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from the January 2004 issue

from The Banquet in Blitva

Written before the Second World War but not widely available until 1962, Miroslav Krleza's Banquet in Blitva combines the satire of a Jonathan Swift with the style and tone of the Austrian Recession and the extravagant technique of expressionism. Shot through with drama and invective, told in torrents of verbiage, the novel takes place in a number of imaginary Baltic states that form an allegorical expression of the history of the Balkan states that once comprised Yugoslavia. The plot follows two main characters--Kristian Barutanski, the dictator, and Niels Nielsen, an ambivalent liberal--connected from childhood, almost brothers, yet representing two opposing forces. Brute strength clashes with abstract ideology in the context of the existential moral force; out of this riot of expressionism emerges Balkan reality and the sad facts of human social and political behavior.

What was Blitva? Blitva was a gray blizzard in the dense northern mists, an endless muddy plain on the shores of a cold, rough sea that had the color of a dirty, ink-soaked rag, with its sickly yellow mornings, and this dark, dangerous, antipathetic Blitvinian sea roared in the half darkness like the sound of an organ in an empty, burned church. Everything in Blitva was muddy and frozen. Everything in Blitva was merely hoofprints on the empty Blitvinian road, when the blizzard howled and the frozen cod rattled against locked shop doors. In Blitva there were no men! Who was a man in Blitva? Where were there people in this land? The wind whistled against the signboards and the barbers' bowls that hung at the end of the street, and from behind the fences came the sound of a woman weeping. A police search had taken place in one of the buildings in the courtyard. There was shooting and a patrol had just disappeared in the blizzard, together with bloodstained and wounded prisoners. Women were crying. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked.

It was night. The streetlights trembled in the park of the ancient Blitvas-Holm fortress, which, to that very day, towered above the miry, flooded principality as a memory of those far-off days of Kurlandia and Hunnia, when, for centuries, the words of the Finnish conqueror of Blitva, the Prince Elector, were valid: "Blitvas-Holm is the key to the Karabaltic." On the steep, seventy-three-meters-high, almost sheer cliff slept the ancient fortress of Blitvas-Holm above the town of Blitwanen, like a fortification on a hill set with dense fir trees. In the utter darkness of a muddy autumn dawn, the dark walls and towers of the old fort were still outlined, lit from time to time by a silver shower of headlights that slid silently down the curving paths of the fortress park, with the white, magnesium gleam of their long and mysterious tentacles lighting up now Beauregard with its orangeries and arcades on the height of the vast Swedish park, and now the complexes of towers and ancient walls of the medieval Jarl's fortress. A lot of cars . . . returning from a Beauregard bridge party which usually lasted till three or four in the morning.

Dr. Nielsen stood on the small grass plot surrounding the statue of Waldemaras and, as if enchanted by the magical glow of the streetlights, counted the cars as they descended from Beauregard and, above him in the greenish light of the gas lamps, dressed in his bronze frock coat, towered Andria Waldemaras, the greatest Blitvinian poet of the nineteenth century, who had mourned his fatherland with the well-known opening line "Blitva, my fatherland, thou art a poisonous disease." Andria Waldemaras stood there, with his frock coat down to his knees, his trousers creased, in massive, elephantine shoes (that swelled like heavy loaves), and stepped merrily forward with his right leg, bareheaded, young like a high school reciter, and who read to the Blitvinians a book of his verse held in his left hand while, with his right hand, he held the fob on his watch chain on the right pocket of his bronze frock coat. That fob was in the form of a horse's head to which the gifted sculptor had paid great attention and modeled down to the last detail, one might say, perfectly.

Andria Waldemaras, who died in his twenty-seventh year from tuberculosis, signing himself in his love letters to Miss Hildegarde, the first among Blitvinians to do so, as "a dead man on a holiday to Blitva," he, the first among the dead Blitvinian holidaymakers, stood there like a monument on his granite pedestal, and a bronze Blitva knelt like an Oriental slave girl in front of him and offered him as a gift upon a velvet cushion a lyre, to him, Andria Waldemaras, the laurel-crowned genius, whose right hand held the horse's head of his fob, stupidly and naively declaiming his historic reveille: "Blitva shall not ever perish, while we, her sons are yet alive."

