In his English translation of The Battle of Kosovo, John Matthias commends his co-translator, Vladeta Vučković, and offers this passage from Vučković’s modern poem about Serbian legend and history:
The Serbs quieted down, but they did not shut their mouths. Idled by the time on their hands they started to sing and sang themselves hoarse in endless poems accompanied by the mourning sounds of the sobbing gusle. The blind guslars gazed into the future, and those who could see covered themselves out of shame and became the leaders of the blind. But what kind of music is this, my poor soul, reduced to just one string!
I was inspired to hunt for this gloomy passage after the Guardian reported that prior to his capture on Monday, Radovan Karadžić liked to jam on the gusle in a Belgrade pub:
In retrospect, it is hardly surprising it was his favourite pub. The walls and bar of the Luda Kuca (the name means madhouse) are adorned with the Serb pantheon – Slobodan Milosevic, Vojislav Seselj, Ratko Mladic and of course, Radovan Karadzic – each one a nationalist hero. For the hardline clientele, the fact that they also shared the distinction of having been charged by The Hague war crimes tribunal only enhanced their status as warriors.
There were many stories being told yesterday about the man the locals knew as Doctor David, psychiatrist holistic health guru and mystic. But one winter’s night in particular was passing speedily into folklore.
That night, there was a jamming session on the gusle, the one-string fiddle played across the Balkans to accompany epic poetry. Dabic turned up to listen and was eventually persuaded to join in. Those present that night shook their heads yesterday in disbelief at the memory. There was Radovan Karadzic, their hero and icon, playing the gusle for them under his own portrait, and no one had a clue who he was. It was the stuff of legend.
Raso Vucinic, a young Serb nationalist who had been playing the gusle that night, was burnishing a tale he would one day tell his grandchildren.
Balkan epic poems are a gift to the world. Early in the 20th century, recorded performances of epics such as The Wedding of Smailagić Meho helped a generation of scholars better understand the compositional techniques behind Beowulf and other medieval works, and the surviving fragments of the Kosovo cycle are tinged with wistful eloquence. The stories they tell are exciting and sad—but these songs can’t be sung in a vacuum.
Five years ago, while visiting Serbian friends, I found myself in an ancient city on the Montenegrin coast. To escape the midday sun, we ducked into a run-down shop full of pirated software and used compact discs. On a high shelf, safe behind glass, was a special item: a cassette case adorned with a somber portrait of Slobodan Milošević. My host squinted at the title and explained, ruefully, that the cassette was a recording of epic poems lamenting the tragic downfall of Milošević, performed in the traditional manner and set to the screech of the gusle. It wasn’t on sale for its philological interest.
Karadžić, by contrast, composed his own tale. In 1992, for the benefit of documentarians, he played the gusle in the house of his 19th-century forefather Vuk Karadžić, a philologist whose work gave Serbian nationalists something to sing about. A poet himself, Radovan knew that moving incognito among his own people as a bearded mystic would be reminiscent of epic, a motif so cleverly adapted that even his own capture would make for a beguiling story.
Medievalists, take note: sometimes, this is how epic heroes are made, under conditions so ugly that lawyers start to wonder whether poetry can be a war crime. If nothing else, the long-overdue capture of Karadžić, dramatic though it is, refutes that old Joseph Campbell baloney: sometimes the hero has only two faces, and neither one is really worth a damn.