The fictional Macedonian village Kukulino has become Slavko Janevski’s own personal Yoknapatawpha. The Kukulino cycle comprises eight novels set in different periods of the village’s history. The three novels united under the ominous title Miracle Plays of Terror present to us the macabre and fantastic Kukulino of the Middle Ages. The trilogy appears to have had the most success with the readers and was the only part of the cycle picked for translation into Russian more than thirty years ago. The title of the translation proved to be more laconic than that of the original: just Миракли (Miracle Plays). The terror component was left to be discovered by the adventurous reader. The translator Nina Smirnova did a great job by mining the regional and archaic riches of the Russian language. Her translation is a dense, vibrant text that is enticing and alienating at the same time. It’s as if the novels had been written by someone living outside human time, equally at ease with the lexical layers of different epochs, harnessing that linguistic variety to better express the deeds of the undead, the bloodthirsty, the visionary, the scheming, and the phantasmagorical denizens of Kukulino. The trilogy employs an impressive ensemble of more than 200 characters each of whom is listed in the last chapter of the third novel. Not all of them are entirely human and many of them meet a most violent end. Miracle Plays of Terror is a chaotic, wild, gory, and surreal spectacle that is not easily forgotten after the curtain has been dropped.
The Legions of Saint Adofonis (Легионите на Свети Адофонис, Легионы Святого Адофониса)
The first novel in the trilogy is narrated by Borčilo the Grammarian, who was born in 6670 but began writing his chronicle on a cured sheepskin only in 6816, 146 years later. To convert these years, which mark time since the biblical creation of the world, all you have to do is to subtract 5508. The extraordinary longevity of Borčilo is explained by the simple fact that he became a vampire having disobeyed the two pilgrims who had taken him along to a dead city: they tried their best to talk him out of attacking the local upyr with a knife. The weapon went right through the dark shape without causing the creature any damage, whereas the attacker fell to the ground to get up as yet another upyr. Borčilo returned to the village of Kukulino, his birthplace, in this new capacity and took up residence in the half-ruined fortress that had used to belong to Prince Rastimir, his erstwhile adversary. Rastimir made Borčilo the game in a perverse travesty of hunting, which the Grammarian survived and came back to take his revenge. The murder of Rastimir initiated Borčilo’s exile from Kukulino and sent him on a series of adventures, which included captivity, cannibalism, pilgrimage, and vampirism. Upon his return to the old fortress, however, Borčilo did not become the nemesis of the descendants of his compatriots. He satisfied his appetite by sucking the blood of deer, bats, and hedgehogs. And now, the 146-year-old upyr is ready to assume the most significant role in his existence both before and after his death—to become the chronicler of the most terrifying and curious events that put at stake the survival of his native village.
The great disaster that strikes Kukulino is the massive invasion of rats under the command of their warlord Saint Adofonis, who is not a rat himself but a mystical entity whose appearance defies clear description:
He was standing on his outstretched shadow —neither a rat nor a human being but something vague, like a thickened smoke, like the ghost of a huge caterpillar, faceless and polycephalous: look at him squirming, completely hollow one moment and taking the shape of an enormous maw the next, spewing curses and orders in an infernal voice. And I knew that this malicious and murky voivode had a name and that the name was none other than Adofonis; around him, the trees of my youth drooped and desiccated, the water in the lakes evaporated, the fish’s swim bladders sank to the bottom, the leeches exploded, and the reed roots died. […] The shimmering, transparent shape wasn’t wearing any armour. But the black stain of his heart was marking time, moment after moment, not too quickly and not too slowly, so that it would be believed that the near end belonged to the pain and hardships of the people from the future, not those still alive near the fortress. Now he had the likeness of a human being, but his blurry and ethereal trunk was studded with little jaws clacking thousands of sharp, strong teeth and capable of consuming tangled sinews, roots, and stone. A puff of smoke escaped from the rat voivode; it darted, whirled, and came back as an animated shadow that turned into a rat with a terrifying boar hump upon which a naked woman sat. Her haunches were quivering, presaging lustful joys fraught with insanity and damnation. Suddenly, as if the nightmare were disrupted, the transparency of the rat and the woman coalesced into a gnarled stump filmed over with mushroom slime. And then there was nothing. Even the stump vanished. There was just the naked, cracked earth with neither shoots nor roots, without ant mazes, without the breath of a mole or a badger.
