The Spirit of the Kakanian Province

Dubravka Ugrešić

Artwork by Yohei Oishi

An Inner Map

Provincial train stations with their apricot-hued facades and window boxes of pelargonia (take a train from Zagreb to Budapest!), architecture (hospitals, bureaucratic buildings, schools, theaters), cuisine (sacher torte, cabbage and noodles, Kaiserschmarrn, Tafelspitz, dumplings, and poppy-seed noodles), city parks, and the Czech last names sprinkled through the Viennese telephone directory (like poppy seeds on a kaiser roll)—these are not the only ways to recognize a Kakanian landscape.

I am no expert on the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, I hardly even rank as an amateur, but I have a sense that the monarchy stamped a watermark on the souls of its subjects, an internal landscape, the coordinates of periphery and center. The center became aware of itself thanks to the periphery, the periphery grew to know itself thanks to the center. One went from the provinces to Vienna for the opera, to Budapest to buy the latest hats. After all wasn't it a child of the periphery, a postman's son from Sarajevo, who shot Kakania in the head, and afterwards things in Europe were never the same?

The Croatian Kakanian Novel

Croatia lay on the outskirts of Austro-Hungary. I don't know much about the times, but I do recall a few odds and ends from the history of Croatian letters. I remember, for instance, that the protagonists of Croatian novels at the turn of the last century studied in Vienna, Prague, or Budapest, and that aside from Croatian, they used German, Hungarian, or Czech. The detail that a person went off to Vienna to study caught my youthful fancy; it seemed so noble, though it is also true that the characters in these novels could barely make ends meet. And if these protagonists were writers, as some were, their poems were occasionally published in Prague, Budapest, or Viennese publications, to the envy of their milieu. That, too, had a noble ring. The Kakanian metropoli have long since lost their attraction and pizzazz. The center moved elsewhere. I'm guessing that today's writers in Prague, Budapest and Vienna envy the rare compatriot whose name appears as a contributor in The New Yorker.

While I was leafing through a few Croatian Kakanian novels (which I'd last cracked in high school), I felt I was working not with literary texts but genes. It was like discovering something we have always known but failed to attend to, like discovering a birthmark exactly where it was on our parents, children, grandchildren. At the same time, the literary critic in me grumbled while reading the ongoing episodes of these provincial literary soap operas, which have been going on for a century. Ah, picking up old books again is so often a disappointment.

I will say something about these novels in thumbnail sketches, as befits them, like the episodes of TV soap operas, or teletext. All the examples come from the Croatian literary canon and are required reading in high school. At their center there is invariably a male protagonist, and his life's destiny is told in first or third person. The structure of the novel follows a type, like the window-box pelargonia of Austro-Hungarian railway stations. These literary heroes are distant relatives of Werther and Childe Harold, cousins to the Russian literary heroes, those who would be dubbed "superfluous" by literary critics after Turgenev's The Diary of a Superfluous Man. The type— the high-strung, over-sensitive, educated misfit or outcast—such as Griboyedov's Chatsky, Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Lermontov's Pechorin, Turgenev's heroes (Rudin, Lavrecki, the Kirsanovs, and Bazarov), Goncharov's Oblomov and others—proliferated throughout the Slavic literatures and is exclusively the characteristic of the male literary lineage. The women in these novels belong to one of three varieties: a) the young, beautiful, noble, and patriotic girl, who is abandoned, as a rule, by the hero; b) the femme fatale (often foreign), who toys with the hero; c) the unloved, quiet "sufferer," who follows the hero faithfully to the end of her days.

The First Suicide

The novel Janko Borislavić by Ksaver Šandor Gjalski was published in 1887 (we are already twenty years into Austro-Hungary at this point). The novel is a belated romantic work on "Faustian problems of the spirit," as Croatian literary criticism of the day deemed it. Janko Borislavić is a Croatian landowner who, while studying abroad, is torn by doubts as to his course of study, theology, and returns to his estate in the Croatian Zagorje region. Here he falls in love with charming Dorica, though love, thinks Borislavić, is "fickle," turning a "chaste, holy virgin" into nothing more than a "simple organ for prolonging the species." Possessed by the "intellectualistic" restlessness of the period, steeped in Schopenhauer's philosophy, and, of course, a fear of women, Borislavić in his long internal monologues polemicizes passionately with the books he has read. He leaves Dorica and ventures into the world, where he spends six years, sinking into greater and greater disappointment. Human "stupidity" is "eternal and absolute" and everywhere.

