The Regional as the Universal in the Planetary Village

Practicing a better life and the liability of mental borders

This literary intervention that is limited by space and time, and perhaps pretentiously titled, begins with a subtitle whose first part is a small wattle made by weaving the headlines of two emblematic books by two authors, our contemporaries, Nedjeljko Fabrio (Vjezbanje zivota or “Practicing Life”) and Fulvio Tomizza (Bolji zivot/La miglior vita or “The Better Life”). From the level of subject and theme, to the level of poetics and structure, the two writers transpose, in a literary manner, and individualize as authors specific material belonging to a certain socio-historical reality. In a complementary manner, they investigate the problem area of the Istrian and North Adriatic past, politics and, indirectly, general contemporariness. They describe a region of constant and live civilizational, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, as well as personal and other contiguities, conflicts and tensions, that sometimes turn into sore spots and are at a first glance difficult to understand and even more difficult to define. In any case, it is about conditions and intertwinements that eventually reach the level of most humanely, most genuine and sensitive relations, such as family relations or intimate relations that mark and determine every man’s destiny with a seal of uniqueness and inimitableness. In a larger sense, it is also about a unique area that represents a literal meeting-place of three great, ancient “worlds” of the Old Continent: the Slavic, the Roman and the German cultural and ethnic area.

The opuses of the two writers are aesthetically relevant. In Tomizza’s case, and now again in Fabrio’s writing, this is a convincing reality belonging to the European level of reception. Moreover, their poetical realization encourages a multilingual communication crossing all borders. On the other hand (and this applies to all enduring literary values), the cultural value of their works does not become initially exhausted within some regionally regionalist or strictly limited, provincial framework created in a hybrid cultural climate, on a bastard-territory devoid of air. On the contrary, the context of their works is a concrete space within a concrete time, both synchronically and diachronically speaking. One thing is undeniable: Istria, where I come from, regardless of what anyone might say, is in no way a bastard or a hybrid ethnic or culturological territory. It is least of all multi-ethnic or multilingual only then and there where its historical and today predominant Croatian mark (for almost one and a half millennium, quiet yet unavoidable) tends to be disregarded, suppressed and even denied by an amorphous ‘multi-culti’ formula as a platitude -something that used to be most familiar in the everyday, and especially local and social reality of the last decade.

It does not matter whether it is about Istria, or Trieste, or Rijeka, or even Dalmatia, in other words, the Adriatic land area – the peripheral situation is clearly felt, sometimes to a larger and sometimes to a smaller extent, but always intensively. The same goes for the presence of the border and the border-area in a literal sense, or the presence of the different and the bordering in a metaphorical sense. This peripheral situation sometimes even concerns the mentality, as well as intensive culturological interference (unfortunately not as strong and as motivated in both Adriatic directions). It even goes beyond all particular visions and vistas, relativising, for a moment, eyepieces, positions and points of view. Let us say at this point that recent history that has already taken place (in the words of the ) “in these areas”, toyed viciously with entire generations. Therefore, it can be said that a handful of mutual experience has in the meantime become a burden of the so-called great or, better said, “official” history, and a wound hard to heal on the souls of many a generation. I believe that Fabrio’s and Tomizza’s work, like a catharsis, paves the way for other solutions to many troubles and anxieties, once again confirming the old truth: culture, art especially, is a field where the communication with the other and the different is firstly created in a way that is special, more thorough and purer, open and responsible, and eventually more courageous. This last assertion is especially valid and actual when compared with what is done by “state” historiography and other similar disciplines.

Like many authors before them, Tomizza and Fabrio carry within themselves a certain dichotomy, which can be regarded at the same time both as a richness and a curse of origin and culture. That is to say, one’s own culture, as well as the culture of the other, the close, the similar, but also the different. The general prop-phrase about Tomizza’s Slavic/Croatian blood – his origin – and his Italian culture is a matter of individual destiny and choice, and has nothing to do with some possible ‘prescriptions’ belonging (not solely) to the Istrian common life.

