The prophecy of Dosha
Alone you are going to cross the baro kalo pani, the one the Gadje call the ocean, to find new paths enabling the Lovara to return to our free way of life.
I am very pleased that my first book review at Crime Scene Reviews is the sweeping historical saga, Dosha, Flight of the Russian Gypsies, by Sonia Meyer (Author Interview here) which I’ve selected from Book Club Reading List.
This deeply moving account of the tragic plight of Russian Romany gypsies is an appropriate choice for this site because it deals with a horrific crime of state against a persecuted minority, the Romany. This event was all the more poignant because in the past Russia was the one European country that most welcomed, appreciated and loved its Gypsy communities. They were loved for their unique music and dance, their rich culture, the freedom of their lives, and their passionate loyalty to one another. Gypsies felt safe in Russia for centuries. Sadly, after 1956, this protective haven was destroyed and the Romany were forced to flee for their lives, including many who had fought for Russia as loyal partisans in World Word II. Those who could not escape were herded into starvation camps in Siberia and left to die.
In 1956 – one year after Dosha’s mother, Azra, daughter of the king of thousands of traveling Lovara, had died –the Red net began, without warning, to entrap nomadic Gypsies into the grinding mill of Soviet Standardization.
However, Sonia Meyer has not simply written an historical tract or a sociological essay. She has crafted a richly detailed, deeply moving fictional account of Gypsy life, both within the forests and plains of Russia and during their flight to freedom in the West. She has personalized the tragedy of an entire people by taking us into the lived experience of a remarkable young Gypsy girl, Dosha, granddaughter of Khantchi, the King of her Lovara tribe. We follow Dosha through a series of harrowing adventures as she seeks to escape to freedom in the West, together with her beloved stallion Rus. For Dosha is a highly gifted rider of horses, and through the training of her father, she is transformed into a master of the horse. This mastery, together with her magnificent stallion, will catch the eye of Russian agents recruiting for the renowned Leningrad dressage team. Because of this fortuitous event, Dosha will discover her pathway to freedom, and map out a path of escape for the rest of her tribe.
The Nomadic Forest Dwelling Life of the Gypsies
The first third of the book is taken up with depicting the nomadic life of the Lovara tribe of Gypsies. Part of this description includes scenes of Gypsy partisans fighting the Germans, and even barely escaping incarceration in one of the German concentration camps – where, in fact, hundreds of thousands of Romany perished during the Holocaust, or the “Great Devouring,” as the Romany refer to it. Most of this first section of the book, however, brings us into intimate contact with the daily lives of the forest dwelling Romany. Through these scenes we begin to experience, as no other work of fiction I have read, the Romany’s own visceral feel for nature, for the unseen spiritual world that surrounds them, together with their passionate devotion to one another, for their beloved horses, and for the special life of freedom that marks them as outsiders to Western ‘civilization’. One of the motifs that keeps recurring throughout the book is the passionate longing all Gypsies feel when isolated from their tribes and their nomadic life of freedom. It is a longing to return, to rejoin the life on the road, and to escape the restrictions of an artificial civilization.
Meyer has depicted many of the Romany customs and beliefs, which center about their deeply intuitive connection with nature and the spiritual world. These include ritual taboos centering around uncleanness and death. She has woven these cultural details into her narrative centering around Dosha and her life within her tribe. The reader comes away with a strong sense of mystery and fate, of unseen forces both benign and malevolent rarely acknowledge in our more formal and restrained Western Civilization. The Romany never lose their visceral sense that they are dependent upon a sacred power greater than their own, and they worship and respect this power through nature and through their sacred horses. It is this profound connection to the world of the Sacred that gives the Romany their sense of calling and vocation to live outside the confines of formalized civilization. The Roma are called to a different way, and it is the power of their critique that draws down upon them so much misunderstanding and persecution to this day.
The Gypsies themselves never tried to enlighten outsiders as to the true nature of their lives. They preferred to protect and keep pure their traditions and the life in freedom that they cherished above all else.
At moments of peril, Dosha cries out for help to O Dhiel, the Gypsy word for “God.” She also implores the protection of the Black Madonna of all Roma, Saint Sara la Kali, the patron saint of all the Gypsies. According to Provencal legend, Saint Sara accompanied the Blessed Mother and Mary Magdalen on a perilous sea voyage of escape from Palestine to southern France in the first century. Because of her compassion for the poor and her darkened skin color, she was assumed to be Gypsy and the Roma have adopted her as such. Dosha’s invocation of O Dhiel and Saint Sara throughout her troubled journey testifies to her profound faith in the unseen world of the Spirit and its watchful guidance and protection. This is Roma spirituality at its most profound.