"Ha, ha, for that you, my Diderot, Rousseau and you other unfortunates who were so gifted with human spirit, for this you wrote those volumes of wisdom! In vain your efforts, futile all that work. Ah, so stupid, stupid is the world."

"Compelled by his Faustian nature, his inner fire, to track down the thousands of threads that compose the mysterious source of life," Borislavić travels. He leaves Paris, disappointed ("Eighty years ago you shed so much blood, alas, my Frenchmen!"); he stops briefly in England, where he cannot bear the "stuffiness of human society which lies in wait implacably to thwart all progress and then it serves up peace for the human spirit." From England he goes to America, but there he is put off by the "amalgam of inherited prejudices, the frenzy and struggle of individual wills and desires." Upon his return from America he disembarks in Germany, like "vast barracks of philistine phalanges." Borislavić returns to his native Zagorje, but here, as well, "human malice and stupidity revel in orgy." Again he sets out on his journey, again he returns, he has a "nervous breakdown," slits his wrists, and dies.

A Second Death

A somewhat later novel by Ksaver Šandor Gjalski, Radmilović (1894), has a similar plot. Here the hero, Marko Radmilović, is not destroyed by "world anguish" but by the environment of Zagreb, the place Radmilović comes to from the Croatian provinces. Radmilović publishes his poems and short stories in Czech, Polish, Russian, and other Slavic languages, they have even heard of him in Paris, but in Zagreb he is unknown and unrecognized.

"It is sad, so sad that such a writer is unknown! . . . Had he been born in France, Russia or Germany, believe me, the whole world would have known of him. But he is only a Croatian writer, he works on the threshold to the Orient, at the fringes of Europe . . . This could easily happen here with someone like Bourget, or another more vaunted celebrity. There is no such European or world fame which could so easily surmount our high wall, the wall of pervasive non-reading."

Radmilović is insulted by the "cannabilistic persecutions" of his colleagues, an environment which holds that the literary calling is not worthy of respect and where there is no educated readership.

"—So, I tell you, were all our literary institutions to collapse, were all our writers to breathe their last, the gentlemen here would not fall silent for so much as a instant, or even notice that something was amiss! But were the German Leipzig Press to stop coming out, heaven forbid, with its Familienblatters, its Buch fur Alle, or its pound-a-novel publications such as Sibiriens Holle, these men would be despondent . . . How many lovely Croatian women know the names of a Gundulić, a Mažuranić, a Preradović, how many of them would blush if you were to catch them unaware of Osman or Čengić? . . . Ah—yet heaven forbid that you come across a single one who knows nothing of the German Elise Polko or Marlitt!—for this we struggle, day and night, for this we sacrifice peace of mind and a sure existence, health, everything! Oh, Lord, where do we find the will to keep working?—This work brings us no sustenance, gives us no moral or ethical reward, no fame, no benefit to the people. Why keep working at all?"

Radmilović rents a small room in a modest dwelling where a girl named Stanka lives with her ailing mother. Radmilović finds a sympathetic soul in Stanka, but falls in love instead with wealthy, frivolous, beautiful Olga. When Olga becomes engaged to a more profitable life partner, Radmilović plunges into despair. With Stanka's help he completes his novel, The Sufferers. Radmilović and Stanka marry, leave Zagreb, and move to a provincial town. Though an attorney by profession, Radmilović finds work at a local attorney's office as an ordinary legal clerk. When a publishing house decides not to bring out his new novel, Radmilović publishes it at his own expense, but the literary critics dismiss the novel with scorn. Radmilović burns his own book in a fit of pique, suffers a nervous breakdown, and soon dies in a madhouse.

The same writer, two of the same endings—a person undone, descending into madness and death. Let us continue on our way and see whether the Kakanian Croatian writers offer us a more cheerful novelistic resolution after the protagonist returns from the metropolis to his native provinces.

Two Worlds

The hero of Vjenceslav Novak's Two Worlds (Dva svijeta, 1901), Amadej Zlatanić (the Croatian Mozart!), having been left early without parents, finds parental care and support in the local chaplain, Jan Jahoda (a Czech, of course). Jahoda discovers the boy's remarkable musical talent and seeks a scholarship for him through the local authorities, so that Amadej Zlatanić can attend the Prague conservatory.

"Among the smaller peoples—and that means you, Croats—such natural talents are often lost both out of poverty and the lack of understanding by those who should be seeing to their education." The local authorities turn down Jahoda's request ("Pane Jahoda, our children are not made for such things. We leave this to you Czechs.")