A better life is, by all means, beyond, or somewhere else; a better life is perhaps only possible after the material life, where literature, even if it is grounded in a document or an autobiography, or if it contains different combinations of interrelations of reality and fiction, cannot move further from the canon of the Christian eschatology. The mentioned great history carries small destinies like a river. It washes them ashore, pulls them down into the depths of uncertainty, of comings and goings, of exodus, creation and disappearing, of love and hate, of understanding what belongs to the other and not understanding one’s own – all of this based on a historical underlying concept and a comprehensive survey of most distinctive historical periods and events. These events are localized in the micro-world of the most eastern Roman and the most western Slavic shoots as a referential meeting-place of ancient European (and) cultural complexes. It is also a possible experimental sample that is becoming a universe dying “with the death of every man.” In other words, in terms of subject, this area is more turbulent, unparalleled and unique than any other neighbouring region. The writer’s writes with a trembling hand, becoming a chronicler of this small world, of Tomizza’s rural cradle, whose position is always exposed. The micro and the macro levels, the local and the national, becoming saturated with the general and the global, represent the underlying concept for the subject-matter of many a life-story that is completely contextualized and whose plot takes place in a time parallel with the most important turning point in the local as well as European past, its recent and most recent history. National, ethical and ethnic discrepancies; revolutions that are not unambiguous (since they include various points of view); the evolution, suppressed and discouraged by every act of subversivism and violence; the painful question whether the native place is lost forever, abandoned as the result of the force of inevitability and one’s own decisions at desperate and bloody times. Finally, the question of all questions: to leave or to stay… Much has been written about this, but it seems never enough, never good enough, so that we could without encumbrance speak of literature, namely, those novels belonging to a sorrowful history, (rather than classical historical novels) viewed as such from a literary point of view solely, discussed only from a neutral, analytical aspect.

On the other hand, in Fabrio’s works we read about history as about a triad of barrenness, insanity and death. It is also presented as the last of the great human delusions, as well as an illusion that is finally repeated inasmuch as humanity does not learn from its own experience, causing generations after generations to witness what has already been seen and experienced. What Lübeck is for Mann, Dublin for Joyce, Gdansk for Grass, Trieste for Svevo and Saba, Materada for Tomizza, or Pula for Milan Rakovac at the time of Anglo-American administration and immediately after the World War II, the city of Rijeka is for Fabrio. In my opinion, Fabrio is, when compared to Tomizza, a more inspiring writer. With the poetry of his distinctive prose, the writer’s narrative plot follows several generations and lives of the members of two families, Italian and Croatian, practicing a life that is never learnt well enough and whose tragedy and absurdity, even in grotesque and comical situations, culminates in the separation of two descendants of these families, who will forever be separated by borders, exodus, politics, hysteria, and the all-devouring volcano of merciless history.

Istria, a small model of the turbulent planetary village, could finally start presenting itself in its true light of a meeting-place, a junction of noble and interchangeable intentions and projects. Istria could do so both as a theme and as a , or a , as a metaphor of progress that cannot come to being without past conciliation and the peace with the other and the different (as well as with oneself and within oneself). Istria could do so without mystification and the pathos of new mythologizations of today’s intellectuals and creators, and especially without the suppression of any constitutional identity.

I prefer to understand the “psychopathology of the border” – directly linked to the notion of globalization, that is both the fear and the hope of the smallest and those least protected – as a subject surpassed when people, their so-called great and smaller cultures, their languages, with which they express themselves, and finally various peoples start getting to know each other, especially in those areas where intensive past and perhaps painful meetings and contacts prevail. I intentionally try to avoid the word ‘interfusion’, since, strictly semantically speaking, it still does not take place here often enough.

I believe that it is unnecessary to make the “liability” from the title explicit, and elaborate on why it is first and foremost ‘mental’ or what those borders mean here and now – as a cause-and-effect syntagmatic range. If it is not too pretentious to say, the partial, the self-sufficient, as well as the global (as equalizing and sometimes at least somewhat deaf for particularities), can be interpreted as two sides of one and the same face of man’s situation in time and space. This is so since we are able to see, day by day, that every move and every problem, every beauty and effort, especially a spiritual movement, and finally all that is burdensome but hopeful, is today measured to the same scale of the mundane. In the planetary parallelism and synchronicity of times and periods, as well as co-existence of many a civilization on the same planet (where American steel-giants as symbols of global world power and Asian dusty and muddy hovels of those most humiliated are being destroyed with equal vehemence and fanaticism), it is upon mankind, even on our small dot of Central-European and Mediterranean civilisational matrix, to get rid of the spiteful reciprocity of good and evil and simply start working on an open mutuality, on serious, scientific demystification and demythologization of heavy burdens of history that weigh down upon the shoulders that are constantly bloody from the violence of historical liabilities and what are today not political blind alleys, but avenues.

