Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 3, 2020

The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, by Ivan Čapovski, translated by Paul Filev

The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan is an unusual book.  I haven’t read much literature from the Balkans, and nothing at all from the former Yugoslavian state now known as North Macedonia.  In this context, it’s useful to quote from the publisher’s home page:

Cadmus Press is a newly established publishing company created to fill the growing demand for excellent English translations of outstanding literature from the regions collectively known as Eastern and Southeastern Europe. These regions encompass the broad geographical areas ranging from Western Europe to Russia, and include the many small nations along the Adriatic, Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean Seas.

This part of the world has been a cultural nexus since ancient times, fostering a rich and diverse cultural and literary heritage that is still poorly represented in translation. We hope to introduce some of the region’s exemplary works into English, the lingua franca of our times, to share with readers worldwide the particular voices borne of a geography that served as a cultural crossroads for millennia and then was silenced to the world behind an Iron Curtain for two generations. With 25 years of post-Socialism gone by, the writers represented by Cadmus Press offer literature that attests to the long melding of histories, cultures, and political systems. The stories are not only a product of their unique space and time, and the particular struggles and sensibilities that arose as a result, but bear witness, as does all great literature, as enduring narratives of humanity.

Cadmus Press is named after the first Greek hero and slayer of dragons, Cadmus, who was the brother of Europa. He was sent by his parents to find his sister after she was kidnapped by Zeus. He wandered for years, with many adventures and travails, but was never successful in finding her. Cadmus stands for the perpetual quest for identity and meaning that are particularly salient to this region of the world.

The book begins with a helpful map and the translator Paul Filev’s explanation of the geo-political situation at the time the novel is set.  After the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, Macedonia was partitioned between Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria which as you can see from the Wikipedia map are neighbours of contemporary North Macedonia (so named since 2019, the orange territory at the bottom of the map.  Serbia is dark blue).

You need to know all this because it’s central to understanding the conflicts of nationality and identity that permeate the novel.  What happens in WW1—which is when Miles Franklin served with the Scottish Women’s Hospital known as the American unit in Serbian Ostrovo* —is that Macedonians, already subjected to forced assimilation within their imposed new countries, were conscripted to fight for Serbia, Greece or Bulgaria. Serbia was an ally of Russia, France and Britain &c, as was Greece from July 1917 after abandoning neutrality, while Bulgaria joined the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.  So Macedonians, united by language and historical identity, were reluctantly at war with each other, depending on which uniform they had been forced to wear.

Miles Franklin, working as an assistant cook (according to this researcher) is (as the title suggests) a vehicle for conveying the sorrow of this situation, but also, as the author says in the Afterword, a witness to the demise of the Macedonians.  The book is not a fictionalised biography of MF though some characters correspond to real-life people, but is rather an imagined account that fills in the blank pages of her life. So we see little of MF doing any work, and the story is not meant to be realism.  She wanders off at whim, into corpse-ridden scenes of mass slaughter, and into a swamp full of malaria-infested mosquitoes where she witnesses the distress of Lina whose lover Georgos is missing, and she tries to understand the hostility between two major characters, a ‘Serbian’ poet and a ‘Bulgarian’ photographer whose confused identities mean they are Macedonians on opposite sides.  These characters don’t see each other as people but rather as representatives of countries that they both hate.  This is a bit unnerving because while we are all used to depictions of hatred in the heat of battle when one uniform attacks another impersonally, these two hate each other in the relative calm of the hospital ward and in moments of reflection.

Miles Franklin meanwhile undergoes periods of intense introspection, keeping her diary and considering how to use these experiences in her writing.  I resisted the temptation to investigate Jill Roe’s biography to see what she had to say about it, but I have no doubt that the author has taken liberties with his concluding remarks describing the first edition cover of All That Swagger.

Two years later, when her novel is published, it is no coincidence to find two images on the cover: a wanderer with a wooden leg and an axe lowered in his right hand, and an area of the Macedonian countryside with a charred tree trunk and a fighter plane in flight over a mountain. (p.258)

Well, he might get away with that in North Macedonia, but not here in Australia! However, I don’t think it matters.  This novel is, as I said, not meant to be realism.  Miles as witness learns about a massacre, about the forced labour of villagers, about the routine rape of women, and the use of women as beasts of burden by allied French and Serbian soldiers.  There are elements that I didn’t understand such as a scene in which Miles finds a skull and smashes it, and there are confusing scenes with ghostly characters and one known only by his initials I.D.Č., but overall, I feel that the author has achieved his aim which is to bring little-known aspects of history to light.

* Ostrovo is now Lake Vergoritis, Pella Prefecture, in Hellas

Map of the former Yugoslavia: By Ijanderson977 – derived from File: Former Yugoslavia 2006.png by Dudemanfellabra at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7523932

Author: Ivan Čapovski
Title: The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan
Translated from the Macedonian by Paul Filev
Cover: Aleksandar Stankoski
Publisher: Cadmus Press, 2020
ISBN: 9784908793455, pbk., 286 pages
Review copy courtesy of Cadmus Press


Responses

  1. Interesting…

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  2. I thought when you didn’t post in August that you might have put this on the back burner. But no! I finished my review last night and thought that I should re-read it this morning before posting. So look for it in a couple of hours, I must have my porridge first.

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL Bill, we are in synch for once!

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  3. […] reading:Miles Franklin page (here)Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)Dianne Bell, Miles Franklin and the Serbs still matter (here)Australians Working with Scottish […]

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  4. What an interesting take on MF.

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    • Yes, I still haven’t looked up this period of her life in Jill Roe’s bio but there can’t have been much that was memorable about it.
      I remember thinking at the time that I read it, what a tragedy it was that a woman of her intelligence was working in menial jobs because she had an inadequate education.

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  5. […] dead, and usually when there is some agenda to push.  Indeed, my last book was a case in point: The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, by Ivan Čapovski, translated by Paul Filev uses our Miles as a vehicle for raising awareness about the Balkan Wars.  I will not make the […]

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  6. This just sounds so weird, but so intriguing as well that a Macedonian author would use Miles Franklin to write historical fiction about this history.

    I like your point that “The book is not a fictionalised biography of MF though some characters correspond to real-life people, but is rather an imagined account that fills in the blank pages of her life. So we see little of MF doing any work, and the story is not meant to be realism.” There’s a novel “Jane Austen in Australia” which fills in a gap in her life – when we have few letters. So the author imagines she comes to Australia with her aunt who was arrested for stealing and could have been transported. It’s a light book, but not a bad one.

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    • Hmmm, there’s a fine line IMO between clutching onto the coat-tails of a famous author in order to get traction for some new work that would otherwise sink into oblivion, and having a genuine raison d’être for the link. In general I avoid those kind of books, and I must admit that I was disappointed in this one because I was expecting it to be a fictionalised version of real events about MF who I admire. As it turns out the book does have merits of its own, but only because I knew nothing about Macedonia. If it had been just another WW1 novel set in the usual battlefields I wouldn’t have bothered because I am rather tired of WW1 fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes I do too but there can be exceptions, like this one sounds. It’s interesting to ponder why authors do this. Sometimes I’m sure it’s purely commercial but I’ve met authors who’ve done this and the reasons can be more nuanced.

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        • Yes, as with Wide Sargasso Sea. I didn’t like it as a book, but I think there was a valid reason for writing it.

          Liked by 1 person


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