When Jahoda dies, Amadej sells his parental home for a pittance and goes to Prague, where he passes the entrance exam and enrolls at the conservatory. Amadej graduates from the conservatory with success, and his composition, entitled "Adelka" (the name of the girl waiting for him at home), is performed at the final student recital. With glowing reviews in the Prague papers and his diploma in his pocket, Amadej returns home full of hope and plans. He is given a modest salary as the local chaplain and marries Adelka. He sends his composition "Adelka" to Zagreb, but its performance receives bad reviews ("A homework assignment, in which the mostly familiar motifs have been reworked"). Amadej plunges into despair, his only solace being the appearance of Irma Leschetizky, the wife of a man involved in a future railway line (see, here are Austro-Hungarian railway lines and foreign women full of understanding!). Amadej spends more and more time with Irma. When Irma leaves, Adelka falls seriously ill. Amadej realizes he has been unfair to Adelka, the one person who is truly dedicated to him.

With the intention of relegating to "the shadows all arrogant talents" in town, the authorities introduce Rakovčić, a tambura player. Rakovčić's tamburitza ensemble is far more draw for everyone than Amadej's classical music.

"Mr. Z. played a Chopin piece on the piano which did not warm up the audience. Perhaps this does for the cold north, but in the warm south everything is more lush and heartfelt, even the music."

Amadej loses his job, and it is given to Rakovčić the tambura player. Faced with poverty, Amadej gives private lessons. Irma Leschetizky speaks for Amadej in Berlin musical circles. Amadej is made an offer to sell his compositions to a Berlin publisher, but he must relinquish the copyright. Amadej refuses, but when Adelka's health worsens, he sells his compositions to the Berlin publisher after all ("I go around the world, nameless, hence no one can see me.") Adelka dies, Amadej loses his bearings, the local authorities lock him up in an asylum, and he soon dies.

Vjenceslav Novak develops a similar theme once more, but this time from the perspective of a theory, popular at the time, of heredity. In the novel Tito Dorčić (1906) he describes the sad fate of a fisherman's son. Though all the people in Tito Dorčić's family are fishermen, his father compels the boy to pursue a different path in life. He dispatches him to school in Vienna (again Vienna!), where Tito fritters away his days, utterly disinterested in his surroundings and the study of law. His father's bribes propel him, somehow, through his studies, and he comes home and finds work as a local judge. The job does not interest him. His father's efforts are finally undone when Tito, out of lack of ability and carelessness, condemns an innocent man to die. Dorčić goes mad and drowns in the sea, returning to where he belongs.

We can add here that the time of mass suicides in Europe came a decade or so later, inspired by the Great Depression and Rezső Seress's hit "Szomoru Vasarnap." As the story goes, Seress managed to infect not only Central Europeans but Americans with a Central European melancholy. Supposedly people threw themselves off of the Brooklyn Bridge after listening to Seress's doleful hit in New York.

Another Suicide

Milutin Cihlar Nehajev's novel Escape (Bijeg, 1909) is thought by Croatian critics to be the finest novel of Croatian Modernism. Đuro Andrijašević, the protagonist, throws away two years spent studying law in Vienna (Vienna again!); he returns to Zagreb, where he enrolls at the faculty and passes all the exams. All he has left to do is his doctoral dissertation. His uncle, who has been sending him monthly financial support, dies without leaving Đuro the anticipated inheritance. Andrijašević is engaged to Vera Hrabarova, but he fears he will lose her because of his unexpected financial woes. The history of Andrijašević's fall begins the moment he finds a job as a teacher in a secondary school in Senj. Andrijašević finds everything in the small costal town boring and strange.

"It's not that the people are bad, they are not repulsive. But they are empty, so horribly empty. And the same—one is like the next. They have nearly identical habits, they even drink the same number of glasses of beer."

Andrijašević is not interested in the school and finds it difficult to write his dissertation. After waiting patiently for several years, Vera leaves him and becomes engaged to someone else. Andrijašević falls further and further into debt, spends all his time drinking and quarreling with a growing number of people, and is ultimately fired. In his last letter, which he sends to his one remaining friend, he hints at suicide.

"The only thing I feel is: I must put an end to this. I should escape altogether—flee from this life, so sickening, so disgraceful . . . Surely you can see that I have always fled from life and people. I've never resisted—I have stepped aside. And when I came in contact with the life of our people, a life in poverty and straightened circumstances, I fled. I fled from myself, not wanting to see how I was plummeting; drinking, awaiting the end."

