Symbols and metaphysical rubble
There are four basic symbols of the European spirit and they appear in our cultural history as the four riders of the apocalypse: the cross, the guillotine, Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Death on cross was slow and hard. Consequently, the suffering and the victim were determined as the basis for the centuries-long virtues of the mankind. On the other hand, the guillotine is completely subject to speed and handiness. A certain metaphysics of the suffering was substituted by domination of the rational.
That same spirit that made it possible for Europe to conquer large parts of other continents and impose its own culture by gunpowder and cannons. Jean-Francois Lyotard [the French philosopher. Ed] mentions the guillotine as one of the basic symbols exactly because it was used to behead the legitimate ruler Louis XVI, ushering the new governing system. Democracy replaced monarchy, and those who felt the weight of democracy on their backs are considered to be victims of unfortunate historic circumstances. On the other side, Auschwitz was planned, adds Lyotard, for the purpose of destroying the entire nation, thus again a legitimate ruler. The fact that this demos was predominantly Jewish, is less important than the principle itself. And finally, with the atomic bomb man has reached an ancient dream: to be able to destroy all of mankind.
Comparing these symbols with the riders of the apocalypse finds its justification in demolishing and destroying of something in the apocalypse in order to form something else. The apocalypse means the end of one world and the beginning of another. A more beautiful and better one. And we connect all these symbols with the destruction of something and the establishment of something else. It is usually believed a better something else. The cross is the real beginning of Christianity, the guillotine is a painful establishment of democracy, Auschwitz is also a morbid attempt to improve the world within the narrow borders of racist conscience, and Hiroshima is an overbearing attempt to disinfect precisely that xenophobic conscience. In a way all these are symbols of destruction and rebirth.
The nineties in Croatia are the years of intensive destruction and apocalyptic pictures, as well as the attempts to build a different world within the framework of international changes in the European east. The world of the first years of the nineties was thought to be a world much better than the previous one, Communist and totalitarian. Croatia had the misfortune that its ruins were real, being the consequence of bombs and shells, but metaphysical too: as the slipping out of existing values without establishment of new ones. One totalitarian system was replaced by another, and the rules of the game did not get anything less bloody. On the contrary.
Partly we carry the ruins in us. Not only as an emptiness, but exactly as the rubble. Certain ruggedness, ruinous stumps of temples and symbols, apathy, irony, sarcasm, disability to feel compassion, strange blindness that makes it possible to see things and living beings but not to create attitudes or emotions about them. To make it short, at a distance, which sometimes leads to the grotesque. Sometimes as the wish for self-punishment. Indeed, the fiction of that time often apply precisely these formulas: absurdity, irony, black humour or grotesque.
I think it is not true that black humour or the grotesque estrange the world. They only domesticate it in the way that they reveal its disproportion. The grotesque helps us to endure the absurd world, despite its own rugedness or annoyance. The combination of grotesque and catharsis seems to be particularly prolific, when the grotesque suddenly turns into something exalted or vice versa. This proves that hope has not died completely despite sequences of bizarre qualities that the world showers on us every day. Quite the opposite, the whole apocalyptic inhumanity of the world emerges from the ruins and exposes, but at the same time, just like in the real Apocalypse, opens the spaces for future joy and hope.
It is equally interesting and bizarre that in the modern arts Auschwitz too has found its place as a toy in the Lego-variant by the Polish artist Zbigniew Liberia, which, among other things, evokes dangerous associations that the East European form of vulgar capitalism equipped with western cults has turned entire countries into some kind of a soft concentration camp, where Mafioso are the Capos and politicians are the cruel guards, just like it was in Stalin’s camps.
However, camps in the Balkans have until recently been a reality, and not only a metaphor for raving capitalist enslavement. The dreadful photographs of living skeletons behind the wire fence were being shown around the world, but this time they were in colour, which attached an additional dimension to them. Metaphysical ruins and the existential emptiness are logical consequences and lasting scars. The experienced life in the camp and the war is an infection with sometimes a rather long incubation time, but in most cases it appears as an acute illness. The suicide of the Italian author Primo Levi or Juraj Golec from Danilo Kiš’s story with the same name clearly show this. He who is infected with the camp death virus will resist with difficulties and will himself end the work that was began by those who built the camps.
Optimism does not stand a chance in the present living circumstances. values were destroyed primarily in the war and they refer to the attitude towards life. Despite the omnipresent promotion of the "culture of life" as opposed to the "culture of death", nothing is being done for that culture of life to finally come to life in the practice. Demagogic phrases on traditional values and the family are being very efficiently refuted by articles in the daily press.
The recent suicide of a couple that left four children behind tells clearly that living in the rubble maize is not possible. The Serbian family Zec was killed in Zagreb at the time of the war, and the whole case is scandalous because the perpetrators have been known but not punished. Death was retaliation then. Today it is an exit and liberation. The peace has simply not brought about what we expected. To be alive is no longer enough.
