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28/04/2008

From abattoir to disco

Croatia was the partner country at this year's Leipzig Book Fair. Gregor Dotzauer travels through this small land of great poets, all writing their way of the wreckage.

When an angel first whispered in his ear that Central Europe would end in tragedy, it is impossible to say, after all the angels which have populated Delimir Resicki's poems. They feed him with clever and terrible words and if possible both at the same time. "If you have matches / then it its easy / to find a needle in a haystack," they whisper to him for example, although the sinisterness of these lines is sapped by the daylight. At first glance, the Central European tragedy which Resicki is evoking here has something ghostlike about it. Perhaps it travels invisibly with the Bora, the Jugo or the Maestra, the three great winds which blow across Croatia. Or it hides behind the sun which floods the whole country from cave to coast, right down into the drowned valleys of the Adriatic. Beyond the showy Baroque that dazzles the visitor in Zagreb reigns the misery of the pre-fab high-rise, and beyond the elegant Roman ruins of Pula lurks a provincial narrowness you wouldn't want to cross. But these things are not inescapable, as long as you can still find respite in Zagreb's parks, or among a pile of books in a sofa of the art cafe Cvajner, once a bank of the Austro-Hungarian empire, with the intent not to rise again until next summer arrives.

So where is the tragedy? Is it heralded by the two German estate agents who in the queue at the airport shamelessly deliberate the most efficient way of coaxing the locals out of their houses while they forge plans to conquer Belarus and Ukraine because Croatia, as the mercenaries ensure one another, is the gateway to the entire East? Or does it manifest itself in the Russians who roll up with their coffers of cash to get their hands on private islands, as Tito did with Brioni, before EU regulations interfere? Or is it revealed in the skirmishes which border on bitter comedy, where politicians continue to slug it out as if, a decade after Franjo Tudjman's death, the leaden nationalism of the first post-Yugoslavian president was still alive, while all around the consumer world glitters in every capitalist brand and colour? You think you feel it for a brief moment when on collecting a rental car and you are asked: Will you be travelling to Bosnia-Herzogovina as well? But what sounds like concern about the destructive anger of the neighbours, could equally be a routine question about insurance coverage. But it's a relief to be able to say no. Well then, the man behind the desk says with a grin, there's nothing to worry about.

The tragedy probably lies in the fact the decisive events all took place a long time ago. If, like Delimir Resicki, you come from a town where at the beginning of the 90s, civil war raged particularly bloodily, you will recognise it in its immediate absence. "But there lies / my strength and my everlasting advantage," writes Resicki (born 1960 in Osijek) in his German-language poetry debut "Arrhythmie". "I will always remember the things of the past / and I have no need / to bow down to the golden calves of the future / which sleep in the cattle wagon / on the road to the new Europe / and its abattoirs / which have been turned into discos."

The road to a new Europe is still as long way off for Croatia. As present, the country has not fulfilled even a tenth of Brussels' criteria – even if the tourist boom seems to be making good on the promise of a glorious future. It generates a fifth of the GDP. In the summer months there are ten million foreign tourists milling about Croatia which is twice the amount of locals, and the number is rising.

In the golden age, Resicki says, Central Europe was an intellectual community where it was possible to respect others. All that remains of it today is melancholia for an opportunity gone forever. He is a guest speaker at the "Sa(n)jam knjige" in Pula, an annual book fair and literary festival organised by the book dealer Magdalena Vodopija in an old marine library. The name is a play on the words "trade fair" and "dream" and a dream is literally lived here for eight days. Because here under Croatian aegis, an international Central European crowd can come together again, to reclaim some of that cultural openness and for this reason, the likes of Bosniak Dzevad Karahasan or the Hungarian Laszlo Vegel,who originates from Serbia, are also invited.

Resicki, people often say, looks like a psychiatrist from a horror film. But he's not one to mince his words about himself either. I'm not young and beautiful, I'm fat, ugly and sad, he says. He describes his short stories as Bruno Shulz moves from Poland to Croatia, makes porn films and meets David Lynch. His poetry is no less synthesis-riddled. The bridges of Budapest are as familiar to him as the lanterns of Warsaw and the swallows of the Baranja, that flat, swamp land which stretches around his Sclavonian homeland. If you want to stake out the association zone of his poetry, you only have to collect the relevant dedications and references. These range from Georg Trakl and Rilke, Gustav Meyrink and Raymond Carver, Buddy Holly and Andrej Tarkowski, the Slovenian Srecko Kosovel and Roland Barthes – it's too much of everything, and yet it's all convincingly combined in image rich, formally pared down thought-poems. Resicki writes with a sort of controlled excess which is the sort of thing that might come from a youth dancing too much pogo, witnessing too much war and reading too much Freud, Lacan and Zizek: the latter being a trait he has in common with his friends from the magazine Quorum, who brought postmodernism to Croatian literature and haven't shaken it since. And as long as they are always up against a new Realism which is overly enmeshed in social reality and which is closer to journalism than anything else, they won't want to get rid of it either.

