Glagolitic Reflections

The so-called “Glagolitic Path,” or, as the locals name it, the Aleja glagljaša, runs for a little more than four miles through the idyllic countryside of Istria’s Mirna Valley Basin between the villages of Roč and Hum. Nowhere near so well-traveled as the coastal towns just to the west, it is no less picturesque. Hilltop villages speckle the landscape, which has a fairy-tale quality that has often induced in me the anxious sensation that some unexpected, stunning surprise lies waiting just over the next incline. It often does.

In this wide, relatively open, sunny expanse the waters of the Mirna (or “peaceful”) River gather together before making their way down to empty, also quite humbly, into the Adriatic some twenty-five miles to the southwest near the town of Novigrad. Local legends suggest that the river was named after the wife of the giant Dragonja, who, when out tilling his fields one day, dug an especially deep trench all the way from the heights of the Ćićarija plateau to the sea. It is unclear from the stories whether Dragonja was happy or frustrated that the water that filled in his furrow moved slowly and steadily, for which quality he gave it his wife’s name.

The Path, which is probably best understood as a public art project or perhaps a modest ethnopark, was created between 1977 and 1983 to commemorate the heritage of Glagolitic writing, which featured prominently in the religious and cultural history of Istria, the Kvarner Gulf, and Dalmatia. As I note this, using words like “commemorate” and “heritage” and “featured,” it occurs to me that some might be inclined relegate the script, with its exotic sounding name and, to them at least, obscure history, to the category of bygone curiosities, artifacts of material culture significant primarily for their developmental value. It is a common way of thinking and categorizing among scholars of cultural history. We read and consider every artifact along historical timelines, it is true, and the categorizing and interpreting impulses tend to make everything of equal interest, a little like the underwater archeological prism I have noted elsewhere. But then some things catch our attention by jumping out of line, as it were, suggesting in fact that they might be of interest somehow outside history, not just because they are part of a chronology and lead to some subsequent stage but for other reasons that seem to speak to us directly, outside the context of our search for items of “developmental significance.” On this basis we sometimes switch our approach completely, seeing wonders and masterpieces in these exceptional cases, thinking that because they speak so to us they must also speak to others in the same way and not just in our own time. Perhaps, we think, they are of some intrinsically human interest.

The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin accounted for this phenomenon by suggesting that some cultural inventions incorporate not just content but “potential” inside them, such that they can live on beyond the time in which they were created and continue to grow, as future generations open them up and find new things that past generations might not have seen, all while continuing to recognize that the things earlier generations saw must also be “in there.” It is a brilliant solution to the generations-old question of how multiple interpretations of one and the same cultural artifact can be equally valid.

I suppose from a certain perspective, Glagolitic must appear as what Jan Morris, in her Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere calls “another kind of arcanum” (155) whose presence “so close to the city center of Trieste” is “like an unsuspected spell or exorcism, left in the attic.” It is thus mysterious and exotic, a remnant of a dark past that lingers in unknown places, hidden amid the dust of forgotten documents, and then creeps out to dazzle us with its unexpected shapes and squiggles when we are busy looking for something else. Or perhaps we must travel far to find it, venturing down into peripheral or interstitial territories about which we have only heard stories. Thus Glagolitic is “like no other European writing” and “for centuries… defied the intrusion of the Latin alphabet” (Ibid., 156). This is basically true. It is also thick with perspective, partly Morris’s (whose subject is Trieste, after all, not Istria, let alone the eastern Adriatic), partly that of the members of the Istrian émigré community who made their home in Trieste following their departure from Istria after World War II. I have felt the thickness of this perspective, its palpability, which is based on real and hard-lived experience, and so I cannot say that it is wrong. But it is certainly limited and incomplete.

While many outsiders know about the use of two writing systems in the Balkans, Latinate and Cyrillic, fewer are aware of Glagolitic, which is in fact older than the latter though not so old as was once believed. For hundreds of years Glagolitic was thought to have been invented in the fourth century by St. Jerome, whose now legendary birthplace somewhere on the border between Dalmatia and the Pannonian plain combined effectively with his spiritual authority as the translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible, on the one hand, and the most learned of the Church Fathers, on the other, to shore up support for the alphabet’s continued use over the centuries, particularly as part of the liturgical language. In addition to “Illyrian” and “Slovenish,” the script is thus often referred to in medieval manuscripts as “Hieronymian,” after Jerome’s Latin name, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus. Jerome’s skill with numerous languages and the fact that the letters of Glagolitic appear to derive from a variety of ancient scripts, including Phoenician, Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Samaritan, and Coptic, helped to keep the story alive, and it is easy to sense the power of the tradition behind doing so, as the clerics told themselves and others that they were continuing along the path forged a thousand and more years before, preserving the great Jerome’s legacy in its purest form, the system of writing down the sounds of their language that he had created. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true.