The villagers have to use all their resources to withstand the devastating attack of the rats, whose packs are capable of gnawing off the flesh of their victims to the bare bone in no time. Three fire barriers spring up around Kukulino to impede the assault of the rodents, but it is thanks to the mystical intervention of birds, allegedly summoned from the Holy Land by the first elder Serafim, that the villages succeed in saving their lives. Flocks of falcons, eagles, snipes, kestrels, magpies, crows, starlings, owls, hoopoes, and ibises peck the grey legions into extinction. Life in the village returns to its normal course (which, we shouldn’t forget is still extremely grotesque because it’s the Kukulino normal), but it is obvious to everyone that sooner or later the second invasion will follow.
The main intrigue of the chronicle bookended by the two rat invasions is the identity of the pair of strangers, a man and a woman, whose arrival in the village is accompanied by a series of weird events. Are Isailo and Rahila, as they introduce themselves, in reality, the notorious Adofonis and his spouse Ratusia, who have infiltrated the village to prepare the next invasion of their legions? Borčilo is very much certain of this. He is sure that Isailo is the nasty rat who bit him between the eyes in the old fortress and had to be pried off with the tip of a knife blade. The shapeshifter has come back as a human to resume making mischief. However, there is also a possibility that Isailo and Rahila are just father and daughter who have returned to their home village. According to Isailo himself, their unwitting ancestor is the hermit Blagun, who is still alive and lives in the cave at the foot of the Blue Cliff.
As we read on, it becomes clear that most of the readerly pleasure is to be gained not from the resolution of the mystery, which at some point becomes irrelevant, but from the numerous encounters with the bizarre characters and their equally bizarre stories. Pathfinder Bogdan can see a whole new world in the crack of his gourd. Witch Jaglika milks the teats of the moon and washes her eyes with the obtained milk to contemplate the busy routine of the dead Kukulino dwellers. The stammering adolescent nicknamed Black Spipile spends whole days roaming around and looking for unburied human bones, which he then assiduously commits to the earth. The bandy-legged Petkan always wears the bearskin which he got after disembowelling an old she-bear: he removed the intestines through the animal’s mouth with a bare hand wrapped in a length of hemp rope.
The Kukulino dwellers love to while away the time by telling weird stories to one another. In the original, those are called either legends (преданиjа) or just tales (сказаниjа), whereas in the Russian translation the word nebylitsi (небылицы) is used. I would like to latch onto this genre because its peculiar features fit best the hilarious and absurd folklore cultivated by Janevsky’s characters. A nebylitsa is often translated as a cock-and-bull story. It is a short prose work or a poem that depicts an absurd situation or event, in which the rules of reality are explicitly violated. The very word nebylitsa means “that which didn’t happen”. Nebylitsi represent a rich deposit of the proto-Surrealist imagery available for mining to any artist or author curious enough to examine the old lore. I do not know whether the weird nebylitsi-like tales in The Legions of Saint Adofonis have any basis in Macedonian oral tradition or if they are just the product of Janevski’s wild imagination. They are present to various extents in each novel of the trilogy by the end of which it becomes clear that the scary, silly, and strange stories exchanged by the villagers at leisure are in fact the titular miracle plays of terror! In contrast to the medieval drama pieces showing the life, martyrdom and miracles of Christian saints, the imaginary theatre of Kukulino gives centre stage to fantastic creatures, uncanny events, and unsettling distortions of reality. On the next meta-level, Janevski’s opus itself becomes a three-part miracle play of terror, whereas the readers turn into its bewildered spectators. The Legions of Saint Adofonis is especially rife with nebylitsi. According to Petkan’s son Paramon, the grandfather of Rusijan, (also one of the villagers) had a small horn protruding from the back of his neck on which a heavy-breasted samovila (woodland fairy) rode at night; eventually, she offered him the gift of an earthworm pre-soaked in honey. Reaper Kuzman saw a cow that was herding a hedgehog’s skin in a pasture. He also relates how the world dissipates and its place is taken by an infinite slab with rivers of molten metal inhabited by two-headed fish: one head squeaks and the other guffaws. Petkan assures his listeners that he can drink wine with his ears and boasts of meeting Philip and Alexander of Macedon, who bowed to him. The nine women known as the “Pythias” of Kukulino, utter a series of puzzling predictions, which prove to be yet another bunch of weird, entertaining tales. Dolga Rusa’s omen is a hazel tree that gushes poisonous water with piebald tadpoles. The horns of the goat that drank it turned into hot tar. Smilka saw a fiery mole with a human voice lifted by green flames on the grave of a murdered monk. On the same grave, she found a one-eyed baby bird wearing a cassock. Velika came across tiny, green-haired old women devouring grain from the ears of wheat as well as a horse with squirrel’s paws that climbed an aspen tree and fell asleep. Karpo Ljubanski, a guest from another village, offers his own interpretation of the gloomy predictions, which does not clear up anything and ends up being yet another nebylitsa.
