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Miloš Crnjanski: Roman o Londonu (Novel of London)

Miloš Crnjanski and his wife fled to London in World War II, where life was not always easy for them. Even though the hero of our novel is Russian and had fought against the Bolsheviks, this novel is clearly autobiographical and based on Crnjanski’s own situation.

The novel starts in late 1947, in London. However, our hero Prince Nikolai Rodionovich Repnin has long since left Russia. He himself says that he is not really a prince but seems to have that title. Nadia, his wife, is the daughter of a princess.

Repnin and his wife left Russia (Crimea) in 1922. They have since lived in various places, particularly Italy, France and Portugal. They had first fled the Bolsheviks and then World War II. Now, of course, they are keeping away from the Communists. They know that they cannot return to Russia. They have had no news of their families and have no idea whether they are dead or alive.

Initially, they survived fairly well, gradually selling off valuables and also getting jobs. However, times are getting harder. They have run out of all but a few items of value (her clothes) and Nikolai is finding it difficult to get a job, not least because he is not sure whether he is allowed to work in Britain.

We first meet him and his wife, Nadia, in late 1947. They are living in Mill Hill, a district of London which, as Repnin tells us, is not on any large maps of England. Indeed, most Londoners will only know of it, as Mill Hill East is a terminus on the tube. I think that I can safely say that this is the only Serbian novel set in Mill Hill, though not the only novel set there.

Nikolai traipses into London every day in the hope of finding a job. He comments in some detail on the horrors of travelling on a crowded tube and mocks the English, who push past him to get a seat and then say So sorry. He faces not only the difficulty of finding a job, when there was relatively little employment after the war but also whether he is allowed to work. He goes around various official bodies,trying to find whether, as a displaced person he can get a work permit, only to find, eventually, that he does not need one.

They face a host of other problems. Rationing is still very much in force. The winter is bitterly cold. The pipes burst. They have medical and dental problems. They find the English difficult to cope with. Initially they get on with their neighbours, Mr and Mrs Green and Mr and Mrs Christmas (they mock both names) but fall out over what seems to them trivial issues. They find the English unfailingly polite superficially but, as on the tube, they are often actually rude and standoffish.

The English are also racist. The British always want to know how much is someone worth but for them Russian immigrants are worth nothing. They are often taken for Poles and the local tradesmen call him the Cossack and call her our Polish mermaid, primarily because there are relatively few Russians in London but a lot of Poles. Indeed, Nikolai had worked with the Poles in Paris, speaks some Polish and has some sort of official status with them.

Both fall into depression and he considers suicide several times. She encourages him to contact the various aid organisations, which exist to help Russian and Polish immigrants and also to contact some of the Russians he had met previously, but he is reluctant to do so, fearing any contact with people. Indeed, since they have fallen on hard times, it seems that former friends have abandoned them.

He does sort out his work permit and gets a job as a cashier for a Belgian tailor. (C’est drôle, l’Angleterre, says the Belgian manager). He is not very happy there, though the other employees, mainly Italian, are very nice to him.

A Polish man, Ordinski, takes him up and tries to get him to meet people, particularly people who might find him employment and while there are some suggestions – perhaps writing book on the murder of Tsar or a detective novel – there is nothing concrete.

Nadia has to go to hospital and he manages to get a free holiday in Cornwall, at a place for Polish and Russian immigrants. He enjoys sea bathing but does not get on with the others and soon spends his time in his room, reading.

On return, the people he had met try to keep in touch with him but he is not interested. Things get worse when the Belgian tailors are facing economic hardship and he loses his job. He does find another one, working for a bookshop as a collector (the English term is used in the original.) (Crnjanski worked for Hatchards and from the description of the location of this bookshop, it does seem to be Hatchards.) His job is to collect books from publishers and take then to the bookshop. This is particularly for those who want a book as soon as it is published.

It does not work out well, as he works hard and finishes early and is given other tasks. The other collectors, who are essentially lazy, fear that he is showing them up and also doing work for which there should be separate pay.

He drifts around, finding and losing different jobs. Various people try and help him but that does not work out, either. Nadia decides to go to the United States, where she has an aunt, with a view to getting a visa for him to come and join her.

Crnjanski really drives home in this novel the loneliness of exile. The original Serbian book was over seven hundred pages long and while we do follow the stories of Nikolai and Nadia, all too often, it is the same problems that keep recurring. He cannot fit in, particularly with the English but also with the Poles and his fellow Russians.

Most of the Russians in London, all Tsarists of course, hate the Communists with a passion and feel that they should and could be driven out. Often they are horrified by his views. Though he does not like the Communists any more than they do, he fully accepts that they are Russians, that they created an army and that they saved Russia from the Germans. He is also glad that the fighting has stopped and that more Russians are not being killed. (He is presumably unaware of Stalin’s purges.). These views are anathema to his fellow Russians.

As regards Nikolai, he continually feels useless, unable to do a real job (or what he sees as a real job), seemingly permanently depressed, unable to fit in, hating England and not being too fond of the English, unable to adapt to his changing circumstances and concerned that Nadia, ten years his junior, is wasting her time with him.

It is a sad tale, though does bring home the travails of forced exile and how the loss of one’s homeland can bring acute sadness. the book has not been translated into English though, interestingly, at the time of writing (2019), it has just appeared in Italian translation, some forty-eight years after it first appeared in Serbian.

Publishing history

First published in 1971 by Nolit, Belgrade
First English publication in 2020 by Diálogos, New Orleans
Translated by Will Firth