From Matoš to Karakaš, Part 9


Here’s someone who called us all stupid. He said it in a way which made everybody think that almost all others are stupid, but not themselves and not their closest ones. He was exceptionally intelligent and rumour had it that whoever visited him came in like a fool and left as a complete idiot. The tests for his interlocutors fell into the realm of the basic primary-school knowledge – capitals, rivers, population, plus politics. He said for himself that he could not graduate from high school, but he would be able to receive a doctoral degree in a couple of fields. He hung out with Tito, apropos of the politics, opportunism, and gratitude for the saved life (it’s better to be killed by Đido than Dido1, he used to say), whereas he had been repulsive to the clergy since the beginning of his writing career. He (just like many authors) had a piece of advice for young writers, but it was simple: do not tangle with Kaptol2. People resented him for not wanting to help anyone, and he could have; but when you are so superior to your surroundings, perhaps everyone looks like the poor guy from a Croatian saying: help a poor guy to your own disgrace3. In the text about Ujević, Petrak said he was a poet by intention, and Petrak was right many times, but in this case, he might be just partially right. In his later years, he sat down and wrote the mega-novel “Zastave” (Flags) – the first and the fifth book are a literary miracle, at least within this language, if not in a broader sense. Sartre said that in his work “Povratak Filipa Latinovića” (The return of Phillip Latinowitz), eighteen years before “Nausea”, Krleža had described the identical existential states. Radovan Ivšić thought that he was, despite all, the greatest disaster of Croatian literature, and Vesna Parun was not far from the same assessment. She considered Kamov much better than Krleža – perhaps we need to clarify her remark, saying that she probably talked about how Kamov started to pave the way; Kamov did die far too early. Krleža said for himself that we would eventually grasp that there was something about him (‘some god, some devil’, as it is said in Croatian) and that we had had a poet. He appeared at the perfect moment, like Clint Eastwood in his movies; his opponents usually say: Kamov and Matoš were dead, the moment couldn’t have been worse, there was no one around except for this horrible cosmic stupidity, described later in Krleža’s books; just a few epigones of the dead King (Antun Gustav Matoš), who were all discarded by our Eastwood as non-talented (almost all of them), and schizophrenic (some of them); for Ujević, he had a special add-on: a schizophrenic when needed. Even within our poisonous language, it was unusual. As a polemic, he crushed them all; he was humourous, scornful, and quick. Although he was inherently pathetically tied to the manners of Austro-Ugarian salons, his writing was at its best when he appeared at the duelling site in an unbuttoned lumberjack shirt with rolled-up sleeves and ready for a general fight, which, according to him, happened when the lights were turned off in the literary tavern. Why did he enjoy dark? Because his cat’s eye-sight was more important in his habitus – his eye-sight was six times better than that of an average Croatian writer whom he, quite too often, considered an olm, an oddity that shouldn’t have been given any attention outside the typical zoological consideration. I understand him: he must have felt like an idiot surrounded by idiots, slick in their praise – and they did praise him all the time during his lifetime. The following would often be said: “Using a powerful phrase”, and then blah, blah. A phrase may be anything but powerful. The power behind the phrase may be powerful, such as political, mafia, or military power. He knew everything about the military, same as his colleague Branko Gavella. It was easy to talk them into fencing in front of the laughing municipal council, under the condition that the council had been carefully chosen. Fierce in a temper, as a result of the terrors of the Second World War, and suffering under the anguish of a man who had been surrounded by enemies his whole life, he adhered to Tito’s regime after the war ended and earned a unique description: čovjek od glave to četrdesetpete4. He made printing the Croatian Encyclopaedia possible, which suffices for placing him among a few patrons this nation has ever had, if not the biggest one. But we decided to hold a grudge against him for many things, which is a necessity in the land of little people resenting Krleža for not helping anybody, yet making life difficult for Ujević. But some things about him are the same as with the Russians and Dostoyevski. He was so great that he needed to be shrunk a bit; he poisoned others with “phrasing”, and the poisoning was so intense that it required treatment. Similarly to Ujević – all the objections are valid, but unlike Ujević, due to the immenseness of his work and the politically staged cultural process, he is smaller today than he used to be. Would he come back? No. He was too bright for today’s times, and his sentences are too long for the minds squared by smartphones and social networks. Besides that, he had obviously gotten lost and ended up in this culture, like a meteor in the orbit of another planet. Suppose I had to sell him to Mickey: I wouldn’t (like our know-it-alls) insist on “Balade Petrice Kerempuha” (The ballads of Petrica Kerempuh) (not because they are untranslatable, but because there is no respectable culture without such a character described in a poem) but “Pjesme u tmini” (Poems in the dark) for its human touch, “Zastave” (Flags) for its television potential, “Hrvatski bog Mars” (Croatian god Mars) for its virtuosity and humour. I would offer the strictly selected pieces (with explanations) in which he breaks bones in polemics; I would try to sell “Simfonije” (Symphonies) because of the light, “Aretej” (Aretaeus) because time travel is popular today. Conceivably, he was so omnipresent that he had to be cast out; his name was spread across reality as a poster – to see behind it, one needed to slice through this piece of paper with a knife. 

