From Matoš to Karakaš, Part 11


I believe Tenžera would be satisfied that the atmosphere within which I will think about him will be borrowed from Tin Ujević. “Književnost u domu štampe” (Literature in the house of the press) is the title that Ujević gave to one of his writings in which he got to the bottom of a relationship between a journalist, whose writings are like forewords, afterwords and above-words, and his culture and readers. Above-words because A. B. Šimić described him as someone better than those he wrote about. Today, like in Tenžera’s times, there are discussions about whether criticism exists in Croatia. “Critics are a part of it, thinking that the very question is enough to be excluded from their job’s bad reputation. The foxes have acquired the customs of our cultural salons – those who are present are always innocent.” (…) “According to the latest theoreticians (it has reached the streets in the meantime, NA), who suffer from headaches when needing to think, a critic is an unrealised poet, which is equal to the idea that a poet is an unrealised critic.” Finally! Later in the text, he describes such wise men as alchemists who have managed to find the rock of stupidity in their laboratories. The description of the scene is perfect, and it hasn’t changed significantly. In the procession of beamters, professors, mediocre candidates for future monuments and opportunistic servants of History, who took up literature as additional trouble, Ujević managed to put a sign of the equation between the vocation and the destiny. What a challenge! When many pursue a career they don’t love so that they could love something they don’t do for a living – that’s not playing by the rules. While cheerful bureaucrats write sad poetry, the tragic Tin bursts with gaiety, energy and passion.” And then the famous part: “Therefore I never say: He was a književnik1. It is a noun which cannot be turned into a verb; it is never an occurrence but an ordinary status symbol, not necessarily appreciated among the tradespeople’s insignia. Tin deserves a verb for the endless wanderings through the oceans of language, for the euphoric rides through the vortices of spirit, where reality is just a boring port town where the real sailors get drunk.” Tenžera was a writer, that’s the thing. Similarly, the painter Josip Vaništa (not some active writers of today) wrote the best, most valuable book in our literary canon in the last couple of decades: “Skizzenbuch 1932 – 2010: behind the closed door”. Like child’s play at the beach, it is made of rocks and sand, and in a good part of someone else’s words. He didn’t write a book made solely of other people’s sentences, which Walter Benjamin dreamed about, but he did shape it using everything, just like Beethoven did with Pastoral. He is the same in “Knjiga zapisa” (Book of writings), which is so calm and collected that we are under the impression that this man didn’t even live among us. Compared to Tenžera and Vaništa, today’s production, especially the column writing (although it is not fair to place Vaništa in that context), sounds sullenly, arguingly, non-compromisingly – opportunistic. The first thing we notice about the two of them is how brilliantly they handle silence; it almost feels like listening to a musical piece, not reading words that tend to roar and bite and only then become known for being truth-telling, honourable and worth taking in. If they don’t shout, no one believes them. Clearly, these two heroes display the spirit of incorruptibility, of standing up straight and being distant; these two Japanese Croats are so entirely on the side of the light and daily troubles that I can easily imagine them commenting on the entire psychoanalysis with a single remark, Vaništa beginning and Tenžera (because he is intelligent) finishing the sentence: I forget dreams because reality is too demanding, we don’t live in Switzerland as Jung did. Vaništa, describing the beginning of Gorgona, says: “Like everybody else back then, I was interested in the emptiness of Zen, striving towards normal behaviour and natural life in the world filled with ideology.” This feeling is also present in Tenžera’s book “Zašto volim Zagreb” (Why I love Zagreb), but his Zen is proletarian; his touchy approach to tenants, the only contemporary members of the proletariat, is unique; he managed, writing about sports (I don’t like it outside the metaphor, I am that kind of a man), to do what others weren’t able, not even when discussing the best examples of poetry. The third important man who mediated between different spheres, creating his own added value through the whole of it, was Igor Mandić, who will remain influential in many aspects, among which his ability to keep literature in the centre of public attention is, as his Krleža would say, a preponderantly important one. Increasing the book sales figures, even for the books he criticised (people wanted to see for themselves if they were that bad), he was a strange lighthouse throughout most of his working period. Even those who disagreed debated with him (behind his back only). They are not as strange a threesome as one might think: all three were beacons; among them, Mandić was a brute, a fighter. And finally, he was the one who authored the thought that our literary circle had never valued intelligence, wakefulness, but always the haze; therefore, it is possible for an unimportant book of poetry – as I have already mentioned – from the sixteenth century to be more valued than the twenty-first-century book of criticism. Or essays, equally. The yelling by Mandić is difficult to link with Vaništa and Tenžera. Vaništa, when writing about Gorgona, thinks this: “Perhaps the group brought something new into our region, or maybe it simply served to solve our life problems, anxious feelings. Perhaps it didn’t leave a trace, except for the friendship and spiritual agreement.” This level of introspection and restraint is impossible to find today; on the contrary, all writings look like they have been done in a cauldron under which some maniac keeps adding firewood. “Preživljuje dobro pisanje” (Good writing survives) is the title of Tenžera’s text about Matoš (or was the editor responsible for the title?). According to Tenžera (the text was written in 1984, Tenžera died the following year), Matoš is constantly at the back of anybody who takes up writing in Croatia. And he prophets: from everything we’ve seen, he will keep being at their back. The professor of revolt, “in whom the spiritual elegance and literary violence meet in a paradoxical way.” This is how he describes his genesis: “Living in francophone Switzerland and France for years, he attuned to his mother tongue a language that was given a breath of preciseness by Pascal and turned into an instrument for changing the world by Voltaire, and started thinking in the new language. About everything. Literary writers thought of him as a journalist, and journalists as a literary writer, but he was an utterly new beast on the national culture sky – a Writer!” And then, to return to this division, it is still important today, yet nobody wrote so lucidly about it like Tenžera. A writer or a literary writer (književnik). “Književnik is a noun without a verb, a lifeless status symbol, which refers to another noun – knjiga (book), not to an action which would mark one’s destiny. In our literature, there have always been many more književniks than writers; therefore, this literature is so inert, so wasteable, and so easy to forget. Here, only suitable books are written, according to this or that pattern, trend or fashion.” Today, everybody binds their writings in books; they should be called binders, not writers because that is the bottom line of their action. Binding, binding, but of what? It would be smart to listen to Tenžera and go back to Matoš. His criticism is fascinatingly contemporary, as if we haven’t made a single forceful step forward in terms of writing. Matoš once ‘buried’ someone, I can’t remember whom, with the comment: he was a three-day-old dinosaur. And this is how Tenžera compares Matoš’s ability to that of his contemporaries: he was the writer of the present tense, of the obsessive time of modern culture. “Heart, mind, and intelligence are the only authentic measure of life and history.”

  1. The Croatian word for a literary writer whose etimology is the word knjiga (book).


Dario Grgić