Books about Town and Country
There are not that many of us Croats and, consequently, our literature is small. Yet I get the feeling that every second Croat is a writer, a poet at least. Once the warm season gets under way the city starts buzzing with book promotions. Writing in Croatia is a hard, misunderstood, and usually unpaid job; poetry collections of younger poets sell perhaps ten copies. Older poets, our laureates, manage to sell between a hundred and two hundred copies. Fiction is slightly different: the last ten years have brought an unexpected blossoming of young, macho literature dealing mainly with urban themes—postwar hopelessness, political satire, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. What I mean by macho literature is that this literature is still thought of as masculine. When we think about literature we think of a man, and not just any man—he seems slightly bohemian or could pass as a punk rocker. Ideally he drinks beer and isn’t convinced by capitalism. We expect him to be unkempt and overslept and underdressed.
Female writers who make it here, the two or three of them, do it by writing within their role. “We women know how to deal with you men” is the only available angle. If a woman understands the world as something apart from the arena in which the masculinum and femininum do battle she has no shot as a publishing author.
And then there is the rural novel. Although viable writing is most at home set in the uglyish areas of our capital, one of Croatia’s favorite books in the last five years is set in the country. It’s Don Quixote retold, and is full of cheerful types who tend to scratch their ears with car keys. A sentence to that effect was one of the most quoted bits of anything recently written in Croatian. The author, Ante Tomi´c, is a good friend of mine, from Dalmatia. He has a big nose and a pleasant voice, and is at least two heads taller then me, but in his heart he’s as gentle as a little girl. Apart from making Croats laugh with novels that sell 10,000 copies or more, dizzyingly, he also writes a daily column in the Jutarnji List (“Morning Paper”), as he has for years. Most young writers must be writer-journalists. No author other than Tomi´c, and perhaps Miljenko Jergovi´c, another one of our young classics, could afford not to take the work.
Jergovi´c is a Sarajevan living in Zagreb, which for me recalls the Sting song “An Englishman in New York.” He sells rather well and has been translated into enough languages to make it possible that you’ve read him. Croats find him exotic yet familiar and would never admit that we don’t understand his books or many of the words in them.
Another near-peer of Tomi´c, also from Dalmatia, is Renato Bareti´c. He wrote The Eighth Councillor, last year’s most decorated novel. It’s about an ambitious young representative of the ruling conservative party who goes to a remote and barely inhabited island and tries, and fails, to establish some sort of order there. I mention Miljenko, Renato, and Ante even though I can imagine that for an audience that finds it hard simply to picture Croatia, local names may sound like Dzplbralje Bljefaelj Fdealje. So in line with the Latin saying Nomina sunt odiosa I will try to avoid introducing any more odious Croatian names.
The Chihuahua War
There is, too, an elder generation—writers who established themselves while Yugoslavia still existed and who, presumably, were born during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A large divide exists between these older authors and their youthful counterparts. Frequently there is open disdain. This is not surprising, you will agree, although it is hard to imagine that one of our famous patriarchs wrote a thick book—a roman à clef, no less—in which the antagonist is the aforementioned Miljenko Jergovi´c. It’s called The Poor, the Miserable, if that title is taken mainly in its moral rather than material sense. This novel, like his others (all of which were fairly reactionary), was a huge hit.
Such rivalries are rooted in the massive divide between the Right and the Left. The Right, which, in its own mind, is made up of real Croats, believes in Croatia’s special importance on the world map, and especially on the map of Europe, despite the fact that there are fewer than five million of us and we live in a territory smaller than Delaware. The Left, which is viewed by the Right as an assemblage of small, false Croats, is mostly composed of younger people who have traveled the world a little and are maybe capable of using a computer. They tend to think that Croatia doesn’t have such a magnificent role in world history and that the European Union sounds nice. Almost everyone is aligned, one way or the other, and our literature reflects it. Last year’s most noticed books were both biographies of our deceased president Tudjman, one written by the journalist Darko Hudelist and the other by the fallen lefty Zdravko Toma´c, each a fairly large volume.
Apart from politics, there is rock and roll. Last season, one of the more entertaining entries was dedicated to something called the New Wave, a period in the early ’80s when, at the dusk of communism, some excellent rock was played in Zagreb. At the moment we can’t claim a single decent band (though we have plenty of wailing female singers, as I mentioned in one of my earlier columns in this magazine), but in the early ’80s Zagreb and a few other cities within the former Yugoslavia were blessed with worthwhile scenes. Serious lyrics were written instead of the slimy rhymes we have somehow ended up with. Journalist Igor Mirkovi´c’s Happy Child examines that era through the eyes of a nostalgic observer. It was packaged with a CD, and a number of tie-in concerts occurred this spring; my husband and I nearly lost our hearing.
