Pirey – by Petre M. Andreevski

Pirey cover

The Macedonian question has been the central issue dividing the Balkan people. States such as neighbouring Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia have struggled for the possession of Macedonia. The hearts, minds and even the culture of the Macedonians were up for grabs. It was a battlefield and this left the people, especially those in the countryside, vulnerable and unprotected.
One can only understand this tragedy by reducing it to just one couple. Ion and Velika’s story is the story of every man and woman and the author Andreevski has captured the feel of the times, the utter devastation of body and soul that this couple suffered, when all they sought were normalcy.
This very famous novel is set during the Balkan wars, WWI and the years after. The place — a village in Macedonia. The area had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire for five centuries. When people are occupied, ravaged by war, trampled on, denied universally, and lines of demarcation are changed with the erasers of the occupying powers, they cling to the ordinary, the familiar, their life in the village.
The opening scene is a village funeral, where we find a son, a soldier and foreign troops. The son is told about his own family’s story, and how his mother and father were forever altered by their experiences.
We learn about Velika, as she was as a young bride, with no one to teach her the superstitions of a Macedonian wife and mother, and had to learn them from friends and experience the consequences if she did not abide by them. The customs and superstitions which affected each and every person in the village were as important as their religion.
Ion, her husband, through no fault of his own, finds himself in the thick of battle, fighting on the side of the Serbians. All he really wanted was to continue making things in his village. Now, as he surges forward on the battlefield, he happens to notice the beech tree and he imagines all the things he could make with it, such as naves for wheels, axles, charcoal, etc. The mundane in the middle of hell. Ion is told to look for an enemy soldier in “no man’s land”. If he is successful in capturing this soldier, his Serbian commander “promises” he will let him “go home” for a few days. By chance he captures his brother, fighting in the Bulgarian army. Neither man had any choice as far as their respective armies. Their names were changed by whatever army they happened to be unlucky enough to be part of. Their aim was to survive this hell and go home.
When the village is eventually hit with disease and people were dying in droves, and Masa the Healer could not prevail, someone suggested that “a thousand years ago they burned dogs alive to ward off disease”. In their superstitions they thought that the cruel death of their animals would make the disease go away. But Velika managed to save their dog, but could not save her children.
The population was broken in ways we cannot fathom. And yet Macedonians survive, like the Pirey of the title, which is a couch grass. No matter how hard you try to kill it, it survives, and even thrives. The Macedonian question is still there, and until it is answered, the bones cannot rest easy.
This is a heartrending story, which is told in parallel manner. We hear from each of the couple, their own experiences and feelings.
The author, Petre Andreevski, was a Macedonian poet and novelist and playwright. This is one of the most celebrated novels of modern Macedonian literature and his work has been translated into many languages. However, this is the first translation of Pirey into English. He based this novel on his parent’s generation and their experience.

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