On a crisp Zagreb morning, I take my friend Linda for a walk through the magical Tuškanac forest.
‘Here is where the witches of Zagreb used to be burnt’, I begin my storytelling at the wide clearing just as we enter the woods. But Linda’s eye wanders away and fixes on the towering statue nearby.
‘Who is this plump man?’
‘Oh, this is Krleža, the greatest Croatian writer of the 20th century.’
‘Why is he so sad?’
‘He’s not sad’, I reassure he. ‘He’s just pensive.’
‘I see. It’s a heavy thing to be the greatest Croatian writer.’
Moments later, we approach the Tuškanac park. Her eyes light up and the questions flood in again.
‘And who is this lanky guy?’
‘This is Nazor, one of the greatest Croatian writers.’
‘Zagreb is full of statues of great writers!’ I nod.
‘In Canada, we only have politicians and soldiers immortalized.’
Zagreb loves its writers
Deep down, we all know that Croatian literary giants live among us in Zagreb. We may have heard the news of their statues being unveiled.
Some seem to have been here forever. We walked past them thousands of times. Sometimes we stop by and smile. But often we just look through them – only sensing their gentle presence as we stroll through the city.
I tell Linda this: Croatia is a small country and small countries have relied on writers to forge their national identities. Less than 200 years ago, Croatian language wasn’t even considered worthy of literary expression.
Writers changed that. They celebrated their mother tongue but at the same time connected Croatia to wider European art movements.
Linda wants to see all of them. So we go on the literary tour to meet the Zagreb immortals. If you track them down, like we did, you’ll walk through the prettiest parts of Zagreb. So put your literary hat on, take a camera and follow along!
Croatian writers: Antun Gustav Matoš
Would you ever take a selfie with an unknown man sitting by himself on a bench? With Matoš, enjoying the beautiful Zagreb vista, you would. This dead Croatian writer is the most photographed sculpture in Zagreb.
So go ahead. Take a selfie. And as you sit next to immortalized Matoš, remember two things. Cafés were his home and the purity of literature was his guiding light. Matoš (1873-1914) was born in the eastern part of Croatia, but he considered Zagreb his home.
As a military deserter from the Austro-Hungarian army, he fled Croatia and spent his most prolific years in European capitals. He acquired his French bohemian flair by lingering in Paris cafés. It’s where he learned of literary symbolism and modernism, especially through the works of Baudelaire and Mallarmé.
When he returned to Croatia, his work, especially travel writing, created a radical change. Writers followed his idea that literature should be valued only for its artistic and aesthetic expression. They also followed him to Upper Town cafés, turning Zagreb into a vibrant art scene. Matoš lives on in the city lore as a bohemian, sharp-tongued joker who liked communicating in riddles.
‘You enter through one hole, you exit through two, and just as you think you’re outside, you’re in fact inside. What is it?’ Matoš asked a group of friends. No one knew the answer.
‘Trousers, of course’, Matoš replied.
A. G. Matoš: The Solace of Hair
(translated by Ksenija Mitrovich)
I stared at you last night. Asleep. Dejected. Dead.
In hall dark, ominous, in idyll full of bloom,
On elevated bier, midst candlelighted gloom,
Resolv’d to sacrifice my own long life instead.
I didn’t cry. Did not. Just stopped, too stunned, like stone,
In hall dark, ominous, yet full of death so dear,
In doubt the eyes once dark this night would still be clear,
from which for me alas a better life once shone.
All dead indeed, all dead: the eyes, the breath, the hands,
All that desperately I wished I could restore,
In blinding agony, at frenzied woe’s commands.
In hall dark, ominous, in thoughts all grey and sore,
Your hair alone was though the one last shred alive,
And said: Be at peace. In death indeed dreams thrive.
Croatian writers: Vladimir Nazor
Dominating the entrance to the beautiful Tuškanac Park, Nazor (1876-1949) is depicted as a thin yet imposing soldier. The statue was erected in 1972 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Nazor joining the Partisans. He was Tito’s close associate and followed him even to the secret military headquarters on the island of Vis.
Nazor wrote a lot about the WW2, but his greatest achievements are in lyrical verses. They are passionately ecstatic, celebrating the eternal metamorphosis and sensuality of nature. When children are taught Nazor at school, they mostly remember his poem The Cricket as a tongue-breaker. The poem is also an ultimate challenge for foreigners learning Croatian. Try reciting the first strophe:
I cvrči, cvrči cvrčak na čvoru crne smrče
Svoj trohej zaglušljivi, svoj zvučni, teški jamb…
Podne je. – Kao voda tišinom razl’jeva se.