But who are we who live while our Blitva has not perished? I, Nielsen, and that Blitvinian they've arrested and whom they're leading in chains across the empty square, under the monument of the Blitvinian genius. In a rubber raincoat that poor bugger passed by, pale and upright, defiant, surrounded by a patrol of cuirassiers, and from under his left shoulder blade, as though drawn in bright red lipstick (almost cadmium), over the muddy and drenched rubber flowed perpendicularly an intensely red stream of fresh human blood. It was morning. A gray, dark, guttering, slimy, antipathetic, muddy Blitvinian morning, and in the distance, from around the corner, where stood the frowning scaffolding of a new five-story building, from the new Blitvinian corso came the sound of "Tango-Milango" from the Hotel Blitvania. That the Hotel Blitvania, as Barutanski's headquarters, had served as a central torture chamber during the years '17, '18, and '19 and that in the cellars of that accursed hotel several hundred people had been slaughtered was known to all in the city and over the whole of Blitva, and for years people made a detour around it in silence and with bowed heads, but today, on that very same place of execution, they were dancing the Tango-Milango.

In the newspapers of that mythical period, when Barutanski ruled from that accursed hotel as the first Protector, one might read in some texts consisting of cleverly infiltrated lines, between two or three words, timidly and cautiously, hints that once again someone had been massacred in the Hotel Blitvania, that someone had given evidence in court from a stretcher, that someone had been blinded, that someone had had needles stuck under his nails, and another with broken joints, but today it was all forgotten, today the Hotel Blitvania had been renovated as a first-class hotel. Today the Hotel Blitvania was a center for tourist traffic. Today rich foreigners and foreign diplomats of high rank stayed there. Today, for whole nights, they danced the Tango-Milango. And in general, in all Europe there wasn't a square centimeter on which somebody had not been blinded or had his joints broken or been beaten to death like a dog. On the entire globe there was not a single meter of ground that was not soaked in human blood, that was not a graveyard and a place of torture and execution. And mankind blew drunkenly into its saxophones. Day by day, mankind was becoming increasingly gorillaized, and that glorious Europe, instead of Europeanizing Blitva, on the contrary was itself becoming ever more Blitvinianized, and, Blitvinianized to a point of pure animalism, it played "Tango-Milango" in the Hotel Blitvania and this, today, had become the sole aim of its European Blitvinianization.

What did this herd of Blitvinians around him mean? The truth was: Blitva was disorder and misery, and therefore an unending succession of cause and effect, of disorder and misery. And the truly legendary Blitvinian lack of understanding for even the most insignificant order and pattern of phenomena--doubtless--logical, normal, and natural, was conditioned by the wretched circumstances in that wretched country of winds, rain, and bedbugs. Blitva was a dark and utterly unpleasant area, where the concept of good and of evil in its Western European sense had lost even the slightest so-called ritual value, and where the human heart was a dead nag, frozen hard and left on a Blitvinian road until the spring flood might carry it away. But the fact that, lately, a complete vacuum had opened up around him, Dr. Nielsen, that people simply vanished from his presence as though he were an escapee from a leper colony, that signified in these apes a panic, a fear of death. He, Dr. Nielsen, was considered to be dead. For them he was only apparently alive and no one, it would appear, could possibly grasp how it was that he continued to circulate in the world of Blitva and demonstratively put in an appearance in cafés. In his presence one noticed a semisilent movement of lips. There was a flash of glassy looks, and the touch of his hand, apparently, acted coldly and unpleasantly on his personal acquaintances, like a touch of death. And in those looks around him there hovered a tired human conscience, like a large, gray fly, dying in the cold of a Blitvinian November wind.