Forgetting First Ladies’ Names

The bus ride was long from Zagreb.

The route took us through Istria and seemed to include a stop at every little picturesque village, only there’s something about bus stops in picturesque Istrian villages—they become the ugliest parts of town when they put the bus station there. Even in Rovinj, which doesn’t have any ugly spots as a rule, has the bus station, which is, relatively speaking, the ugliest part.

Then there was Porec, and Novi Grad, and Umag, and then the border—when you have to get out for passport control (and here I was thinking Croatia was already in Europe), then Koper, and finally Trieste. There was a middle aged woman throwing up into a bag across the aisle, with her husband trying to console her. The two Russians in front on me were speaking surprisingly quietly among themselves, but the Austrian boys speaking German, apparently on an excursion, were louder. No one was annoying, but it was crowded and loud and long.

When we got to Trieste, I was happy the rain had let up a little and only sprinkled me with a few drops during the two-block walk to the hotel. The reception desk clerk was friendly and, obviously pleased that I could speak to him in Italian, struck up a conversation as he handed me back my passport.

“So what’s the word from Trump?”

“Nothing good.”

“His wife’s from nearby here. What’s the name?”

“Of the town? Ljubljana” (I’m very good at pop-geography quizzes).

“No, his wife. What’s her name?”

This was my first moment of embarrassment. Couldn’t remember Trump’s wife’s first name. This did not bother me too much. I don’t really need to remember her name for anything, and there are other things I would much prefer to remember, like the dates of the Battle of Vienna or when Peter the Great died. “It starts with an ‘m,’ I think.”

He laughed. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Melania!”

“Right! Melania! She’s pretty. How’s her English? Does she speak well?”

“You know, I’ve never really heard her speak except at that convention, and that speech she took from the other one.”

He had started laughing in the middle of this because he could see what I was going to say, but then: “Right, the other one, the black one. She was very pretty, too. What was her name?”

And now I was really embarrassed. Could we go back to the geography? He laughed a lot at my discomfort. I really couldn’t remember. Did I mention it was a long bus ride? “Her husband’s name was Barack.” I pronounced “Barack” carefully as if his wife’s name would follow easily from his…. Nope.

He looked on his computer screen, then said her name, laughing again, and added. “Maybe you should give me the passport.”

And maybe I should.

Big New Book

I’ve just signed a contract to translate a 1000-page novel. It is due to the publisher in May of 2017, so I’ll be working steadily on it for the next couple of years. The publisher (the visionary Archipelago Books) asked for a sample, but I had not read the book, which came out in 2013, so I asked if they had a print copy they could send me, and they agreed. I knew the author’s work already and had actually approached the same publisher about another of his books, Buick Riviera, which I like a lot, but they indicated that they wanted to publish several other works by him before they got to that particular book. They had already at the time published his Sarajevo sarajevoMarlborough, an exquisite collection of short stories about the war, translated by Stela Tomasevic. Then came this request.

I read some reviews online and then read, when it arrived, through the book—I wish we could use the Russian imperfective verb for such expressions, as it suggests more “I engaged in reading” than “I read the whole thing” and that would be closer to how I read in this case—and decided I liked it and wanted to try my hand at it. I was very busy with a host of other things and had trouble squeezing out the 5,000 words from the beginning that I eventually sent them. I got a note back immediately from the publisher. Could I do the whole thing?

A friend later said I should have talked to him before signing the contract because he “could have talked me down off that ledge” (he had done a similarly massive project and it had taken a lot out of him), but I didn’t have anyone to do that at the time, and the book seemed to be calling. It is Rod, m_92787by Miljenko Jergović, which I’m translating as Kin, for now at least, as maybe a different title will surface as I go. The source language is what we refer to these days as Bosnia-Croatian-Serbian, or BCS, and some people add Montenegrin to the mix lately, making it BCMS. The author is a Bosnian Croat from Sarajevo, the publisher, Fraktura, is based in Zagreb, but much of the usage is older and regionally specific. Jergović is very sensitive to such nuances and likes to pepper his prose with them, often with ironic intent.

The title Kin seems good to me now, a very short title for a very long book. Kin, moreover, has many of the connotations that rod has, as well as many of the root associations. Rod is much richer, however. Rod is at the heart of roditi, to give birth or, when reflexive, be born. It is in the word for relative, relation, and cousin. Kin, in turn, is in kindred and kindergarten, and kind. It also has a very old feel, something almost primordial, and this is true of rod as well, a Slavic root that reaches to concepts such as parenthood, fertility, maternity, and motherland. I don’t know that English has a single word that can do that, so kin might have to do.

