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Petre M. Andreevski: Пиреј (Pirey)

The title comes from the name of a type of weed which is persistent and difficult to get rid of, indicating the nature of the Macedonians in this novel. In fact, we start with the funeral of one of them, Velika Meglenoska. At this funeral, we meet her son, Roden, born after his father’s death, and Duko Vendiya, who tells Roden the story of his parents. The structure of the novel is alternative stories by Velika and her husband, Ion. Duko does, however, tell a little bit of his own life. His father had left his mother and taken the children to go and live in a monastery. While the boys were at the monastery, the Komitadjis arrived and brutally murdered Father Visarion, allegedly because he was an informer. This theme of violence will occur throughout the novel.

However, the focus of the story is Velika and Ion. We follow their courtship and marriage. However, the marriage is not entirely happy. Velika feels that Ion is too demanding, even making her work when she is having a difficult pregnancy. When she goes into labour, while they are working in the fields, he wants her to have the baby there and then on her own and it is only with difficulty that she persuades him to accompany her into the shade out of sight of the other workers. They eventually have five children. Ion joins the Komitadji, which also causes concern for Velika particularly as they are quite brutal. We see the life of the village including the various superstitions, such as that the illness is caused by spells and they have to go to Magda the Healer to get rid of the spell.

But World War 1 arrives and the Serbian army comes to the village and Ion is one of the men they press-gang into their army. Velika is left to look after the children. Meanwhile, Mirche, Ion’s brother, has gone off to the USA, as have other people from the village. We follow the considerable hardships of both Ion and Velika. Ion is engaged in a bloody war, fighting the Bulgarians, with tough commanders and brutal battles, often for just a small piece of ground, as was happening over on the Western Front. Andreevski spares us no details. Meanwhile, poor Veleika is struggling to feed her children and look after them. One by one they die. Angele is the first to go. The boys had found some bullets and thrown them on the fire. One exploded and killed Angele. Then Rosa died of fever. Cholera comes to the village and, one by one, her three remaining children contract it and die. Even with the cholera the superstitions remain and it is decided that if they smear all the dogs with tar and burn them (alive), it will get rid of the cholera. But this is not her only problem. getting food is difficult and is not helped by all the various armies seemingly occupying Macedonia and passing through the village and taking what they will. Only the Germans seemed prepared to pay for what they take. When they are occupied by the Bulgarians, the Bulgarians need to build a road and the inhabitants of the village are recruited as forced labour, including the women, but at least they get fed, though not very well. On one occasion when an army is approaching, all the villagers flee the village and hide in the woods. When they return, everything has been stolen or damaged.

Ion is not faring any better. His unit does have quite a few Macedonians but, gradually, they are killed off. Ion is horrified by the brutality of the various armies, as he sees the results of civilians brutalised, with looting, rape and murder. All people are evil in wartime, he laconically remarks. Ion is desperate to get some leave and go home. He is told by his commanding officer that, if he captures a Bulgarian and brings him back alive, he will get leave. Ion manages to do so and finds the Bulgarian very compliant, helping Ion get under the wire on the return journey. Ion is also surprised to find the Bulgarian speaks good Macedonian. Only when he gets him back into the light, does he realise that his prisoner is his brother, Mirche, who has returned from the USA and been dragooned into the Bulgarian army. Ion does not get his leave. He does, however, get wounded, a bullet in the leg. The doctor wants to amputate his leg but ends up only amputating a toe. After his recovery, he has to return to the front.

The war does end but all is not well. Ion is naturally devastated when he returns home to find all his children dead and blames Velika. The hated Bulgarians have been replaced by the hated Serbs as their occupiers. Ion suffers from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder and takes to drinking heavily. The villagers find that they have to change their names to Serbian forms. Ion, for example, is now called Jovan. The Serbians ill-treat the villagers but Ion manages to get in with the police. One day, he is called into the police station but they all start drinking and drink solidly for the whole day. Ion totters out and, on the way home, falls into the snow and falls asleep. He does not awake. Roden is born shortly afterwards.

Andreevski does not hold back on the brutality, violence and suffering of his people and nor does he hold back on whom he considers is to blame – the Serbs and the Bulgarians. Both Ion and Velika suffer terribly, as do many other of their fellow villagers and fellow Macedonians. They have to fight a war which is not their war and merely replaces one nasty oppressor with another. Indeed, there are Macedonians on both sides, generally recruited unwillingly into whichever army happens to be passing through the village. The Komitadjis still continue and, indeed, they threaten to kill Velika more than once because her husband is fighting on the wrong side. As it is during the period after her children have died, she is indifferent and she encourages them to kill her and they back off. This is not a happy novel but it has become a key novel in Macedonian literature and is still very much read in Macedonia..

Publishing history

First published by Misla in 1980
First English translation by Pollitecon Publications, New South Wales in 2009
Translated by Mirjana Simjanovska and Will Firth