Andrijašević, who "carries the tragedy of himself and others," ends his life just as his literary predecessor Tito Dorčić did, drowning one night in the sea.

Upon hearing these brief statistics, a naïve reader might conclude that Croats in the late 19th and early twentieth century used the sea for nothing but drowning. Fortunately, tourism developed in the meanwhile, which has truly vindicated the deaths of these fictional victims and reversed the destructive opposition of metropolis—province, at least during the summer months, to the benefit of the provinces. This, of course, happened in reality, not in literature.

The novels The Return of Philip Latinowicz (Povratak Filipa Latinovicza, 1932) and On the Edge of Reason (Na rubu pameti, 1937) by Miroslav Krleža are the literary crown of the Croatian Kakanian literary dynasty. The central figure of Philip Latinowicz repeats the trajectory of his predecessors: he is a painter, forty years old, who returns to his native region, Pannonia, from Paris after having spent twenty-three years abroad. The hero of On the Edge of Reason describes how he is gradually being destroyed by Zagreb's bourgeois environment, just as his literary predecessors were. Krleža's novels can be read in all the Kakanian, and many other, languages, and this availability is the only reason why these lines about him amount to little more than a footnote. Miroslav Krleža de-provincialized Croatian literature, imposing exacting literary standards. These standards were rarely later attained by Krleža's literary progeny, which is one of the answers to the question of why the canonical Krleža is still a despised writer in Croatia today. In an ideal literary republic, all other Croatian writers, including those mentioned above, would be nothing but a footnote—to Miroslav Krleža.

The Provinces—The Metropoli

Why am I dusting off old books that mean nothing to anyone except high-school Croatian literature teachers? Literature is not a reliable aide in detecting the everyday life of an historical era, nor is that its job. Literature plays within its coordinates, its themes, its genres, its language, and even if readers recognize truth in it, this still does not elevate literature to the role of arbiter in questions of what is truth and what is a lie. All the prose examples given so far nevertheless ring with a strikingly similar tone, the same web of motives about the dislocation of the intelligent individual from the environment and his state of forever being torn between provinces and metropoli. The hero's choice always favors a return to the homeland, the periphery, the provinces.

The stubborn permutation of the theme of a periphery that devours its young is made even more complex if we consider the real historical context, the way Croatia was torn between Austro-Hungary, their dream of independence, and a possible alliance of southern Slavs. Ksaver Šandor Gjalski's now forgotten novel In the Night (U noći, 1886) is surprisingly close to the contemporary Croatian political life of these last twenty years. The reader wonders: in 1991, just as Croatia was becoming an independent state, did Croatian political life truly regress to Gjalski's nineteenth century, or did it simply fail to move forward?

The self-pitying tone of the provinces resonates to this day. Perhaps the South Slavic states regressed by a century with the collapse of Yugoslavia, as if they were in a session of regressive psychotherapy. Or maybe they simply failed to move. They, too, are torn between options—pro-European versus anti-European positions, the Royalist versus the Democratic, a willingness to consider stronger alliances versus a more than glaring affiliation with religion, be it Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or Islam.

The colonized mentality has clearly carried on beyond colonial times. Sometimes it seems as if a colonizer-boogeyman is constantly crouching among the inhabitants of the former Kakanian provinces, whether in the form of a Turk with fez and saber, or a Hungarian, an Austrian, an Italian, a German, a Bulgarian, fascists and communists, Russians, Serbs, Croats, foreign banks, foreign capital, domestic capital, the Chinese, corrupt politicians, the geographic position, loss in the geo-political lottery, fate, or celestial constellations. The imaginary acupuncture points on the imaginary national body always seem to respond in the same way. An unending delusion—about independence and freedom, flight from one trap to another, infantilism, immaturity, aggression, passivity, and submissiveness (when choosing between confrontation and conformism, they choose conformism)—all this situates the periphery as the historical victim. Seldom can one remain normal with such a psychogram, the best one can do is to sustain a semblance of normalcy.

