From Matoš to Karakaš, Part 1


First, the ideal: the text by Tin Ujević, “Upitnik pred engleskim romanom” (A question mark before the English novel). Published in the eighth volume of the complete works, lapidary and comprehensive at the same time, devoid of every intention to impress the reader – though there were things to impress with – it is nothing but the most efficient transfer of information and impressions, “intuitions” about the work of English prose writers. When trying to figure out how to introduce Croatian literature to an Irish Gipsy oliti1 (this word here is a nod to Igor Mandić) a Roma guy on Camden Market, or any other London bazaar, my first thought was: talk about our literature as if you were advertising it to Mickey O’Neill from Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch”. If he buys it, everyone will. Ujević’s essay left me with the impression that he was peddling foreign literature to a bunch of Irish-Roma tricksters, which our waitressing-martial nation undoubtedly is. We’ve been sly since way before the seventh century, which becomes apparent the moment you glance at the map; we occupied the territories as if we had been blessed with some precognitive power, knowing what brilliant tourist destinations they would be in the 20th and 21st centuries. This could as well be reversed into saying: we have become such grand Waiters due to the influence of our landscape on the fate of the nation; well-indented coastline separated us from serious matters and reduced us to caterers prone to warring with neighbours and in the name of foreign kings. However, there is an essential addition: our wars have always been waged safeguarding our interests, which were, alas, oftentimes pretty weird.

And now, while I’m lingering about with Mickey at Camden Market, all of this comes and doesn’t come to my mind: the guy is, I can see it immediately, quicker than all the professors I have ever seen, and chances for me to return home, like Ujević did, with a pack of English literature, not being able to leave one single Croatian book in London, are growing exponentially minute after minute. Ujević distances himself from official knowledge and, at the very beginning of his text, says: textbooks are at least two centuries behind the times. Names are known, but the things themselves rest unknown. “Fiction is a slit in reality, criticism is a slit in fiction, our memory is a slit in criticism, and our imagination is an increment, an embitterment of fiction.” Well, now, find your way around with the nervous Mickey, who is willing to read a book or two – sometimes he is willing – if the author is really skilled at slitting the reality with the switchblade, more skilled than himself; and Mickey is as quick as lightning from Heraclitus’ fragments, faster than light. And I am not trying to sell pretentiousness; this is the exchange of experiences, which changes perspective significantly. In other, more Ujević-like words: it is possible to be darkened by the light, and Mickey doesn’t like it when one value is mistaken for the other: gold is gold, not a curse; you have to be a fool to let it be a curse and Mickey doesn’t want to be a fool. And in respect of “gold”, the situation is the following: Matoš is the gold of our literature, the treasure from the last cabinet, thanks to which the written word in this language managed to march side by side with the foreign one at last. He was the first who could say to the foreigners: I have read you all. Watch out: I have read, he says, not sat under the apple tree waiting for inspiration, playing at “originality” and writing from the cerebellum, which has been a lethal practice up to the latest days. That is the reason why he is our most golden gold. He was the first to reach the finish line, and in literature, the finish line is the beginning of the regular movement. Even Krleža is behind him, and Krleža knew everything. Ujević knew even more, but his knowledge transcended “everything”, like that of a medicine man, a shaman of this literature, who climbed the birch tree of his words and reached the tenth heaven. Marinković, even the gnomical Dragojević, Petrak, and Telećan, all of them are marching behind Matoš. And they do not seem discontent.

A technical remark: Croatian version of Office 365 is unaware of the surname Ujević; to stop it from underlining it, you have to turn off the spell checker, which tells us more about the present moment than all the symposiums dedicated to this genius – though the symposiums are lacking as well. The difference between the English literature described in Ujević’s essay and the Croatian literature from the 1970s and 1980s is mainly this: Ujević says that English literature can bury an English critic, whereas Croatian literature was buried by two critics back then: Igor Mandić and Veselko Tenžera. They were better than the literature they reviewed. But this is not unexpected for a nation dwelling in educational stagnation and a wrong cultural matrix. As Mandić said nicely in his “Predsmrtni dnevnik” (Premortem diary): every 16th-century tongue-tied nun authoring a tiny book of poetry ends up in lexicons, while there is barely any mention of essayists and critics. It must have been Matoš who dictated these words to him over the shoulder because no lonely Croat could contrive such a thing by himself. This is the beginning of good literature, though there are more such authors in Croatia: Držić, Kovačić, Nemčić. As for Kovačić, I would describe him to Mickey as our Nietzsche and his character Ivica Kičmanović as Zarathustra, in a Croatian setting and with Croatian aspirations. Our Zarathustra doesn’t go up into the mountain like Nietzsche’s; he goes to an office – for a Croatian, this is higher than the highest mountain peak – and he preaches with tacit shame, feeling embarrassed for the others, living a life not lacking in ordeals. Both end up in flames, one of them (ours) literally, while the German one experiences an internal glow as he, strong as the morning sun rising from behind the dark mountains, begins his journey around our viewpoint. It is true that “Zarathustra” begins with a climb to the mountain whereas “U registraturi” starts with a descent down the hill for the sake of a scuffle with a neighbour, but still… As for Nemčić (Office has never heard of him), everything that Mickey’s cunning ear is tuned to, just like the piano in Wiener Musikverein in “Putositnice” (another word which the “Croatian” version of the Office highlights as an English, Spanish or – let us be current – a Hungarian one), is lifted to the level of a Chesterton liberated from Roman illusions. Nemčić was a clever guy who was aware of globalism when it was still in diapers.

