review

Krleža seen by French critics

Six of Krleža's books have been translated into French: The Burial at Theresienburg (short stories, Editions de Minuit, translated by Antun Polanšćak, preface by Leon-Pierre Quint, Paris, 1956.), The Return of Philip Latinovicz (novel, edited by Calman-Lévy, translated by Mila Đorđević and Ciara Malraux, Paris, 1957.], The Banquet in Blithuania (novel, edited by Calman-Lévy, translated by Mauricette Beguitch, Paris, 1964.), I’m not Playing Anymore (novel, Edition de Seuil, translated by Janine Matillon, Paris, 1969.], Mars, Croatian God (short stories, Edition Calman-Lévy, translated by Janine Matillon and Antun Polanšćak, Paris, 1971.), The Ballads of Petritsa Kerempuh (Edition: Presses orientales de France, translated by Janine Matillon). All these books were well received. We give here some extracts from criticisms (Maurice Nadeau, Léon Pierre Quint, Claude Roy, Marcel Schneider, Robert Bréchon, Jean Bloch-Michel and others) who provide various insights into Krleža`s work.

The article was originally published in Most/The Bridge literary review (number 3-4, 1979).



Maurice Nadeau [under the title „A Great Yugoslav Writer“] devotes an entire page in France-Observateur of June 20, 1956. to the appearance of Krleža’s short stories - The Burial at Theresienburg - from which we have various characteristic extracts:

The Burial at Theresienburg by Krleža will give to many the feeling of a real revelation...

The selection of stories which the Editions de Minuit give us represents only one aspect of his vast output. lt seems sufficient to give us an idea of his style. Krleža is a realist. Tough, harsh, caustic, enemy of all concession in his descriptions of suffering, of unhappiness or of mere provincial boredom. But a realist, dare I say, a radical, and one who not content with describing appearances, strives to show the social and human implications, attacks their very roots. By this, he transforms their common and traditional aspect, reveals them to us in a new light. The result is most strange: he destroys at its base the solid and enslaving world, which is generally the world of realists, to transport us into a hallucination where everything takes its own place: life, death, suffering, unhappiness and the thousands of relationships of men in society, relationships which he shows us to be founded on brutality, lies and ignorance more than friendship, tenderness and love. His picture, however, is not black in the fashion of our modern writers, it is in fact often humourous and poetic...

The problem of the positive vision with which more or less every revolutionary writer contends, does not appear in Krleža. He leaves to the reader the job of drawing an obvious moral from his stories. It is true that his task is easier than that, for instance, of Soviet writers: it is the old bourgeois, feudal, provincial and backward society that he thrashes, criticizes and denounces, this „prison of nations“, founded on racism and servitude, which was the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. He shows us its vertical cross-section, from the aristocracy and the decorated army officers, kept in the tradition of privilege and honour, to the uneducated and savage peasant, very close to profitable animal fodder and to cannon-fodder, passing through the various samples of the povincial bourgeoisie which more or less lives in a state of asphyxia. The surprising thing about Krleža is that the picture of all this greyness is not drab. On the contrary, it is highly coloured and full of pity, of humour and of poetry. in this world marked by the unreal, things are sharply outlined, men in relief, shadow and light in sharp contrast.

He is unmatched, or at least as great as Andreas Latzko, Ludwig Renn or the Hemingway of A Farewell to Arms, in the war novel. Just like Balzac, this realist could equally well be a visionary. indeed, since things aren't going too badly at the moment with Belgrade, what is Moscow waiting for to place Krleža next to Gorki, among the real masters of »socialist realism“?

Léon Pierre-Quint is the author of a long preface (to The Burial at Theresienburg) from which we here present a few extracts:

