Letter from Struga: The Golden Wreath of Macedonia

MY FRIENDS think I am crazy to go to any part of what used to be Yugoslavia, even though Macedonia has been peaceful so far. But I have been invited to the Struga Poetry Evenings, have recently had an anthology published (Contemporary Macedonian Poetry, Forest Books, pounds 9.95), and am curious to see what effect the tragic events farther north are having on that idyllic corner.

Getting there is the first problem. There are now four, equally complicated routes: 1) via Ljubljana to Skopje and thence three hours by bus; 2) via Sofia, thence seven hours by bus to Skopje and another three to Struga; 3) via Germany, thence by the new Macedonian airline to Skopje, and on again by bus; or 4) via Berlin to Salonika and thence, if you can overcome the active non- cooperation of the local Greek officials, into Macedonia. I decide on the third variant.

The organisers are a little cagey when asked about this year's participation. There is no one from America and no English-speaking Canadians, though there are two poets from Quebec and three Macedonian Canadians. Rather astonishingly, there are five poets from Luxembourg.

But the hotel is full and the organisers bravely - almost touchingly - follow the long-established routine. On their own initiative the other two British representatives, Brian Patten and Roger McGough, put on a 'performance poetry party'. It is very well attended and, though I think their rapid Northern accents are not quite what the audience expected, it goes down very well.

We are all taken by bus to Ohrid, a delightful old town on the lake. The handful of foreign participants who speak Macedonian (I am one of them, though only just) are lionised by the media. My tenses may be faulty, but I am quite proud of my nimble diplomatic footwork when pressed on political issues. I am complimented on my efforts in Macedonian, but can't help being reminded of Dr Johnson's remark about the performing dog.

The first of the festival's two highlights is the ceremonial presentation of this year's Golden Wreath to the winner, the Hungarian poet Ferenc Juhacz, in the ancient Saint Sophia Cathedral in Ohrid. Many years ago, W H Auden won this coveted prize; last year it was Joseph Brodsky. A splendid ritual, but everyone would have been happier if the temperature in the packed church had been 10 degrees lower.

The following evening sees the culmination of the festival: the public readings from a platform specially erected on the bridge over the river Drim. Packed along both banks, as far as the eye can see, are thousands of local people, and at least a quarter of a million watch this annual event on television.

About 30 of us are lined up on the platform (fewer than in past years). We each read a poem in our own language, and a translation is then read by local actors and actresses in Macedonian. It's all very different from reading to a couple of dozen people at the Poetry Society.

The Struga Poetry Evenings are without doubt the worst organised event of its kind - really more a string of improvisations - but equally they are the most enjoyable. But I am curious to see how much has changed in Macedonia since it proclaimed its independence earlier this year. There is a romantic nationalist euphoria reflected, or perhaps fanned - by the media. Many people are irritated by the European Community's yielding to Greek objections to the name of Macedonia. Intemperate appeals to the UN speak of 'diplomatic genocide'. When a German speaker at a Macedonian translators conference (which I attended after Struga) tried to say that he considered the sooner- die-than-change-our-name attitude to be a mistake, he was wrongly translated as having spoken in its favour and warmly applauded. When the mistake was pointed out there was an embarrassed silence and one lady got up to 'take back' her applause.

These are not inflamed mobs, but university professors. But I too think that there is a dangerous lack of realism in this euphoria. Few Macedonians will admit that they benefited from the old Yugoslav federation, when money from the prosperous republics (mainly Slovenia) was pumped to the poorer republics (mainly Macedonia). The fine tourist hotels and facilities were all built with federal money. Yet a Greater Macedonia, as far south as Salonika, may be a fairly widely shared dream. I don't think the dream is particularly dangerous - it is the awakening that scares me.