Polish-Albanian perspective on Serbian epic poetry

Beograd_240311_Podkast_Muharem Bazdulj
Source: Kosovo Online

Writing for Kosovo Online: Muharem Bazdulj

The old Latin proverb says that "books have their own destiny." This expression ("Habent sua fata libelli" in the original) actually deals with the unpredictability of how a book will be received by the public, how noticeable it will be, and how much it will be valued. However, the same phrase can also be used in an individual or private context. We might buy a book before a train journey, for example, and then read it within the first few hours of purchasing it. And we might buy another book, leave it on the shelf, and almost forget about it for months or even years.

It's been several years since I bought the book "The Nation and Their Songs" by Rigels Halili. The book was published in Belgrade in 2016, as a part of the "Biblioteka XX vek" series. It is a translation from Polish into Serbian by Jelena Jovic. Until a week or two ago, I completely forgot about the book, but then I happened to see it, took it off the shelf, started flipping through it, pausing at a few sentences, and then returned to the beginning and began to read it all in order.

The name Rigels Halili probably doesn't sound very Polish, or even Slavic. Some might think it's a translation into Serbian from Polish. But no, the book was originally written in Polish, even though the author is ethnically Albanian. Namely, Halili was born in Gjirokaster in 1975, where he completed primary and secondary school, as well as started his undergraduate studies. He then received a scholarship from the Government of the Republic of Poland, moved to Warsaw, and earned his doctorate there as a thirty-four-year-old. After several years in Great Britain, he returned to Poland, where he initially worked as a university professor in Toruń, and later moved back to Warsaw to teach specialized studies on the Balkans and Balkan history.

The book "The Nation and Their Songs" bears the subtitle "Albanian and Serbian Folk Epic Between Orality and Literacy." Halili relies on the greatest authorities in his field, from Milman Parry, Cecil Baur, and Eric Havelock to Marshall McLuhan, Ruth Finnegan, and David Olson, to Albert Lord and Matija Murko. His unique position comes both from his broad erudition and polyglotism and from the fact that he personally comes from the world he writes about. For example, when analyzing the writings of Ismail Kadare, his profound understanding is clearly evident, not to mention the detail that Halili and Kadare "share" a hometown.

In the 1990s, when Western media were filled with news of the brutal crimes accompanying the wars for the Yugoslav heritage, experts on the Balkans and South Slavic literature had their moment of fame. One of the most bizarre insights that was once fashionable concerned the supposed connection between motifs from (predominantly) Serbian folk literature and the crimes of the 1990s. Not only did folk literature suffer in these analyses, but writers like Njegos and Vasko Popa were also negatively emphasized.

Halili never falls into that trap. He doesn't even take a "fanatical" stance in the context of the ethnic "attribution" of cultural heritage. Another virtue of his writing is that he skillfully "mediates" his vast expertise to laypersons. Some of his summaries regarding Serbian folk epic could almost be used without any changes as accompanying texts in high school textbooks.

In the preface to the Serbian edition, the author also writes about his learning of the Serbian language: "I first came to Serbia in 2005, with the wholehearted assistance of Prof. Ljubinka Trgovcevic, upon whose invitation I subsequently had the opportunity to lecture to students at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade, on several occasions. My friend, Ivana Stojanovic, whose family suffered greatly during the armed conflict in Kosovo, often hosted me in Belgrade. When I was reading literature and other materials in the National Library of Serbia in the winter of 2005-2006, I stayed with Svetlana Bogojevic and her husband Radomir, becoming close with them and their sons, Uros and Vaso. Svetlana is most responsible for my starting to learn the Serbian language, and although I am convinced that she would now praise my progress in this regard, I feel that I still need a lot of effort to truly learn this language."

Considering the authority with which he writes about details from Serbian folk literature, one might say that Halili speaks too modestly about his command of the Serbian language. Nevertheless, judging by information from certain bookstores' websites, the book can now be purchased for 275 dinars (the original price was 900 dinars). There are few better and more meaningful ways to spend less than two and a half euros than by buying "The Nation and Their Songs."