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A Literary Road Trip: The 2018 Litlink Festival in Croatia

By Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije attended the 2018 Litlink Festival, which ocurred June 29–July 1 in Croatia.


Just days before Croatia’s incredible performance in the 2018 World Cup, the sixth annual edition of the Croatian Litlink Festival brought together authors and publishers for a literary road trip that included readings in the cities of Pula, Rijeka, and Zagreb. Founded by author, editor, publisher, and literary agent Ivan Sršen and author, poet, and playwright Robert Perišić, the festival’s mission is to give a boost to the literary scene in Croatia. The impetus was the international success of Perišić’s book, Our Man in Iraq—“We thought that what happened for Robert’s book could happen to other writers,” said Sršen.

Occurring in a country that bears the scars of the terrible violence that ensued following the breakup of former Yugoslavia, the Litlink Festival recalls a slightly older literary festival, Palfest (the Palestinian Festival of Literature), albeit without its political aspect, which brings international authors and industry professionals to meet with their counterparts and hold readings and performances that are free to the public. With funding from the Croatian Ministry of Culture and other international cultural agencies, Litlink brings a few authors and publishers to Croatia to meet with established and upcoming authors and holds public readings in three cities. Past guests have included Heidi Julavits, Sheila Heti, Tao Lin, and David Szalay. This year’s participants mostly came from the US and included authors Nell Zink, Catherine Lacey, Jesse Ball, and Elijah Wald (who is also a musician), as well as Transit Books publisher Ashley Nelson Levy, Grove Atlantic editor Peter Blackstock, Janika Rüter from the German publisher Suhrkamp, and Buzz Poole, a freelance editor and writer who has been a consultant for the festival since its inception and who has published Robert Perišić in the US.

“There aren’t so many authors who fit this kind of festival, which has its own kind of atmosphere of alternative thinking about literature,” drawled Perišić, who projects weltschmerz with a sense of humor, if that’s possible. It’s true that Litlink has a particular atmospherecasual, with much bonhomie.

Image: Litlink participants Peter Blackstock, Marko Pogačar, Ashley Nelson Levy, Elijah Wald, Jesse Ball, Buzz Poole, and Catherine Lacey in Pula, Croatia.

It includes quite a few hours on the road in a bus through the landscape of Croatia, from northwestern Zagreb with its more Austro-Hungarian vibe, to the Istrian city of Pula with its decidedly Roman feel, to the more edgy port of Rijeka, once known as Fiume, which was temporarily occupied by the Italian protofascist poet and author Gabriele D’Annunzio, who declared Fiume an independent state in 1919. Mostly it is a festival where authors from abroad learn about the culture and history of the region while mingling with local writers, and the organizers make it clear that there are no constraints. “Things can happen long-term with translation and publishing but nothing is obligatory,” said Perišić.

The first event took place in Pula at the cavernous Rojc Social Center, where readings were held with both the American and Croatian authors, who included Slađana Bukovac, Nikola Petković (pictured), Nora Verde, and Amir Alagić. Social historian Igor Duda gave an overview of everyday life in Croatia during Socialist Yugoslavia. Slađana Bukovac read an excerpt from her 2016 novel, Stajska bolest (Foot to Mouth Disease), shortlisted for several awards, which deals with themes of freedom and individual resistance in a society steeped in violence. Nikola Petković read an excerpt from his largely autobiographical novel, How to Tie Your Shoes, which he translated or, in his words, “rewrote” in English for Dalkey Archive Press. It deals with a father-son relationship; a very difficult and painful one.

Antonela Marušić, a journalist who writes fiction under the name of Nora Verde (Nora for the character in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Verde because of environmental concerns), is concerned with LGBT issues in a region where “Catholicism is still very much ingrained in the culture and the struggle is ongoing and long.” The excerpt she read was about a breakup between a lesbian couple:  

She cupped her hands together and drank. The amount of words spoken and tears dried has obviously made her thirsty. I was thirsty too, but I wasn’t even thinking about stepping into her corner of the kitchen.
(Translation by Paula Jurišić)

Image: Nora Verde at the Močvara Club in Zagreb.

Amir Alagić, who left his home city of Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war, writes about exile, emigration, family ties, and cities. He read from his 2017 novel, Stogodišnje djetinjstvo (A Hundred Year Childhood):

Father tied a piece of string around the goose’s neck and walked it home. The bird yanked at the string, dug its heels in like an ass and pulled away, stubbornly craned its neck and flapped its wings. In the end, it surrendered to its fate and obediently followed our father. People in Pula recalled this unusual event for a long time, talking about how, on that clear, cold, windy night, while the moonlight rippled across the white feathers, the watchmaker Ivan Tidić walked through town with a goose on a leash.
(Translation by Vesna Marić)

After the readings, a charming gentleman introduced himself as a retiree and the husband of one of the authors (Slađana Bukovac), adding that he was her chauffeur and cook. It was none other than Nenad Popović, author, editor, translator and cofounder of the publishing house Durieux. I also had the opportunity to meet Magdalena Obradović Vodopija, who runs the Pula Book Fair, which has become the largest festival for writers in Southeast Europe.