Much easier to read and still popular is Nazor’s early tale Big Joseph. Inspired by a folk legend, it features the kind-hearted giant Jože who protects people of Motovun (Istria) from wicked feudal lords.
Though Nazor’s statue is placed in a secluded corner of Zagreb, the ‘Vladimir Nazor’ prize for art achievements is one of the highest acclaims in Croatia.
Croatian writers: Miroslav Krleža
Exceptionally gifted children with bad schools marks are often told: well, so did Krleža. The greatest Croatian writer of the 20th century had D in Croatian literature. But, not long after, Krleža (1893-1981) was on the road to becoming a literary giant and a compulsory highschool read.
He was incredibly prolific across all genres, leaving behind more than 50 volumes of collected works. A sharp intellectual, remembered for his utmost scorn for human stupidity, Krleža was also profoundly researched. No other Croatian writer has an encyclopedia devoted to his life and work. Simply said, what Shakespeare is to the English, Krleža is to the Croats.
In world literature, he is mostly known for his novel The Return of Philip Latinowicz. But ask any Croatian literary buff and they’ll say… If you want to understand the country’s complex history and its mentality – read Krleža.
Famous Croatian actor Rade Šerbedžija had his wish granted when he inherited Krleža’s grey borsalino hat. That same hat travelled to Shakespeare’s Globe in London and was worn by Vanessa Redgrave while playing Prospero (The Tempest).
Krleža’s statue stands in the Tuškanac forest, opposite Villa Rein, where he spent the last 30 years of his life. His home is now a memorial centre, open to visitors on Tuesdays (11.00-17.00).
Miroslav Krleža: Longing
(translated by Carolyn Owlett Hunter)
This occurs in the autumnal night, when chestnuts are falling upon the asphalt pavement and when one hears the dogs barking from afar and one feels, irresistibly, a longing for someone who would be kind, our own most intimate companion to whom we could write a letter. We would reveal to him all that oppresses us. We would write to him a letter, but he does not exist.
Croatian writers: Marija Jurić Zagorka
Today, the statue of Zagorka stands in front of the Sun Clock in Tkalčićeva Street. Zagreb has at last tuned into her incredible legacy. But during her lifetime, Zagorka (1873-1957) was running way ahead of time. The first woman journalist in this part of Europe and a prolific writer of romance, history and crime novels, she remains the most widely read Croatian woman writer.
The statue portrays her with an umbrella. Yet, she entered the European cultural and political history holding a pen instead of a sword. Zagorka was a fierce enemy of the Hungarian Duke Khuen-Héderváry whose rule suppressed the use of Croatian as a national language.
When in 1903 the Duke closed down the Obzor newspaper, he also forbid people (read: men) from demonstrating. Zagorka found a flipside to this tyrannical and misogynist act and organized Zagreb women to demonstrate. European press reported her brave act with a caricature. It showed the Duke in his underwear fleeing the resolute Zagorka waving a pen in her hand.
Remember, this happened 20 years before the International PEN coined their slogan ‘the PEN is mightier than the sword’. The phrase survives as an emblematic advocacy for an independent press.
Literary critics often sneered at Zagorka’s writing, calling it mere entertainment. But her famous The Witch of Grič – a sequel about Upper Town infamous witches’ prosecutions – is also a call to women to rebel. Scandalously leaving her Hungarian husband for the passion of writing, Zagorka’s whole life was in a way a call to her compatriots to wake up to freedom.
Read the first chapter of The Witch of Grič in English.
Zagorka’s home (Dolac 8) is now a memorial centre, open to visitors Thursdays and Sundays (11.00-16.00).
Croatian writers: Marko Marulić
Colossal and guarding the entrance to the State Archives building, Marko Marulić (1450-1524) is portrayed writing even when immortalized. An acclaimed spiritual writer of his time, his work reached libraries across Europe. Thomas More as well as the English King Henry VIII studied Evangelistarium – Marulić’s work written in Latin.
At the time when cultured Europe communicated in Latin, Marulić did the opposite. In 1501, he wrote his greatest epic poem Judith in Croatian. This earned him the title of father of Croatian literature as well as the Croatian Dante.
Judith is based on the Biblical story of the brave widow who saved Bethulia by murdering the Assyrian general Holofernes. But Marulić’s message is allegorical. He speaks of the fearful times when his hometown Split was threatened by the Ottoman invasion.