One of the reasons I like the book and have agreed to work on it is that it dovetails with some of my own thinking about cultural mixture, crossing, hybridity, especially in families, including my own of course. So I suppose there is a “simpatico” element to my motivation. I often feel that I know what the author is referring to beneath the surface layer of the words of a sentence. These thoughts come to me in my sleep or the next morning as insights into the book or the language or life in general.

I’ll be writing about this work from time to time, as it will be occupying my mind. These pages will allow me a forum for expressing things as they pass that otherwise would disappear in the invisible revision process from one “save” to the next on my screen.

And I’ll be posting some excerpts, maybe passages I’m having difficulty with, or those I think are especially good. Here is a passage at the end of the book’s first section.

“A year after the fall of the nationalist government, during the coalition led by the Social Democrats under Ivica Račan, whose Europism brought a sigh of relief to Europe, and to its Croatian neighbors first and foremost, I was at a film festival in Istria. It was held in an ancient walled city on the top of a hill that was once inhabited exclusively by Italians who, after Istria became part of Yugoslavia, were given the opportunity to vote by the Communists—either to go away as Italians or to stay behind as Yugoslavs—and these people had set off on their way, bags in hand, to spend years in Italian refugee camps, leaving their Istrian homes behind forever, and so this festival, in this town, was a form of socio-political, as well as cultural ceremonial marking a new, anti-nationalist Croatia. Of course the new minister of culture showed up, whose supporters and sympathizers had taken to calling the “Croatian Malraux,” an appellation he was prepared to accept, being that in Croatia, and as a rule in the former Yugoslavia, and in the Balkans as a whole, it is common and accepted practice to name leaders and dignitaries after magnificent foreigners, Franz Beckenbauer, Emperor Selassie, Shakespeare, in short, who cares. Anyway, this minister of ours, this Croatian Malraux, was previously a lexicographer, which means he was mostly taking it easy, or having intellectual debates at the pub after he had inspected the two or three lexical items that had turned up on his desk that day. I was not fond of the way he ran the Ministry and wrote an article about it in the newspaper, though I was truly gentle, far gentler than when I had written similar articles against Tudjman’s nationalists.

“I wasn’t thinking of my article when that afternoon I approached a café table around which, in the shade of an immense Slavic tree sat a group of directors, producers, and general practice intellectuals, with Minister Malraux at the head. I knew these people, the Minister too, and I merely wanted to convey an every-day hello in passing.

“‘Beat it, you Bosnian trash! Go back where you came from so we don’t have to send you ourselves!’ shouted Malraux. I didn’t get too upset, since the previous night was filled with such hard work and exertions that the ministerial hangover extended to the afternoon. But still I stopped long enough to look carefully at a director who had been blacklisted during the Tudjman years and whose films were not allowed to be shown on television then. He was a tough dissident, as tough as Kundera if not tougher. He looked down and did not say anything. He needed to be watchful of the ministerial hangover because he wanted to make movies again, and that, in Croatia, does not happen without government money. A promising young producer also looked down, a fighter against nationalism in every form and apologist for inter-ethnic affection, and everyone else, one after another, looked down, dissidents one and all from the time of Tudjman, until, after I had stood there for far too long waiting, I turned and made my way down that Istrian knoll, the Croatian Malraux shouting behind me.

“I left, and I’m still going, as a happy man, because unlike my Great-grandpa Karlo, I’m not being led away by a couple of guys nor is a third poking me in the kidneys with his rifle. This is the important nuance in our identities, why we live where we live without belonging to the majority. Happiness keeps us in this place, and happiness—I believe this—has often cost us our lives. Reconciled to being who we are, while carrying inside us the idea of who we are not, we represent identities that cannot be defined by a single word, passport, identity card, entry pass…. The masses know who they are from a gravestone, a flag, a name, and then they chant it out, but we are left with long, uncertain explanations, novels and films, true stories and invented ones, and the need to visit a village in the Romanian Banat where there are no more Germans but where the horizon is the same as when Great-grandpa Karlo was a boy, and with empty villages in Bulgaria, Ukraine, Poland, where people went away in a puff of smoke, and with uncertain memories, the feeling that today we are one thing, tomorrow another, that our hymns and state borders constantly elude us, and with repentance and long, painful remorse because a relative of ours lived and died as an enemy, and because we are ourselves something of an enemy, and with faith in what we hide beneath our language, the truth that our homeland is no more, and maybe never was, because for us every foot-length of the world is foreign country.”