Best Translated Book Award 2011
Reflected in the pale glass window, among the shoes on display, was Melkior’s thin, unprepossessing silhouette, a poorly built city dweller. The slanting image reflected in the shop window triggered a crafty sneer inside Melkior, and the word mobilization suddenly found itself in autumn mud churned by a squelching olive drab monotony of dejected strangers on some endless trek; there was the bluster of angry sergeants, the tired voice of sodden boots, and the mysterious word “aide-de-camp.” Here was born a fear of the new events around him: the driver bound for Apatin to drive a tank…across our mountainous country…Oh for a mountain and a forest in which to go quiet and still like an insect curled deep inside the bark of an indestructible tree: I’m not here…and to live, to live…How to conceal ones existence, steal from the world one’s traitorous body, take it off to some endless isolation, conceal it in a cocoon of fear, insinuate oneself into a temporary death?
This is the test of our fair narrator-can Melkior starve himself to avoid being called to military duty in World War II? Filled with literary allusions galore-from Dante to Joyce, Shakespeare to Dosteyvesky-Cyclops is a vertiginous journey into the mind of a tortured man whose mind is unraveling from lack of food and sleep. Published in 1965 and set in the forties of the Former Yugoslavia, Cyclops is Marinkovic’s version of literary realism so acute and ego-maniacal there is no escaping for the reader. The reader can only revel in his death defying acts of prose, no small thanks to Vlada Stojiljkovic’s amazing translation. This is a classic taught in Croatian schools and with good reason-Marinkovic addresses the threat of human loss and sacrifice in the name of nationalism but also our own detachment from the cost of war when we are not directly involved.
Melkior wanders the streets of Zagreb, lost in his own surreal musings dipped in paranoia. His own interactions with his gaggle of boho friends and his starving dream-states flow into one another until it becomes difficult to know what reality is. As he makes himself the star of the
Odyssey and his friends replace Homer’s other characters in his hallucinations, the danger of Polyphemus (The Cyclops) looms and threatens to devour them all. The parallels between society’s own contradictions about war and Melkior’s friends drinking themselves into a stupor(literally and figuratively) on their own intellectual antics shows itself throughout the fast-paced narrative.
Above all, Melkior, a part-time theater critic, and his motley group of friends are poetic cynics who see no hope in anything but their own wittiness and pleasure seeking pastimes as they sit around downing booze at their local bar, the Give ‘n Take.. Although this is not an easy book, it’s wildly entertaining, full of original characterizations and hilarious, biting prose:
Long live the idiot! That is the safest kind of mimicry life can offer a being of its creation. From his vantage point the idiot watches history run its course without the danger of getting caught up in the action, just as we cry as we watch a film playing in the cinema. We mourn fictitious travails, while it’s only an idiot who laughs at genuine deaths. He jeers at life from his safe vantage point, taking his revenge for being rejected, smug at being spared. Life has chosen Intelligence for its games, it does not use idiots to make history. It has chosen geniuses for grand words on the cross, at the guillotine, at the gallows, facing the barrels of guns, in front of nations cheering the Brutuses and Caesars alike. An idiot ceded the cup of poison to Socrates. An idiot ceded to Danton the glory of being decapitated by history. (And then made it up to him by producing a marble bust of his head and raising it on a square as an example for future generations.) Whereas the idiot wears his head with a strange grimace of disgust, as if he had long understood everything, sneered derisively, and stopped time in the rigid folds of his mindless face. Love live the idiot!
There are so many literary allusions that you may wonder if you can possibly have read all the works he throws into his narrative stew. Yet, there is a conscious effort to avoid the reader getting close enough to experience Melkior’s fear, instead choosing the have the reader bear witness to his descent into paranoia and isolation.
It’s an epic that hangs its hat on pessimism, social commentary, and the personal, societal and philosophical wreckage of war. I couldn’t help but think of Celine’s work while I read this- in particular,
Journey to the End of the Night and Normance-both filled with the same disdain and realism of war. Cyclops doesn’t give us the bravery and courage of the stereotyped patriot, but the very human fear of a man lost in his own life and fearful of a fate he knows he can’t avoid.
By Ranko Marinkovic
Translated by Vlada Stojiljkovic; Edited by Ellen Elias-Bursac
Yale University Press
Hardcover, 576 pp.