Montenegro: Land Without Justice

7 Jun

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Montenegro was originally the ultimate destination of this trip, with a quick drive-through of Macedonia, Kosovo to visit the Serbian monasteries and ultimate destination Durmitor national park and the town of Žabljak.  But I’m skipping over Kosovo for now because it was the country that left the deepest, and actually most painful, marks on me and after that Montenegro was simply this placid paradise.

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Because Montenegro is paradise, at least for someone as in love with high country as I am.  Gorgeous mountains, sparkling cold rivers and lakes, deep forests, great meat and dairy products — Switzerland without the Swiss essentially.  So instead of chilly neat-freaks, you find this land of towering mountains inhabited by this race of smiling Slavic giants…who are so gentle and polite that one finds it almost impossible to reconcile them with the Montenegrins of only a century ago that Djilas describes in his book with such emotional complexity and depth.  One can still imagine certain scenes of  Land Without Justice having occurred in the past in Albania or Kosovo or even Macedonia — of course Afghanistan — but not in Montenegro as you experience it today.  It was, paradoxically, of all the countries I visited, the one most lacking in Balkan male posturing and the weird edgy tenseness it brings.  It was very odd.

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I’ve talked about this book a lot because it’s — if not just a literary — a psychological masterpiece.  It describes a society of incredible cruelty and desperation and weaves the simultaneous threads of warmth and pride and love through it so that by the time you’re just one fifth into the book you find that, without realizing it, you’ve suspended all moral judgement of these people and feel only incredible empathy for them, as beings inhabiting not just high altitudes, but the highest, most pathos-soaked peaks of the human condition.  The men are beautiful paragons of manliness and courage and treacherous killers; the women are cruel shrews and sudden swamps of love and tenderness; kin betray kin; a brother stabs his brother in the thigh for the humiliation of being constantly teased by him, so that the bright red blood spurts across the Christmas dinner table, and though they continue to love each other so powerfully they would easily give up their lives for the other, they never speak again; the assertion that the love of a Montenegrin sister for her brothers is above any mother’s is actually an assertion that convinces you; and everyone pursuing with manic drive the one highest emotional satisfaction they know: vengeance.

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Below are some selections from the early portions of the novel, when the Djilas clan is establishing a name for itself, while Montenegro is coalescing into something like a modern state and, like everywhere in the Balkans after the Ottomans’ departure, the new governments were exploiting and manipulating the traditions of clan warfare to bring some kind of order to the new society.

Here Djilas writes about his great uncle Marko, an “outlaw,” because they were used to the violent free-for-all that characterized the last few disordered decades of nineteenth-century life in the Ottoman Balkans and were just not used to the authority being imposed by the newly Balkan states’ “governments,” an authority that, as in this case, was often just a settling of old scores by men of the same ilk as the “outlaws.” Here, he describes Marko’s “unmanly” killing – ordered by then Prince Danilo of Montenegro — and how it was avenged by his nephew Aleksa, Djilas’ own grandfather:

“One morning when Marko was awakened, his cave was surrounded. He was lured out by a pledge of truce and met a volley of rifles. The attackers were led by the famous hero and new district captain of the mighty Čorović clan, Alica Čorović. Dying, Marko moved his lips to speak – to curse the treachery or to leave a message – but Akica rammed a rifle butt into his teeth and stopped his last words…

“There was nobody to avenge the dead outlaw… The blood that had been shed might have subsided and been forgotten had not Akica boasted that his cruel deed had been not only official but also an act of personal whim and passion. This has always been possible where authorities are inhuman, and especially so in my country. Then there rose among the Djilas kin a will more savage and indomitable than Akica’s, that of my uncle Marinko’s son Aleksa, my grandfather.

“Two, if not three, years had gone by since the death of Marko, whose personality had caused a new name and new clan to blaze up from the ashes of the humble living and peaceful dying of former serfs. It was spring and Aleksa was plowing the field. His father, Marinko, was tending the flocks in the mountain. Captain Akica Čorović, accompanied by two soldiers, came riding by the field. He stopped his horse and called out a greeting to the lad. Aleksa replied with a murky silence, the only fitting tribute to a murderer. Akica shot back, “Dog, why don’t you respond to my greeting? For I could lay you out to dry as I did your uncle!” The lad left his plowing, hurried back to his mother, and tricked her into believing that his father had sent an urgent demand for his rifle to fight attacking wolves. His mother gave him a blunderbuss from the locked chest. Aleksa intercepted Akica, fired a shattering volley into his chest, and them, with a dagger, carved out pieces of his heart.”

