From Matoš to Karakaš, Part 11


I believe Tenžera would be satisfied to see me think about him in the atmosphere borrowed from Tin Ujević. “Književnost u domu štampe” (Literature in the Home of the Print) is the title that Ujević gave to one of his writings in which he got to the bottom of a relationship between journalists whose writing sounded like forewords, afterwords and above-words, and their culture and readers. Above-words because they were, as described by A. B. Šimić, better authors than those they 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 newest 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 says that such wise men are like alchemists who have discovered the rock of stupidity in their laboratories. The description of the scene is perfect, and it hasn’t changed significantly. “In the long line of beamters, professors, mediocre candidates for future monuments and opportunistic servants of History, who took up literature as additional trouble, Ujević managed to put the equation between vocation and destiny. What a challenge! In a place where many pursue a career they don’t love so that they can 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. We cannot turn this noun 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 was just a boring port town in which real sailors get drunk.” Tenžera was a writer, that’s the thing. Similarly, the painter Josip Vaništa (and 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 largely someone else’s words. His book wasn’t made solely of other people’s sentences, which Walter Benjamin dreamed about, but he did shape it using everything, just like Beethoven did with the Pastoral Symphony. He was the same in “Knjiga zapisa” (Book of Writings), which is so calm and collected that it makes us wonder if this man actually lived among us. Compared to Tenžera and Vaništa, today’s production, especially the column writing (although it is not fair to put Vaništa in that context), sounds sullenly, angrily, non-compromisingly – opportunistic. The first thing we notice is that the two handle silence brilliantly; it almost feels like listening to a musical piece, not reading words that tend to roar and bite and only then become known as truth-telling, honourable and worth taking in. No shouting, no believing. 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 my dreams because my 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; writing about sports (I don’t like it outside the metaphor, I am that kind of a man), he managed to do what others couldn’t with the best examples of poetry. The third important man who mediated between different spheres, creating his own added value, was Igor Mandić. He will remain influential in many aspects, among which the preponderantly important one, as his Krleža would say, was his ability to keep literature at the centre of public attention. Increasing the book sales figures, even for the books he criticised (people wanted to see for themselves if they were that bad), he served as a strange lighthouse throughout most of his career; people who disagreed with him debated with him (behind his back, though). They are not as strange a threesome as one might think: they were all beacons and Mandić was a brute, a fighter among them. And finally, he was the author of the thought that our literary circle had never valued intelligence or wakefulness, but always the haze; therefore, it is possible for an unimportant book of poetry from the sixteenth century – as I have already mentioned – to be more valued than the twenty-first-century book of criticism. Or essays equally. Mandić’s yelling is nowhere close to 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 were created in a cauldron under which a maniac keeps adding firewood. “Preživljuje dobro pisanje” (Good Writing Survives) is the title Tenžera gave to his 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 he 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 cultural sky – a Writer!” And then, to return to this dichotomy, it is still important today, yet nobody wrote so lucidly about it as 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 easy to forget. Only suitable books are written here, following this or that pattern, trend or fashion.” Today, everybody binds their writings in books; we should call them binders, not writers, because that is the bottom line of their actions. Binding, binding, but of what? It would be wise to listen to Tenžera and return to Matoš. His criticism is fascinatingly contemporary, as if we haven’t taken a single forceful step forward in 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