So, how is it possible, Mickey would ask, that the history of the nation of such clever individuals was so lame? This leads to a different, better question (at least when it comes to peddling on Camden): Is it just Croatian literature that is really a sum of a few outstanding phenomena plus the heavy literary average, or is this the case with other countries as well, with the difference in size and the similarity in the statistical probability of exceptionalness; there is more of them, so there is a more impressive number of good writers? Is the difference between a great, significant writer and a moron writer as abysmal as it is here? The other question would be: Is a writer as clever as his nation, measuring up to his cleverness, and is the nation as dull as its dull writer? What is the relationship between a nation and a writer? Is there a relationship at all, or is there merely mutual contempt? If we consider Matoš, Ujević, or Krleža, their work habits and working ethos, then the wisest thing would be to let the readers answer this question themselves. I swear by the Daemon, I don’t have the answer! However, when I look at contemporaries and see how Stanko Andrić writes, I find it very difficult to associate him with the photo-robotic type created from the sum of our good and bad qualities. As if there was a gaping abyss between him and the nation, Nietzsche’s abyss between a man who does and a man who does not have a friend.

Mickey, brought up on a Roma version of Shakespeare (“Always a borrower, never a lender be”  – which is a bit altered version of the original “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”) doesn’t really care for these dilemmas, but he’s got nothing to brag about – it was Tenžera who wrote that he loathed the Zagreb citizens who believed they had, by the mere fact of living in the capital, sucked in Matoš and Krleža with their mother’s milk. That is something that is known even to us, the Balkan people. And us, the Balkan people, were described by Constantin Noica as the ones who were occupied with culture, while Europe was occupied with cream. There is an addition to that as well, from a nationalist perspective: it is us, us indeed, the Roma of the West, who supplied the milk for the cream. We are, as the philosopher said, the unconscious of Europe. Therefore, it is possible to imagine a Croatian author, a being overwhelmed by a massive backlog, mastering – without any help from the Cathedra (which hasn’t changed ever since) – the enormous masses of dark, radically unlit European culture, aspiring to become its member. Ujević’s essay is written in the most pregnant manner: he describes Shaw as Molière in the service of a distinctive voltaireianism, Chesterton as a preacher with the country priest wisdom (but highly augmented); but Ujević also emphasizes an idea, surprising to those who don’t like to read: it is harder, he says, to write a few good puns for the newspaper than a big editorial for the Times, and he hits the nail on the head: using paradoxes he explains commonplaces, he is an enemy of wide spirits, he values beer and pubs, and some of our Chestertonians derived the majority of his teachings therefrom. Croatian literature reached modern times under circumstances incredibly similar to the present ones. Among other things, Ujević writes that, when the neglect of culture is concerned, journalism may be regarded as the main culprit. “The press gives room to mile-long letters or personal news from some godforsaken villages, but it doesn’t feel any need to inform its readers about cultural happenings, despite its motivational motto ‘Via Education towards Freedom’. While foreign papers are abundant in literary and artistic chronicles written by excellent pens, our journals publish a stereotyped rubric Književnost, umjetnost i znanost [Literature, art and science], in few-day intervals, a dozen lines long, containing the inevitable theatrical repertoire and bare titles of published books.” The situation today is exactly the same, despite the culture-displaying apparatus at our disposal: a meaningful text is almost nowhere to be found, no matter how much we search; they appear in minimal doses, way below the statistical average in comparison to the population. Matoš would be appalled if he were here to witness this. The need to fight Germans or Austrians in their attempt to seize our territory is long gone, and your main opponents are of your own kind, exactly the people of your own trade. That would be a shock for Gustl, the wizard who had completed the thirteenth, magical school, too. He was the first to enter Europe, so when he appeared at the entrance of a pub in Vienna, Paris, or Berlin in a stained suit with Baudelaire in one and Nietzsche in the other pocket, he must have caused the refined, weary Europeans to look at him with their blurry eyes, crushed under the burden of their ponderous culture and think: Well, well, look at that! That one is a peasant, for sure!

  1. ‘or rather’ in Croatian


Dario Grgić