she falls in love with Janko and chooses him over her uncles' objections, to their anger. Her life, embedded in Janko's extensive and dramatic family, is meticulously chronicled. She has several children and runs a large establishment but she has many difficult times. Janko has wide interests and desires to make friends with both Turks and Austrians, with the result that Jelka's life broadens and she becomes good friends with the pasha's wife, and gets to know Austrian ladies a little as well. As her children grow up, the political situation becomes more precarious and Janko becomes ill, forcing Jelka to manage everything alone.
Jelka's youngest daughter, Milena, becomes the final protagonist of the story as she matures, trying to get more education (difficult under the circumstances), and watching the dawn of a new day for Serbians who have hoped for freedom for over 500 years.
As I said, the political background is complex. I think it's important to know that at the time, Serbians had a sort of legend or belief that at the battle of Kosovo in 1389, Prince Lazar had to make a choice between victory and an earthly kingdom, and the Kingdom of Heaven (which would come with defeat and captivity on earth). He chose heaven, setting the Serbs on a long path of purification through suffering which would only end in 1912 with victory over the Turks and independence. That's part of the novel's theme, which looks forward to a dawning day of Serbian freedom and progress. But all the political stuff is also mostly kept in the background.
At the same time, Poderegin shows a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society in which people mostly get along most of the time. Muslims and Christians (and even a few Jews) rub along together -- Serbian, Turkish, Bosnian, Austrian, and others (Poderegin doesn't really distinguish between Serbs, Montenegrins, and Bosnians at all that I can tell). There is some strife, especially when conditions are uncertain, and everybody has their flaws, but there is a quiet insistence that it's better to be courteous, friendly, and to live together under the conditions that nobody around here created anyway. This exists alongside joy in the prospect of Serbian independence, fleeting as it is going to be.
But more important than all the politics (and the reader's tragic knowledge of what comes after*), it's a novel about women, domestic life, and finding ways to survive the most difficult of circumstances. I found it captivating. I really enjoyed it a lot, and I hope a few other people will find it too.
*Fun fact I learned from this novel: the name Slobodan is based on the Serbian word for liberty. Yeesh. But there are a lot of Slobodans; it's a fairly popular name.