The novel abounds in nature descriptions. The plants, bodies of water, birds, insects, beasts, fish, and meteorological phenomena are as significant to Borčilo’s narrative as the human characters. The lonely upyr hiding in the murk of Rastimir’s crumbling fortress has a close affinity with the natural world, for now he belongs to it more than to the world of humans. Our storyteller has the ability to contemplate and take in all the numerous and minute manifestations of the forest life that mostly escape the busy, bustling villagers. A well-known trope in literature is the description of nature just before some dramatic or terrifying event like a murder, a battle of two armies, a life-changing decision, or a chilling confession. Janevski does this beautifully by interrupting the imminent clash between the scythe-wielding Paramon and Timotej with a page-long description of nature living its own life on the eve of bloodshed. Timotej happens to be Borčilo’s great-grandson “from the foreign blood”, for his ancestry goes back to the gang rape of the Grammarian’s wife Nestorija by Rastimir and his henchmen. He is about to cross scythes with Petkan’s son Paramon over the seductive Rahila. The rat woman’s erotic sway over the two young men, leading them down the path of deadly strife is yet another calamity she and her partner Adofonis have brought to Kukulino. Just as Timotej and Paramon begin approaching each other, nature comes to the fore. We learn about partridges calling one to another, a pear falling from a twig, a mullein flower gazing at a transparent cloud in the sky, tortoises rustling about, snails crawling back to their holes, a chub waking up in the river Davidica. Although he hasn’t had any truck with the living after his return to Kukulino, Borčilo has to interfere somehow not to allow the tragedy to happen. And so, he does it, but indirectly, almost as a providential force of nature whose part he has become.
As a tangential point, I’d like to share all the 20(!) names of the oak tree that Borčilo mentions when recounting Rahila’s visit to the anchorite Blagun with the goal of persuading him to return to Kukulino and ward off the curse that doesn’t allow the construction of the village church. The thing is that the oak tree in those parts is called “blagun” after the hermit, but besides that, there are also other names such as: ostrogon, ploskach, krastun, belik, gozhlak, sladun, kletser, gorun, chernik, stezh, plastichak, dobrotsvet, badnilist, ogneshnik, lozhnik, kotolist, drobnik, tser, zheladets, gromoplodnik. I have transliterated the Russian spelling into the English one for the ease of pronouncing these words, which are hardly possible to translate. Moreover, when I checked this list against the one in the Macedonian edition, I found out that the Russian translator had similarly transcribed all the names in the letters of the Russian alphabet without even trying to translate these unusual words. Now the question remains whether all these oak tree names are authentic or whether Janevski partially or even completely invented them.
In the twisted world of Slavko Janevski there is no clear-cut line between the holy and the profane. This ambivalence is evident already in the title of the first novel of the trilogy: the commander of the evil legions is somehow a saint. This contradiction is further explored when Isailo, the alleged reincarnation of Adofonis, comes to the village to work as an icon painter. There is an obvious parallel with the Christian devil Nikon Sevast in Milorad Pavić’s novel Dictionary of the Khazars. His infernal origin, betrayed by the absence of the nasal septum and the presence of a tail, does not prevent Sevast from becoming a much sought-after practitioner of sacred art, constantly getting commissions from monasteries. Likewise, Isailo is entrusted with painting holy scenes on the walls of the newly built church, whose erection became possible after the pious hermit Blagun agreed to return to the village from his cave under the Blue Cliff and consecrate the foundation of the new temple. Before that, the construction of the church was impossible because any masonry that was put up by day collapsed at night. The holy and the unholy unite to give Kukulino a place of devotion, to establish an island of order in the midst of chaos, which seems to be the natural state of this gleefully cursed village. There is no guarantee that the church will remain standing, but Kukulino will endure. And once the immediate danger is averted, it will start craving for a new one. The chaos has to be maintained.
