When it comes to world literature, Croatian cities don’t always come off all that well. Toss names like Dubrovnik, Zagreb and Split around in your head, and it’s unlikely that any novels will come immediately to mind. Rijeka, with its dockside warehouses and hillside-hugging tower blocks, looks as if it would make the ideal setting for a best-selling crime novel – if only someone would get round to writing it. However Rijeka does have the advantage of having produced several significant literary figures, ensuring that this is one Croatian city that does at least come with a worthwhile reading list.
One ought to start with Daša Drndić, whose death in June 2018 provoked an outpouring of tributes, revealing just how major a European figure the Rijeka-based novelist had become. She was one of the most profound writers of the present epoch, never fully recognized in her own country because the territory she covered – ethnic populism, fascism, genocide and the importance of historical memory – was still so raw. She is best known in the English-speaking world for Trieste (translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac), which examines the fates of northern Italian Jews during World War II, and was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013. Subsequent novel Belladonna (translated by Celia Hawkesworth) follows a similar trajectory, with a retired university professor untangling traumatic memories of an unforgiving twentieth century. Drndić was driven to write about ethnic intolerance and the Holocaust out of the very real fear that if those things are not remembered, or if they are remembered partially or incorrectly by people who find it advantageous to edit the narrative, then society is doomed to repeat the same mistakes. A polyphony of different voices – some fictional, some documentary – add up to a symphonic but grave portrayal of a continent still troubled by justice-seeking ghosts. Almost 100 pages of her novel Trieste are taken up with listing the 9000 Jews deported or killed by Fascist Italy between 1943 and 1945, as if to impress upon readers that the things described in her novels are not the product of artistic license, and each victim has a name.
Daša Drndić: Belladonna
Drndić is the biggest contemporary name in what is an active and ebullient local scene. Younger-generation writers are represented by informal collectives such as Ri Lit, who organize events and arrange writing workshops. Readings and book launches take place in literary hangouts such as Book Caffe Dnevni Boravak, or in the cult second-hand bookshops Mali Neboder and Ex Libris, both of which are a bibliophile’s dream. Big regional names attend vRisak, the week-long literary festival held each May; while a more international roster of scribblers and chatterers comes to town for the Festival of the European Short Story, co-hosted by Zagreb and Rijeka in June.
One younger-generation writer to break out into the English-speaking world is Tea Tulić, whose Hair Everywhere (translated by Coral Petkovich) was published by London’s Istros Books in 2017. An experimental, fragmentary novel that’s not at all difficult to read, it offers an engaging picture of family life in the Rijeka of today, full of vivid imagery and insightful observations. Somewhat edgier than Tulić are the short stories of Enver Krivac, who conjures a post-party pre-breakfast time phantasmagoria of marginal characters who still seem emphatically local, as if they could be walking down Rijeka’s Korso or sitting in
one of its cafes at this very moment. His short piece From the Waiting Room is available online.
It’s impossible to read or write anything in Rijeka without being aware of the long, seductively ambiguous shadow of Janko Polić Kamov (1886-1910), the local-born author, playwright, feature writer and dedicated nomad who blazed a comet-like trail through the Croatian avant-garde before dying in Barcelona at the tender age of 24. A precocious explorer of the seedy urban underworld of alcohol and brothels, Kamov wrote incendiary, immediate prose that didn’t fit in to any of the established movements of the time. Indeed if you came across Kamov’s prose without being conscious of the dates, you’d probably think you were reading the kind of up-and-coming author featured in today’s hip literary magazines. A new translation of Kamov’s short stories, Farces and Novellas (translated by Martin Mayhew; available as an e-book or a digital print from the usual online sellers), is a riveting introduction to Croatia’s greatest cult author.
Statue of Janko Polić Kamov
Perhaps Rijeka’s most lyrical literary voice is that of Giovanni Comisso, a name that is little celebrated in the city today because he found himself here for all the wrong reasons. An Italian soldier in World War I, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s proto-fascist rule over Rijeka in 1919-1920. However Comisso’s portraits of a tumultuous Mediterranean city full of beautiful women and handsome young men (Comisso was a hands-on connoisseur of both) would still speak to us today were they available in any other language than his native Italian. Here is Comisso talking about Rijeka in the months immediately prior to D’Annunzio’s arrival: “The city abounded with beautiful girls, the patisseries were overflowing with extraordinary sweets. Vast cafes offered all kinds of illustrated magazines, the most delicious zabaglione imaginable, drinks made from fruit syrup, coffee with cream, all served by the most obsequious waiters. Shops were full of perfumes from all corners of the world, the port was filled with Italian, English and French warships; every evening the locals invited the officers to house-parties which lasted well into the next day; we ate, we danced, we drank, it really did seem as if this was a city
overflowing with possibilities, a reward for everything we had endured during the war.” Although we should be in no illusions about the political context of Comisso’s writings, it’s difficult to see how a contemporary travel journalist could ever do better.