Song of Kosovo is half galloping Bildungsroman, half treatise on the fraught interplay of truth, lies, and myth in what we end up calling history. Zavida Zankovic, a Serb press-ganged into paramilitary service, finds himself detained by a Kosovo Albanian warlord during the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia. He’s charged with, among other things, “conspiracy to conspire, impersonating a prisoner of war [and] crimes against humanity.” As he awaits interrogation he is variously comforted or assailed by childhood memories and ghostly visitations from Milos Obilic, a dead Serbian hero martyred at the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.
Amid detours into medieval Serbdom and its cast of warriors and Saint-Princes, we slip back a decade to the Zankovic family village, where we encounter Zavida’s volatile alchemist father, pious mother, and rivalrous brothers. Zankovic family anecdotes keep alive memories of injustice, including some spectacular atrocities at the hands of Fascist Croats. In a lighter (if less relevant) vein, we head off on a school trip to Moscow, where we are treated to a slapstick rescue of stuffed dogs from the Pavlov Museum.
The serious core of the book tackles the shame and agony of war. We’re reminded that NATO bombers were far too careless about collateral killing, and that Milosevic’s forces, and some Kosovars too, killed with single-minded brutality. In his fictionalizing of real wartime events and outcomes, Gudgeon might have taken more care to get the details right, especially in his asides about the Bosnian War, but the book’s final resonance has nothing to do with the simple marshalling of facts.
One night, as the bombs fall on Belgrade before Zavida is kidnapped into service, his girlfriend asks him why they are still fighting. His answer: “Because the Americans and Russians … are still in a pissing match, and Kosovo is their urinal.” The moment pinpoints the novel’s rage against corrupt leaders and global power plays, while the little people continue to die in their beds, their streets, and their barnyards.