In 1990, shortly before the outbreak of war, Resicki published his third volume of poetry "Die Die My Darling." On the cover is a photo of August Schreitmüller's sculpture "Güte" (goodness) which looks out from the town hall over the ruins of Dresden in the Second World War and which became the city’s symbol. The photo and the poems made Resicki a prophet of the Balkan catastrophe which affected the country in such different ways. The war destroyed Vukovar, gave Dubrovnik a serious battering and lightly grazed Zagreb for no more than a few days. But the publisher and journalist Nenad Popovic was right when he wrote in his anthology "Kein Gott in Susedgrad" (no god in Susedgrad): "Still today contemporary Croatian literature is unthinkable without the war of 1990-1995. How could anyone write when every day they were following the approach of the apocalypse on radio and TV." He reports on Sinisa Glavasevic, a young editor at Radio Vukovar who sent harrowing reports from his city under siege before he found his final calling which was reading to the children of Vukovar through his microphone. As the Serbs forced their way into the city, they led him and his sound technician away and shot them both. A few days later in Dubrovnik, the poet Milan Milisic, a Croatian Serb, was mortally wounded by a hand-grenade shard. "So the death of two poets paved the way for contemporary Croatian literature," Popovic concluded. This leaves its mark, even if not in a direct thematic way, on all the important authors of recent years. The literature is not compulsively bound up in the wreckage, but looks out from beneath it, and this goes as much for Ivana Sajko ("Rio Bar") as for Edo Popovic ("Kalda"), who made names for themselves as Croatia's best war reporters.

Miljenko Jergovic, born 1965 in Sarajevo and resident in Zagreb, is the most significant writer of his generation. Like Resicki he grew up in the heydey of western pop culture which was brought to a brutal end by the war. A star from his journalistic beginnings on, who gets stopped by his fans on the street, on the rare occasions he shows his face. And a lone wolf, who wants nothing to do with Croatia's involvement with the Leipzig Book Fair. And he also keeps his distance from local writers after he pulled out of all the writers' associations. "It's a simple matter and not dramatic in the least," he explained in an email. "I don't need writers' associations for either my political or social activities, although they serve precisely this role, especially in post-communist countries." His prose debut "Sarajevo Marlboro" (1994), a kaleidoscope of short scenes from the beleaguered city is still considered a Croatian literary bomb although, with his Bosnian roots, Jergovic can claim at least a double identity.

"The essential difference is that the Bosnian identity is a composite; the Croatian, monolithic. The simple fact that I grew up and was formed in Bosnia, also makes me a composite in a certain way. Although I was born a Bosnian Croat, I am also a Bosnian Serb and a Bosnian Muslim. I see this fact as a blessing, because in a literary sense it is extremely fertile. At the same time it also forms the basis for countless social misunderstandings which I experience in Croatia. Things that are good for literature are often detrimental to life."

Unlike other well-known writers such as Slavenka Drakulic, Dubravka Ugresic or their fellow Sarajevo-born writer Igor Stiks, who are often branded as traitors by chauvinists and enviers, Jergovic never left his country. "I am not saying that Canadian forests or Finish lakes don't interest me, but they are not my world. Firstly it is difficult to get me on the road, I am sluggish and I don't like moving house. Secondly I have around me the world I write about and which constitutes my principal interest." The international renown he has reaped in Zagreb, bears him out, even if in Germany he has long not enjoyed the success that "Mama Leone" brought him back in 1999. "Film wonders tend to occur in America, but literary wonders can happen anywhere. You need a lot of money to make a film. But anyone can write a book."