The war epistle
Of course, in many ways the war has influenced the subject matter and the poetics of the Croatian fiction in the nineties. It is impregnated with it even when it does not speak about it directly. Nevertheless, speaking from the distance of a strange decade, that elapsed slow and fast all at once, we can notice that the process developed in two stages. The first stage of the "war epistle" in the Croatian nineties is characterised by certain fascination with changes, documentarity, inconvenient and in the literary sense entirely naive perceptions of the world and the own situation. The need to glorify that what the media called Homeland War produced numerous texts of obscure literary quality, texts that joined the media propaganda well equipped with myths and symbols.
Those texts are fiction, but I would not call them literature. The turning point in the Croatian way epistle comes with two novels and two authors: with Jurica Pavičić, whose novel Gypsum Sheep speaks precisely about the metaphysical ruins left in the man by the war and the process that transform them into real ruins and with Ratko Cvetnić’s war novel A Short Trip. Both authors have set different criteria in war fiction, which no longer has to be promotional or "orthodox" in the national or state-constructive sense, but has to meet more demanding literary standards and in that sense that suits the more demanding reader.
As if the camp survivors woke up in a huge concentration camp from colourful Lego cubes, a plastic Auschwitz whose wire fence is not visible but it does thrust very much. Politically conducted media form the reality that does not exist, the wire fence is hidden behind jumbo posters and the advertising kitsch. Most of the people are aware of injustice being exercised on them every day, and the lie from the media is just one.
We live in the environment of the kitsch for it lulls the mind. Traditional values are assigned the role of ornaments, and it is precisely the state detected by Croatian fiction writers, who turn to reality nowadays more than was the case in the previous decade. The following joke circulated in Croatia in the second half of the nineties: "The environmental awareness of our people is very much developed, but particularly with the pensioners. They dig in the garbage, take out everything that can be eaten and do the recycle work." Croatian fiction from that time reminds me of a man (a young one this time), who digs in the garbage, finds the cracked Joyce’s mirror and in the features of his face recognises the borders of a desecrated, impoverished and absurd country.
Reality of absurdity
Within the artistic aspiration in Europe and America in the second half of the twentieth century the absurd and the grotesque are a regular phenomenon. For a long time already the West has been speaking, writing and painting in an absurd way, while it has lived in a less absurd way. In Croatia, speaking, writing and painting is getting less absurd, but life is getting more absurd. To be a realist in Croatia today means to be a writer of absurdity. It is hence not strange that the nineties bring about new tendencies and new authors, who generally speaking replace the Quorum group's experimental fictional form with a kind of mimesis. The dictate of reality became unbearable and the adequate answer to the unbearable reality was the reality of absurdity.
In other words, in all spheres of life in Croatia, the reality is de-masked as absurd. And the absurdity is so clean in its school-book form that it tends to be unconvincing. An interesting union took place in Croatian fiction, and I do not think that it is different in Bosnian or Serbian fiction. Namely, the European and the Russian tradition of absurdity synthesised with the realistic portrayal of domestic reality. Neither Vladimir nor Estragon are wandering on the Croatian roads today, nor do old women fall out of windows like in Harms’ short texts, but many similar events do happen. For example: an average Croatian entrepreneur, nationalist by conviction and zealous Catholic, will send his son into the war to die for his country, but that will not stop him from robbing that same country through tax evasion or by ruining its companies. The national Pathos and the financial Eros make a grotesque union in our country.
An author with the very strong poetics of the absurd realism is Robert Perišić. In his book of stories You Can Spit on the One Who Asks for Us, the picture of two criminals and a three years old child, who can say only one word (Tuđman), going out to enforce payments is absurd enough to portray the entire absurdity of the Croatian situation in the mid nineties. Robert Perišić and Ante Tomić, with the book of stories I Forgot Where I Parked, introduced the subject of drugs and crime into Croatian fiction. Although present with us since the eighties, this subject enters its acute stage, some kind of the literature’s illness, only in the mid nineties. In this case, like in the case of the war fiction, the dictate of reality was too strong to be ignored.
Another great subject occurring within such mimetic fiction is the escape. The Croatian author Robert Mlinarec, in his best stories a sophisticated stylist, in the books Georgina’s Tears and Dream Weavers is persistently and showily running away from the Croatian reality, creating at the same time gentle and ironic stories about carpet weavers in Persia, love adventures in the Basque country, about the Swedish sea, Albanian brides and Indian boys that reincarnate in different lives through dreams.
The metaphysical ruins reflect also the family life and the marriage as a frequent theme in Senko Karuza’s impressive collection of stories entitled Busbuskalai, with a story about a house ghost that sometimes turns life into hell. Through this poetical fiction, rough and scoffing everyday conflicts from the closed world of childhood or marriage come out and warn us about important themes. For example the way of urination apprises of the essential difference between man and woman.
