Reading Nabokov in Kosovo
Fiona Zeka is an English Language and Literature undergraduate at the University of Oxford.
‘Why do you speak of words
When all we want is knowledge nicely browned?’
Vladimir Nabokov, ‘An Evening of Russian Poetry’
Being bilingual, for me, has always meant more than just being able to talk two languages. Over the years, I have tried to balance speaking English alongside my mother tongue, Albanian. Although I love English – so much so I study it at university - I will always have a soft spot for the latter. Not only is it a beautiful language, but it was the language of my childhood, and is the language of my country, Kosovo.
In my adulthood, I have become deeply interested in language and its role in conflict and conflict-resolution. The suppression of language has often been used as a weapon of war, as in past contexts like occupied Kosovo, and occupied regions of Ukraine today, where the Kremlin has prohibited schooling in Ukrainian. Preserving multilingualism is crucial to peaceful intercommunity relations; in the same vein, attempting to impose monolingualism and erase other languages is emblematic of disdain for the cultures they belong to and sustain.
Given the central role of language in the preservation of group identity, it is clear why it is targeted leading up to and during conflict. It is a card played by both sides; in the words of Abdeljalil Akkari, the ‘act of repossessing public use of native languages was a leitmotif in many national liberation movements’. With the histories of oppression and subsequent liberation movements in the Balkans, language usage is heavily politicised and entrenched in sites of past conflicts.
Preserving multilingualism is crucial to peaceful intercommunity relations; in the same vein, attempting to impose monolingualism and erase other languages is emblematic of disdain for the cultures they belong to and sustain.
Language has long been a point of tension in Kosovo, where the two ethno-linguistic groups of Kosovar Serbians and Kosovar Albanians stand at cross-roads. For many Kosovar Albanians, speaking Albanian is an act of protest against historical oppression. Language suppression from the early twentieth century is referenced in the background brief to the 1998-9 Kosovo War issued by the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA), indicating how powerful language rights were as one of the underlying causes of the conflict. After the interwar Yugoslav kingdom was declared in 1918, Kosovo's majority-Albanian population were not treated as equal to other Yugoslav citizens. As detailed in the AUSA brief, Albanian-language schools and newspapers were suppressed and ‘Yugoslavia held that the Albanians were not a national minority but Albanian-speaking Serbs’. A similar situation continued through the post-war socialist federation of Yugoslavia. Later in the century, after the September 1991 referendum wherein 87% of the Kosovan population voted in favour of independence from the new state of Serbia, language was employed as a political tool to suppress the independence movement in Kosovo. Aside from deploying a heavy police force to Kosovo and firing tens of thousands of Albanian employees, the Serbian government responded by ‘banning the teaching of the Albanian language’. Many Albanian teachers had their pay withheld and resorted to teaching Albanian classes in secret.
Because of this history, there has been little interest within Kosovo to learn Serbian or many other Slavic languages, and vice-versa for Serbs learning Albanian. However, language is pivotal in cultural exchange, and multilingualism is the key to post-war social progression. Despite the troubled past between the two countries, in recent years multilingualism has been growing, reflecting a positive shift in intercommunity relations, particularly amongst the youth. Young Serbians and young Kosovar-Albanians are showing more and more interest in learning each other’s languages. Aid Kelmendi, one of the young Albanians learning Serbian, explained that he wants to ‘break the mentality that the Serbian language is a taboo among Albanians’.
Throughout the Western Balkans, there has been increasing dialogue between young people, a trend supported by the Regional Youth Cooperation Office’s (RYCO) exchange programmes. The RYCO empowers schools to engage in collaborative efforts and hold youth exchange programs. The organisation’s support from relevant ministries, as well as its institutional framework, lays a robust foundation for co-operation between different groups in the region. The shifting cultural paradigm in the Western Balkans is symbolised by Aid Kelmendi’s testimony, as well as that of a RYCO exchange student, with the latter saying, ‘This exchange means a lot to me. It helped me break down the religious prejudices I had before attending. I was also afraid of language barriers. But, only 10 minutes after meeting my peers from Skopje, I realised that there are no differences between us.’ Such work is furthered by the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), an NGO dedicated to fostering positive and communicative relationships among young individuals throughout the Balkans. The organisation's exchange programs give youth from Serbia and Kosovo a chance to experience each other's nations; for many, it is the first chance they have been given.
