The Balkans, America, and back, Cornelia Golna
Cornelia Golna is a writer and translator who lives in the Netherlands. She was born in Bucharest. Her mother was Romanian, and her father a Vlach from Greece who came to Romania in the period between the two world wars. Her parents managed to leave Romania in the 1950s, when Cornelia was seven months old. The family spent four years in a Greece afflicted by the post-war crisis, after which they immigrated to the US. There Cornelia obtained a master’s degree in the Classics from the University of Illinois. After her Master’s, she left for Europe with the intention of rediscovering her countries of origin, Romania and Greece. She lived in Romania toward the end of the 1970s, where she relearned her mother tongue, and met her future husband, Dutch translator and writer, Jan Willem Bos. Her novel, City of Man’s Desire, A Novel of Constantinople came out in 2004, and her second novel, Tainted Heroes, came out in 2017, both published in Holland by Go-Bos Press. The first novel was translated into Greek and Turkish, in Thessaloniki/Athens and Istanbul respectively, and enjoyed great success especially in Greece, where it remained on the best-sellers list for several months in 2007. Tainted Heroes was translated into Romanian by Mircea Bucurescu and published by Eikon Publishers in May 2019.
Cornelia Golna has translated works of literature and literary criticism from Romanian, Dutch, and French.
Sorin Ciutacu: I would like to say first of all that I am happy this interview will reach the Romanian public and wish to take this opportunity to welcome the publication of your second novel, Tainted Heroes in Romanian, under the title Eroi pătați. Thus, the Balkan theme is present here too, a theme you treated in your first novel, City of Man’s Desire. In Tainted Heroes, the action takes place in Macedonia in the years 1903-1908, the declining years of the Ottoman Empire, just as you placed the action in City of Man’s Desire in Istanbul in the year 1908. The time and place of the action in Tainted Heroes coincides with your intention of recuperating and saving the memory of the main character, Agathon Galan, who is modeled on your paternal grandfather, a Vlach political leader caught in the current of the political intrigues of those years. What is the genesis of the novel Tainted Heroes? The book is the result of a project you conceived to recreate, in fictional form, a part of your family’s fortunes. You wrote a beautiful novel, classical in structure and form, filled with narratorial empathy, sincerity, and authenticity. I recommend it warmly to all Romanian readers.
Cornelia Golna: For as far back as I can remember, I have lived under a dead man’s shadow, that of my grandfather. I knew about this grandfather, my father’s father, from the time I was small: A Vlach who was shot in front of the Greek consulate in Monastir – Bitola today, in North Macedonia: the great wrong done to my family. But who was he? I didn’t know. Nor was it clear to me why he was killed. My quest began with a great number of questions to which I did not know if I could find answers. For the Golna family, the death of my grandfather was a defining event, one that would change its destiny. Indeed, had he lived, his older sons would not have gone to America at so young an age to try to find a way to survive, and my father, his youngest son, would not have gone to Romania. And I would probably not even exist! My grandfather’s story is connected to a historical moment, not only of a region but of a people, its traditions and its memory. It is as if his fate prefigured the great changes in the history of the majority of Vlachs after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of national states in the Balkans. When these states came into being, and the borders surrounding them, economic conditions and their way of life changed for the Vlachs; for the shepherds who practiced transhumance, but also for the muleteers, those who transported goods, and for the merchants, it became harder, more complicated to practice their trades. The Vlach towns began to empty. Many Vlachs left the places where they were born, they lost their identity: they began to forget their language, became integrated in the new nation states, such as Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia. A large group moved to Romania, a country that offered them hospitality and acceptance, when other states demanded that they change their nationality, their language, their history.
Now please give us a short summary of the political situation in Macedonia in the period 1903-1908, caught as it was in the power struggle among the Balkan powers (Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece), to give the Romanian reader an idea of the motivations behind the actions and decisions taken by the character Agathon Galan.