In a particular way absurdity appears also in the best stories by Miljenko Jergović, certainly the most prolific and most important Croatian prose-writer of the nineties. From Sarajevo Marlboro, through Karivan to the great book Mama Leone, Jergović has been writing a personal and a collective biography, rather impregnated with absurd realism, produced by the Sarajevo war situation in his first prose book Sarajevo Marlboro to some soft variant of emigrants’ stories in the book Mama Leone with the crucial existential fact expressed in the answer to the Shakespearean question: is the small animal found dead in the toilet bowl of a summer house a rat or a squirrel.They are stories after which we keep silent with sadness in the heart and a question mark in the head.
Some authors who became established in the eighties were publishing also in the nineties. However, what distinguishes the literary nineties from the eighties is, first and foremost, the attitude towards reality, towards intellect and toward communication. Fiction of the nineties was escaping greatly from a recognisable reality, making it estranged by a series of things that were a heritage from the previous generation of Borges followers or fantasy writers. These are manly the writers gathered around Quorum magazine, who are thus called the Quorum generation.
Fiction in that period was certainly not dominant, and that one that appeared, is actually outside some recognisable mimetic fiction concept. Cult books from that period are Impossible variant by Stanislav Habijan and Midnight boogie by Edo Popović. However, the most prolific writer from that period, who continued to write good books in the nineties as well, is certainly Damir Miloš, and his novel Nabukodonozor in some left way marked the nineties.
As far as the attitude towards intellect is concerned, the difference between the eighties and the nineties is clearly visible. The fiction of the eighties is filled with theory, and one of the main virtues of the authors is theoretical enlightenment and clear attitude toward tradition which is recognised and used, that is which is used in rather non-transparent way. The fiction of the eighties is certainly intellectualistic. The fiction of the nineties is anti-intellectualistic. Characters of primitive people appear, those who do not care about culture. Writers often make clear distance towards intellectualism as something boring, incomprehensible and useless.
Fiction concepts of the eighties certainly include certain lack of transparency, inclination towards experiment, what surely requires a certain type of literary educated audience. An experiment of fiction, no matter if it is a short story (dominant form in both periods) or novel, presupposes the writer’s closeness and the reader’s exclusivity. Writers of the nineties care, obviously, about a wider audience and thus they write much more communicative texts, stories written for an average and literary unenlightened reader, whom, regardless of his educational level, can find certain pleasure in reading them. The nineties are certainly the years of stories and of fiction. Namely, as opposed to the eighties when poetry dominated, both in amount and in quality, in the nineties fiction became dominant literary type.
Miloš’s novel Nabukodonozor is by all means a child of the nineties and it merges the both tendencies. It is certainly the most communicative novel by Miloš, a writer who is very much inclined toward linguistic experiment, innovation in grammar and especially in syntax. Miloš added this grammar experiment to elements of detective stories, thrillers and horror.
SummarisingAs far as summarising, listing and describing literary texts is concerned, one could not say that the nineties brought a lot of reviews and anthologies, certainly not much as was expected in the last decade of the century. That especially refers to the description of the concept of fiction of the nineties themselves. However, there were some which I would like to emphasise.
The first one was made by Dr Krešimir Bagić, with the title Postmen with Light Sleep, after the title of a novel by Stanislav Habijan. This review includes the fiction of the Quorum generation, with some excursions to the nineties. For instance, the fiction by a poet Krešimir Mićanović, gathered in the collection called Gardener, can be put on the border between the eighties and the nineties. Silvija Šesto made a review of the fiction that was published in the first dozen of issues of Plima, and called it Plimaši. This is certainly fiction that poetically belongs to the nineties, even more so because it includes mainly young authors (pursuant to the concept of the magazine).
Finally, critics Dalibor Šimpraga and Igor Štiks do the most part of the job, by making the anthology 22 in the Shadow, which is actually the only anthology of the fiction of the nineties. The choice was accompanied by the introductory essay by Šimpraga and postscript by Štiks. One should also mention here the choice from the fiction of nineties made by Kruno Lokotar in English for the magazine Bridge, entitled The posterity of Kamov: young Croatian writers of the nineties, and a selection of Croatian fiction from the nineties made for the Slovenian market by Robert Perišić.
In any case, the majority of these authors take mimesis, the introduction of new topics (for instance drug addiction, war and social issue), the domination of short story, communication, the return of the fable and anti-intellectualism, as the key determinant of the fiction of the nineties. Within this view of the fiction of the nineties, a story about the young man who sees a broken mirror in the garbage and searches for his face and identity in it, is a metaphor leading us very clearly to essence.
, 13 May 2000
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