The general concept of art is very personal with Krleža. It doens't fit into any religious truth, nor a class truth, nor into a thesis as such, in other words into any dogmatic truth which would only be a partial interpretation of reality. His principal characteristic is the diversity of his register, the theme being taken up sometimes in the form of lyrical or epic poems, sometimes in a theatrical form, sometimes in the form of novels or short stories. But, for Krleža, the literary genre has less importance than for other writers, for Krleža’s characters are often symbolic; they parade before us associations of images of the world, of art, of sexuality; they live in a world of -fiction, full of hauntings and evocations of the past, transposed in a manner highly personal to the author. There is no doubt that Krleža triumphs in short stories, when he lends a dominant position to composition, tightens his methods: his thought then gains a force which corresponds to that of man himself; his dialogues, whether they concern poor peasants, civil servants, petty bourgeois or fallen aristocrats, are remarkably well-adapted to the characters who speak and they are of a striking and gripping force... Krleža compels us by a realism which reminds us of Huysman rather than Zola. With its crudeness, its violence, its intense brilliance, its force of scandal, this realism presents itself above all as a power, destructive of conventions, as a perpetual struggle against man's need to idealise life, to live it in the form of an idyll, in other words of a lie. Finally, Krleža's realism reflects a privileged aspect of „truth“ in art... His favourite devices are satire, humour, sarcasm, irony, jeering... Krleža knows full well that absolute revolt, like anarchy, is not a position that one can maintain for long. But it indicates the way. By its intransigence and its harshness, it allows us to reach the wretched heart of man and of those who call themselves his „equal“. This is how Krleža's realism becomes a kind of humanism. - What’s to be done? asks our author. - How can a man be hidden? wrote Valery, in brief. In answer, Krleža revolts against the revolt of his heroes, almost all failures and impotent, mocks their demands, turns them into subjects of derision, as did the Flaubert of Bouvard and Pécuchet.

„Miroslav Krleža, Outstandig Contemporary in Yugoslavia“ is the title of an important article by Marcel Schneider in Combat, which he devoted jointly to the novel The Return of Philip Latinovicz and to the collection of short stories The Burial at Theresienburg. Krleža is a Renaissance man in the force of his personality, in the breadth of his knowledge, in his openness of mind and his insatiable curiosity. To say that his knowledge is encyclopedic runs the risk of misleading the reader, who might think of some vast dictionary, of some frozen repertoire of adventures of the human mind. Krleža's knowledge is lived, transformed into living matter: in his very being he presents a summary of civilization.

Much more than a revolutionary in the present sense of the word, Krleža is destructive and negative. It is not by means of either discursive thought or dialectic, albeit Marxist, that he comes to reject society as it has been moulded by recent centuries, but because he lets himself be carried along by a sort of personal affirmation, by the hallucinatory vision he holds of the universe. His revolt is above all the postulation of his personal genius. His theatrical characters are inspired by puppets and buffoons, and the heroes of his novels are pushed as far as caricature. Even objects don’t escape Krleža's rage: well before Sartre, he shows them degraded, slimy and musty.

It is that the world’s comedy seems to Krleža even more ridiculous than sad: an aristocratic revolutionary, he judges everything in relation to grandeur, and everything seems to him miserable and mean. Such is Philip Latinovicz’s state of mind.

Ferociously individualistic, a visionary poet, it is indeed a poetic message that Krleža gives us: „to risk one's personal life and to lose it, this signifies renouncing the self“, which echoes Rimbaud’s words.

„As a Tribute to Krleža“ is the title of the article devoted to Krleža by Claude Roy in Libération (Paris, 1957.]:

Krleža’s work is one of great violence, and at the same time of great subtlety, and is not always of easy access. Among the writers known to us, to whom we can refer in order to place Krleža, who in fact resembles no one, there is the Sartre of Nausea, the Céline of Voyage to the End of the Night, Bernanos and Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller and Proust. He is of the same stature as such men. Like theirs, his work is one which we receive first as a shock, like a blow in the solar plexus. To read Krleža is to like seeing stars and staggering. One is seized at the throat by stifling odour of decomposition and death. The climax of the fall of the ancient Austro-Hungarian society to which a writer like Robert Musil also invites us, is war. Krleža wrote some of the most frenetic descriptions of war. With masterly strokes, he opposes the ceremonial aspect and the parades of an army of caste with the daily horrors of butchery. Face to face with these beings, caught in the futility of their fate, for whom life is but a slow process of decomposition, or else - A ROLE LEARNT BY HEART – vainly Consumed in - THE NOSTALGIA FOR A GREATER LIFE - Krleža from time to time presents characters who seem exemplary to him. In The Return of Philip Latinovicz it is the admirable female character Xénia Bobotchka. Xénia is poor, old, abandoned by fortune. She remains, however, in this soiled and bent universe, completely pure, living by instinct and the heart, a human miracle of graciousness, sinceritiy, authenticity. It is one of the most moving female portraits of the European novel. But this call to the virtues of „sincerity“ and „authenticity“ does not fully express Krleža’s „message“. His work appears, firstly, both as a long cry of revolt, and as the process of a revolt limited to itself, chewing over its anger and despair, condemned to sterility and inanity. Krleža said one day that socialism was the hope of the world, but that socialism had not yet found writers worthy of it, worthy of the themes which it proposes to humanity. It has always been on its guard before orthodoxies, outlines and ready-made formulae. It seems to me, however, that it is to this heretic of communism that we owe one ot the most true and beautiful figures of a communist militant in modern literature. This is the character of Kounei in the short story „In Extremis“. Krleža has not made him an image of Epinal, a Marxist icon. With regard to him, he keeps the distance needed to remain lucid and precise...