Dog’s Crucifix (Кучешко распетие, Песье распятие)
The events in the second part of the trilogy unfold nine years after the invasion of the rats under the command of Saint Adofonis. The title of the novel refers to the legendary place, near an oak grove, where a dog and a man were crucified on the same cross. Many years ago, the pagan inhabitants of Kukulino nailed a dog to the cross to mock the Christian missionaries who had arrived to convert them. The Christians retaliated by catching one of the villagers and nailing him to the blasphemous crucifix. The man and the dog rotted together until, one day, they disappeared from the cross and ascended the skies. The stunned villagers saw that the coat of the canine Jesus shone with gold, whereas the man fell to pieces. After that, the Kukulino dwellers started calling that spot the Dog’s Crucifix.
The protagonist and the main narrator of the novel is Timotej, whom we already know from The Legions of Saint Adofonis. Things have changed since the great victory over the carnivorous rats. Timotej now is called Nestor. He has taken monastic vows and serves God along with four other monks at the Monastery of St. Nicetas. (Since circumstances will cause him to leave the monastery and reassume his secular name, I’ll keep calling him Timotej to avoid unnecessary confusion.) The new chronicler of Kukulino’s turbulent history relates to us two great disasters that strike his native village, causing grave harm and severe suffering to the inhabitants. The first disaster comes in the form of Timotej’s childhood friend Rusijan, who, upon his return from the war between the Serbian King Milutin and his brother Dragutin, establishes himself as the tyrannical ruler of the village. Rusijan’s despotic governing that crushes Kukukino’s population under the unbearable weight of tributes and quitrents is brought to an end by the second disaster: an organised raid of outlaws led by their savage and pitiless chieftain Prebond Biž. What is remarkable about this new stage in Kukulino’s history is the fact that the miraculous and the supernatural take a back seat. With Borčilo gone, there aren’t any other vampires to haunt the environs. The enemies that the villagers face are people like them, not some monstrous creatures, for those have been banished to the hearsay, the legends, and the visions provoked by the ingestion of a hallucinogenic root. The local folklore serves as the source of titillating fright and frisson, whereas real danger comes from the vain and avaricious human nature. Hardly a gain for Kukulino.
Rusijan’s transformation into a despot was made possible by his rise to the rank of voivode in Stefan Uroš II Milutin’s army. He comes back to his home village as a representative of the Serbian Kingdom, which has ruled over Macedonia since Milutin conquered it in 1282. The high status allows Rusijan to establish himself as the undisputed potentate of Kukulino with minimal control from the outside. The new ruler makes sure that the big city (apparently, Skopje) receives its share of the grain collected from the villagers to make the royal authorities satisfied and render any interference in his affairs ungrounded. The conflict between Rusijan and some of his former friends like Paramon, Bogdan, and Karpo Ljubanski makes up the main plotline of the first and the second parts of the novel. The fugitives from the despot’s oppression take arms and unite under the command of a certain Papakakas, also a fugitive, but from the Byzantine authorities. Despite Timotej’s aspiration to keep distance from worldly affairs, he ends up defrocked by Prohor, the hegumen of the monastery, and begins working for Rusijan as an estate manager of sorts. Not that such a turn of events is entirely unwelcome, as the monk has been obsessed with the tyrant’s wife Simonida for some time (as she has been with him), and his newly-gained proximity to the ruler allows him to slip into his wife’s bed when he is away on business in the city.
The Dog’s Crucifix remains the focal point of the dark energy accumulated in Kukulino since the violent irruption of Christianity into its pagan world. No wonder the small-time tyrant has chosen that spot for the building of his own fortress. The stones of the old one, which used to be the haunt of the vampire Borčilo, are now being repurposed as the building material for Rusijan’s new residence whose erection becomes yet another unbearable burden on the shoulders of the villagers. The true vampire is not the green-eyed man whose mildewed skull they used to see from time to time between the merlons of the old fortress, but the parvenu feudal, who forgot his humble origins as soon as he accessed a bit of power and status. Just like the church decorated by the alleged rat chieftain Adofonis, the fortress at the Dog’s Crucifix will not be finished. Rusijan’s smaller punishment is to be cuckolded by the defrocked monk Timotej in the half-built monument to his megalomania, and the bigger one is to lose it all after the marauding invasion of Prebond Biž’s army of outlaws. The triumphant brigands carry the loot to Bižanci, their leader’s domain, leaving Kukulino in shambles. They are planning to return soon to finish the business. Left with only two warriors, Rusijan will humbly seek to join Papakakas’ troop (partly made up of the victims of his own persecution) in order to prevent the complete destruction of Kukulino by carrying out a pre-emptive strike in the attackers’ lair. His power will never be restored, but the village will be saved, and his participation in that expedition will be a small contribution to the atonement for all his brutalities that can never be completely atoned for.
