Books Croatian NightsMy literary companion during 5 days in Croatia has been Croatian Nights a joint effort of 19 stories by Croatian and British writers.  Most were born after 1965.  The stories are said to have been written in 2003-2004.

The Croats display a imaginative daring, mixing reality, dream and imagination in seamless stories that lift off in unexpected way.

The opening line of the opening story, “Araby” by Miljenko Jergovic begins,

God forbid you dream Ivan Zavisin’s dream, people used to say…

and carries on with Ivan’s story that intersects with that of a small boy named Aladdin, who has a sharp Finnish knife “that gleamed like the three light houses at the Cape of Good Hope ” and three men in dark cloaks whose speech, at 50 paces was pure Venetian, at 45, Spanish and 20, Sicilian… Ivan, it turns out, has dreams but not his own. A remarkable tale.

Niall Griffiths in “Split,” a city familiar to anyone who has been to Croatia, and Ben Richards in “Storm” contribute stories of British tourists caught in threatening encounters with Croats; both involve heavy drinking — which as we’ve seen in our short stay here, seems to be an unfortunate part of young tourist culture. Griffiths’ is a take down of the British character, trying to match new experiences against British expectations with an uneasy sense the two might not match, that’s he’s in over his head. Richards two-steps a drunken encounter with the narrator’s relationship crack-up with a woman he at first can’t stand and at last desperately needs. Both keep our attention and introduce elements of Croatian life, at least as seen by pub crawling tourists.

Borivoj Radikovič deals out an almost unbearable story called “Relief,” about an encounter between two one time friends and involving a kind of PTSD experience and tale of cruelty, too late repented. I’ve not read anything like it, in its brutal honesty about brutal experience —  I assume during the 1990s wars.

Edo Popovič‘s little Christmas story is darkly funny. Three down and out artist friends decide to capitalize on the holiday season to make some easy money. Their market analysis and salesmanship don’t measure up, however, and they are left with the goods, and more crushing bills.

Quite a few of the stories are located in Zagreb,one in Split and another in the seaside town to Rovinj. None have the detail to create the cities in the mind but enough to remind you if you’ve been there. Several are about homosexual coming out, all of them sad. In fact all the stories are alt.urban stories, dark, post war, written by Croatian and British writer friends who share certain sensibilities and experiences.

No fishermen, boat builders, or tourist-employed; no farmers or butchers or shop owners. Instead, second rate bands, unemployed or barely employed, cultural legations doing small-time readings; fights or near-fights, several suicides, smoking and drinking — but not joyfully. No sense of the future,or  discovery, or a world waiting to be discovered. Several speak of the uncertainty of the transition from grubby socialism to grubby ever promising never delivering capitalism.

This is as it is, I suppose, but reader beware: this is a close and interesting look at a particular sub-culture not a sweeping mural of the whole country. Personally, I am always looking for how people respond to war, not to the fighting itself, but the effect materially and morally on the people caught up in.  With a war so recent in their history I was hoping for one or two stories about it.  Not to be.

One of the most entertaining stories is “Ultimate Fighting,”  An exile returns from 20 years in Berlin to stir up interest and capital for an Ultimate Fighting franchise. In a run-down bar, run by a certain “Cockroach,” he is mistaken for his serially philandering, and now imprisoned, brother. A brutal beating ensues, for (mistaken) wife seduction, and as he is being kicked in every part available he realizes he has found the perfect man to anchor his fighting stable. The cast of characters is well drawn; the story nicely ironic and told with zest.

Nice images scattered throughout. In a low-life bar

The old man really did look like those aging bandits in westerns set in southern Texas and burning with technicolor run riot. A half-breed with gray hair and the expression of a nervous dog that couldn’t find a tree to pee.

 And another.

The islands for the Zavišins were what the stars and other heavenly bodies were for other people. Places of inscrutable longing and mystery in which the human imagination most likes to dwell and where the bright side of the soul travels every night.

There are a few stories which, in the brutality of description, are almost unreadable, if powerfully imaginative: a tourist who releases his organs to visit Zagreb on their own, penis, kidney and lungs described in intimate detail; a prostitute who, after cataloging all the dicks she’s known, finds herself in a room with a peculiar and threatening client.

In short, a valuable collection of modern writing from and about Croatia but not, at times, easy fare. I’d be interested in seeing more in translation from some of the Croats, Vladimir Arsenjevič and Borivoj Radakovič  and Miljenko Jergovič in particular.  Zorica Radakovič writes a strong story about a lesbian coming out, retracted, and Jelena Čarija has a fight scene, involving a woman, as hard hitting as anything found between men. Quentin Tarantino would love it.

The translations, if they are — no one is credited, perhaps the Croats are writing in English– are fine, no eye catching infelicities, though the American or Canadian reader will be aware of colloquial British English, not internationalized for others.

“Slavic scallies, get to buggery, jacked in the job” and others.

The volume might be hard to find but look at www.serpentstail.com (which has quite an interesting list) for more information.

For a related posting see Coastal Croatia – War Wounds Healing, Sea, Salt Air and Sun –