Krleža, pessimistic writer of rottenness, genial fiddler for the danse macabre, also knows how to be the painter of modern sublimity. We must pay tribute to Krleža, a great Serbo-Croatian writer, a great European writer. Robert Bréchon has published an important study in the Paris review Critique (June, 1958.) under the title „Approach to Krleža“. This „approach“ throws into relief the relation between the „slimy“, „viscous“, and „over-abundant“ world of Krleža with that of French existentialism, taking into account the fact that „The Return of Philip Latinovicz“ was published (in 1932.) six years before Sartre’s Nausea:

A man from Zagreb created, more than thirty years ago, a fictional universe that reminds one of Sartre, of Malraux of Bernanos, of Céline and of Henry Miller. There is, then, in this work, something that is immediately familiar to us. The most striking point of Krleža's work is the contrast between the prodigiously rich and colourful vision of a world full, swollen, abounding in things and beings, teeming with forms, with sounds and colours, and the feeling of emptiness of existence which he experiences before the world and which is the origin of his „Angst“. This world overflowing with matter is a world of dirty waters, of rotten fruit, of excrement and refuse; a world of death, where time has stopped. The human body is flesh which spreads, a thing obscene, like the stomach „bare, enormous and white, like fresh bread on the baker's tray... swollen, soft and spongy to the touch like yeast“ which Philip Latinovicz sees when he goes to the „ladies“ for the first time. Krleža's world is a world of over-abundance, of indigestion, a sickening and tepid world of „unsettled digestive systems“ and of „drunken breath“, and his fundamental experience is of nausea: things exist, there are too many; they are „de trop“; the world is a cancer. Philip Latinovicz’s case is particularly enlightening: the theme which dominates the whole novel is that of the bastard. If Philip has no „base“, it is because he realized one day that he knew nothing of his origin; without a father, he is nothing but a „small deteched parcel of land“, a man of no place, of no relevance in the world. And all Krleža’s heroes are in a way bastards, ambiguous and solitary beings, beings with neither hearth nor home, child prodigals: Philip, one day in his youth, when coming home to his mother, found the door closed and stayed outside. He stayed outside all his life then. Man in Krleža feels himself in a definitive manner, to be separated, severed, thrown into a strange and incomprehensible world, far from the centre where the heart of the world beats; incapable of developing into an autonomous being and of really becoming a man. The lives of all these people in search of their „essence“ are „sick childhoods which last a whole lifetime“, efforts accomplished by chance, questions which remain unanswered.

The innumerable images in Krleža which describe a world that is dirty, rotten, slimy, bent represent not only the spiritual situation of an individual or the human condition in general. They also represent the disease of a society, the crisis of a civilisation. In Krleža, metaphysical anxiety and historic drama seem to be inseparable. His nausea toward things is of the same nature as his nausea toward the show put up by the society which surrounds him. In both cases it is a sense of the same fundamental insufficiency. The misery and the ignorance of the peasants and the workers, the pharisaic attitude of the bourgeois are, as much as illness, boredom and death, particularly striking symbols of this insufficiency; as if in this Austrian Croatia of the beginning of the twentieth century, the human condition was weighed down with a double curse, that of nature and that of history... Krleža excels in the evocation of the bland taste of this nauseating and tepid life, like weak tea, which is that of the cities of Europe „in the twilight of an ancient civilisation“. Even Vienna, adorned with the prestige of a capital, is insipid, asleep, a false capital. In pre-war Croatia, province of a province of Europe, life is then doubly inauthentic...

