Heather McRobie won the Helene du Coudray Undergraduate Novel Prize for her first book, Psalm 119. It tells the story of three very different students whose efforts to bring aid to the Middle East - by setting up a library in Palestine – are marred by their complicated relationships with each other. It is cynical in its condemnation of ‘conflict tourists’. The book is also laced with quotes from the Song of Songs, and passages of the Persian poet Rumi. One or two critics found the novel over-ambitious, but McRobie shows no sign of lowering her sights. She is now in Sarajevo, at work on book number two: a novel that will take in both Radovan Karadzic – at present desperately postponing his trial for war crimes during the Serbian genocide of 1994 – and his namesake, 19th-century philologist Vuk Karadzic.
Why these two figures, and why now? It turns out that Vuk Karadzic, while not related to Radovan, is not unknown to him. As well as consolidating the identity of the Serbian language by bringing it more into line with popular speech (and further from Church Slavonic), Vuk Karadzic standardised Serbian Cyrillic and translated the New Testament into Serbian. A champion of folklore, he also compiled songs, stories and proverbs. Singlehandedly, he gave the new Serbian nation a much-needed linguistic signature. And the importance of national identity in Radovan Karadzic’s killing sprees hardly needs stressing. He would recite poetry to is troops before they began – poetry that drew on those same folk myths which Vuk Karadzic had inadvertenty helped to revive.
Philology, nationalism, poetry and massacre. A rather heavy load for a novel? What is the focus? “The theme I guess I’m trying to draw on is myth-makers, self-mythology and the potential abuse of myth,” says McRobie. “Vuk Karadzic is really fascinating, as he was involved in everything from the rebellion against the Ottomans to the pan-Slav/Croatian Illyrian movement. He’s a mix of a Balkan Goethe with Byron and the Grimm brothers.”
Vuk Karadzic was part of the great spread of nation-building in Europe in the 19th century – a movement in which cultural claims were as important as birthplace. National borders, those shaky political pencil lines, were to be reinforced with incontestable proof of nationhood after the Ottoman Empire fell. And history couldn't be clearer on the fact that claims over territory are highly subjective. The historian Norman Davies goes some way further in his landmark book, Europe: ‘Where facts could not be found, recourse had to be made to myth or to downright invention [...] Anything of universal interest was ignored. Anything that reflected discredit on the nation, or credit on its foes, was passed over.’
Rebuilding a continent would certainly require creativity, and perhaps this explains the overlap with the arts. McRobie finds it “compelling - if disturbing - that Radovan Karadzic was first known as a poet. He's won some of the Soviet Union's and Yugoslavia's highest poetry prizes, and he's a bestseller in Greece! He always romanticised himself as a poet-warrior – there is some very disturbing footage of him and the Russian ‘poet’ Limonov reciting poetry between rounds of firing onto Sarajevo in 1992.”
As in Psalm 119, McRobie wants to shock us out of a comfortable assumption. In the first book, supposedly intelligent characters are exposed as selfish, with bogus politics. They relish conflict, in fact: ‘They were frivolously happy in a peaceful country, despite all their best efforts to the contrary.’ The myths and histories of foreign cultures are appropriated and abused. “In modern & post-modern literature, we get very cosy with the idea of ‘myth’ as something to celebrate, as though it is an antidote to patriarchal or western historical ‘fact’, and dead-white-man history.” McRobie calls this a “comfort zone”, something we need to get away from in favour of those historical facts. “Srebrenica is a fact, the Holocaust is a fact; maybe 'myth' is just a quaint word for ‘lie’.” She is studying for her third degree while writing this book, and one gets the impression that she has heard one too many over-intellectualised abstractions about conflicts that are all too real, and far from academic.
McRobie sidesteps the idea that she might have a ‘project’, but to me it seems focussed and highly developed. She wants an end to lazy pluralities of meaning – to do away with supposed debates around what are in fact incontestable truths of history. Hence her hatred of post-structuralism, with its rejection of direct interpretation – it has landed the generation now in their twenties (hers) with “sacred cows who are still allowed to position themselves as cow-slayers.” This has left young writers “paralysed” – “it’s hard to watch the most intelligent people I know spend their twenties and thirties just riffing endlessly on 25 year-old melodies”, she says. Literature is not an abstract art form, and cannot excuse itself of meaning for that reason. The challenge she makes to herself and her stumbling peers is to “recognise the new cliches, the cliches we still pretend are subversive.” She is more optimistic than she perhaps realises, though: when asked directly what she thinks is missing from the literary landscape, she says she doesn't know, because she always finds too many things she wants to read. So perhaps even the clever-clever post-structuralists can take a breath. “There's still much more to love than to rant about.”