Another achievement to remember Marulić by is the word psychology. How many times have you used it without wondering about its origin? The etymology is clearly Greek: psyche means soul, spirit, breath. But it was Marulić who first defined the notion of psychology in its global modern sense. Think of that next time when you go on holiday to Marulić’s hometown Split.
Croatian writers: August Šenoa
Leaning against an old-style advertizing column in Vlaška Street is August Šenoa (1838-1881). What is he advertizing? Most probably Croatian literature. Šenoa is known as the father of the Croatian novel and the writer who single-handedly created the Croatian reading public.
He was also among the first to document life in the 19th century Zagreb through the series of vignettes Zagreb Sketches.
His historic novels, where he fused national romanticism, have survived the test of time. So in school, we learn of the Šenoa Age. Only partly inspired by Walter Scott’s historic realism, Šenoa infused his depictions with passion and poignancy. Such is his account of the 16th century peasants’ uprising and the timeless novel The Goldsmith’s Treasure.
Only a great writer could create love as profound as that of Romeo and Juliette in the midst of a historic narrative. Croatia’s own tragic lovers are the nobleman Pavao and the goldsmith’s daughter Dora. Their doomed love has captivated generations of readers. And as they felt for them, they learned about the 16th century Zagreb and the clash between nobility and petite bourgeoisie.
Croatian writers: Tin Ujević
Just like his statue in Varšavska, Tin Ujević (1891-1955) is the most monumental lyrical figure of 20th century Croatia. And just as the immortalized figure watches over you at this famous coffee stretch, so did Ujević lounge in Zagreb cafés.
He followed in the steps of many, Matoš included, but in the end, stayed true to poetry pure. Ujević loved Rimbaud’s poetry, but resented his idol’s bourgeois lifestyle. He himself chose to remain poor and often homeless.
The bard of gentle musicality and mournful sensitivity, Ujević’s poetry defies easy classification. He is philosophical, tragic, but also deeply and mystically connected to everyone and everything. As the wizard of words, Ujević’s wit also survives in anecdotes.
One evening he stepped into a café and ordered coffee. ‘You are not properly dressed’, said the waitress. Ujević returned, this time wearing his only suit. He accepted the coffee but poured it into his pocket.
‘You served my suit, not me’, Ujević explained to a stunned waitress.
When once refused to move into an apartment, he replied sarcastically.
‘When I die, you’ll be giving me the whole street.’
And sure enough, today, 122 streets across Croatia are named after Tin Ujević.
Find the specter of Tin in his favourite café Blato, today renamed into Tip Top.
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Tin Ujević: Nocturne
(translated by Richard Berengarten and Daša Marić)
Tonight, my forehead gleams
and sweat drips in each eye;
my thoughts blaze through dreams,
tonight, of beauty I shall die.
The soul’s core is pure passion, deep
in the pit of night, a blazing cone.
Hush, weep in silence. Let us weep
and let us die. We’ll die alone.
Croatian writers: Petar Preradović
Can a military general have a heart of a romantic? Preradović did. Like most 19th century intelligentsia, he was educated in German. But as Romantic poetry of Goethe and Byron glorified national languages, Preradović (1818-1872) too discovered the beauty of his mother tongue. He is remembered as the author of some of the most memorable verses in Croatian.
In the time of Austro-Hungarian imperialism, his hymns moved people to discover their Croatian identity. And though his poetry epitomizes the Illyrian pan-Slavic movement (1830-1870), his writing wasn’t programmatic.
Deeply heartfelt, Preradović celebrated freedom, eternal love, altruism and humanity. Where in life he faced disappointments with military service, foreign oppression and the pain of losing a family, in poetry he looked for harmony and serenity.
Preradović, like no other Croatian poet, inspired composers to set his verses to music. His granddaughter, the Croatian-Austrian writer Paula von Preradovic is the author of the Austrian national anthem.
Petar Preradović: Be still, my heart, be still
Who has stirred thee, heart of mine,
That thou art so restless now?
As a bird in a cage thou longest,
In the heavens to wing thy way.
Be still, my heart, be still! . . .
This is where the literary party ends. If you had a good time, give thanks to the amazing sculptors who immortalized the writers and to the two talented photographers, Sanjin Kaštelan and Saša Pjanić, who trudged around Zagreb capturing them with their heavy cameras.
And if you liked this unusual exploration of Zagreb, check out my ultimate guide for more inspiration!