In fact it is only in recent years, with "Dvori od Oraha" (mansion in walnut) that he has moved on to epic formats, partly in veneration of a literary figure as whose heir he is now being celebrated. "In the 20th century there were two truly great Croatian writers. The first was Miroslav Krleza and the second, Ivo Andric. Andric is Bosnian, but his work and his fate tie him to Bosnian, Serbian and also Croatian literature. The main subject of his writing, though, is Bosnia. "Surprisingly, he recommends reading not the "Bridge on the Drina," which brought Andric the Nobel Prize in 1961, but the lesser known novel "The Days of the Consuls", a chronicle of Andric's place of birth, the town of Travnik. Among his contemporaries, Boris Dezulovic and his book "Christkind" (Christ child) is closest to his heart – an as yet untranslated time travel novel whose protagonist travels to in the Upper Austrian town of Braunau, to murder the eight-year-old Hitler.

Jergovic's multi-ethnic identity seems all the more alien now that the Croatians, more than ever before, are pursuing a language policy bent on separation, whereas the Serbs are pushing to close themselves off with a return to Cyrillic. Efforts to break away from what was perceived as the forced artificial language Serbocroat, seems only partly politically motivated. Even Miroslav Krleza, a glowing communist and Titoist, stepped forward to sign the "Declaration on the notation and position of the written Croatian language" which formed part of the "Croatian Spring" of 1967, when Croatian intellectuals attempted to carve out a piece of autonomy from the government in Belgrade. But where does ethnic and political consciousness overlap? To accuse Jergovic's writing of being polluted with Turkish expressions as his critics have done, is characteristic of a bigotry which makes it difficult to forget Croatia's fascist Ustascha past which obviously stills raises its head every now and then.

A visit to Zagreb's DHK, Croatia's oldest writers' association. We have been around since 1900 explains German Studies professor Ante Stamac in immaculate German. He is a man who likes to lead the discussion of all things cultural-political, despite having handed over his presidency to Stjepan Cuic. Since 1900! And how close our ties with German literature used to be: Walter Höllerer, the poet, scientist and friendly spirit of the Literary Colloquium at Berlin's Wannsee, or H.C. Artmann, the Viennese word artist. They were all our guests. And today the annual Zagreb literature discussions which extend our horizons well beyond our own borders! And the Serbian playwright Biljana Srbljanovic was a guest in the theatre here! And it's not only pride in tradition that drives him to emphasise these points. It is also resentment at the thorn in his side that appeared after the autumn 2002 in the form of the HDP under Velimir Viskovic, claiming to be a more modern, more urbane, more liberal writers' association and with the postmodern phraseology to back it up. Even my most diplomatic questions about the quarreling at the time lead nowhere. Let's not talk about the past, let's look to the future!

The stately rooms of the DHK on the central Ban Jelacic square, which separates the Lower from the Upper town, are home not only to the Klub Knjizevnika, but also one of Zagreb's finest restaurants. But what might have be a wonderful place to debate, is out of the price range of most writers, despite menu concessions. So these surroundings, which by western European standards are not even exaggeratedly luxurious, are dominated by local businessmen dining. And the Klub is only a cerebral sanctuary to a very limited extent. If at the top end of the dining room, where bookshelves tower up to the ceiling filled with tomes, you reach for complete Antun Mihanovic, the poet who wrote the Croatian national anthem, you will find a hollow case in your hand.

The idea that one might define a country's literature solely on the basis of a writers' association might sound absurd. But the concept is completely normal for Croatian writers. Membership guarantees regular publication and serves as proof that writing is the principle source of income. It also brings a 20 percent tax reduction and the right to apply for state grants. The associations are the driving force behind the organisation of literary life which it represents in magazines – also in translation for abroad. The DHK has published its "Most" (bridge) magazine since 1966 and the HDP equivalent is "Relations". Both are book-thick publications with dossiers on the classics, essays and contemporary literature and present an rounded picture of literary life.

The split between the associations apparently goes back to a rightwards shift of the DHK under Ante Stamac. In 2001 Nenad Popovic's Durieux publishers and Split's distinguished left-liberal weekly paper Feral Tribune refused to take part in the Croatian stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, in protest that Stamac, whom they called a nationalist agitator, was to give a talk. You wouldn't think it, as friendly and quick-witted as he seems. And there is no doubt about his qualities as a German Studies academic and cultural envoy. Only a few years ago, Stamac translated Goethe's Faust into Croatian, both volumes. But you sense something of a pathos-filled patriotic disposition when you browse through his book, "In the Darkest Hour", about "Croatian poetry in war" which also appeared in German with Bastei-Lübbe publishers. He published it together with the then Conservative President Ivo Sanader, a former theatre manager and Romance studies academic who had written his PhD on Jean Anouilh.