Anyways, well done for the critics, but there is a big ‘but’ here. A huge one. His notes about Belje (a combine in Baranja) were published in the magazine “Kolo” in the section “Iz Krležine ostavštine. Marginalije. Enciklopedija Jugoslavije. Izbor.” (From Krleža’s heritage. Marginalia. Encyclopaedia of Yugoslavia. Selection.) A note with Krleža’s comments on the text that a co-worker gave him – perhaps someone who later complained that Krleža was smart, but inhumane – says: “BELJE. (…) ‘Two thousands milking cows with 2600 litres of milk per year in average and the tendency towards higher milking potential.’ This milking potential comes from the Muses or one of the Muses, because in our language it is called ‘muža’, the milking potential, which tends to be higher and higher as follows: if 2600 cows produce 2600 liters of milk per year, it means that each cow gives one litre per year. This tendency towards higher milking potential must necessarily be strengthened in socialism.” Pure Krleža, without many words, resolute to break apart, which makes both the admiration and the hatred understandable. One must know this, as well: Veselko Tenžera didn’t like Krleža as much as he liked Matoš; he wrote about him positively, but not wholeheartedly; one could feel it. He was prone to distribute “phrases”, but also – Tenžera could write. Krleža, on the other hand, could read. Being literate doesn’t mean being able to read. Most people cannot read at all. Krleža coulnd’t read when he didn’t want to be able to read. And most people, although lovely and beautiful and willing to help (but to whom?) simply cannot read and will never learn to read. And they will not learn because they are not Krleža, nor Goethe, nor hard-working, nor quiet on the inside, nor able to kneel. The God is not at Kaptol, at least when someone like Veselko Tenžera is writing. The God is in “Vjesnik” then. God is the spirit that Jesus describes to Nicodemus as the wind that blows where it chooses. And Krleža knew how good Tenžera was and said: he is a man with his own syntax, he is good, very good. From these times, Tenžera has stayed, and the others are to be found in the official history of this literature; everybody helped them a lot and praised them a lot. Of course, Krleža, unthinkable without the British criteria in him (in his own words), did not have his eyes wide open all the time. He would blink, especially in the presence of the approaching power – but these “misunderstandings” are well-known. His natural habitat would be Austria, Robert Musil; in comparison to Thomas Bernhard (probably a much better but also a duller prose writer than Krleža), our thug picked more dangerous enemies, at least from the perspective of the novel “Na rubu pameti” (The edge of reason). And everything that happened after World War II was history, yesterday, life; we know that it is a fairy tale told by an idiot, full of noise and rage, but totally and utterly meaningless. To be a clever character in such a fairy tale may be a real carnival.

  1. A reference to the influential people of that time: Milovan Đilas (Đido) and Eugen Dido Kvaternik
  2. A metonym for the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in Croatia
  3. You help someone and later regret it because they stabbed you in the back or did something to make you feel embarrassed.
  4. A wordplay in Croatian; the original saying is ‘čovjek od glave do pete’ (a man from his head to his toe); ‘pete’ rhymes with the Croatian word for the year 1945 ‘četrdesetpete’, which was the year when he stopped being a man, according to the inventors of this pun


Dario Grgić