Educational establishments in wartime are often compromised or attacked. Post-war, they can be vital in peace-making and reconciliation. Language-learning, then, is an important means of extending care and respect for a different culture and country.
Diplomacy is all about communication, and encouraging the youth from across the Western Balkans to engage in intercultural learning is a crucial step towards cementing peace. In Kosovo and Serbia, this has expanded from an informal movement to formal educational establishments, with the Dean of the University of Pristina noticing an increased interest in Slavic languages, and agreeing to a mutual lectorat where Albanian is to be taught in Zagreb and Croatian in Pristina. In Belgrade, an independent cultural association called the Albanian Cultural Club was established in 2016, aiming to strengthen the understanding of Albanian language, culture and practices, including a language course which has received encouraging responses. Educational establishments in wartime are often compromised or attacked. Post-war, they can be vital in peace-making and reconciliation. Language-learning, then, is an important means of extending care and respect for a different culture and country.
This is where Nabokov comes in. One summer evening, I picked up a selection of his poems. I knew of Nabokov as one of the great Russian writers, but I had never personally engaged with his work. At that moment, I came across his poem ‘An Evening of Russian Poetry’, written in 1945 and published in The New Yorker. Reading it was moving enough – listening to an audio of Nabokov reading it aloud in front of an English audience in 1958 charged the poem with even more emotional depth. The poem is a dialogue set in one such educational institution; it’s a dialogue between a Russian professor and the students of an English department he is visiting, who interrupt him with eager questions about how Russian differs from English.
Translation between Russian and English in the poem feels tense – painful, yet necessary for the educational purposes the poem’s context demands. Throughout the poem, he constantly falls back on Russian; sometimes didactically, but also sometimes introspectively, as when he speaks of the ‘customary twins/ in Russian as in other tongues’, where ‘love automatically rhymes with blood, nature with liberty, sadness with distance’. When he reads out ‘sadness’, he pauses and gives the Russian word, pechal. As a writer of exile himself, this is a striking moment of grief. ‘Distance’ from his native land rhymes with his sadness; they are paired together, so much so that the word ‘sadness’ must be expressed in his native tongue.
With the invasion of Ukraine, engaging with Russian literature or playing music from Russian composers has been associated with political allegiance and complicity. Though it is difficult to separate literature from politics, it is also important not to let political conflict hamper or prevent intercultural learning, as it is this learning that will help relations between conflicting communities progress in the long-term.
After reading this, I was surprised not to have encountered Nabokov’s poetry before. His poem spoke so well to feelings of displacement amongst Kosovo’s diaspora, as well as to the struggle in maintaining two linguistic identities. I spent some time researching literary curricula in Kosovo, and though teachers can teach beyond the curriculum, the only references to Nabokov I’ve seen have been in a couple of published thesis papers. When looking into Albanian translations of Nabokov, I could only find a 1995 edition of his debut novel, Mary. I hope that more translations of international works circulate as years go by, and that the movement for multilingualism continues to uplift education curricula in the Western Balkans so that students regularly encounter stories from different backgrounds. With the invasion of Ukraine, engaging with Russian literature or playing music from Russian composers has been associated with political allegiance and complicity. Though it is difficult to separate literature from politics, it is also important not to let political conflict hamper or prevent intercultural learning, as it is this learning that will help relations between conflicting communities progress in the long-term.
In a recent interview with RTK, Kosovo’s public service broadcaster, I was asked what I thought was the future of diplomacy in the region. I believe that language and literature play an important role in fostering positive diplomatic relations; the language used between state officials, the media, as well as the citizens of the conflicting countries. The recent organisational efforts in the Western Balkans to bridge together conflicting communities through language learning, from organisations such as the YIHR and RYCO, are impressive. Continuing to engage with diverse languages and literatures will pave the way towards empathy-building, and subsequently, improved co-operation.
At one point in ‘An Evening of Russian Poetry’, the Russian professor is asked ‘Why do you speak of words/ When all we want is knowledge nicely browned?’, to which he responds ‘Because all hangs together — shape and sound/ heather and honey, vessel and content.’ The very thing which brings us knowledge – the vessel, being words, or language – ‘hangs together’ with knowledge itself. Helping historically-conflicting communities, wherever in the world they may be, learn how to understand one another and communicate begins with the smallest of actions; reading a stranger’s poem, learning a new word.