Cadmus Press is a small publisher focusing on relatively little-known works from Eastern Europe, and while I haven’t been able to get around to all the books they’ve sent me, I have enjoyed a couple. Recently, though, one landed in my letter box, a novel that stood out for a couple of reasons. One was the intriguing setting, while the other was the mention of a very familar name in the title, with a well-known Australian writer ending up in the unlikeliest of places – and would you believe that it’s (partly) true?
Ivan Čapovski’s The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan (translated by Paul Filev) takes us to Macedonia in 1917, a country torn into pieces and plunged into a seemingly endless conflict, one of the major fronts of the First World War. However, as you may have gathered from the title, our guide to the novel’s events is no local, but the famous Australian writer Miles Franklin (née Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin), the woman who lends her name both to Australia’s most prestigious literary prize (the Miles Franklin Award) and to a newer award for women’s writing (the Stella Prize). The start of the novel has the Australian arriving in the small town of Ostrovo, ready to be taken to her destination, the Scottish Women’s Hospital near the titular Mount Kajmakčalan, where she is to volunteer as a nurse.
If that all sounds a little far fetched, I’m afraid you’ve got a surprise coming. After the success of her debut novel My Brilliant Career, the writer and feminist pretty much fled Australia, spending time as a campaigner for women’s rights in both the US and the UK. However, her writing career didn’t go as smoothly as she’d hoped, and by the time fate brought her to Macedonia, she was at a crossroads in her artistic life – and it’s this period that Čapovski examines in his book.
His novel initially focuses on Miles Franklin, a privileged stranger dropped into the middle of a war zone. With her writer’s eye, she soon sketches out images of war-time conditions, reflecting on how ignorant most people are of what’s going on in these beautiful mountains:
Does life really flow here? Why are there no photographs of these living graveyards in the European newspapers? She is sure the generals and field marshalls are well informed about how things stand on this lifeless mountain. But there’s one thing she can’t work out: those generals, who at this very moment are somewhere drinking champagne, playing Russian roulette with people’s lives – could they spend even one night in squalid mountain shelters beside freshly dug graves covered with stones and wooden crosses?
p.76 (Cadmus Press, 2020)
She’s come to Macedonia to work as a nurse taking care of wounded soldiers, but she’s often to be found wandering off to explore the surrounding villages, driven by an interest in the people, the customs and the stories she hears from those she meets.
Despite the novel’s title, Miles Franklin isn’t quite as prominent as you’d expect, acting more as a thread tying various stories together. Much of the book describes the experiences of those she encounters, such as her assistant Lina Sorovičeva, and her grandfather, Vojna, whose lives have been affected by war, and whose loved ones are either sick or missing. Another strand follows Andon Meglen, a forced labourer on the run after attacking a soldier who mistreated his wife and caused the death of his son.
These stories are all a result of history, in particular the partition of Macedonia between Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece after the first Balkan Wars. The mountainous region serving as a setting for the book is a new border district where there were previously no borders, and this is reflected in the tale of perhaps the two main characters. Srebren Moravin, a Serbian Macedonian, and Jasen Krstanov, a Bulgarian Macedonian, are two men with a love of the arts who knew each other before the war, but fate has placed them on opposite sides of the conflict. Having stalked each other through the mountains, the two end up at the hospital, where they simmer in a strange mix of enmity and fellowship. Neither really wants to kill the other, but both know that as long as the war continues, it’s their fate to continually hunt each other, and possibly inflict a mortal wound…
The many stories come together in a slightly messy way, with the writer taking us from one to the next with little fanfare. Sometimes they combine, usually they strike off alone, and we’re occasionally confused further by the dreams and fantasies that interrupt the more realistic action. Early on, we see Miles Franklin riding along a rural road only to discover things are not as they seem:
She has spent much of her time alone on the road, even when the roads were streets and avenues. Oh, but look! There’s a familiar winding road. A lush green road, not black and bloodied like the one here in Macedonia. She is walking through the bush in Brindabella, hurrying to reach her uncle Thomas’s beautiful house surrounded by flowers, to work with her cousins. (p.70)
It’s not only her childhood that the Australian reflects on, with the occasional look back at life in Chicago and London. As she roams the Macedonian countryside, she can’t help wondering where her ‘brilliant career’ went wrong, and how she can make it right again.
As interesting as all this is, I’m not convinced that The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan is entirely successful, and while you can see what Čapovski’s trying to do in flitting between Miles Franklin’s story and those of the people she encounters, it doesn’t always work. In effect, there are two books in one here, one exploring the writer’s time in Macedonia, with the other examining the tragic fate that has befallen the locals. The role of the Australian seems to be to tie all the stories together, but it’s not really necessary as the mere setting of the hospital would have done this. For me, there’s a constant feeling that the two stories are acting against each other, with the reader pulled away from one to return to the other, never really satisfied that either part is being done justice.
Nevertheless, both of the strands contained in The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan are interesting and enjoyable in their own right (even if Čapovski does take a few liberties in suggesting major Macedonian influences on Miles Franklin’s later work…). The author doesn’t quite succeed in bringing all his ideas together smoothly, but his book still makes for a fascinating story of an underlooked facet of WWI, and an intriguing look at a writer whose life was just as varied, and enthralling, as her fiction.