Although limited to the realm of legends and nebylitsi, the supernatural and horrifying elements still play an important role in Dog’s Crucifix. Without them, it would be just an average adventure story with a medieval setting and rather in-your-face social message. Just like whimsical illuminations and grotesque marginalia elevate a manuscript with the same old text to the status of an art object, the fantastic and horrifying lore interwoven into the novel makes it an unclassifiable oddity worthy of a serious reader’s attention. The principal raconteur of weird stories in the novel is the herbalist and healer Teofan, who is also one of the five monks at the Monastery of St. Nicetas. It is thanks to Teofan that the village folk learn that the chief outlaw Brebond Biž is a warlock with two rows of dog’s teeth behind the upper lip who can easily cross swamps because mermaids and drowned humans build with their own bodies a makeshift causeway for him to tread on. Needless to say, the real Biž does not quite correspond to this colourful description. When urging Timotej to beware of the Devil’s tricks even on the holy grounds, Teofan tells him the sad story of the monastery elder Makarie Ognožeg, who fell foul with a Satanic monk. As a consequence, the elder’s forehead became covered in warts, which, upon closer inspection, proved to be the miniature heads of deceased Kukulino residents. During the Great Lent, Makarie slaughtered and ate all the monastery goats to keep the gluttonous warts nourished. On a different occasion, to entertain his audience, the herbalist stacks one nebylitsa upon another:
[…] at the bottom of the streams that shelter transparent cranes made of solidified moonlight there is more gold than sand, and that gold is alive: it burns through the skin and singes bones; moths that feed on upyrs’ meat to spare humans have nestled in the fur of wolf cubs; at the edge of the desert grows a tree whose fruit makes barren women gravid; beyond the sea, someone built subterranean weaver’s shops for decorating the bronze and iron cloaks of rooster-headed dwarfs who ride in carriages pulled by mole crickets.
One of the most ancient and awe-inspiring legends, known to every villager, is that of a giant hand. This story excited the Kukulino dwellers’ imagination long before the Monastery of St. Nicetas was built. According to folk tradition, from time to time, the enormous hand bursts out of the ground beneath the Blue Cliff whose caverns have given shelter to pious anchorites. As already noted, the co-existence of the holy and the demonic is nothing out of the ordinary for the village. Woe to those who find themselves in the vicinity of the monstrous limb:
Each of the five wrinkled finger pads of the giant hand was endowed with black lips that perpetually protruded. They leeched and sucked into anything they touched: be it a beast, a living human being, or someone dead. More than a hundred years ago, heavily-armoured crusaders came from distant lands and, at the foot of the Blue Cliff, clashed with the ragged but intrepid dwellers of the leafy woods. After the battles that lasted for days, the trampled grass was strewn with thousands of bloodied corpses. But not for long. The lips of the giant hand sucked them in before the eagles had the time to glorify the concord of man and death. The five gullets that converged into one pushed the prey into the bowels of the earth, refusing, however, to accept the blue eyes of the warriors: they were absorbed by the stone that got covered in moss afterwards. The villagers frequently use this blue moss to treat eye diseases, eyelid inflammation, and even blindness.
The ruins of the old fortress, the unfinished church building, and the equally incomplete and abandoned new fortress are grim reminders of the fact that Kukulino prefers the constancy of metaphysis to the perishability of material artefacts. Whereas Rusijan’s citadel is slowly reduced to a pile of rubble by the scavenging village folk, the mystical energy of the Dog’s Crucifix never subsides. Timotej finds that out for himself when he hears one night at that place a continuous howl that penetrates all his being and refuses to leave him afterwards. From now on, he will carry that sound inside wherever he goes and whatever he does. He cannot be entirely sure whether the howling belongs to the crucified dog or to the man who joined it later. If the former is true, then the howl is the prayer of the dying animal that is meant to be heard forever in that spot as an edification to the pagans. If, on the other hand, it is the scream of the crucified man, its longevity is the sign of the pagans’ defiance against forced Christianisation. Whatever the case may be, Timotej becomes reconciled with the idea that he will keep hearing the howl until Judgement Day. That does not prevent him from writing this chronicle, however, and, maybe, it is the howl that inspires its most thrilling and spectacular passages.