The question remains whether socialist Yugoslavia managed to emancipate and de-provincialize the mindset of its citizens. Apparently it did. World War II had ended. Yugoslavia had come out of the war on the winning side, a victor, which was already in and of itself enough to help most citizens repair their self-image. Tito said his historic "NO" to Stalin. Unlike their communist neighbors, the Yugoslavs had passports in the 1960s, a better standard of living, and open borders. Free schooling, a university education, and self-betterment as fundamental values, a communist faith that knowledge is power, self-management, the non-aligned-nations movement, tourism, festivals of international theater and film, a lively publishing industry, a number of cultural centers (Belgrade—Zagreb—Sarajevo—Ljubljana), and the general impression that life was getting better from one year to the next—all this was the praxis of de-provincialization. And yet texts that broach the themes of better and worse worlds, the periphery and the center, kept right on appearing in the Yugoslav literatures. And why not add the detail: the passport. In order to contemplate the theme of periphery and center, the author needs a passport that would allow him to cross borders without obstruction. The Yugoslavs had such a passport.

People Who'd Rather Be Sleeping

The novel-essay My Dear Petrović (Dragi moj, Petroviću, 1986) by Milovan Danojlić consists of ten letters, arranged in chronological order, sent by Mihailo Putnik, a retired returnee from America, to his friend Steve Petrovich in Cleveland. Putnik writes the letters to help Petrovich, who is wondering whether or not he should return to the old country. The letter-writer sits every day in Domovina (meaning Homeland) Café, and the name of the town is Kopanja. Kopanja is a wooden trough for feeding swine.

"Dizzy from the fact that you aren't needed," in a place where "wasteland enters at one door, and boredom sneaks out another," Mihajlo Putnik contemplates civilizations ("You and I no longer live in the same century," writes Putnik to his friend), the backwardness, paralysis, gloom, and lackluster life of the Serbian provinces, claiming that the Earth orbits more slowly where he is from, and that there is a special "delight taken in deadening," a "disease of sleeping," "relish of neglect and deafness," moments when you "forget where you were headed, what you were after, and you don't want anyone reminding you of it."

Putnik dissuades his friend from returning, claiming that what is drawing him back "is best cherished and held as memory."

"There is no real life anywhere for you and me. It is tough there, it is tough here, it is toughest of all with yourself. The trick is choosing the toughness that suits you best right now. As far as I am concerned it would be best if you could stand at the same time in several places, here and there, on your native soil and abroad, in abundance and poverty, in freedom and constraint, and to pass through all that, experiencing the one, while gauging its opposite; to be with your people (because you love them) and yet far away (because you find them disturbing), to serve and be served, to have and have not, never to be in one place with a single, final choice."

Putnik is merciless on the question of emigré illusions of home. He describes his "countrymen" who "seem to enjoy exacerbating their predicament: they aggravate it through laziness and fear, they worsen it by how unaccustomed they are to serious thinking"; their countrymen "would rather have been sleeping, walking in a dream, multiplying and feeding dream-like for fifty or a hundred years." Putnik is horrified by their stupidity, indifference, stubbornness ("Shout, they don't hear, write, they won't read. They have more pressing things to do. They are working to accomplish what they transcended in the beginning"), by their humility and their attachment to authority ("And the ordinary man is always standing with a man who is holding a cudgel"), their coarseness and malevolence.

Putnik furthermore dissects the delusions "our people" cultivate about themselves, tartly describing their traits, their arrogance, which comes from a suppressed "feeling of unimportance." He describes their obsession with death (funerals that, like weddings, last for three days); their penury, and how an entire philosophy of impoverishment has grown out of their poverty, troubles, and igno- rance; and "the skills of the poor." The skills of the poor are the "acrobatics of spitting into the wind"; the skill of stealing salt shakers, toothpicks, and napkins from cafés and toilet paper from public bathrooms; the skill of cursing. Fellow countrymen are suspicious of everything and everybody ("He would rather starve than taste something he has never eaten before"); fearful of the cold ("The poor fear chills"); they have an aversion to "fresh air" ("Drafts are, for them, demonic"); they fear exploitation ("Now that's an idea particular to the poor: to think that it is possible to live without spending life"); they are wasteful and rapacious.

"For the holidays, they burst with pork and lamb roasts, stuffed cabbage, and boiled pig's feet. The television and radio programs for those days are like broadcasts from provincial taverns. Truck drivers' songs ring out, hiccuping and burping reverberate, and comedians offer advice for how to cure hangovers. Instead of antacids they recommend brine. Once they've had their fill of food and drink, they strike up a circle dance. The radio and television sets wobble, the kitchen credenza trembles with glasses that are never set out on the table! When Ćira married, he used up a whole tub of lard. For centuries they have been dreaming of a tub of lard, the lard drips down their whiskers, dribbles into their dream."