Last year also brought us Happy Flats by Sanja Muzaferija (another journalist), not as acclaimed as its cohort but nonetheless sweet. It’s a photo book of creatively decorated Zagreb flats. The average Zagrebian lives among disparate pieces of furniture, surrounded by walls with peeling paint, yearning for the kind of money and time one would need to spend decorating “creatively.” Next year we will sort out the house, I tell my husband every autumn. Next year, he repeats.
I should mention that at the beginning of the year, one of the most prominent local awards, the Jutarnji List, was given to an interesting novel that I, too, would have chosen had the jury asked me. Christkind was written by Boris Dezulovi´c, who is, of course, a columnist at the weekly Globus. It’s a small book that starts as a nineteenth-century horror story and then moves in another direction entirely. Just as you begin to fear that the plot is lost, it becomes clear that before you is put one of the most important questions that could have been asked in the last hundred years: Had we had the chance, would we have killed the boy Adolf Hitler?
Other authors are unfortunately overlooked. One of my favorites, Rade Jarak, is the author of a romance novel called The Salt. He’s recently published an ambitious book about postwar Dubrovnik, but I’m afraid that as usual he won’t get any awards for it. His writing is not macho enough.
That destiny is shared by Lucija Stama´c, a very nice girl who became famous in her youth for her poetry and who last year published a fictional memoir of Helen of Troy. It’s a voluminous book with brilliant reminiscences—but no swearwords, of which our readers are so fond. It is also without mention of the Zagreb suburbs or any beer for the boys, lethal omissions each.
If a book fails to have a glittering life here in its home country, it’s unlikely that affirmation will arrive from abroad. You know what it’s like with literature in small languages: it leaves little mark on the world map. We Croats need a Nobel Prize–winner to pave the way before our books will begin to consistently reach publishers abroad. Miljenko Jergovi´c remains our lone international sensation; last year, he won a distinguished Italian award.
News from Troy
Translations are fairly common here, considering our small size. On the nightstand of a typical Croatian reader (a being not easy to find—the average Croat reads 0.9 books a year, and a solid number are illiterate) one will find six to ten translations for every Croatian work. I will briefly list the foreign authors who the Croats embraced last season. Why keep it a secret?
Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code, a metareligious crime book of medium to low style; then Orhan Pamuk and his Turkish Empire–inspired novel called Call Me Crimson; then, unfortunately, David Beckham and his memoirs. Also widely read are Haruki Murakami, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, and the huge Harmonia Caelestis by Péter Esterházy, a brick of a book about the history of the mighty Hungarian family, which most of us boldly displayed on our shelves without ever managing to finish.
These novels are not always easy to find. Bookshops here are painfully small and few. Only since last summer can Zagreb boast a book megastore, which we can now frequent as easily as a discothèque. Last year’s biggest blow to bookshop aficionados was dealt when newsstands started selling novels alongside newspapers, calling them “World Classics.” Publishers and booksellers got their noses out of joint over this, and the war goes on. I myself have nothing against newsstand publishing. On the contrary, the thought that last year about a million books were sold in Croatia is incredibly exciting. I am only too aware of how tiny press runs tend to be.
The books currently sold with newspapers are of a poorer standard than ever, but I still like imagining that almost every single Croat has a copy of something like The Turn of the Screw. On a rainy night, some of them may stare at those strange pages covered with words, wondering if the book is as good as the newspaper claimed it was. Surely this is better than selling cheap cosmetics with magazines, or whistles, or hats with logos. A book is, after all, a book, and has a certain value even when it only gathers dust on the shelves. I’m not saying that newsstand publishers actually think about these things; they are not necessarily people with ideals. But a discussion of their ethics would move us too far from our main subject.
Code Name: Goulash
This article would be a soup without seasoning if I failed to mention that in Croatia, like everywhere else, cookbooks are extremely popular. Our answer to Jamie Oliver has to be Veljko Barbieri: his book, A Collection of Culinary Poems, is a regular on best-seller lists. It’s all about the wonderful Dalmatian cuisine, full of fresh fish, olive oil, and old-fashioned pots. For the more Northern European palates, there is Boris Petri´c’s Stories From a Vienna Kitchen, which brims with Viennese court recipes. I found in it one or two divine goulashes prepared specially for Emperor Franz Joseph. Faced with a really good goulash, one can only meekly lower one’s eyes and grab the spoon, just as a great book must be taken up and read in one breath, from start to finish. A truly rare thing, you will agree.
Roland Barthes wrote, though, that the best books are those we slip in and out of at will, without feeling the need to consume them in one go; as an example of such literature he cited Proust’s Á la récherche du temps perdu. A book of such breadth has not appeared in Croatia yet, and I don’t know if one will. Times are hard. But I’m trying, and last year I published a book. It received surprisingly good reviews despite the fact that I don’t take on the male gender and I don’t swear like a soldier. Yet to my regret not even those reviews helped it sell more than the magical number here: a thousand copies. And that’s considered solid.