In the period 1903-1908, Macedonia, an Ottoman province with its mixture of Slavic, Albanian, Turkish, Vlach, and Greek populations, was practically a theater of war. The Ottoman authorities were weak and corrupt, a situation that encouraged neighboring states, especially Bulgaria and Greece, to intervene, indirectly at first, through guerilla fighters, both locals and volunteers, whose ambition it was, ultimately, to conquer the province for their respective countries. The Vlachs, who lived scattered in the mountains and had no neighboring regional power to protect their interests, were divided too, between pro-Romanians and pro-Greeks, that is, between those who supported Romanian schools and identity and those who sided with the Greeks. Romania pled the case more than once at the Sublime Port of the Vlachs’ right to be recognized as a distinct people, without, however, being in a position to impose its views.
What is the rapport in the book between fiction and the realities of the period? I know that your novel is extremely well documented, that in your travels and in your readings you were able to discover many things about the place Moushata (modeled on your grandfather’s birthplace), about the region of Macedonia, and about the fates of the historical characters.
Without giving away all that happens in the novel, I can say that in a way, the situation then could be compared to what happened in Yugoslavia some quarter century ago – people and communities that had lived together in harmony and peace alongside each other for decades and even hundreds of years, suddenly found themselves in different camps. Not everything I wrote in the novel, however, is based upon uncontroverted fact. One example: Agathon becomes implicated in the politics of the times following the occupation of his town by rebels during the Ilinden Uprising in 1903, a preponderantly Slavic movement whose ideal was an independent multiethnic Macedonian federation. The moment and events fit perfectly, but their effect on the character Agathon is purely speculation on my part.
And this is how the novel starts, with speculation – Ilinden triggers the actions of the main character and all that is to follow. Indeed, I did very much research – I have a great respect for history and for facts. But in between facts there is also room for imagination – through the question, “why?” Why does a man make one decision and not another, and what will the consequences be of that decision? This is where literature, subjectivity, fiction come in.
I’d like to ask you now to tell us something about the real person behind Agathon Galan, your grandfather, and to describe the character’s dynamics, as he appears in his relations with other characters in the family and in the area. Would you describe him as a partially tragic character?
In a way, my grandfather is my creation on paper. I did not know him, as he died in 1908, half a century before I was born. Nor did my father know him, as he was only three months old when my grandfather died. It was for this reason that I gave him a fictional name, Agathon Galan. The person of my grandfather is lost in the mists of time. The most I could do was imagine how he was. I gathered all the facts I could about him – they weren’t many – and I used the few anecdotes that were still told about him in the family. I studied the history of the times in which he lived, and I created an amalgam, so to speak. I had two big questions: why did he choose to side with the Greeks, and why was he killed in front of the Greek consulate in Monastir? And there was another thing. At first I did not really understand what his relationship was with the Vlachs who sent their children to the Romanian schools (from around the middle of the 19th century, there were Romanian schools in Macedonia, financed by the Romanian state, to increase the consciousness of the Vlachs that they spoke a Romance language; the introduction of these Romanian schools instigated a great hatred between the Vlachs who traditionally continued to send their children to the Greek schools and those who opted for the new, Romanian, schools).
By chance, I ran across a document in which it is written that at one point my grandfather sent at least one son to the Romanian school. This fact added to the complexity of my character’s personality (as well as to the book’s complexity). If we add that my grandfather rented an estate in the valley, that he had close contact with the Slavic (or Bulgarian, as they were called at that time) people that worked on the estate, and that he was a polyglot, that, in addition to the Vlach language, he spoke Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, and, probably, Albanian, then we begin to understand something about the world in which he lived. But that world was changing rapidly. The national ideal was growing among all the peoples of the Balkans, including the Vlachs. I asked myself another question: how easy or how hard is it for a person, a product of a certain way of life, of a mixed world, as his world was, to become a “new” man, with new loyalties and aspirations? How hard or how easy is it for a person to change with the times, to adapt, to understand what is coming, what the future will be?
You asked if I saw my grandfather – or his avatar, Agathon – as a tragic figure. Yes. I understood relatively quickly that the material I had, the events, the happenings, found their place easily within the structure of a tragedy. As I said, Agathon takes a decision, an action, which will lead him inexorably toward his fate. When I realized this, it became clear to me what direction the story would take. In fact, I wrote a tragedy in the form of a novel.
What creative plans do you have for the future? Will Macedonia become the topic for a third novel?
I’m thinking about a third novel. I may possibly place it again in Macedonia, at least the beginning of the story, but in a different epoch, one much earlier, the Hellenistic, the period after the conquests of Alexander the Great. We’ll see!
