‘He chose an island in the Adriatic, not far off the Istrian coast… But the air was heavy, it rained, the hotel guests were provincial and Austrian, and he missed that close, calming contact with the sea that only a beach of soft sand can provide. It wasn’t exactly the place he had been looking for.’
Thus begins the holiday of middle-aged professor Gustav von Aschenbach, protagonist of Thomas Mann’s celebrated novella Death in Venice. By far the best-known literary description of the Istrian island of Brijuni, it is hardly the glowing endorsement the local tourist board might have wanted. Thomas Mann visited Brijuni with his wife in May 1911, but soon tired of the place and headed for the city of canals and gondolas instead. Here Mann came across the people and places that inspired the rest of his story. And instead of writing a book that might have gone down in history as Life on Brijuni, he wrote Death in Venice instead.
The idea of a grumpy old Mann fleeing everyone else’s idea of paradise is an appropriately ambiguous introduction to Istria’s fleeting presence in world literature. The peninsula certainly boasts enough bookish references to keep the guide-book writers happy: fourteenth-century scribe Dante mentions the scattered graveyards of Pula in the Divine Comedy, Jules Verne uses Pazin as a location in his 1885 adventure Mathias Sandorf, and James Joyce famously spent the winter of 1904-5 teaching English to Austrian navy officers in Pula. However Dante lived a rather long time ago, and there is no evidence he actually visited Pula in person. We know for sure that Jules Verne never set foot in Pazin, relying instead on postcards sent to him by the local mayor. James Joyce did spend six months in Pula but his dislike of the city is legendary, his letters describing the place as ‘a back-of-God-speed place – a naval Siberia’. Istria for Joyce was ‘a long boring place wedged into the Adriatic, peopled by ignorant Slavs who wear red caps and colossal breeches.’ The locals were at least forgiving enough to give Joyce a statue, which can be seen sitting outside the Uliks (“Ulysses”) café in the centre of Pula.
The habitual belittlement and humiliation of the Istrian people inspired Croatian writer Vladimir Nazor to produce the one work of literature with which almost all locals identify. Veli Jože (“Big Joe”) is the tale of a tall gangly Istrian peasant who is exploited and abused by Italian-speaking masters. Big-hearted Jože refuses to go under, and in Nazor’s hands becomes a metaphor for the quiet dignity of Istria’s long-suffering countryfolk. Intended as a patriotic fable for children and young adults, Veli Jože may well contain lessons for the contemporary foreigner too: never underestimate the Croats, especially when playing them at football. Veli Jože was translated into English by Martin Mayhew for Rijeka’s Naklada Kvarner in 2015, although it’s quite hard to get hold of.
Slightly easier to find is British novelist Tony White’s underrated travelogue Another Fool in the Balkans (2006), one of those perceptive and offbeat books that offer something of an antidote to the straw-hatted, Zorba-ate-my-donkey narratives that blight English-language travel writing elsewhere. It devotes a good ninety pages to Istria and stands up very well as an informed and sympathetic travel companion. When it comes to Pula, White is intrigued by the James Joyce connections but doesn’t allow them to lead him astray, embarking instead on an unorthodox agenda of his own. He goes off in search of Pula’s historic cinemas, tracks down Seventies’ movie star Igor Galo, and props up the bar at the cult café of local boxing legend Mate Parlov. Each of these quests reveals aspects of the city that other books rarely reach.
Elsewhere, there is no shortage of writers who have come to Istria in search of inspiration and gone home with a satchel full of scribbles. It’s just that they’re not always available in the English language. There is however one great Istrian novel which does have an international reach, and it comes from a quarter that does not easily fit into the Croatian national canon. Here the subjects are not the Croats, but the Italians who were pressured to leave the peninsula after World War II. Fulvio Tomizza’s Materada (named after the village between Buje and Umag where Tomizza was born) sets a bitter family land-feud against the backdrop of a society slowly being torn apart. Written in the style of an Italian Neo-realist film, Materada evokes the gritty, hard-working culture of the part-Italian, part-Croatian rural population. Significantly, it is set in the early years of communism and examines the ambiguities of the new order: the wily and the resourceful jump onto the bandwagon of the new regime, while those who allow themselves the luxury of critical distance are manipulated or elbowed aside. Despite being a hit in Italy in the 1960s (where Tomizza had moved in 1954), Materada wasn’t translated into Croatian until 1986. Hopefully, the English version (Northwestern University Press, 1999) is not too hard to get hold of – this is the one Istrian novel that is worth slipping into your travel bag.