Monday, January 08, 2007
The Future of Macedonia Described by the Owner of Mysterious Piece of Scroll Called Firman
The more one knows , the more one suffers,- goes an old dictum that, I do not know why, I have embraced it as Serbian. Well, there probably will be consequences, but, after reading Firman by Stefani Sen Senar I have just learned yet few new things. At this moment I do not have a clue how ominous will this freshly acquired knowledge prove to be, but I will immediately spread it - to distribute as evenly as possible the potential collateral damage.
Stefani Sen Senar embarked on a story about centuries old magic upon which to support her intricate plot for her second novel related to Macedonia. There is this scroll of devastating, magic power. Actually - this scroll is a firman (in Farsi) or ferman (in Turkish). It carries a royal order. She develops "Firman" in series of flash backs and she uses and abuses the technique abundantly and at will. If Stefani read more of the legendary queen Scheherazade (Shahrazada) stories (you know that they were bundled into the Book of One Thousand and One Nights) she might have produced a remarkable piece of somewhat strange melange of literature. Since she was more exposed to dry history texts, language lessons and down to earth journalism - her 194-page pocket-book novel is differently shaped.
Although Stefani deals with a very complex story - it is easily readable. The ext may pass as a police intrigue around a mysterious document, the ferman, but it is not that simple. Stefani swaps swift, once romantic other times outlandishly brutal actions between the real and the world of her burning imagination. She does it with ease, and that ability I find the strongest aspect of this novel. It is not a rocket flying out up in the skies. It is more of a ominous meteorite spewing long trail of fire and debris behind it and one, eventually, towards the end, realizes that by its dreaded impact with Macedonia it will have probably fizzled. None of those worlds she creates (the imaginary is hellish, much worse than the real one) is comfortable for either her heroine or the social environment in which she moves. That sort of position is troubling: the author (half-Macedonian, by her mother's side) packs her heroine, Pela, for a trip, in a search of the murderer of her parents, to Turkey but allows that such a determined search of a most bloody mystery is cancelled in five minutes at a table of a spiritless Skopje railway-station buffet by a potential adulterer and derailed to Ohrid with an incentive of free accommodation.
(That on the left is a royal firman - Sultan Selim the First, and next to it - Stefani)
The charm of "Firman" is that of a polished jigsaw puzzle. The building of the final picture is interspersed with varying levels of intrigue and statements reflecting Stefani's heroine's opinion about the potentials (meagre) of the Macedonian soil, about the competence (very poor) of its police, about the chances (minimal) of the young authors to be translated or the possibility (non-existent) of true emancipation. What is evident and guaranteed is an onslaught by merciless, head-cutting savage muslims who appear and disappear at will, terrorize and keep the population subdued. I do not know what significance to ascribe to the torture-cum-murder camp for the Macedonian prisoners dragged by the mystic army from Galichnik right to the outskirts of Solun. The the rich herdsmen of Galichnik did posses large pieces of property around Solun but it is all gone now. Affluent shoppers from Skopje tend to go to Solun over the weekend - is this a message that there will be their undoing? All that is Pela's last nightmare. She is miraculously waken up and thus saved from the executioner's hand. Back in reality she sees the old man with the lion-head penchant on his necklace. She goes to him and he reveals the last piece of the jigsaw-puzzle. This old man reveals to Pela that she needs to burn, destroy the firman she had inherited from her great great-greatmother and prevent the realization of the prophecy. If she does not do it - everything, herself too, may perish.
Thus, a well-educated, affluent Parisian mademoiselle, half-Macedonian by her father's side (the novel somewhat rearranges the used autobiographical elements) rows to the middle of Ohrid Lake and burns the magic firman, which we knew for some time, was a key to the great mystery.
There may be a piece (even two or three) missing or not nicely fitting here and there, but that one, the destruction of the firman, the finite severance with the past, is the last item needed to understand (any way you may want to) the jigsaw puzzle that Stefani Sen Senar has produced for us.
She makes it even more twisted because her Pela moves in the past and the present too. Then - nothing is actul or real: this is a sort of day-dreaming or, I would say, nightmarish pseudo-historic session burdened with pretty rigid, so very Slavic (and obviously French too) and quite heavy prejudices against muslims. In my view the introduction of medieval barbarism in the plot is superfluous and results with rather gloomy thoughts that the author reveals an actual rather appalling prophecy for Macedonia and the Macedonians. The text sort of transcends from one to another shape, it is a travelogue and then dives into historical topics and an evocation of items that are not only as complex as terrorism, individual and collective violence and cultural intolerance but are quite contemporary. Stefani Sen Senar produces an accurate and touching (although somewhat laconic and summarizing) evocation of the social network in which Pela tries to accommodate herself slowly coming to terms with the “Balkan way of life”. But her Pela (probably from Pelagija, a rare feminine name, after the saint Pelagija of Tarsus) is, unlike my rigid Balkan self, an adaptable person. She takes people's names as granted. One needs to be nuts to let an unknown giddy man calling himself Jesus-the-Philosopher sit on one's table and accept a drink from him. names are revealing: there are real people in Macedonia called Tito (like Tito Petkovski, the former speaker of the Parliament of Macedonia) or Stalin (like Stalin Lozanovski, the former secretary-general of the Union of Journalists of Macedonia) and it does not take much brain to conclude that they were given those names by their parents willing to send a message about their credos, family political, moral and so forth preferences which, in turn, reflect as specific upbringing that eventually exposes itself in the character of the innocent. If this Stefani's character Jesus-the-Philosopher was set as painter in Bronx, I could swallow him as a Portorican. But in Ohrid? Zivko Chingo, a very special writer, native of Ohrid, used to invent those strange surnames to his characters and places. Stefani does it with Belakulakovska, the surname Pela carries now, untransformed, battered during a century of use in France. Or Milbogovski (Dear-to-God). My stomach revolts against those names but, eventually, that is totally marginal.
I cannot help feeling that the author was not quite clear whether she was going to re-work this piece of narrative into a differently shaped novel or a screenplay for a first-rate action-movie. A sort of "Indiana Jones" type of plot, bloody mysterious butchery in a plushy Parisian XVI arrondissement takes a young woman to a derelict Ohrid house with a creepy cellar full of hallucinants, magic words, total solar eclipses over Macedonia, party infighting and splits within the VMRO top, head-cutting in public by ninja-type gangs and the lot - well, quite a story for the first novel in French.
"Firman" remains on my night-table. Now it is in a phase of second and eventually a third reading. I have a feeling that Stefani had done injustice to Abdul-Hamid (he was in Skopje on a tour of Rumelia) of whom my recently deceased father-in-law, an economist, said "He was OK". He had personally seen the sultan in an open carriage then, adding: "All the town went out to cheer the sultan. We had no problems with the Turks. The real problems had begun latter". Stefani's problems will begin the day some producer asks her to make a synopsis out of the "Firman". But those would be sweet pains of creative writing.
If you understand French, this is a link to an oral review by Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine. It is pleasant to listen to and quite lavishing for Stefani Sen Senar.