Putnik holds forth on the servile nature of their "countrymen" and their "terrifying" capacity to adapt to things ("There is nothing they won't learn to live with"). He senses the virulence of hatred ("Their malice has drawn into a clench around their lips, it has settled in their pupils, nestled into their speech"); he is appalled at its force ("Nothing will save you. Not a single public success, no honor, no riches or glory, nothing will give you safe haven"); its longevity ("They have long memories, they are waiting to pay back in kind, they will wait a hundred years for the opportunity. They exact their revenge even from the innocent, only so that they can knock the evil out of themselves"); and the fact that it cannot be rooted out. "The word for hate, mrzeti, is too strong. Our people have come up with a word that is more endearing, more heartfelt: mrzančiti. I assume you haven't heard it, and I doubt you'll find a true parallel in English. Mrzančiti means to exude hatred, to hate in quiet, long, and with determination, in keeping with tradition, for no reason in particular."

The Metaphysical Palanka

Danojlić's novel is close kin to another book, published earlier, the 400-page long philosophical essay The Philosophy of the Palanka (Filozofija palanke, 1969) by the Serbian philosopher Radomir Konstantinović. While Danojlić's novel is more or less forgotten today, the Philosophy of the Palanka was and remains a cult book. Konstantinović promoted a new concept, he gave a new, more complex meaning to the old word palanka. The palanka is not a village or a city, it is somewhere between the two. The palanka is a de-territorialized and de-contextualized place, everywhere and nowhere, a state of mind, afloat between "tribal spirit, as ideal-unique, and world spirit, as ideal-open." The palanka experiences itself as cast off, forgotten, time left out of historical time, and then it bemoans its bitter fate, while at the same time turning this accursed destiny into its privilege. Being closed and forgotten meant being safe, while beyond, outside the circle of the palanka, rules the dangerous chaos of the wide world. Rigidity, petrification, a constant readiness for defense, a strong tribal awareness, infantilism, formulaic patterns of thought, fear of the unknown, fear of change, an apology for purity, innocence, and simplicity, the hermetic, a cult of the dead, security, normativity, conservatism, the static, anti-historicism—are only a few of the features typical of the world of the palanka. Konstantinović does not see the root of Serbian fascism in imitation of the German fascist model, or of any other for that matter, but instead he sees it in the palanka. The palanka is the model for Ur-fascism.

The Feast of the Periphery

One of the outcomes of the collapse of Yugoslavia, the wars, and new nationalistic state projects is the destruction of what had been the shared Yugolsav cultural space, the material destruction of culture (schools, cultural monuments, libraries, book burning, etc.), vandalism (the demolition of statues), and effacement of cultural segments (for instance, the era of Yugoslav culture). Every state that disappeared from the former Yugoslavia has reconfigured its own national culture. In the tumultuous process of reconfiguration, there are creative figures, works, opuses that have been dropped, some forgotten, some abruptly jettisoned, others degraded, de-throned, yet others over-valued in terms of the current national ideology and interests. There have been bad writers and artists in this time of over-inflating national culture who have been elevated to aesthetic heights merely because they were Croatian, Serbian, or Bosnian patriots. In the less than twenty years that the new states have existed on what was the territory of the former Yugoslavia, the cultural landscape has grown grayer, it has narrowed, and become provincial.

The dependent domestic media work to regurgitate political clichés which they have retrieved from nineteenth century political dustbins, and the crazed crowd soaks these up as if they are God's own truth. The domestic media and local politicians prattle on in a delirium about the national state, the ethnically pure and impure peoples, patriotism, heroism, defense of the homeland and patriotic honor, the enemy, his crimes against us, the national identity which had always been suppressed. Meanwhile, the foreign media exercise their almost knee-jerk colonialism, cranking out colonial clichés which ring true and convincing to their readers. They write of the terrible, wild, abandoned, uncivilized Balkans, communist repression, the consequence of which is a struggle of the little peoples for national identity and independence, while at the same time reinforcing the old mental divisions of Europe into its civilized western part and its wild, uncivilized eastern part. Here, of course, is the primitive, exotic, and bloodthirsty child—the Balkans.

Hence cultural texts are formed. The cultural text is a construct which assumes not only material factual culture but many written pages and miles of celluloid. The cultural text is a sort of meta-text. Metropoli create large and productive cultural texts. Vienna is one such cultural text. The Balkans are a cultural text. Kakania is a cultural text. The provinces are a cultural text.