In this absurd and miserable world where „all is but an ailing hallucination“, how can one be a man? Faced with the imbecility of this „society of cannibals and pharisees“, the reaction of Krleža’s heroes is a cry or a gesture of complete revolt. It is for fear of facing reality that men shelter behind objects, attitudes, rites and myths, which constitute a civilisation; human gestures „by which we can protect ourselves, like behind screens, from the realities and truths of life“, „children's toys“ which are „religion, the stupid Christmas decorations, idylls“ and all forms of comfort. In order to live authentically, thinks Philip, to find the real flavour of life again, you have to extract yourself from the mould, as did Bobotchka, who never obeys conventions, but her temperament. In the whole of the society of Kostanjevets, this capricious, whimsical, „easy“ woman is really the only one who becomes fully „engaged“ in life, who takes her life seriously and doesn’t act „as if“. She brings with her intensity and tragedy; she is ruining her life and that of others.

Philip is an intellectual, a man who sets up „problems“ for himself and „devours himself like a scorpion“. His neurasthenia is accompanied by a „mania for destructive analysis“ which dries up the life in him. The lucidity of Krleža’s heroes, which safeguards them against becoming dupes, also blocks them. A powerful inhibition prevents them from acting, feeling and living for the moment. With all these Hamlets, consciousness is secretly experienced as a disease of the being, like an obstacle to happiness. lt is not exactly a question of „saving himself“, for Philip, by producing an oeuvre, but of giving meaning to his life by drawing meaning from the world in which he lives, and of thereby establishing himself in a new domain, beyond the human if you like, but in fact the only truly human one, in a universe that is at last significant, freed from chaos. „I believe, says Philip, in the purity of artistic knowledge as if it were the only purity left in the world of beasts which surrounds us!“ The role of the artist will be to paint this bestial world to allow its spirit to burst forth.

 

Le Monde, Paris, May II, 1968.

Novelist, poet, essay writer, playwight, critic, Krleža imposed his presence on the literary scene at almost the same time that the unification of Yugoslavia was confirmed - at the end of the First World War. A Croat by origin (born in Zagreb,in 1893.), and bound by the essential part of his work to Croatia, he was able to transcend the limits of „regionalism“ to become a European par excellence. Critics have often evoked, on the one hand, the relationship between Krleža and German expressionism, and on the other, the numerous elements which his universe has in common - from the geographic as well as the aesthetic point of view - with those of a Musil, of a Kafka, of a Svevo or even of a Rilke. Situated at the extreme limits of a part of Europe which, in spite of everything would like to be Western, Krleža was also present at the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of which Croatia formed a part. This disintegration, together with a pronounced taste for wrecks, constitutes the major theme of Krleža’s work as a whole: he never ceases to explore - with the vengeful if not morbid delight of an admirer of Nietzsche and Strindberg - the roots and sequels of the „Austrian complex“, „the administrative and military servitude, symbolised by heavy monuments, ridiculous chattels of the soap-opera tradition, the favourites of Franz-Joseph and a hybrid atmosphere through the clouds of which the poet seeks his soul“. These words by Jean Cassou characterise well the atmosphere which one finds in Krleža's best works. A shadow of the most overwhelming kind fully immerses his Return of Philip Latinovicz, written in 1932., whose hero, a „decadent“ intelectual, feels trapped well before Roquentin, in the nauseating opaqueness of existence [Sartre himself was surprised by the resemblance of his hero with Krleža's]. The same can be said of his dramatic cycle The Glembays, which projects, through the aforesaid family, the sombre decadence of the Croatian high bourgeoisie, as well, as of his numerous poetic anthologies including the Ballads of Petritsa Kerempuh, his masterpiece written in Kajkavian dialect.

 

ON THE BANQUET IN BLITHUANIA, Gazette de Lausanne, -964.

It is a strange and engaging book, the exceptional importance of which can be recognised in the first pages, by the tone of voice, by the breadth of its purpose. For, in short, it deals with a portrait of Europe, which is ever-present behind the characters who talk or are talked about. About Europe of the inter-war period, or more precisely about that part of Europe which was picking up the pieces of Musil’s Kakania and which never ceased, for twenty years, to be torn apart or to tear herself apart, a prey to the most ferocious ambitions, to the most anachronistic passions, although in appearance, they were of the soundest basis. Nations which didn’t know if they were as old as the world, or whether, on the contrary. they had been born yesterday and were attempting to prove to themselves their existence, just like adolescents, by a mixture of aggressiveness, weakness and dreams of grandeur. The most contradictory ideologies ended up by being indistinguishable from one another, since they used the same means to establish their reign. The Banquet in Blithuania is this:

How it happens that all demands for justice and dignity, when they become established or are expressed by violence, become transformed precisely into pure violence, forgetting their motives, and how the noble ambitions become transformed into a taste for power, whether it be a question of maintaining it all costs, or of seizing it by any means.

