Dragi Mihajlovski’s manuscript The Wake of Odysseus is undoubtedly another one in the series of exciting prose writings by this writer. For decades, he was primarily one of the finest pens of the short story form in Macedonian literature, and it was later, as a mature writer, that he became a novelist who plunged into exploring the cultural and historical layers of existence on the Macedonian and the Balkan soil. In this short review of the author’s prose ouvre, diverse both in terms of genre and topics, it is important to note that he has written two “magical” books for children. Although short, this introduction is necessary, even if only as a draft – on this occasion – to illustrate the creative synthesis of the diverse narrative experience embedded in the text of the latest writing by Dragi Mihajlovski, The Wake of Odysseus, an extraordinarily exciting reading for the young, in fact, for the “young” of all generations.
The text of The Wake of Odysseus is a journey to the space of memory and reconstruction of its microuniverse with the help of the personal and collective memory connected to the topos of Bitola and the Bitola region. In this sense, the narration is structured as an autobiographical speech for the period of childhood and the events that create it, but at the same time it is a chronicle of the ideological universe of the time in the first decades of Macedonian existence within SFRY, in which the collective memory of the centuries-long existence in that area is interpolated as a crossroad of faiths and peoples, times and customs.
In particular, the way Dragi Mihajlovski manages to imply all these topics in a young adult novel is quite skilful. The presented world of Bitola/the Bitola area, and even the very small neighbourhood in which the narrator is growing up – is revealed and uncovered as a vast maze of the microuniverse. The swarm of life presented in the world of the novel, its fullness and diversity are achieved through a combination of several narrative strategies: 1. detailed description of the streets, gates, yards and their inhabitants, 2. the reproduction of the space in the toponyms that exist only in the memory about them, in which both in this, but in other ways, 3. the times of historical existence of the given space are multiplied (and layered). For example, the Vlachs in the neighbourhood are an occasion to speak about their historical migrations, but also about the greatness of the once-famous Moscopole. The toponyms of Bitola’s “kapejci” (kind of bathing sites), where children cool off in the summer mornings, the etymology of their names is a new occasion to call to memory past times and legends about them. In fact, the different narrative strategies of calling forth different periods and worlds (cultural, ideological) have in common being called up and slightly opened with a lexical key. The stylistic diversity, the richness of words and the indication of their numerous synonyms are not a decoration or an embellishment exhausted with the aesthetic function. Rather, they are mantras that lead to the opening of a new, yet another space in the horizon of understanding of the maze in which the growing up takes place. Because the very maze-space, pregnant with signs, expressions, beliefs, practices, customs entices and leads the child’s curiosity to solve them, is what happens in the process of growing up. It is a world that does not offer special help or interpretation by adults. It is rather a symbolic jungle in which children, freely let into the streets and bravely rambling around the area, backed up by scant explanations from the adults, have to puzzle it out themselves.
Similarly, the axiological universe of the 1960ies is captured lexically – as some sort of lexicon of YU-mythology on Macedonian soil. And only this aspect of narration could in itself be the subject of a literary criticism. At this point, however, it is important to emphasize that through a single narrative key, applied with a special skill and a livening fantasy, Dragi Mihajlovski sophisticatedly weaved a complex, but sublimely and masterfully made reading matter on the manner (or fate) of growing up in a given microuniverse of childhood. The infinity of this small microuniverse is proportional to the wide-open eyes and heart of child’s curiosity in observing and understanding the world.
In the introductory fragment of the novel, composed of thirty-four tellings (chapters), the narrator announces that his story is supposed to narrate the moment of transition from childhood to boyhood. This story itself is very subtly narrated, the points are associatively called up and opened for completion, depending on the cognitive power (adult or otherwise) of the readers. The reading of this manuscript is an undoubted adventure, in which the story of growing up in the broken composition of narration is weaved, through numerous anecdotal or other (essayistic and meditative) fragments, the grid itself (indeed a grid) of the story is executed in the manner of a maze, in which each niche (or chapter) is seemingly a story in itself – and above all, fun, carefully narrated, and with much humour.
Translator: Zorica Teofilova