"You are mistaken in one of your basic propositions," Dr. Burgwaldsen had said to him, Burgwaldsen, who, for decades, had lectured in Vayda-Hunnen on the legal history of the Scythian, Carpatohunnish, and Karabaltico-Finnish peoples. "You're forgetting that Blitva doesn't live in the twentieth but in the fifteenth or in the sixteenth century at most. The fact that you have rebelled in defense of free civil dignity, in the civic, Jacobinian, citoyen (so to speak) sense of this obscure concept, that is what I call a false supposition, amice, and false suppositions inevitably produce poor conclusions! For this is how things are with us: that people are beaten during police inquiries, that, certainly according to the better, so-called European customs, could not be justified. In no way! Yet, after all, where today is that Europe where 'the better European customs' are valid? Answer me that question, my dear friend! Yes! Indeed! I ask you! Beating, typical Blitvinian beating, as an accompaniment to administrative functioning, that one could somehow explain: by means of hints from above and the excessive zeal of our common people, of the so-called lower, subaltern organs, as also so many other negative phenomena, by examination of causes and grasping of effects. This pathetic fact might gain its interpretation only in that sense which I, in the beginning, had the honor to quote, and that is that we are living in the fifteenth or, at the most, the sixteenth century. And consider this: Whether Barutanski, as a phenomenon, is to your personal liking or not, he is an organic phenomenon! His every act as a ruler is dictated by a deep, inborn awareness that he's acting not in the twentieth but in the fifteenth century. That, generally, is exclusively political skill: to manage in space and in time and act with the means which suit the needs of a particular time in a particular space. Yes! Nature, as is well known, does nothing by leaps or bounds, my dear young friend, and it is an old and well-tried piece of wisdom: Naturae convenienter vivere! And what you are seeking in this 'Open Letter' of yours is, for our circumstances, rebus hic et nunc stantibus, here, today, in Blitva, a demand which is against nature! You're looking for a leap, a salto mortale, from the fifteenth into the twentieth century! That is an intellectual supererogation, my dear friend; a state cannot be governed like that."

"So, Professor: The world has to be ruled by the bludgeon and I have to be beaten to death by that bludgeon simply because I don't think that the bludgeon should be ultima ratio?"

"Give me just one example in the history of civilizations that was not built on similar means of persuasion," Burgwaldsen replied. "The pharaohs, Pericles, the Rome of the Caesars, Borgia, the papal see, the East India Company, the Transvaal? According to you, Blitva should be the one exception? Forgive me, but that's naive!"

"Yes, my dear professor, I am naive, that much I admit. But do you know who it was who brought me up to be naive? In other words, who is responsible for my naïveté? You personally, you and your naive principles, which you naively preached from the rostrum and to which I naively listened through the course of several naive semesters, as you should well know! You taught us, together with the naive Cicero, that human communities should be ruled by that naive spirit of communality, that by the law of natural social instinct, people should be bound in naive organizations, according to the law of an instinct which Cicero naively called naturalis quaedam congregatio, and you yourself insisted that social groups should be naively similar to Cicero's naive civitas and to that naive concept which Cicero naively called constitutio populis!"

"Yes, very good, young man, but, if you haven't forgotten, I also taught you that people were hostile animals: Sunt homines ex natura hostes, by nature and her laws enemies, ex natura hostes, and, in addition, I also taught you this, that salus populi suprema lex, and there you have it! Blitva has not fought for its freedom for centuries to fall victim today to its enemies, spies, paid agents, and ordinary criminals!" Burgwaldsen declared.

Watching the convoy of cuirassiers crossing the empty Waldemaras Square and disappearing into the tree-lined Jarl Knutson Boulevard under the Kristian Barutanski Bridge, Niels Nielsen recalled that conversation with his old professor, Burgwaldsen, and, repeating "Blitva has not fought for its freedom for centuries to fall victim to criminals," set off, mechanically, limply, and automatically, following the convoy across the square, and then turned across the bridge to the other side into the park beneath the old fortress. To rest from the increasing pressure, to find peace in the woods among the centuries-old trees from which water dripped and its sound was irregularly disturbed. The rain had stopped, but one could hear the drops falling from leaf to leaf like tiny, independent worlds that had arrived out of the dark heights, and now, after their brief earthly existence, rolled, one after another, from leaf to leaf, from bough to bough, into the ditches, the mud, the Blitva River which, swollen, rustled under the bridge, dark and mucky, like the threat of an oncoming storm.

From The Banquet in Blitva, to be published in 2004 by Northwestern University Press. By arrangement with the Croatian Authors' Agency and Northwestern University Press.

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