However, if this novel also contains this, it has nothing of a political dissertation about it. Krleža does not describe the conflicts; he makes men speak and live. It is through them that the world’s fate of which he speaks, is drawn, a fate which merges with their own.

......

... The characters among whom the drama is constantly being woven and acted out by them and others are, for the most part, puppets, created or aroused by the benevolence of capricious fate, bearing the face of the master who, for the moment, rules the country. Baroutanski, Nielsen and Karine alone escape the grotesque. But whether it be archbishops or generals, confessors or conspirators, ministers or diplomats, the very game in which they are drawn along, more even perhaps than their character traits, obliges us to consider them just as sordid marionettes. Nevertheless, the author avoids, or seems to avoid leading us: the characters themselves are the ones who speak, who speak about themselves, thus tracing their own silhouette.

The comic element in The Banquet in Blithuania is not funny, or at least not often so. But though it may not create laughter or smiles, it appears as a sort of sane reaction to situations about which it would otherwise be impossible to talk. It survives on the affected seriousness with which the author speaks or makes his characters speak. For it is mainly by making them speak that he shows them to us. Interspersed with often lively and violent scenes, the novel is constructed mainly on the alternating monologues of the characters in the action. Monologues by Baroutanski and Nielsen, but also by a priest, a politician, a conspirator...

Through the dialogues and monologues of the characters, and without anything seeming to be forced or simply contrived, Krleža achieves his object, which is that of all novelists: to write a book where it is normal to talk about everything; to inscribe in it an image of men and of the world which doesn’t leave anything in the dark; to make the novel into that totality which it always strives to reach and so rarely attains, to make it into a true reflection of the world about which artists dream incessantly and which they try, with their diverse qualities, to incorporate in their work...

... Pamphlet, novel, The Banquet in Blithuania is one of those rare books where the abundance od themes, the richness of thought, the vigour of tone give the reader the impression that a sort of generosity is being heaped upon him. And this is rare enough today to be worth stressing. One must add that the translation is excellent.

(Jean Bloch-Michel)

 

ON L'M NOT PLAYING ANYMORE, Gazette de Lausanne, March I, 1970.

Moliere, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, it is not by chance that these names come to the pen when speaking of Krleža. One could add more, namely that of Flabelais, from whom he no doubt learnt the power of a way of seeing reality which can unite the comic with elements of anguish: the baroque enumeration. It is not mere chance, for if there existed a geography of literature, Croatia would figure as one of the most favoured spots. At the junction between Eastern and Western Europe, between Rome, Greece and the old Austrian Empire, open to the Slav world, it is not surprising that it gave birth to such a rich, original and at the same time composite writer as Miroslav Krleža, who was thus able to draw from all the sources whose currents flow by his door. Trieste was to Svevo what Zagreb is to Krleža, and although they are not quite contemporaries, there are many bonds between them. Indeed they both stem from places full of richness and at the same time tensions. What was both a multiplicity of riches and a permanent split, leads Krleža to an absolute claim: he feels himself to be an heir of European culture, but also the witness of a perfectly original culture. Heir of Europe and of this country, Krleža also grew up in a period of revolt. He was born Austrian; he was a subject of the Serbian king then persecuted by Pavelić, the basest of Hitler’s allies and perhaps the most blood-thirstry. In I’m not Playing Anymore, the truths which the narrator throws at the face of the bourgeois who surround him remaind one of those accusations against those who were on the side of the Nazis - and the book was written in 1938. All this mob was humiliated and soid, Krleža's Rabelaisian - or Gogolian - verve plunges them into their muck, with the support of baroque enumerations and tasty neologisms, unleashing speech carried away by anger, hearty and full of laughter. For we must understand that Chrysostome in I’m not Playing Anymore hardly suffers from the misfortunes which his sudden sincerity brings upon him. On the contrary, it was before this that he was unhappy; it is now that he lives.