Waiting for the Plague (Чекајќи чума, В ожидании чумы)
The last chronicler of Kukulino’s tribulations is Evtimie the Scribe, who is the grandson of Bogdan, the possessor of the prophetic gourd. When Evtimie writes his story of growing up and coming of age in the village, Macedonia is already part of the Ottoman Empire under whose rule it will remain for the next five hundred years. Evtimie looks back at the time when the residents of Kukulino, having withstood the rat invasion, Rusijan’s tyranny, and the outlaws’ raid, are bracing themselves for the coming of the plague only to find out that the real plague is other people.
Evtimie’s father Vecko left Lozana, his mother, before he was born. An eccentric newcomer to Kukulino who calls himself Spiridon the Great Flier, begins living with Lozana in what now would be considered a common-law marriage and raises the boy as his own son. With time, Evtimie learns about Spiridon’s extraordinary abilities that distinguish him from the other, less interesting villagers. He can see with his tongue and listen with the tips of his fingers. He has no use for his ears and intends to cut them off and present to his little stepson as toys. His main prowess, however, is the ability to fly, which he developed in infancy after swallows fed him stoneless cherries and worms when he lay alone in his cradle. Spiridon confides to Evtimie that the skies are salty and that he can get that salt any time he wants as long as there are no witnesses. The day after he does bring some salt home, he gets arrested by the city’s authorities for stealing it and is put in jail. All his stories prove to be nothing but nebylitsi.
Literacy is a rare skill in Kukulino, and there is only one person in the village who offers reading and writing lessons. This teacher is the aged author of the previous Kukulino chronicle Timotej. At Spiridon’s insistence, Evtimie regularly visits Timotej’s house to study together with his foster daughters Rosa and Agna (The latter is going to become his wife when they grow up). Without realising it, Timotej passes the narrator’s baton to his student and thus ensures the completion of the trilogy. Timotej’s final significant achievement is his becoming the elder of Kukulino after it is united into one parish with the neighbouring villages. The circumstances around this reform, however, mark the beginning of a new period of troubles after the respite following the defeat of Biž’s outlaws. The Monastery of St. Nicetas is now in the hands of the monks sent by the city authorities to take care of the neglected monastic property. All the villages belonging to the parish now have to provide the monastery’s lands with free labourers as well as to give away a third of their harvests. In order to ensure the fulfilment of the corvee and the payment of the quitrent, six heavily-armed warriors have been sent along with the monks. Timotej’s decision to become the elder is dictated by his wish to spare the lives of his compatriots, for defiance on their part will inevitably lead to a bloody conflict with the city, which has enough troops to quickly and brutally quench any insurrection.
As if the tyrannical oppression was not enough, the village folks have to gird their loins to face something even more terrible. News and rumours of the devastating plague begin to trickle in. We should bear in mind that a large part of the novel is set around the middle of the fourteenth century, the time when the Black Death was brought to Europe by the Genoese ships departing from the Crimean city of Kaffa, that very same city into which the besieging troops of Khan Janibeg had notoriously catapulted the plague-ridden corpses of their fellow soldiers thus unleashing what might have been the first instance of biological warfare. Within a few years the pandemic devastated Europe, killing almost a third of its population. The horrific and inevitable death presaged by the appearance of pus-oozing boils on the afflicted body is a matter of much greater severity than the tribute and free labour exacted by the powers that be. The residents of Kukolino are gripped by the anxious expectation. They have survived the attacks by the rodents and brigands, but will they be able to fight off the bubonic plague, the most wicked adversary they will ever have to counter?
