Waiting for the End of the World as We Know It
(Three Contemporary Croatian Authors: Ilija Aščić, Miro Škugor, and Mislav Pasini)
By Milan Zagorac
Underpass is excited to welcome Milan Zagorac as guest editor. Zagorac and his wife, Tamara, publish contemporary Croatian fiction in the online journal Književnost uživo and their publishing house Studio TiM. He's also an accomplished author of four novels and many short stories. Read Zagorac's writing on Underpass at The Thing Outside http://underpass.co/Home/LoadFullPageContent/90 and Devil's Passage http://underpass.co/Home/LoadFullPageContent/57.
In the past twenty years, the Croatian literary scene has been dominated by the phenomenon dubbed “reality fiction,” a literature that reflected, in equal parts, the interests of the reading public and the desire of writers to expose to light the brutal realities of the transitional and post-transitional period—a time marked by widespread corruption, nepotism, and other threats to the newly acquired democratic values but also by a willingness to emancipate a host of diverse voices that the preceding era had either muffled significantly or altogether suppressed. Regardless of its variety of approaches and literary methods, reality fiction attempted an unabashed exorcism of the demons of the past, both personal and collective. And while in its early days, corresponding to the democratic upheaval of the 90s and the early 2000s, it had a fresh, new voice, today it represents the mainstream and the older generation, increasingly failing to address the concerns of a younger audience raised with different social and cultural references in a genuinely new technological environment.
As editor-in-chief of a portal dedicated to contemporary literature, I've had the privilege of witnessing firsthand the rise of the next literary generation. Often on the margins of the society, certainly far from center stage of the Croatian literary scene, on blogs and social networks, in self-published books and small editions by independent presses, a new literature has come to flourish, anchored firmly in urban life, populated by characters trapped by existential exigencies, written often in the guise of genre—mainly dystopian science fiction, horror, or thriller—but always with an emphasis on the needs and shortcomings of the contemporary individual, arising largely from his newly discovered blind spots—the world of fake news, broken family relationships, gender confusion, and an almost Babel-like clamor of miscommunication surrounding the notions of “guilt,” “victim,” “totalitarianism,” “freedom,” “(neo)liberal capitalism”, “socialism,” “social justice,” “injustice,” and so on, down the list of generally human and specifically Croatian controversies. This new literature is permeated with a strong aversion to all hierarchical structures of the past—the family has long failed in its functions, while the precarious work market, state apparatus, and society as a whole perpetuate the uncertainty. For these reasons and more, there’s a current of unease running through the new Croatian literature, concerning the world rich in content and stimuli, yet one in which, paradoxically, the individual feels not only isolated and alone but also stripped of agency, seemingly reduced to waiting for a change to happen on its own. Ultimately, it’s a literature expressing a particular sense of always pending, never arriving apocalypse, and how a hyper-sensitive individual feels about it is reflected in, among other examples, the writings of Ilija Aščić, Miro Škugor, and Mislav Pasini, three authors whose literary works carry the distinctive stamp of belonging to the new generation’s testimony.
“A Night in Purgatory” by Ilija Aščić is a story downright symptomatic of the generational preoccupations. His narrator, a loner and self-proclaimed dissident, at once an insider and outsider, seemingly doomed to underpaid labor in the company of other rejects, seeks refuge in the solitude of the night shift and the surreal surroundings of a poultry slaughterhouse. On the first glance, we’re reminded of the discourse of reality fiction, but Aščić’s story transcends it by far, both in its taste for the phantasmagoric and its unspoken metaphysical concern with penance for a sin unknown to the sinner—a debt incurred, perhaps, on the collective level, repaid first through the war, then through a transitional period so prolonged there seems no hope of an end. In his own admission, Aščić's protagonist sees ambition as futile, embraces an existence in a limbo of estrangement from family and community, and expects nothing except that one day, or rather, one morning, his stint in purgatory—the night shift in a thoroughly dehumanized world—might come to an end, or even just that there’d be a hint, a sign, any form of grace descending from an unknown location. The world he paints here is harsh, but Aščić doesn't stoop to unnecessary pathos or despair—his antihero goes through the “school of hard knocks” with stoicism, and his hoping for, literally, nothing, seems an antidote suited to the general malaise. Skillfully told, “A Night in Purgatory” is, without reservation, a fine example of recent Croatian literature.
Miro Škugor and his story “Noon” introduce us to a different thematic chapter, one with venerable roots in the Croatian literary tradition, this time in the fantastic. Set in an unspecified locality in small-town Dalmatia, “Noon” is about multigenerational silence, the pain and suffering passed down from elders to their children, and the cause of the silence is so impenetrable it remains unknown even to us, retreating from the reader into the murky depths of the twilight zone. Not even the author might know the cause—merely that it manifests as an endogenous insanity, a disturbance in the collective psyche, inverted and shadow-like in form—despite the humming brightness, a Mediterranean midday becomes a place of dark foreboding akin to midnight on a deserted crossroads, that nexus of mysteries so beloved of folk imagination. “Noon,” like most of Škugor's fiction, takes inspiration from the mystical, unusual, and otherworldly, the subjects he as an author continually explores, and to his personal sensibilities, we must add the familial, generational, and popular means of interpreting the collective experience, particularly those that the supernatural folk beliefs of Dalmatia have contributed to the universal archetypal matrix. Škugor deftly marries the notion of the fragility of external reality with the consequent impossibility of reaching conclusions, leaving the freedom to form the latter to the magical faculty of the reader's imagination.
“New School Order” by Mislav Pasini announces its theme, the school system, already in the title, yet we soon find out we're closer to Pasini's home turf, dystopian sci-fi. Though in this story, Mislav Pasini, incidentally a Croatian language teacher, leads us to believe the issue would be school violence, bullies and their victims, as the plot unfolds, it delivers a significant twist. To wit, in the establishing of the titular “New Order,” which happens less as an apocalypse and more the famous “march through the institutions,” the bullies and the victims exchange places owing to the fact that the majority of people lack the capacity to recognize their condition. The motifs of the current technological revolution, the ubiquity of media technologies, the insistence on STEM, a growing contempt for liberal arts—according to some, an educational relic producing an unemployable workforce—form a resonant backdrop to Pasini's storytelling, which treats almost taxonomically the profound systemic changes awaiting the brave new world. The dangers may well be envisioned as alien visitors, green or grey, an invasion of the body snatchers, or a large-scale conspiracy conducted by a clandestine group, but the issue always comes down to the individual's inability to recognize his true oppressor—his own willingness to entrap himself in always new, undreamt of forms of totalitarianism.
Since the authors presented here are only three, I look forward to introducing the international audience to further examples of contemporary Croatian literature, hopefully providing the reader with a more comprehensive cross section of this small yet vibrant European scene.