It has been said of this book that it is a precursor of Camus and Sartre, as was said of Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke. No doubt existentialist literature was indeed born in places where, well before we were conscious of it here, the absurdity of life, the burden of history, the reality which is formed by events and our daily behaviour, imposed themselves with greater force.

That Krleža, like Gombrowicz, was a precursor of existentialist literature, stems from the fact that both of them found themselves, before we did at the crossroads of contradictory cultures which obliged us to re-examine everything.

(Jean Bloch-Michel)

 

BETWEEN GOGOL AND KAFKA, Le Figaro littéraire, Feb. 23 - Mar. I. 1970.

From a veteran of Serbo-Croatian literature, a controversial, violent and ambiguous work comes to us. This novel published in 1938., in a bourgeois society. In a provincial and cramped town, a man, already in his fifties, suddenly declares: I’m not Playing Anymore! He denounces the meanness, hypocrisies, unscrupulousness, in a word, withdraws from the social game. Is this Don Quixotte, touched by grace? Is it an unbalanced neurotic? The reader must judge for himself. His family and a whole mob, faithful to the establishment, inflict upon him an avalanche of chastisement, persecuting him to the last breath. In spite of some lengthiness, sarcastic verve triumphs, his work coming close to Gogol and Kafka. Miroslav Krleža denounces, lashes the baseness of bourgeois life. He is a novelist of great stature.

(Robert Sabatier)

 

A DISSIDENT, La Quinzaine littéraire, Mar. 16-31, 1970.

This symptom-novel tells the story of a man „who has been sleeping for thirty years, awakens, gets up and begins to walk amidst the chaos under theimpulse of a small, simple truth, logical and as clear as can be“. For having said to a tyrant of a provincial capital, to a „national benefactor“, that he is „criminal and depraved“ to boast about the murder of four peasants who wanted to steal some bottles of wine from him, Krležas sacriligious hero, a lawyer who up till then had lived his whole life „like a tidy zero in a crowd of tidy zeros“, sees a scandal break out which will make him lose his position, his family, his belongings, and which will lead him from prison to prison, from hospital to a lunatic asylum. His argument occurs both at the level of language and of the novelistic form: I’m not Playing Anymore is constructed like a puzzle and resembles the „state of question“ rather than a fresco, in the traditional sense. Some chapters are masterpieces of inspiration in all its forms. This „visionary“ of Yugoslav letters - and Slav - is presented today to the French public with perhaps his most striking work.

[Vladimir Balvanovitch]

 

I'M NOT PLAYING ANYMORE BY MIROSLAV KRLEŽA, Combat, Feb. 5, 1970.

It would perhaps be easy to see in this remarkable book nothing but a mere caricature of the society of a small town in the East. Indeed, the author, by illustrating it, denounces „human stupidity“, which afflicts the East like the West, in fact everywhere where the petty bourgeois is sufficiently naive to play at being great or powerful... We all know that truth pays badly, and Krleža's protagonist will end his life amidst madmen, excluded from society as a non-conforming specimen. A rather scathing humour appears on every page, throwing into relief the workings of the customs of certain societies which, through an over-eager search for civilization, find decadence...

And furthermore: can we not ask, thirty years after the production of this work, if in our turn, we are witnessing an evolution such that we should smile at the situation or else worry, as we turn towards the mirror to see if it would be wise to revise the rules of the game and to lift the mask?

(Michel Bourgeois)

 

THE SOLITARY BEING, THE PEASANT AND THE SPARROW, Les lettres françaises, May l, 1970.

I’m not Playing Anymore is a monologue full of holes, a sort of wild protestation which goes round in circles and loses itself in the sand, a kind of twisted discourse where, in sweeping strokes, the absurdity of existence is drawn. I see that they want to place this work by Miroslav Krleža in Kafka's waters, which to me seems wrong! The absurdity here does not open out into general action, or into metaphysics. lt is not the human condition which is questioned, but man's condition in a given society; that of the years marked by the rise of fascism in Italy and in Germany, by the Spanish war, by the Munich agreement. Krleža's hero reaches consciousness at the point where he realises, quite clearly, the absurdity of the social duplicity around him.

The grieved and tortured aspect of Krleža’s book, an acute reflection of the years in which it was written, comes from here: from this revolt which becomes its own judgement. What leads the hero to his final despair, is expressed in this short sentence: „I don’t know what I want“, there, that’s it. I know what I don't want, and indeed, this doesn’t mean much. We would have to set against this „notion of man“ mutilated by the officiating and the officials of the rubbish mill, a notion of man capable of overcoming stupidity. The truth is that we should know, in the end, what we want! In the strange journey of Miroslav Krleža's hero, this quinquagenary who has decided not to play anymore, and his wound, it is there that we must find them: in this furious impossibility of being.