There seems to be a growing premonition that the world is on the cusp of a tremendous transformation that will be ushered in by a great calamity like the predicted plague. The old world has to die so the new one can arrive in its place albeit not everyone will survive to see it. Perhaps the most conspicuous symbol of that archaic, dying world is the rag-and-bone man Saltir, who tirelessly collects all sorts of junk and crams it in his house like some kind of scavenging Noah that hopes to save as many vestiges of the doomed civilisation as possible. Upon his death, the new tenants, who enter his cluttered dwelling, are taken aback by the sheer volume and heteroclite nature of those odds and ends that used to be precious artifacts for their collector and are mere rubbish for the new occupants:
The smells of the past, unidentifiable under the mould of turbid recollections, had accumulated in that lair, which was chockful with worthless junk: the effaced marbled heads of Greek gods and kings, helmets corroded by rust, pieces of iron from the smithy that had been abandoned more than thirty years before, worn-out shoes, old terracotta and metal vessels, baskets and mouse-eaten, water-damaged prayer books, candlesticks, fire strikers, poleaxes of unknown provenance, fabrics with neither colour nor use, cracked belts, ox horns, mangy skins, a quern-stone, a quiver without arrows, spears with blunted points, bundles of dry grass, mattresses, goathair blankets, jugs, pickaxes, scythes, oil lamps in the shape of galleys, tin cans for sacred oil, ikons, spindles, shards of dirty glass, bits of cinder, dog skulls, hare skins, a string of boar tusks, numerous masks made from cloth and leather,— a true kingdom of mice and moths, spiders, cockroaches and worms.
Despite all the omens and admonitions, the plague never arrives. This theme of the frustrated anticipation of a menace that fails to materialise is already familiar to us from such classics as C. P. Cavafi’s poem Waiting for the Barbarians and Dino Buzzati’s novel The Tartar Steppe. Janevski’s novel, however, does not accentuate the expectation to such a degree as these texts because there are so many other things going on, and, besides, the realisation of the futility of waiting comes home to the villages pretty quickly— soon after two competitive eschatological sects occupy Kukulino with the overt goal of offering its denizens salvation from the coming apocalypse. The first to arrive is a group of devil-worshipping flagellants informally dubbed the Brothers of the Scourge. It is led by Photius the Miracle Worker, who claims to be a relative of the last Byzantine basileus. Photius calls on the villagers to join his sect, maintaining that self-flagellation is the only way to cleanse one’s body from sin and scare away the plague. The leader of the Brothers proselytises the adoration of Satanail whom he calls “our Christ from the Golgotha called Hell”. Photius and his acolytes settle in the unfinished fortress at the Dog’s Crucifix. The other fortress, the one that used to be the retreat of the vampire Borčilo, soon becomes the main base for the second sect—the Followers of the Seashell. The members of this group wear seashells on strings instead of crosses and hide their faces behind masks made from different materials such as leather, clay, cloth, or feathers. Their chief is the Italian Catholic priest Father Lorenzo, who assures the Kukulino residents that the only way to escape the disease is to put on a mask. According to Lorenzo, the plague strikes only those whose brows have been previously branded with an invisible mark. To avoid getting this mark, one has to keep their face well hidden. It is symbolic that the newly arrived invaders have chosen as their homes the places that used to belong to the two cruel tyrants: Rastimir and Rusijan. Instead of salvation, both groups introduce new oppression and harassment of the long-suffering villagers, who quickly realise that the plague has already arrived, not as a deadly disease but in the guise of the two marauding hordes vying for total control over Kukulino. Evtimie, Agna, Spiridon, and a bunch of other villagers flee their homes to seek shelter against the rampaging sectarians; they find it beneath the Blue Cliff, the former abode of hermit Blagun. With time, they are joined by more people, including those from other villages. When the fugitives have enough men and arms to form a military force, they set out to take Kukulino back. They have been spared by the plague so they can fight to regain some peace and relative freedom which they will lose again some forty years later as a result of the Ottoman conquest.
“The time of miracles has passed”, says Spiridon at some point in Evtimie’s narrative as if alluding to the dissipation of the supernatural throughout Janevski’s trilogy. Instead of miracles, we are offered the perverted miracle plays fed by the pagan lore and the long-standing tradition to entertain one’s audience with bizarre, make-believe stories. No matter what upheavals affect this Macedonian microcosm, the wild and absurd tales remain the constant in its dwellers’ lives. Far from being just a horror and freak show, the trilogy explores such sober themes as feudal oppression, religion, friendship, sexual attraction, family ties, and the relationship between nature and man. It would be unfair to say that these issues are tackled in a perfunctory or primitive manner, but there is little doubt that they play a secondary role and form the backdrop for the outbursts of the author’s whimsical creativity permeating all three books. This is the performance we all have come to see: the miraculous gift of human imagination taking a variety of fanciful forms each of which assumes a life of its own.
