Friday, 21 September 2018

Book Review: Cyclops by Ranko Marinković

Most legendary creatures are archetypical manifestations of certain aspects of human nature, good or evil, and the myths surrounding them represent a general idea of the world, i.e. of how it came into being and of how it works. Classical education made many of them household names and so, they found their way quite naturally into literature as allegorical figures or less easily explainable symbols. With World War II threatening to spread to Yugoslavia, the protagonist of Cyclops by Ranko Marinković sees himself doomed to end as helpless prey of the man-eating one-eyed giant Polyphemus from Greek mythology. Like other young men he must expect being called up any time, but although patriotic, the intellectual hopes to avoid national service systematically reducing his body to bones and skin. He wanders through Zagreb daydreaming and yearning for the woman he loves without hope or drinks heavily with friends.

Ranko Marinković was born in Komiža on the Dalmatian island of Vis, Austria-Hungary (today: Croatia), in February 1913. After having graduated in Philosophy and Education Sciences from the University of Zagreb, he became staff member of the journal Pečat (Stamp) and began writing plays of which the first titled Albatros was staged in 1939. Part of World War II he passed as a prisoner in the Italian camp of Ferramonte and later as a refugee in the British camp at El Shatt in Egypt. Following a few literature-related jobs immediately after the war, Ranko Marinković was appointed professor at the Zagreb Academy of Dramatic Art in 1951 where he taught until his retirement. All the while he kept writing above all short stories and plays. The acclaimed short-story collection Ruke (tr. The Hands: 1953) made him known as writer and the play Glorija (tr. Gloria: 1955) established him as leading playwright in then Yugoslavia. Only in 1965, the author brought out his first novel Cyclops (Kiklop) that became an immediate best-seller. Neither of his later two novels, Zajednička kupka (1980; tr. Shared Bath) and Never more (1993), could equal this success. Ranko Marinković died in Zagreb, Croatia, in January 2001.

The story of Cyclops begins in autumn 1940 with World War II raging far beyond the Yugoslav borders that everybody fears to be run over. The young film and theatre critic Melkior Tresić wanders aimlessly through Zagreb, when he recognises in the crowd the big jutting ears of his much feared catechism instructor. He hurries after him, but a stranger with an open newspaper draws him into a conversation inspired by a passing tram and the headline about another terrible air raid on London. As it turns out, the middle-aged man has been to the Mobilization Office in the morning.
“[…] The word mobilization had filled him with a feeling of unbearable dread, the restlessness of a terrible anticipation had come over him. This was now something he would have to live with. … There appeared (childish, of course) images of deserted streets, of doors and shops boarded up. … The dead city has shut itself into its walls, with not a sound to be heard, not a light to be seen. Behind closed shutters cautious matches were struck, papers burned in stoves, things piled into suitcases: people packing, hurrying, leaving. … […]”
The emaciated body of the catechist on a weighing machine kindles his vivid imagination and sparks the idea of starving himself to escape the army. He goes on wandering, gives way to hallucinatory daydreams, drops by at his newspaper, drinks heavily with his intellectual friends at the Give’nTake who call themselves Parampion Brethren, use monikers for each other and indulge in absurd pranks, dreams about the woman on whom he has a crush and whom he calls Viviana, and visits his married lover. At last, he receives his call-up papers and finds himself at the mercy of a cruel sergeant.
“[…] Melkior felt his being trapped, deprived of ingenuity, exposed to Polyphemus the cannibal, defenseless. Oh Lord (why do you invoke Me, said the Lord, if you don’t believe in Me?), I will have to surrender. I have no choice but to surrender to the man-eating Cyclops, come what may. There are fifty-seven young men and thousands of young men more and millions of young men beyond them caught in a high-ceilinged cave overgrown with laurels, and Polyphemus the huge Cyclops has lifted a boulder and plugged the entrance to the cave … […]”
Thanks to his starved condition, to his unusual behaviour and to the plea of an unexpected friend, a benevolent doctor discharges Melkior as unfit for service after a couple of weeks in Military Hospital among malingers from important families first and for observation among lunatics later. When he returns home, life in Zagreb goes its usual way and Melkior soon resumes wandering through the city absorbed in thoughts and daydreams. He finds that little has changed, least of all the Parampions who keep annoying their surroundings with their lunatic “shows”, but the threat of war is drawing closer every day…

As already the title of Cyclops unmistakably suggests, the third-person narrative from the 1960s includes a great number of allusions to Greek mythology, notably Homer’s Odyssey, that give the semi-autobiographical account of the eve of World War II in Zagreb a universal as well as a timeless dimension. The virtual lack of a relevant plot that would fill the days between autumn 1940 and spring 1941 with activity and sense perfectly mirrors the numbed state of mind not only of the protagonist, but also of his fellow-citizens. Nonetheless, I felt that it made the greater part of the novel drag rather too much. Most characters in the novel are intellectuals and drifters whose often-lunatic behaviour inspires countless references to and quotations from novels, notably Russian and French classics, poetry, plays, especially Shakespearean ones, and films. Not knowing Croatian, I read the English translation that is spattered with rather seldom used English words and with interjections in French, Italian, Latin, occasionally German and other languages, too. In addition, the novel is rich in powerful imagery. In a nutshell, it is an unusually challenging novel that requires a lot of attention and knowledge to grasp enough of the allusions to enjoy it.

All things considered, reading Cyclops by Ranko Marinković was for me an interesting experience, but I won’t deny that more than once I was close to giving up on the book because of lengthy passages that really tried my patience. Moreover, I’m not particularly attracted by novel characters who pass their lives drowning dire reality in alcohol, making fools not just of themselves but of others, too, and taking all women for whores. I dare say that some sexist commonplaces will completely put off ardent feminists! At the same time, the quirkiness of virtually every character in the book impressed and amused me. What I did like about it also was the protagonist’s constant wandering, pondering, daydreaming and downright hallucinating as a way of getting to terms with the situation, notably with fear of war. Despite quite some important reservations, I still think that this Croatian classic deserves a recommendation.

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