A Slavic Love Story: Hero and Leander Retold

Maiden Tower, artist's concept, on the Bosporus, Turkey.

Once upon a time, An overbearing father grounded his daughter Hero, a ripening young melon; he exiled her to a maiden’s tower on the edge of the water.

But, that didn’t stop the willful virgin from seducing Leander, a gorgeous hunk of a boy who lived across the water in another part of Turkey.

“Swim on over; I have a surprise for you”, she said to him. “You can do it,” she encouraged, “I’ll light a lamp to guide you across the water.”

Leander took the bait; when he saw the light, he hit the water running.

The clueless, dripping wet Leander raised his fist to the tower door: “Knock, Knock.” Hero, quivering with anticipation, she was ready for him; she opened her door dressed only in her birthday suit, and Leander, indeed, was surprised—it showed.

The Elizabethan poet Marlowe tells the story this way (well, almost) in rhyme and meter, but his poem stops when the lovers meet.  Marlowe never finished his poem Hero and Leander, but many other poets have taken up the torch, so to speak, and they have written verses to complete the tragic story.

In the ancient myth of Hero and Leander, Leander nightly swims the Hellespont and, guided by the light from Hero’s tower. All goes well for the pair until one stormy night when the torch gets extinguished, and without the beacon to guide him, Leander gets lost and drowns. The story doesn’t end there, because the dead Leander washes ashore below the tower. Hero looks down from her tower and sees his body below her. Overcome by grief; she throws herself from the tower. The young lovers are united in death.

This brief summary smothers the emotion and feeling of the tragedy. Consider the final lines from Leigh Hunt’s fine poem Hero and Leander:

She went up to the tower, and straining out
To search the seas, downwards, and round about,
She saw, at last, she saw her lord indeed
Floating, and washed about, like a vile weed;
On which such strength of passion and dismay
Seized her, and such an impotence to stay.
That from the turret, like a stricken dove.
With fluttering arms she leaped, and joined her drowned love.
Leigh Hunt (1819) lines 286–293.

The myth of Hero and Leander, ill-fated lovers divided by the sea, is older than written history. The myth was already well known in the time of the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote about them in Heroides (Heroines).

In 1993, this story was told again in prose by the Slavic author Milorad Pavic in his strange and absurd novel The Inner Side of the Wind, or the Novel of Hero and Leander. Pavic’s novel, set in modern Serbia, tells of two lovers separated by “the waves of time”: Leander lived at the turn of the eighteenth century and Hero lived in the twentieth century.

As published, Pavic’s novel can be opened and read front-to-back or back-to-front: the reader has the choice—read Leander’s story first or turn the book over and read Hero’s story first. Each story ends in the middle of the book where Hero and Leander meet for the first time. This is unusual, to say the least; you have to see it to believe it.

I read Leander’s story first. The story opens as Leander is leaving home:

“All futures have one great virtue: they never look the way you imagine them,” said the father to Leander.

At the time, Leander was not yet a full-grown man, he was still illiterate, but he was already handsome; he was not yet called Leander, but his mother had already twined his hair like Dutch lace so that he wouldn’t have to comb it on his journey. Seeing him off, his father said: “He has a long, fine neck, like a swan’s; God forbid that he should die from the Saber.”

Prophetic words, Leander would become literate, avoid the many Turkish sabreurs who chased him, but he cannot avoid his tragic fate.

Turning to Hero’s story, the reader meets chemistry student Heronea Bukur who lives in Belgrade. Heronea takes a part-time job as a French tutor. She assigns her student, a young boy, a French translation of a Greek version of the story of Hero and Leander. The boy confuses Heronea, his teacher, with Hero:

“And why did Leander set out toward you?”
“Because he fell in love with Hero. She gave him light while he swam.”
“And you’re not afraid of him? What if he swims to shore?”
“You wouldn’t understand the answer,” replied Hero, who sported a pair of well-moulded breasts, a navel as deep as an ear, and rings on her toes.”
“And what did they do to him in the end? Did he swim to shore?”

Heronea/Hero leaves her job when she develops a language block and forgets the present and past tenses completely—she can no longer conjugate verbs. Eventually, Heronea joins a theater group presenting a play of Hero and Leander by a famous (but fictitious) Slavic grammarian. As the he play begins:

Leander: I’ve been dead for three days now. And You?
Hero: When we loose sight of and forget something, and then try to remember it this forgotten something, this void which has spread at the expense of our memory, loses its real proportions; …

Oddly enough, this strange version of the old love story captured my fancy—I enjoyed reading, but when I had read to the middle of the book for the second time I was at a total loss. What was I to deduce from the blank page separating Hero from Leander? Oh well, there is much that I don’t understand about that region of the world.

My congratulations to translator Pribicevic-Zoric who must have found her work challenging.

I recommend this book to those readers who enjoy a well-told story with a good number of absurd situations and no really satisfactory ending.

Day 65: The Inner Side of the Wind, or The Novel of Hero and Leander, Milorad Pavic, Christina Pribicevic-Zoric (Translator) (1993).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
This entry was posted in Classics, Fiction, Poetry, Translation and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Slavic Love Story: Hero and Leander Retold

  1. penthilo says:

    I regret to say that Turks appeared in this part of the world much later (1453 aC). This area it’s called the Asia Minor, not Turkey.

    • Mia Culpa; Thanks for the correction. I erred when I wrote: “Leander lived at the turn of the eighteenth century and Hero lived in the twentieth century.” Clearly Leander lived in an earlier epoch–in the story he avoids the lead cavalry of the Turks to meet his mythic death centuries later in the Hellespont.

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