Hello Andrei, any updates as to when you expect to start the Spanish reading group? Have you picked a book?
Hi. Yes I have picked the book, and it is extraordinary, and absolute masterpiece. Not revealing the title yet. I am planning to publish its review on my Patreon in December and on my blog in January. The reading will begin in February.
Hello! first I would like to thank you for this blog, I think you’ve done incredible work here and you’ve opened up a new world of literature to me. I am not monolingual however I would like to learn another language. as loaded of a question as this may be, I would like your gut reaction to it: if I had to learn one language for the sole purpose of reading literature, which would you choose? I understand that there are many benefits of learning a language, however for this purpose I am interested in knowing your gut instinct. thank you and I am excited to see your review!
Thanks for the kind words! Hands down, it should be Spanish. It is relatively easy to learn and there are tons of great books from Spain and Latin America.
I have decided to become a patron! this blog almost feels too good to be true haha! I have but another shallow question to ask if you dont mind, it has been another 5 years since your 5 year anniversary(congratulations) but I would like to ask…what books would you switch out from the 10 you gave the first time(maybe switch out is harsh, more like add on top make it a top 15(or something alone those lines) of the best of the best ) im sure Schattenfroh would make it. and im slightly confused on one aspect, you seem to be only positive on the books you review here(im new so I may be wrong) yet you have a great untranslated section on your blog, and some of the books from your top 10 dont have a great untranslated next to them. what criteria separates the books that get a great badge from the ones that dont? again, thank you for your time and effort 🙂
Thanks again! I would add to the list Horcynus Orca, Schattenfroh, and The Stone of the Kingdom. As for the Great Untranslated category, it is reserved for the great books in languages I can’t read. As simple as that.
I see, that makes sense, how do you know that those books are worth it/how much praise from respected figures do you need? Are you planning on learning another language anytime soon especially for other certain literature heavy countries like japan? I am currently only on the 5$ a month as I do not know any of the languages that you know (besides English but, well, you know) so I am now planning to learn Spanish and hopefully then I will join the book club! Thank you for responding.
I base my judgement on reliable secondary sources. I do not have that much time for new languages, but maybe in the future that will change.
Sorry if I am messaging a lot but this is just so interesting to me! Do you know of any similar websites to yours for other languages, in hindsight your great untranslated section is very thoughtful, however there is only so much one person can do(I still much prefer a more personal 1 on 1 style blog like this rather than a team of faceless like in bigger websites). So how do you find the books that you do considering they are so unknown sometimes even in their own language, and who else can you recommend for an even wider range of languages and such? Thank you and for now I think I will spare you any more questions 🙂
Each case is different, but obviously there is always some information about an untranslated book in the language in which it is written. There are literary magazines and reviews in those languages. The only other site with book reviews written by a multilingual reader that I know is The Modern Novel. The author if this blog reviews literature in translation and in original languages: https://www.themodernnovel.org/
hello! it is me again. as someone who is obviously not as knowledgeable on literature as you, and I hope this question isnt rude in the context of the blog but what are some English books that you believe are severely under read but are in the same vein as what you review(not necessarily English as the original language but even ones that are translated)? I think I mainly ask as a lot of the books you cover are both unknown in the English world but also seem obscure even in their native language(s)! so what English books (that cant get a full review of course) do you think are similarly complex, artful and a part of the “shadow canon” you mention in your 5 year anniversary post, that were just unlucky (compared to, say, 2666)in its popularity? thank you!
I have no idea because the English-language books that I like, for example Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow and The Recognitions are widely known. I have never actively sought out obscure English books. Same goes for books in translation.
If you are interested there exist Serbocroatian translations of his work. I could see what their translation strategies were.
Also the oak names for the most part sound plausibly native. Some are more odd, but there are names that basically mean “sweet one”, “bitter one”, “honey-sweet” and so on. Similar case is in Croatia for pomegranate. One would need to check dialectal dictionaries
Thanks for your observation! I was baffled because when I googled some of those words, Janevski’s novel was the only text that came up in the results.