Every once in a while, a title pops up in the search for Road Works Books that fits the bill exactly. Starling Lawrence’s Montenegro (1997) is that book for travel in the country just south of Croatia. As with Croatia, Montenegro had been part of Tito’s Yugoslavia; in 1992 during the dissolution, Montenegro remained within Yugoslavia, along with the Republic of Serbia. In 2006, Montenegro split from this alliance and became an independent state. Montenegro is so named for its very dark forests that cover its mountains. Its history is also dark with contested borders that came about with conquests around it: Ottomans, Venetians, Austrians, French.
The complicated relationships among these Slavic areas (Yugoslavia means south Slav) is illuminated through Lawrence’s novel, which focuses on one family and takes place prior to World War I in 1908. But the narrative begins in Connecticut in 1988 as Toma/Thomas lies dying, recalling how events conspired to bring him to America through his mother’s vision of removing him from a life of sectarian conflict and probable early death.
Toma is the only surviving son of the Pekocevic family, headed by the war hero Danilo. The patriarch has engaged in many battles with the Turks and displays the heads of his enemies on pikes in the outer reaches of the family compound to demonstrate his prowess—and to cow future adversaries. A Romeo and Juliet style romance is the undoing of Toma’s family. (Montenegro is largely Orthodox while Croatia is Roman Catholic, and Bosnia is primarily Muslim.)
Into this mix, rides Auberon Harwell, a young English gentleman sent on a mission to assess the area’s political situation while posing as a botanist. He arrives in Cattaro (the present day Kotor, and there begins his rather naïve journey to the mountain valley where the Montenegrins live on the border with the Turks. The two dozen hairpin turns that Harwell must navigate are still visible above Kotor. I counted these while sitting on a park bench eating the very fine local olives and strawberries from the market. A side note, given the earlier visit to Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia: Harwell passes through Dukle/Doclea, the purported birthplace of the Emperor Diocletian.
What is helpful to the modern reader who has difficulty understanding the strife among these countries is the “Idea of the Great Serbia,” a kingdom that brings together all Slavic areas, with Montenegro as its heart. Harwell notes that this glorious idea lies in a previous state that is more than 500 years old but seems as though it were yesterday for the Serbs. This deep-seated belief in a united state explains much about why these countries have engaged in conflict, most recently in 1991-1995 in the “homeland” wars. The quest to be members in the European Union (EU) means that on the surface, the governments are to lay aside past conflicts and be friendly. For some, it is difficult to forget.
The family farm compound where we enjoyed a Dalmatian platter of prosciutto (aged at least 18 months in the smokehouse), cheese, and wine featured framed photographs of the buildings with their roofs destroyed by Montenegrin bombs. The walk we took along the Herceg Novi promenade featured a spray painted sign “Kosovo is Serbia.”
The novel Montenegro is one of those books that I would never have picked up casually, if not for a visit to the country itself. That would have been a loss as it is an intriguing story–if at times difficult for its tragic turns–that is written with style and grace.