I was particularly moved by several of the older women of the tribe, who love Dosha with such a fierce and passionate devotion. This includes her great aunt, who rescued her at birth in the forest and her grandmother. I was left with the feeling that the Romany love more passionately, more directly and with greater loyalty than those of us within the walls of polite civilization. Something about their unrestrained life has set the Roma free – or perhaps saved them from bondage. I also found haunting the stories of Dosha’s father, who abandoned his tribe to marry a Gadje or foreigner, thereby ostracising himself from his tribe forever. Her grandfather, Khanchi, king of the Lovara, a man of legend and preternatural powers, lives a lonely life of exile on the borderlands, operating as a double agent between the Russians and the Fins. What struck me about these characterizations is how full and complete they feel. Meyers hasn’t simply developed only one or two major characters, she has created a gallery of them, including Dosha’s conflicted Russian dressage instructor, Osap, and the dazzling Russian dancer Vasili.
Lastly, as part of the spiritual world of the Roma, Meyer deals with the Gypsy reputation for preternatural powers and prophecy. She has to walk a delicate line here, between the Gadje romantic exaggeration of Romany supernatural powers (prophecies, curses, fortunetelling), an exaggeration that has led all too often to stereotyping – and the genuine spiritual gifts of a few select Romany, most of them women. There is no doubt that the Romany are gifted far beyond the norm with a sixth spiritual sense, but Meyers is at pains to show that this ‘sense’ is exercised with considerable caution and responsibility. In fact, Dosha’s father is furious with her for exercising her powers upon his Gadje wife, when she is abusing Dosha’s stallion, Rus. The overall effect of these moments of psychic power, however, is to reinforce our sense that the Romany have access to hidden reserves of spiritual wisdom.
Now back among Roma, who do not question the invisible, that which can be felt but rarely seen, Dosha felt a strange stillness wrap itself around her mind and body. She knew the feeling; it gripped her before the onslaught of some great upheaval or death, a burden she had carried since childhood, the sign of the true shovani or sorceress. Unlike the telling of good fortunes to entertain Gadje, this was true psychic power. It instilled both fear and respect in fellow Gypsies.
Dosha’s Flight to Freedom
As I don’t wish to give away too many more key elements of the plot, I will simply say that Dosha feels compelled to leave her tribe in a search for freedom, and this takes her first to the borders of Finland, where her outcast father will first teach her how to ride her stallion professionally so she might be employed by one of the Russian circuses. When she is discovered by agents of the Leningrad dressage team and recruited together with her horse (with no say in the matter), she is taken to Leningrad and introduced to the professional world of dressage as well as the extraordinary world of Russian ballet – because her handlers wish her to study classical ballet techniques in order to incorporate them into their dressage routines. This is all in preparation for making a great impression on the Western world on the occasion of Khrushchev’s visit to Finland, and eventually at the world Olympics.
What I found most remarkable about this section is that having presented us with such a richly detailed world of the forest dwelling, nomadic Romany, with all of their beliefs and customs, Meyers is able to take the reader so smoothly and effortlessly into two entirely different worlds, that of professional dressage and horse riding and the glittering world of Russian ballet. Each of these separate worlds is described in minute and colorful detail, such that the reader feels transported onto the back of a magnificent stallion in full dressage performance and onto the stage of the Leningrad Ballet, with all of its glory, but also all of its backstage intrigues and romances. What ties these worlds together is Dosha’s own perilous journey towards freedom. We feel her own bewilderment as she is introduced into these worlds so foreign to a forest gypsy. We feel her anxiety as she assesses the dangers before her. And we appreciate her anguish as she finds herself drawn so powerfully into a romantic relationship with a brilliant Gadje dancer, a relationship that is forbidden to all authentic Romany women. During this entire phase of her life, Dosha must struggle to conceal her Gypsy identity, because to risk discovery is to ensure her exposure and destruction.
For the first time in her life, Dosha felt that same urge to break away – to escape not only the ever-present danger of Gypsy life, but above all her special role within that world, a role that had condemned her to loneliness.
The last third of the book is by far the most suspenseful, as Dosha and her stallion must cross the Finnish border with the Leningrad dressage team, while under the ever suspicious eye of the KGB and the official Russian handler of the team. Dosha faces many challenges and reversals (no spoilers here) that bring her close to destruction, before she finally manages a breathtaking escape to freedom. We are left with the story hanging midair, so to speak, because Sonia Meyer is presently at work on a sequel which will chronicle the subsequent adventures of Dosha, still in disguise, as she struggles to discover the way for all her beloved Roma to survive in lands far from Gypsy tragedies.
As I look back on this reading experience, I feel genuine astonishment that Sonia Meyer has succeeded so well in creating so many disparate fictional worlds in this novel and so many richly absorbing, unforgettable characters. I really experienced the passionate Gypsy love for freedom, for nature, for the mysterious world of the spirit, as well as the Gypsy anguish at being restrained, confined, boxed in by the limits of our own polite, overly intellectualized Western Civilization. I was also taken aback by the striking characterization of the stallion, Rus, who figures as a major character of the story, a living, breathing natural force. Most of all, however, I was deeply moved by the perilous journey of this remarkable, multifaceted character, the Gypsy rider, Dosha, wild adventuress and savior of her people.
An enthusiastic ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Alas, I could not find the source for the magnificent painting of Saint Sara la Kali I’ve incorporated into the post -with its Romany message – since the original URL no longer exists. Hence, I’m not able to attribute it.)