Reactions to Tainted Heroes
KORT & GOED TAINTED HEROES
In Tainted Heroes komt het tragische verleden van een oud Balkan-volk prachtig tot leven (vier sterren)
Olaf Tempelman, 7 december 2018
Het gebeurt niet zelden dat een historische roman bij nader inzien ongemakkelijk actueel is. Schrijfster en classica Cornelia Golna groeide op in de VS als dochter van een Vlachische vader uit Macedonië, én als kleindochter van een in nationalistische twisten in Macedonië vermoorde grootvader. Diens lot en de wordingsgeschiedenis van Macedonië inspireerden haar tot de historische roman Tainted Heroes. Als om te bewijzen dat nationalistische passies in dit boek geenszins worden overdreven en Griekse claims nooit verjaren, gingen deze herfst honderdduizenden Grieken de straat op om te protesteren tegen de nieuwe naam ‘Noord-Macedonië’ voor het buurlandje dat nu nog, o zo onhandig, Voormalige Joegoslavische Republiek Macedonië heet.
In Griekse optiek mogen alleen Grieken het woord Macedonië in de mond te nemen. Echter: in dit gebied waarnaar Franse koks ooit hun beroemde gemengde salade macédoine vernoemden, waren Grieken een eeuw geleden alles behalve alleen. Hier woonden ook Bulgaren, Turken, Albanezen, Serviërs, Arvanieten én Vlachen, een oud volk van de westelijke Balkan met een aan het Roemeens verwante taal. Medio 1900 kwamen die Vlachen volledig klem te zitten tussen Griekse en Bulgaarse milities die Macedonië – officieel nog Turks gebied – in een gewapende strijd voor hun moederlanden gingen opeisen.
In Tainted Heroes komt deze complexe en tragische geschiedenis schitterend tot leven. Het boek is een fraaie evocatie van het dorpsleven in de zuidwestelijke Balkan aan het begin van de vorige eeuw, en tegelijk een universele vertelling over oprukkend nationalisme, barstende multi-etnische gemeenschappen en buren die vijanden worden. De geschiedenis van het Macedonische dorpje Moushata uit Tainted Heroes herhaalde zich aan het eind van de 20ste eeuw in vele dorpjes in Bosnië, en aan het begin van de 21ste in Syrië en Irak. De Griekse en Bulgaarse guerrillastrijders in dit boek laten zich moeiteloos vervangen door hedendaagse Syrische milities. Tainted Heroes laat zich vertalen als ‘bezoedelde helden’ – wélke helden in dit boek bezoedeld raken, mag iedere lezer voor zich bepalen.
Cornelia Golna: Tainted Heroes – A Novel
Go-Bos Press; 412 pagina’s; € 21,50.
KORT & GOED TAINTED HEROES
In Tainted Heroes, the tragic past of an ancient Balkan people comes wonderfully to life (4 stars)
by Olaf Tempelman, 7 december 2018
It often happens that a historical novel, when you look at it more closely, can feel uncomfortably modern. Writer and classicist Cornelia Golna grew up in the United States as the daughter of a Vlach father from Macedonia, and as the granddaughter of a grandfather who became caught up and was murdered in Macedonia’s nationalistic conflicts. His fate and Macedonia’s inspired her to write the historical novel Tainted Heroes. As if to prove that the nationalistic passions described in this book are in no way exaggerated and that Greek claims never grow old, this fall hundreds of thousands of Greeks marched in the streets to protest against the new name, “North Macedonia,” for their northern neighbor, which still goes under the unwieldy designation of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
In the Greek view, only Greeks may use the word Macedonia. However, in this area, after which French cooks once named their famous “salade macédoine,” the Greeks were anything but alone. Here too lived Bulgarians, Turks, Albanians, Serbs, and Vlachs, an ancient people of the western Balkans, who speak a language related to Romanian. In the early 1900s,the Vlachs found themselves caught between Greek and Bulgarian bands, each of which claimed Macedonia – officially still Turkish territory – for their motherland.