Speaking from the perspective of the actual citizen (it is already tiresome and even pointless to speak from the transitional point of view, since we do not know what are the exact measures, reliable points of view, or to whom they belong), let us ask ourselves about the entropy that is so much wished for by entire peoples living on the other side of the former Iron Curtain. This is a rhetorical question about how lucky we are and what our chances are in this constant gap permanently stretched between autism, exclusiveness, the so-called left and the so-called right (in other words, quite black and relatively red), this or that totalitarian climate; constantly in a schizophrenic discrepancy between the notion of poorly interpreted nation-building qualities. This notion is proscribed, or denigrated, wasted by the superfluous use of the media, and somewhere even profaned in practice. It is also abstract and seems to be absolute to all; it is a superior notion of the state, like an altar that is an end in itself. As opposed to it, there is terror, the bloody regime of the unquestionable and undiscriminating, mostly unreserved and ostensibly post-ideological internationalism and mercantile cosmopolitanism. In the midst of it all, there is the narrow-mindedness of the most local campanilisms, that have nothing to do with the modern projection of the European regionalism . In the Istrian version, there is also a ten-year long aggressive imposition of measures of the homeland and black-and-white vistas of the world. I do not see a crucial difference between the identification of a party/movement with a state and a party/movement with a region. Moreover, I believe that such an unnatural and undemocratic ‘fusion’, appearing on a small and limited territory, is even more negatively reflected in the general social life, especially regarding culture and any other form of subtle creativity.

How can one remain one’s own to the maximum extent, and still participate in the togetherness of so many particularities that are, ideally speaking, in many ways unequal and incompatible with each other, and sometimes very much in conflict; the particularities that eventually and by fate have to look for one another, and that are, metaphysically speaking, most probably irrelevant?!

In any case, the one who is not liberated from his or her own inhibitions and obstacles cannot easily participate in those actions that have as their purpose more than just the ennoblement of elementary sociability or of the manifold plural form. He or she is also not up to a somewhat more demanding form of participation in any kind of normal human exchange of values of spirit, spirituality, esthetics, intellect… I am certain that it is not difficult to prove that the average are everywhere, which means that they at the same time unwillingly participate in all sorts of exchanges. This includes those exchanges concerning the European micro-world within which all of us exist and act, completely unaware of the most basic characteristics of our own culture and mentality, not to mention those of our closest neighbors. This is a fact that is not surprising, because there are too many false gods/idols/fetishes present in the civilization of death and superficial wooing on the line of perfidious exchange of the roles of victims and executioners, when sackcloth and ashes follow every social catastrophe. We lived through and partially survived one such catastrophe recently in Croatia, during the years of the Homeland War (1991-1995).

If we are talking of Istria only, especially Croatian Istria, then it can be understood as a constant experiment and the sore spot in Croatia. It has been used as such an experiment by anyone, both Croatian and foreign, for centuries. Even if it is our favorite native place, in the mentioned dimension and in existential terms, Istria is not necessarily a comforting environment. The situation is most similar in some other historical regions of Croatia. The reason for this is the fact that the micro-level in this context, if one takes into consideration all that is individual and collective, can potentially become a universal value.

Who is today the one to decide upon our fates? Why all this omnipresent all-over-the-field power of politicians that appear from everywhere and interfere with everything, understand everything, one and all a ‘Renaissance’ figure, and many of them apparently without their ‘nurseries’ (the German ), in other words, home upbringing and elementary education?! With a few honorable exceptions, of course. Who are they, actually? What are they really capable of? What is it that they do exactly? What do they know, want and are able to solve? A similar thing happens to anyone who is out of depth, who is inhibited and completely exhausted by ideologies and due discourse, who, after all, does not know how or where to place tradition in contemporariness of many possibilities that are liberated at last and have until recently been unsurmised and inaccessible. A similar thing happens to the one who still reads, letter by letter, the alphabet of controlling one’s own destiny.

To sum up, every liability, starting from intimacy, is a burden; certain conditions are always present, something is always a pledge, and everything has its reason and price. However, for a wise man with clear goals, dealing with liability, especially the one of the past and painful experience, is the only way of personal growth and development. It is an uncertain and yet open possibility of well-being of one’s own, of one’s family, as well as that of everyone else related; open and free in a world that is most quickly provinicialised and globally connected through evil and prejudice. It is a world in which all sorts of missiles of aversion and preposterousness, including those seemingly harmless, fly too frequently and more and more often catastrophically lose their course.
Read at a session of Zagreb Literary Conversations and the Regional Conference of P.E.N.; Zagreb, November 2001.

Published 4 April 2002
Original in Croatian
Translated by Ivana Polonijo

© Nova Istra


Share article


Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.