In this enjoyable novella, written with a lively curiosity, Byron travels through Albania in 1809 and falls in love with a Bosnian beauty, whom he never meets but occasionally glimpses, before they part forever.
Significantly, the beauty is initially introduced as “Three syllables: zu lei ha”, echoing Nabokov’s Lolita: “Can one fall in love, Byron wondered, with a word, or with a name? Does a rose by any other name truly small as sweet?” Within a few sentences Muharem Bazdulj draws us towards two of the great European writers, Nabokov and Shakespeare. Despite its lightness of tone Byron and the Beauty has a depth and seriousness that places him alongside J.M. Coetzee, among contemporary writers, in the weight and historical framework that he brings to his writing.
Byron and the Beauty’s portrait of Byron, as he is captivated by “this Eastern predilection for mystification”, is a compelling, original, perspective. Byron encounters a different culture, that is Eastern and Muslim, even if the landscape resembles “the Scotland of his childhood – those landscapes at once rough and gentle.” If the landscape is familiar, it is the strikingly different philosophy of its people, revolving around fatalism that Byron comes to admire:
“the natural sequence, from initial wonder to resignation and fatalism, Byron thought; just like in human life.”
Bazdulj has set out to depict the roots and character of the culture of the Balkans; its contradictions and attraction, the mythology that underlies its people’s identity. Bazdulj draws attention to the common myths that unite east and west, “the Yahya who is mentioned in the Koran corresponds to John the Baptist in the Gospels”, the Greek myths that are understood by both cultures but “that’s the Balkans for you: here Plato is still alive in the caves.”
Byron and the Beauty has the distinctly lingering effect the best novellas leave in the reader, that of an “inconclusive experience” (a phrase from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and, perhaps, a fair definition of the form). The pursuit of the unattainable beauty by an English poet becomes a meeting of cultures.
Any Cop?: Bazdulj has the ambition to capture the character of a people and culture, this novella draws on a vivid historical imagination to ask questions of the origins (and the founding myths) of European culture.