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Aleksa then goes on the run too – somehow managing to have a family in the meantime — but eventually is lured into an ambush, equally unheroic and “pabesiko” (Besa-less), by others recruited by the government again:

“Aleksa’s own godfather [they were all soy and koumbaroi too] invited him to a celebration prepared secretly for his death. There, at his godfather’s board, a guest hit Aleksa on the head with a wooden mallet. If they had killed him in a manly way, with a gun and out of doors, there would have been less hatred to remember! But they felled him like an ox. And they threw his body in the middle of the field.

“The authorities in Cetinje had directed the murder; for them not even spiritual kinship was sacred. Many others were tricked in this same manner. Prince-Bishop Njegos had frequently broken his word, though never willingly, but he, at least, had never forced Montenegrins to trample on their most sacred customs. Prince Danilo did not balk at this, and Prince Nikola dispatched his opponents even more silently and without notice. It could not always be so.

“In Montenegro of that time it was not unusual for whole families to be wiped out, down to the last seed. Thus it was decided to destroy the rebellious house of Aleksa Djilas. The murderers of Aleksa set out to kill off all the males in his family. They surrounded his house and called out Aleksa’s younger brother Veljko, who was brave and fast with a gun, and therefore they feared him. Veljko, unsuspecting, came out and was met with a volley of rifle shots. Though wounded, he slipped away in the dark through the bullets and the kives. Aleksa’s oldest son, Mirko, a lad of twelve, fled through the window. The middle son, Lazar, lay hidden by his mother in the manger hay. Aleksa’s father, Marinko, bent and deaf from old age, was innocently warming himself by the fireplace when the murderers broke in and killed him by the hearth. His blood fed the flames and his body was burned. My father, then a year and a half old, was in the cradle. As a murderer swung his knife, one of my grandmother’s kin, who was among the attackers, caught his arm. “It would be a sin – a babe in the cradle!” [That was a sin; and like I said, they were all soy and koumbaroi] And so my father lived. No one touched Stanojka, the oldest child, who was fifteen and had just come into maidenhood; it was not the custom of Montenegrins to take up arms against women.

“The house and the cattle were plundered. The family was left on the bare bloody rock.

“Aleksa’s head had to be rescued, for according to beliefs of that time, a retrieved and preserved head was like the retrieving of one’s honor and pride, almost as though a man had not been slain. None dared except Aleksa’s daughter Stanojka to go and bring the head, to keep it at least from being gnawed by the dogs or dishonored by enemies…

“This land was never one to reward virtue, but it has always been strong on taking revenge and punishing evil. Revenge is the greatest delight and glory. Is it possible that the human heart can find peace and pleasure only in returning evil for evil?”

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And Stanojka is only one of the many women who display not only more physical courage than some of the men in the novel, but greater ethical courage as well.  The following passage occurs during WWI and the Austrian invasion of Serbia and Montenegro, when the Montenegrins ripped the invading Austrian army to shreds, just before doing the same to the retreating Serbian army the next year; Montenegro’s “now-I-love-you-now-I-don’t” relationship to Serbia is a difficult and complicated one for me to comprehend and — I admit, as a Serbophile — one that makes me kind of angry.  I was surprised by the passions it still generated there — that, yes.

“As in every criminal deed and dishonor, there sounded out deep from the masses a humane voice, alone among the thousands, but noble and unforgettable. There was a woman, a Montenegrin, who had no more pity for the Austrian army than the rest, but who sorrowed at the human suffering of soldiers in a strange land. She drove her husband, who had taken some soldier’s boots away from him, to find the poor man and restore them to his bare and bleeding feet. She said she did not want the curse of a martyred soldier’s mother to overtake her children. Spare and bony, all bent and sucked dry, she stood before her country and her people, great and pure. Human conscience and compassion are never stilled anywhere, not even in Montenegro in moments of drunkenness from holy hatred and righteous revenge.”

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

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