(Hubert Juin)

ON THE BALLADS AND MARS, CROATIAN GOD „A TRAGIC AND GROTESQUE WORLD“, La Quinzaine littéraire, Jan. 16-31, 1972.

If after the short stories of Burial at Theresienburg, one could be tempted to see in him a fantastic cousin of Kafka's, The Return of Philip Latinovicz and Banquet in Blithuania thrust upon us soon after another image, that of a classical novelist seized here by an existential Angst and there by an epic and truculent lyricism. Then I’m not Playing Anymore plunged us full into black humour, into an absurd world where language itself was breaking down. With Mars, Croatian God, we return to the source, to the origin, since the four short stories contained in this anthology, written during the 1914-1918. war, were the first texts published by Krleža. We recognize, already germinated, in the „Royal Home Guards of Hungary“, the detailed writing, the precise, almost obsessional description, in the „Battle of Bistritsa Lesna“, the denunciation of the absurd mechanisms of society, of the fatality which weighs upon the humble, in the „Death of Franio Kadaver“, the hallucinating painting, at once surreal and terribly crude, of the ills and vices of humanity caught in a trap, all these elements which characterise the diverse styles of the author. And we already find this blend of an anxious shudder and frenetic language which hover over the whole of his work, underlie it, and confer a secret unity upon it, in spite of the variety of masks. The four short stories of the collection are not equal in quality. The shortest are those where the author's scratch is sharpest. They are also the richest in incidents, in tasty details and in sub-plots, dozens of destinies entering and crossing in the web of the same plot, and always on the same, grinning backdrop: the war. The horror of war and the blind stupidity of the army are revealed through the suffering and downfall of men. Blood, pus, slobber, excruciating pains have as a counterpoint instinctual impulses, the rush of smallpox victims to the vendor of obscene photographs, or that of the wounded, in the clinic at the front, to alcohol and the nurses when the director, the officers and the doctors are diverted under an enemy attack and abandon them to their own devices. In a lush style, Krleža throws us into the heart of a tragic and grotesque world, of a monstrous, pathetic humanity which drowns its terror of an incomprehensible death in drink or in fits of laughter. Mars, Croatian God, work of an old student of the Austro-Hungarian military school, is without doubt one of the most just and ferocious books, along with Voyage to the End of the Night, that has been written against the war. Freeing himself from his imaginings and his hatred, from his tragic reality, the writer Krleža affirms himself directly. And what he says, as if arising from the depths of horror, should be considered by army headquarters.

(Claude Bonnefoy)

 

THE CARNIVOROUS COLLECTION, Les lettres francaises, Feb. 19, 1972.

Translated for the first time in 1957., Miroslav Krleža is now known to the French public. Predrag Matvejević, who wrote the preface to Mars, Croatian God, was justified in deploring the delay with which, often, Slav works have been discovered. Thus, it took nearly fifty years for us to receive three of the four short stories of Mars, Croatian God (one of them was published in 1957. by Les Lettres Nouvelles, so Predrag Matvejević tells us, but I must admit that I don’t remember). Yet, with his first short stories, Miroslav Krleža already proved his mastery of narrative and of language of which his later works are no less brilliant an example. At least that is the impression which the French translation conveys... If abusurdity is only hinted at in „Hut 5 B“, it is widespread in „The Death of Franio Kadaver“ which begins and ends with a suicide. The action takes place in the smallpox pavilion of another hospital. As the first suicide made a deep slash in his throat, it becomes a display for the girls outside who are caught in the same situation as the patients. Kadaver himself is always at prayer: for the sin which brought him there, for the sin of having made the wall the previous night, for all his sins past, present and future. An absurdity which marks the very life of Franio Kadaver, an absurdity even more glaring because man, perceiving it only in terms of sin, fails to name it or even to discern it, while at the same time he is a victim, like the others. The writer has a sense of imagery, a cruel one, which strikes, and we don't need much imagination to construe a world bristling with absurdity, with blackness, with brutality, causing hallucinations, the Krležian themes of absurdity, strangeness and nausea.