The center is inclusive, the periphery exclusive; the center communicates, the periphery excommunicates; the center is multi-national, the periphery mono-national; the center is like a sponge, the periphery like stone. Whatever the case, the provinces are an inseparable part of the story of the metropolis, just as the center is an inseparable part of the story of the periphery. Only together do they make sense.

Fluorescent Fishermen

Some ten years ago, I cannot recall precisely when, I was out strolling along the Donauinsel during a visit to Vienna. The weather was warm, the shore studded with dozens of little restaurants, and the Viennese were out dancing the salsa. The warm summer evening, the swaying bodies, and the sound of South American salsa were nicely incongruous with the image of Vienna on the "beautiful, blue Danube." I saw something unusual on the shore: three figures wearing helmets, with beaming flashlights affixed, holding fishing rods and casting fluorescent lines into the water. The image of the glowing figures with their glowing fishing rods struck me, especially because I soon learned that these were my countrymen, just as in the old jokes—a Croat, a Serb, and a Bosnian. It turned out that they lived in Vienna and spent every weekend fishing on the Danube. I nibbled some cheese pastry with them, sipped brandy straight from the bottle (the real homemade stuff, plum brandy). Around us swirled the sensual strains of the salsa.

"Doesn't the noise disturb the fish?" I asked.

"Not at all," confirmed the fishermen.

Vienna suddenly shone with the glow of a metropolis. The salsa, the immigrants dancing with the Viennese, my happy countrymen—these fluorescent fishermen. The tolerant Danubian fish who weren't disturbed by the noise. I remembered that Zagreb is the only city I know which suffers from hydrophobia. While all the other cities I know embrace the shores of their rivers, Zagreb flees from the Sava to the foothills of the nearby hill, Sljeme, which I hope is not being touted as a mountain in all the new Croatian textbooks. As soon as he came into power, , Franjo Tuđman proclaimed Zagreb a metropolis. Of course he also proclaimed himself the Croatian George Washington. From his official position, from the mouth of the first Croatian president, poured the language of the provinces with a thundering inferiority complex. Our "little Paris," our "little Vienna," our Croatian "George Washington"—those are the tropes of the provinces. With this rhetorical figure, stuck like a burr to popular references, the provinces do what they can to leap on board the train of history and inscribe themselves on the map.

Culture As Utopia

Most of the culture of Europe came out of the vortex of these fundamental oppositions, from the dynamics of center and periphery, metropolis and the provinces, the palanka and the world. Today, at a moment when all the great Utopian systems have come tumbling down, when the political and social imagination has been exhausted, when the idea of democracy is spent, when the gray, cold mechanism of money has replaced all else, at a time when the five-hundred-year old Gutenberg galaxy is dying while the new, young, omnipresent Digital galaxy is ascendant, at a time of the barbarization of high technology, Culture suddenly looms large as a straw to be grasped at. Culture is suddenly the language, the reason, the goal. Culture has taken the place of the mumbo-jumbo of European political lingo and substance, and, hey, the main substance of European unification has suddenly become culture. Culture is the ideological Euro, the means of communication. Culture is the diplomatic language and the language of diplomacy. Culture is a field of struggle, an exorcism of superiority. Culture is the legal nursery of chauvinism, racism, nationalism, otherness, and supremacy (Dostoyevsky vs. Balzac). Culture is a means of transportation (Only with culture can we go out into the world) and a way to export value. Culture is a brand, culture is the vehicle of national identity (If it weren't for Ivo Pogorelić, no one would know a thing about us!), culture is the tourist industry. Culture is what countries are. Ireland is the land of James Joyce, France is the land of Marcel Proust, Austria is the land of Robert Musil, just as little Klagenfurt is where Musil was born. These are the people of Ivo Andrić, Miloš Crnjanski, howled Emir Kusturica at a Belgrade gathering, condemning the proclamation of independence for Kosovo Albanians. And the Kosovars must have separated, of course, only so they could steal culture, the sacred Serbian monasteries. James Joyce, who fled from Ireland, was dragged back there after his death and placed on the throne of Irish literature—and Irish tourism. Today his name and face are trapped on souvenir coffee cups. Even little Galway profits from the little house, now a museum, where Nora, Joyce's wife, was born.

