Located in the middle of the Croatian capital, Slastičarnica Zagreb is a traditional Central European patisserie, serving coffee, cakes and the kind of ice cream that creates queues on summer days. One of their flagship products is the Krleža Coffee Slice, a wedge of layered chocolate, coffee, and cream supposedly inspired by the recreational eating habits of Miroslav Krleža (1893-1981), widely touted as the greatest Croatian writer of the 20th century. It’s a charming if rather odd piece of invented heritage, not least because Krleža’s writing is rarely remembered as something sweet — his was the literature of sarcasm, bitterness, disappointment. Even when writing passionately about the things that he believed in — culture, socialism, Yugoslavia — he did so in a way that was challenging and abrasive. Krleža may have been many things, but he was certainly not a cake.
It will be 40 years since the death of Miroslav Krleža on 29 December, prompting many to look back on the career of one of the few Croatian writers to be consistently ranked in international company. Whether bracketed as a great Yugoslav novelist or as a great Central European, he is an unavoidable figure to anyone interested in Croatian culture. However, he might not be the most loved. His prose is prickly, provocative, unforgiving. Both anti-clerical and pro-communist, he certainly doesn’t fit easily into any Croatian national canon, the very idea of which he would have probably disdained.
Born in Zagreb and educated in Austro-Hungarian military schools, Krleža was (like many Croats of his generation) attracted to Yugoslavism, the idea that South Slav peoples should be united in a common state. However, the Yugoslavia that came into existence after 1918 was, for him, a bourgeois state of little emancipatory value. An editor, publisher, polemicist, poet, playwright, and novelist, Krleža was at the centre of Zagreb’s cultural life throughout the interwar period, and his impact on Croatian culture is difficult to overestimate. He turned the Croatian language into a versatile platform for edgy modernist prose, frequently using Zagreb dialect to give his fictional characters an added, earthy authority.
He played a central role in the communist Yugoslavia that came into being after the Second World War, organising exhibitions of medieval church treasures and Bosnian gravestones in a programmatic effort to tout the cultural riches of a reborn country. Krleža was also entrusted with putting together a multi-volume Yugoslav encyclopaedia, a project intended to celebrate the diversity of Yugoslav culture, while emphasising the themes that might hold its people together. For a long time, Krleža was President Tito’s favourite holiday buddy, accompanying the autocrat on state visits on his state yacht, Galeb, or hanging out at the presidential villa on Brijuni.
The nearest that Krleža came to writing a “national” novel was the massive, five-volume Zastave (“Flags”), written late in his career (between 1962 and 1976) and as yet untranslated into English. Viewing the death of the Habsburg Empire and the birth of Yugoslavia through the eyes of a distinguished Zagreb family, it takes a forensic scalpel to both Croatian national sentiment and the (frequently blind) faith in Yugoslavism that acted as its counterpoint.
Krleža left behind a vast body of work, much of which remains on the Croatian school syllabus. He is also the subject of obsessive academic study, a field branded “Krležology”, as if to suggest that the man’s heritage is a scientific discipline in his own right. Works translated into English represent only a fraction of his oeuvre, although they do include a handful of canonical titles. Krleža’s “discovery” by the English-speaking world occurred many decades after his key works were originally written – and for readers in the anglosphere, he is a writer of the present and future, rather than a dead poet to be dutifully studied in the classroom.
Krleža is often credited with being an existentialist before his time, and it is on this 1932 title that his reputation stands. Centring on a painter who returns to a provincial town after a 20-year absence, it explores the aimlessness and claustrophobia of Croatian provincial life, an existence enlivened by extramarital adventures, and dreams of a big-city escape. Featuring quasi-philosophical digressions, chronological jumps, and some delicious forays into the grotesque, it fully deserves its reputation as a Central European classic.
Another existential must-read and a book that should be on every young adult’s bookshelf, On the Edge of Reason, first published in 1938, follows the fate of a respected middle-class family man who suddenly finds himself rejected by the society to which he belongs — precipitating a grimly comic descent into further disfavour. Krleža’s protagonist boasts a terrifically misanthropic turn of phrase, referring to the town where he lives as a “stinking anthill”, inhabited by “warm meat wrapped in fabric”. Krleža gleefully unveils the absurdities of bourgeois society, while suggesting that to rebel against it simply leads to absurdities of a different kind.
Harbors Rich in Ships is a recent English-language translation of a selection of Krleža’s early writings. It is well worth getting hold of for the three pieces it contains from The Croatian God Mars (1922), the short-story collection written by Krleža after serving on the Galician Front in the First World War. One of the most powerful books of the Great War, it conveys the chaos and fear of life at the front, with Croatian village lads serving as cannon fodder for the Austro-Hungarian army.
An account of Krleža’s trip to Soviet Union in the winter and spring of 1924-5, this is a book that includes everything that’s good about travel writing: descriptive power, deftly drawn portraits of local people, and the screeching wheels of a speeding train. The early chapters are electrifying, and may well convince you that you’re reading a contemporary piece of non-fiction rather than something almost a century old. Krleža loses his marbles a bit towards the end, describing chief jailer Lenin as a “lighthouse” guiding the world’s peoples to freedom. However, it remains a vital piece of history, shedding light on a rarely written-about period of turbulent promise.