This complex and tragic history comes to life in Tainted Heroes. The book is a brilliant evocation of village life in the southwestern Balkans at the beginning of the twentieth century, and at the same time it is a universal chronicle of encroaching nationalism, the disintegration of multi-ethnic communities, and of neighbors turning into enemies.The history of the Macedonian village Moushata in Tainted Heroes repeated itself at the end of the twentieth century in many villages in Bosnia, and at the beginning of the twenty-first in Syria and Irak. The Greek and Bulgarian guerilla fighters in the book can easily be replaced by today’s Syrian militias. The novel is called Tainted Heroes – which heroes become tainted in this book, is up to the reader to decide.
Cornelia Golna: Tainted Heroes – A Novel
Go-Bos Press; 412 pagina’s; € 21,50.
Franse koks doopten de zeer gemengde salade
niet voor niets ‘macédoine’
Olaf Tempelman, DeVolkskrant, 28 september 2018, 19:56
Alom wordt geklaagd dat de discussie over de nieuwe naam van de Voormalige Joegoslavische Republiek Macedonië (FYROM) ingewikkeld is.
Toch is het huidige debat sterk versimpeld tot het Griekse en het Fyrom-perspectief op de Macedonische geschiedenis. Er is ook een Bulgaars perspectief, en een Servisch, en een Albanees, en een Vlachisch.
De Vlachen zijn een volk in de westelijke Balkan, dat linguïstisch verwant is aan de Roemenen. Een schrijfster van Vlachische origine, Cornelia Golna, lukte het recentelijk in haar roman Tainted Heroes op haast wonderbaarlijke wijze aan bijna alle perspectieven recht te doen. Wie ‘de Macedonische kwestie’ na lezing nog steeds ingewikkeld vindt, begrijpt in elk geval waarom Franse koks hun zeer gemengde salade van groenten en fruit ooit ‘macédoine’ doopten.
French cooks had a good reason for naming
their mixed salad a “macédoine”
Olaf Tempelman, De Volkskrant, September 28, 2018
There is a general complaint that the discussion concerning the new name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is complicated.
Yet the present debate has been in great measure reduced to the Greek and FYROM views on Macedonian history. There is also a Bulgarian view, a Serbian view, an Albanian view, and a Vlach view.
The Vlachs are a people living in the western Balkans and are linguistically related to the Romanians. Amazingly, Cornelia Golna, a writer of Vlach origin, has managed in her new novel,Tainted Heroes, to do justice to almost all these views. Those who, after reading her work, still consider “the Macedonian Question” complicated will understand at least why French cooks once named their mixed fruit and vegetable salads a “macédoine.”
One of the most interesting and best books
“I read your novel while we were in Greece, in fact during our travels through the Vlach villages, also among the islands. Evening after evening my wife and I discussed the happenings in the novel. It was like a trip back in time – it was one of the most interesting and best books I’ve ever read. The precision with which you rendered the realities of the period and the way you succeeded in expressing not only the mentality of the Vlachs, but also their perception of those times, impressed me. Your “subjective” point of view, as you call it, is, in my opinion, the correct one, not polished by various “objective” views adopted by one or another (national) trend… my words seem suddenly inadequate for what I wish to say. Indeed, I have concrete questions about the main character, Galan(i)… about the town Moushata and other things.”
Professor Thede Kahl (University of Jena, Germany)
To me, this is a kind of companion book to “Zorba”
“I am laying down the last page of your manuscript and want to thank you for the pleasure I had reading it. For me, it was clear from the outset that this was some kind of family memoir (Galan/Golna), but I really appreciated that you became explicit only at the very end: I did enjoy the epic tone of the narrative. I also approached it mostly with a historian’s and ethnographer’s eye. It reads like a novelistic ethnography and I mean this as a compliment. It sounds thoroughly “authentic,” even as I loathe this word and its fashionable usage nowadays. To me, this is a kind of companion book to “Zorba.” Actually, the one thing that was new to me, was the very logical explanation for the ferociousness of the Cretan volunteers in the Macedonian struggles, which does not come up in Kazantzakis. I also really liked your depiction of the complex Tower of Babel in Macedonia, your love for the linguistic richness of the region, as well as your attention to the class conflict, something that is often forgotten.”
Professor Maria Todorova (University of Illinois,
author of Imagining the Balkans)