So what is culture, then? Culture is a phenomenon that serves for all sorts of things, from money laundering to laundering the collective national conscience, and perhaps a recent event can provide the clearest illustration. Only two days after Joshua Bell, the famous violinist, had performed in Boston at a concert where people paid large sums to come and hear him, he performed the same repertoire at a subway station, except that no one stopped to listen, and he collected only a few coins in his hat.

The Kakania Project

Two decades ago the cultural construct of "Central Europe" surfaced briefly among intellectuals, and for a time academics and writers such as Milan Kundera, György Konrád, Joseph Brodsky, and others wrote about it. This construct no longer attracts interest, but one occasionally comes across mention of the "Kakania," as a half-hearted call for a new republic of writers, or a sense of shared geographical and historical space, or a longing for a new cultural construct. If we play for a moment with the Kakanian literary utopia, we will automatically find ourselves imagining this (and every other) republic of writers as a space of freedom. Why not do the opposite and try to imagine the Kakania republic in other ways: as a space of restriction, or a space of decontamination, or of deprivation, depending, of course, on one's perspective.

So we imagine that at the border of the Republic of Literature of Kakania the imperial officials demand of writers that they leave behind their passports and agree in writing to respect the Kakanian rules of the road. For Kakania is a literary republic, is it not? Aren't writers banned, while dwelling there, from strutting the stuff of their nations, their states (they are not literary soccer players after all), their ethnicity, their religious and political conviction? One must be forbidden from speaking of such things. The only visa for entry to the Republic of Letters should be a literary work.

Let us now try to imagine a conversation between two Kakanians, one who is respecting the rules and another who is violating them.

"So, you, too, are a writer?"

"Yes. Aren't we all?"

"We are, we are, we all put pen to paper, we do little else. But some of us are more successful at it than others. It is not the same if you're English or if you're Macedonian. And, by the way, where are you from?"

"Kakania. Isn't that obvious?"

"Why should it be? I'm betting you're Lithuanian. Come on, admit it."

"No, I am Kakanian."

"OK. Kakanian. I have nothing against it. I am a Czech, my mother is Hungarian, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. From the cultural and historical perspective, I have more right to call myself Kakanian than you do. But we aren't splitting hairs here, now are we. What language do you write in?"


"All of us are literate, we wouldn't be here otherwise. But whether you write in the language of Shakespeare or some fellow called Costa Costolopoulus matters. Come on, confess, I won't tell a soul."

"Literary language."

"You are really stuck on that. Weren't you baptized? And by the way, do you believe in God?"

"I believe in the muse."

"Jesus, what a stickler! And on top of it you've disguised yourself as a feminist. OK, so that's politically correct. The muses were women after all, so we had to include them in our work. But, do tell, my Kakanian, where do you stand on politics?"

"I believe in humanism."

"Humanism?! Blah, blah, blah . . . I haven't met anyone more boring than you in ages!"

I am afraid such a Utopian Kakania would soon lose its citizens. European writers are too used to lugging the baggage of their states with them, acting as its representatives, espousing its history, its political, national, religious beliefs, its communities and homeland. They are too used to not treating Others, no matter who those others are, as their own. If the Republic of Literature as described above, with all its rules, were to actually exist, it would be a dangerous test for Europe, for its foundations, and its future.

Most writers flourish within their state, religious, political, ethnic, and national communities, within their clans, institutions, publishing houses, readers, academies, their honors, and seldom do they toss out all the medals they have received and go out into the world as beggars, relying only on their naked talent. What happens to art when it is stripped of its context is best shown by the example of Joshua Bell. Everyone will spit at you, or even worse, they won't even see you. In any case your hat will be empty.

All in all, writers are only people, and literature is a complex, multi-faceted thing, just as the relations of influence and power, interrelations between the periphery and the center, between the metropolis and the provinces, between the palanka and the outside world are complex. The well-intentioned creators of European cultural policy and those who are putting it into practice imagine that relationship as if it were part of a fairy tale.

The prince meets a frog. "Kiss me," says the frog, "and I'll turn into a princess." The prince kisses the frog and, bingo!, it turns into a princess.

But the fairy tale could also go like this . . . "Kiss me," says the frog, "and I'll turn into a princess." "No, for the time being you suit me better as a frog," answers the prince.

Or, like this . . . "I'll kiss you, and you'll turn into a princess!" says the prince to the frog.

"No thanks," says the frog, "for the time being I would rather stay a frog."

translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac

Used by permission of Open Letter Books. Karaoke Culture, from which this essay is taken, will be out in stores in late Oct 2011.

Click here for more information about the book.

All artwork by Yohei Oishi.