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Miloš Crnjanski: Seobe (Migrations)

This novel is set in the mid eighteenth century during the War of the Austrian Succession and, specifically, during the 1744 campaign of that war. The issue involved the succession of Maria Theresa to the Habsburg Monarchy, specifically her alleged ineligibility to succeed to the hereditary lands of her father, Emperor Charles VI, because Salic law precluded royal inheritance by a woman. The war involved most of the key countries of Europe (including but not limited to England, France, Austria, Prussia, Spain and, in part, Russia). During this period, Serbia was not an independent kingdom but parts were under Ottoman control and parts under Habsburg control.

Our hero is Vuk Isaković, a major in the Habsburg army, commanding a troop of Serbians. Most of the men have no real idea why they are fighting nor what for. Moreover, they are Orthodox by religion, while Maria Theresa, for whom they are actually fighting, was Catholic.

In this book, we follow them in the 1744 campaign, when they go from Osijek (in modern-day Croatia), up through Styria and Bavaria and to what is now the French-German border. They had been, in many cases, with their wives and children and now have to leave them behind. Vuk leaves his wife, Dafina, and their daughters, with his brother, Arandjel, in his house in Zemun (now part of Belgrade). Arandjel is a successful and often ruthless merchant. He is not married.

As is often the case, they have been told that the war would be short. It actually lasted eight years, ending in 1748. Vuk’s troop is something of an unruly mob. They are not averse to a bit of looting nor to dalliances with the local women. Vuk has been a soldier all of his adult life, not least because his father pushed him into it. However he has known no other life and quite enjoys the company of his soldiers. Indeed, though his marriage has, at least from his perspective, been relatively happy (she feels neglected), he is not a devoted husband or father. He is now starting to feel he has had enough and wants to settle down in Russia. This feeling will considerably exacerbate through the course of this book.

Their first major stop is in Pécs, in Hungary, where things start to go wrong. Firstly, the bishop and governor try to persuade him to convert to Catholicism, arguing that he cannot support and help Maria Theresa if he espouses another religion. It is his duty to lead his people to the light, to the radiance and to the light of Catholicism . He resists by getting seriously drunk.

Secondly, the men behave badly. Initially, mass punishment is suggested by his superiors but, in the end, one man who had raped a woman, is punished by running the gauntlet which could kill him. Vuk does not like his men receiving anything but minor punishments. We will particularly see this later, when some of his men are hanged for stealing apples.

While we are following the travels and travails of Vuk and his men, we are following what is happening in Zemun. Arandjel tends to look down somewhat on his brother, even though Arandjel is the younger one. He was not keen on Vuk being in the military and did not approve of his behaviour – drinking, gambling whoring and brawling. Indeed, it was he who persuaded Vuk to marry Dafina. Initially, Arandjel is fairly indifferent to Dafina but, gradually, he is attracted to her and even starts flirting with her. Dafina, however, prefers her husband. Their relationship is up and down but when they start living in the same house, while Vuk is with his troops, things change, especially when he almost drowns.

Dafina spends much time on her own – she is not a devoted mother – and has visions of a vengeful Vuk, while at the same time feeling that she was, for both brothers, merely an object, and fearing that it would be the same for her daughters.

Meanwhile, Vuk and his troops are plodding through Europe, en route to their destination and things are not going well. All of them are tired and they are often sick. All of them, officers and men, have long since stopped wondering where they are, where they are going and why. The matter is not helped by the fact that the other troops they meet up with very much look down on the Serbs, who get the worst food and the worst assignments.

Once the fighting starts he never knew which town he was attacking where to go when the attack was over. He did not know why or with whom and for whom he was fighting. Worse, everything before him was nothingness and a void…He had reached the brink of an abyss, a bottomless pit; he realised his life was over and he could not set it right.

Eventually the battle, however, is over, though no-one seems to be sure if they won or lost (or neither). They now have to trudge back home and even overwinter in Germany, where the men behave badly, while Vuk does not care and spends most of the time sleeping. All that was left of the regiment was this band of tramps and ragamuffins.

This is a very depressing novel but essentially has two themes. The first is that war is futile. There have been many novels where this idea has appeared but there cannot be many novels where the entire army, men and officers, are not sure where they are, what they are fighting for, whether they have won or lost, who the enemy is (in this case, it seems to be the French) and whether it matters.

The second theme is about Serbian nationality and it subservience to foreign powers, who, at best look down on the Serbs, but all too often brutalise them. (We learn this fact in this book when we hear about the Ottoman occupation). This book was published in 1929, when Serbia was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, though, for most of 1929, it was officially called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, becoming the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in October of 1929. The ruling dynasty, the Karađorđević dynasty, was, however, Serbian.

However, in the mid-eighteenth century, the Serbs were definitely subservient to the Turks and Habsburgs and clearly were not too happy about this, given their treatment. Like many other Central European ethnic groups, the Serbs had a chequered and generally unhappy history.

Crnjanski (the English-language version of this novel uses the name Tsernianski) clearly makes his point and writes very well, showing the depths of despair into which all the main characters sink, both those fighting and those at home. The abandoned spouses and children, the poverty and even evil spirits wandering the countryside are all features of the left-behind. No-one ends up happy just as no-one starts out happy. A sad but very effective novel.

Publishing history

First published in 1929 by Geca Kon
First English publication in 1994 by Harvill
Translated by Michael Henry Heim