(Anne Villelaur)

 

MARS, CROATIAN GOD, Le Canard enchainé, Dec. 22, 1971.

Numerous French or German novelists have retraced the horrors of war with skill. But almost always adding, implicitly or explicitly, a touch of romanticism, a pinch of grandeur, a shade of historic justification. Perhaps even a hint of nostalgia. The great Yugoslav writer, however, sees in war nothing but the abominable expression of a pyramidal, monstrous, final imbecility.

A masterly book, where the despairing humour scratches the heart out.

(Roger Semet)

 

MARS, CROATIAN GOD BY MIROSLAV KRLEŽA, Nouvelles littéraires, Jan. 31, 1972.

In the manner of his fellow Slavs, the Croatian Krleža reflects in his work the ridiculous and miserable aspects of existence; and what could be more miserable than a military hospital during the First World War! There the world and its drama are transformed through a screen of blood, pus and shame. It happens, however, that a kind of shudder disturbs the apathy. The first fruits of the revolution are bacchanalian, an enormous uproar which ends just as it began, in other words, without reason, whereas the „mothers of our hangmen“ sit once again at the table of count Axelrode, great master of the day. But at the „Poulette“, this other hospital, at the smallpox pavilion, the soldier Koukets suddenly sees the light. He spreads the good socialist word and invites his fellow-critizens to drive away the shadows of the Middle Ages which, in the end leads Franio Kadaver to despair, for he prefers to hang himself rather than to hear the others flout his naive faith. In a tone in which vigour vies with analytic finesse, Krleža had the bold nerve, ten years before Céline, to display a crude gallery of „deaths on credit“. 

(Bernard Vives)

 

MARS, CROATIAN GOD BY MIROSLAV KRLEŽA, Combat, Feb. 10, 1972.

Although the four short stories contained in „Mars, Croatian God“, were written during the First World War, their reading reveals a unique voice, brilliant control and, no less significant, an extremely personal approach. The absurdity and the horror of war, the stupidity of the army officers, the shabbiness of the hospitals, where syphilitics and amputees agonise in the name of a similar patriotic, pseudo-sacrifice, outline fully the path which Krleža follows in his later works.

Indeed, the dominating impression, in reading his stories, is that of a world tragically condemned to absurdity. And this absurd cruelty of the world which turns man, more often than not, into an automaton - a slave to war and to parties - is found both in The Return of Philip Latinovicz (written in 1932. and published in France in 1958. by Calmann-Levy) and in I’m not Playing Anymore (written in 1938., published by Seuil in 1970.). It ferociously propels Krleža`s explosive revolt, his remarkable challenge to human stupidity.

We must applaud the publication in France of these short stories. The translation by Janine Matillon and Antun Polanšćak is excellent in all respects essential to Krleža’s work, which with its remarkable richness, transcends the Slav context as such to figure in an international, not to say internationalist context.

(Michel Bourgeois)

 

KRLEŽA'S BALLADS, Le Monde, July 4, 1975.

The Ballads of Petritsa Kerempuh by Miroslav Krleža, UNESCO collection of representative works, Oriental Publications of France, traslated from Kajkavian Croatian by Janine Matillon.

The similarities and the transitions which exist between a literarily abandoned idiom and a modern literary idiom which he never ceases to exploit (or defyl) allow Krleža's virtuosity to play at the very confines of language, above and beyond the word.

By thus raising more than one problem, which linguistics was later to take up, this leftist writer discloses an engagement much more profound than what is usually understood by this term: a real creative enterprise! Petritsa Kerempuh, a sort of popular bard, resembling Till Eulenspiegel. sings in a laughing and tragic tone, playful and full of premonition, groaning with humour and with macabre flights, a song in which are mingled all at once peasant drollery and semi-learned sayings, the imagery of a fair and the rigour of an old book of spells, folk roguishness and the refinements of culture: the Croatian nation is confronted with the bloody „jacqueries“ of its history, with its own destiny. Here, it must be said, we are far from edifying stereotypes or from cheap populist propaganda! The Ballads were for a long time considered to be untraslatable, particularly into languages with no dialectical or literary „adstratum“. After the Hungarian and Ukranian translations, as well as fragments which appeared in German, this astonishing work is now presented to the French reader. Janine Matillon, who was involved with the book for several years, has achieved the miracle.

(Predrag Matvejević)

 

 

English translation by Anna Hargreaves

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