And it is not only Stamac who possesses this disconcerting proximity of intellect and power. In the case of Ivo Sanader, who is said to have forcefully transformed his party, the HDZ, from a group of Tudjman followers into a reasonably liberal people's party, it seems to have laid the foundations for his career. It might be a relic of a socialist society, but it certainly thrives in a country where, in cultural circles at least, everyone knows everyone else and state subsidies have to compensate for everything that cannot not secure autonomous existences on the domestic market. Which is why Seid Serdarevic, the agile publisher at Fraktura who is pushing onto the western market, calculates his books (where the usual first editions number 1000-1500) with a maximum of ten percent printing subsidies. He wants to retain the freedom to act, even if it means forgoing public handouts. New evidence emerges on a daily basis of where this seemingly so benevolent model leads: control and favour currying, corruption in official channels, roguishness and intrigue.

Indeed this is the chosen path of the conservative Minister of Culture Bozo Biskupic, a small, round man whose charm competes only with the poison he can spray. He has had his arm twisted into financing the the Croatian focus at the Leipzig Book Fair. But he doesn't trust the unpatriotic types who are organising it. Wouldn't you like to sit a little further off to my left, he asked Alida Bremer, the Slavic languages expert in charge of organising the guest appearance in Leipzig, on a late afternoon reception in the ministry. Biskupic schmoozes his German visitors who sip away at their fruit juice quite oblivious to the fact that in Dverce, the city palace in the Upper town, the Zagreb press have been standing around waiting to meet them for hours on end. Biskupic arranged his reception last minute to torpedo the meeting. That's how the game's played.

The other story behind the division of the writers' associations is that the failed Mr. Stamac badmouthed the failed Mr. Viskovic as a Macedonian, which on the scale of Croatian insults is far higher up than Jew or Gypsy. Whereupon the deeply insulted Mr. Viskovic founded a second writers' association, had himself made president and attracted a strong following. The details of this personal spat can't be authenticated. But even if one could get a closer hold on the facts, this is still typical of Croatian interpersonal relations. Every now and then one of the actors will explode more or less publicly in a fit of cabin fever. But the bulk of the conflict will be carried out behind the others' backs. Even those who are perceived as the most liberal actors don't always speak up. And only a very few are truly get along. So it has a certain logic that most writers are by now prophylactic members of both associations.

At the exit of the DHK is a tatty-looking brochure with translations of the poet Drago Ivanisevic. It also contains the poem "Game from the European Masked Ball." "First you must sharpen the knife properly / this is best done on the throat of a brother, then you should down a glass of wine or schnapps / drink to the war, or not / that's irrelevant / then you should carefully stab the mother / lie her on her back and lie down beside her / leaning your head on her breasts / then, carefully, so as not to damage her joints / remove all the nails from the bed of nails / then down a few glasses of wine or schnapps / then let the tears flow, weep for the mother / weep until you can weep no more / then with the tip of your fingers / mix together the blood and tears / smear them onto your shirt in long streaks / (the shirt can be white, black or patterned) / the rest will be easy after that." This was not written in the last ten years, Ivanisevic was born in 1907 in Trieste and has been dead for over a quarter of a century. It was written during the Second World War.


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Selection of new publications in German:

Die Horen (229). Fabula rasa oder Zagreb liegt am Meer. Die kroatische Literatur der letzten 25 Jahre. (Die Horen magazine edition 229 . Fabula rasa or Zagreb lies on the sea. Croatian literature of the past 25 years.) 240 pp, 14 €

Delimir Resicki: Arrhythmie. Poems. Bilingual German/Croatian edition. Translated by Alida Bremer. Edition Korrespondenzen, Vienna 2008. 190 pp, 19.90 €

Nenad Popovic (editor): Kein Gott in Susedgrad. Neue Literatur aus Kroatien. (No God in Susedgrad. New Literature from Croatia) Schöffling & Co, Frankfurt a. M. 2008. 300 pp, 19.90 €.

Edo Popovic: Kalda. Novel. Translated from Croatian into German by Alida Bremer. With Audio CD. Voland & Quist, Dresden 2008. 288 pp, 21.90 €

Miljenko Jergovic: Das Walnusshaus. (mansion in walnut). Novel. Shöffling & Co Frankfurt a. M. 2008. 616 pp. 25.60 €


This article originally appeared in German in the Taggesspiegel on 12 March, 2008


Gregor Dotzauer is a literature critic and the a feuilleton editor at the Taggespiegel.


Translation: lp
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