Slavko Janevski: Чудотворци (Miracle Workers)
Janevski’s novel, set primarily in the eighteenth century, is divided into three parts. The first part is called Characters before the event. In this section, Janevski introduces us to his main characters. But this is no conventional realist exposition. Though the characters live in the Macedonian village of Kukulino, a small village where most people are farmers and most Christians, despite the recent takeover by the Turks, and though most of them are apparently quite ordinary, in fact many of them are touched by some magic, sometimes positive, often negative. We start with Eremija Sidor. As a young man, he had fought with the rebel Karpoš against the Turks. When Karpoš was captured and brutally killed by the Turks, it was Eremija who had sung in praise of him beneath his hanging body. The Turks determined to capture the singer but failed to do so. As a result Eremija was made a village elder and had remained so till the start of this story. He had made the mistake of lying down in the forest and the herb kopiden, also known as the devil’s herb, has grown as he lay there. When this happens, the person lying on it loses his memory and this, indeed, is what happened to Eremija. He became slow-witted and his neighbours were able to take advantage of him. His eldest son, Zafir the Owl, also was somewhat insane. When a child he had found a giant egg. As a result of touching it, he could no longer feel pain but was unable to find the egg again. He became disconnected, doing the minimum of work on the farm, and spent much of his time wandering around, often Filip’s away from home. His wife, Neva, and his brother, Filip the Twin (his twin brother had died at birth) did all the work.
Filip the Twin had some magical powers and managed to save the village when it caught fire. Neva had fiery eyes which frightened Zafir and others. A beetle used to hover around her face and this made children sick. With Zafir often absent, she has an affair with Filip and this continues, despite Filip’s subsequent marriage. Filip will marry Anise, the daughter of the priest Angelarij. Before becoming a priest, he had travelled around Asia Minor. He was obsessed with the letter A. He called himself Ashurbanipal, christened all the children born in his parish with strange names beginning with the letter A and even builds a monument made up of the letter A. Anise is also a miracle worker. She cures a young child and then, a year later, a young bride. She will continue to make minor cures. Vir is an ageless man. He had come some one or two hundred years ago from some nowhere, maybe the land of Prester John or somewhere else. He does not remember. He does know that he found himself on a spit of land between two seas, with two ships shooting fire balls at one another. This prefigures the Battle of Crete of 1669. He later makes his way to Kukulino, where he will not speak till his death, when he says Maybe we will return one day.
After the introduction of his characters, Janevski moves to a chapter called Events before the end, set in 1719. In earlier times, Rasko Durgut had tried to bring the people back to God, after the Turkish invasion. One day, he disappeared. He was found dead five months later, his body perfectly preserved in a cave. It remained preserved for the week prior to his burial. His grandson was called Bane and he became a bandit, attacking Turkish villages. He had once been engaged to Neva and now returns to the village to reclaim her. His old house is now occupied by Vir but he moves in with him. It is he who bring Filip and Anise together but his main action is to take over the thieves’ market, claiming it once belonged to his family. He is challenged by a Turk, a former wrestler, Daut Abdush, who claims he was granted it by the sultan. Bane beats him off but Daut puts together an army of brigands, bribed, in some cases, Muslim faithful in others and attacks the village. Some people manage to flee in advance. Others are killed. A group of men, led by Bane and including Filip, Vir, Zafir and others flee and form a rebel group. The authorities tell the villagers that they should convert to Islam to avoid further attacks and promise to reduce their taxes to encourage them. When they do not convert, Daut plans a further attack but this time the rebels are ready and repulse the attack and kill Daut and other attackers. They are now complete outlaws.
The final chapter is called The End Before Oblivion and recounts, year by year, subsequent events in the village, up to the last miracle worker, Miron, son of Filip and Neva. The village is hit by bad times – people get ill and die, there is a plague of locusts, famine, abduction of villagers to serve in the army and the gradual death of the rebels, often violently, when they are caught by the army or others. There are also miracles – a strange light, a woman who flies and a man hatching from an egg. There are also some good times – good harvests, children born – but the village is cursed and the memories will soon disappear.
Janevski tells a beautiful story, full of magic and myth and legend. This is an ordinary village but it is also an extraordinary village, visited by strange people and strange phenomena but also caught up in history, specifically the Ottoman Empire. For Janevski a people must thrive on its myths and legends and must remember them for, without them, it loses its soul. He is trying to give Macedonia back its soul.
First published by Makedonska Kniga in 1989
First English translation by Detska Radost in 1997
Translated by Zoran Ančevski and David Bowen