Rijeka, with its rock-and-roll heritage, was the next literary stop. In the Dnevni Boravak literary café, strong women dominated the scene, with the exception of experimental writer Zoran Roško. Litlink’s special guest, Rumena Bužarovska, who is from the newly named Republic of North Macedonia, read a hilarious and very powerful excerpt from her story “Nectar,” translated by Paul Filev (a translation of the story by Will Firth can be read on Words without Borders). Dalkey Archive Press will publish her collection, My Husband, in English in May 2019.

Image: The Dnevni Boravak literary café in Rijeka.

Tea Tulić, whose friend and mentor was the late and tremendous Daša Drndić, read a story, “Merman,” translated by Mirza Purić and inspired by Tulíc’s husband’s brief employment at a sardine factory. Her first novel, Hair Everywhere, was published in English by Istros Books.  

Viktorija Božin read an extract from her first novel, Turbofolk, which was published this year. Turbofolk, pop-folk from the Balkans that has been much maligned, may be coming into its own, but it is still almost never mentioned in literature. Božin’s novel takes place in the Dalmatian outback where the turbofolk subculture was (and is) ever-present:

I’d go out to turbofolk parties, wait for Krešo to fuck me . . . All in all, there was nothing else to live for. While it seemed to me I had died and buried myself to the sounds of turbofolk music, to those around me it seemed I had come to life.
(Translation by Una Krizmanić Ožegović)

Andrea Jurjević, a US-based poet from Rijeka, read several of her poems, which she writes in English, and shared her amusement at being named 2018 Georgia (State, US) Author of the Year for Poetry.

The last stop was Zagreb and the iconic Močvara Club, where comics artist and illustrator Igor Hofbauer left his imprint, and where writers, poets, and playwrights Marinko Koščec, Damir Karakaš, Željka Horvat Čeč, Marina Gudelj, Ivana Rogar, and Korana Serdarević were featured.

Image: Festival participants, including Olivia Snaije, Nell Zink, Elijah Wald, and Tina Tesija at the Močvara Club in Zagreb.

The poet Željka Horvat Čeč read excerpts from her 2016 debut novel, Four Brave (Four Locks), which draws on a childhood spent during the war period in the 1990s in a village in northern Croatia:

Mum chops up the skinned rabbit. She packs the better pieces in a plastic bag that says 5 kg.
That’s for the doctor, she says. We have to see a doctor in Varaždin. The one we visited in Zagreb, he got venison. The one in Čakovec, he can settle for a chicken or a duck.
The bigger the city, the bigger the animal. That’s the way it is. Even though Mum says that’s not the way it is. I know it is.
(Translation by Una Krizmanić Ožegović)

Damir Karakaš, who is from Lika, a mountainous region of Croatia, read from his 2016 novel, Sjećanje šume (Remembering Forest), a coming-of-age story:

That same night I dream that he and the electrician have brought me a present; inside it is an iron heart. Father calls my name and announces ceremoniously, “Only two people in the world have a heart like this, the American president and you.” I stand next to the box, peek inside, ask the electrician, will they accept me into the army with a heart like that? He pats my shoulder, points at the box and says, “There’s no bullet in the world that can pierce this iron heart.”  
(Translation by Tomislav Kuzmanović)

Throughout the entire road trip, the master of ceremonies and moderator was the charismatic Marko Pogačar, one of Croatia’s best-known poets, who good-humoredly fielded questions and comments in English and Croatian for three and a half days. When mornings or evenings were chilly, he donned a Black Sabbath hoodie.

Image: Marko Pogačar and Slađana Bukovac.

“We have a place on the map now,” said founder Ivan Sršen, whose publishing house, Sandorf, is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Sršen is particularly excited to be publishing Wole Soyinka this fall and says that after an initial very tough five years, he and his team “see sense in what we’re doing, we have a very diverse program, we publish nonfiction, fiction, philosophy, history. Our biggest challenge is the financial one. I feel like if our economy was just a bit better, we could do wonders. When everything comes together, you have access to the world.”

Sršen was getting ready to attend Bookstan, a literature festival in Sarajevo in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Then he and Robert Perišić will begin to plan next year’s Litlink. “Robert and I have different visions and tastes which are complementary,” he shared. “For example, next year I would love to bring Greek and Turkish writers and editors here, but Robert was thinking of Hispanic writers. We’ll see if we can manage the funding to bring Latin American authors. The common language is obviously English, but we have great translators from all these languages. A language is not an obstacle if there’s a translator around.”


The complete excerpts of many of the English translations of the writers’ works are available from Ivan Sršen, [email protected].

Published Jul 18, 2018   Copyright 2018 Olivia Snaije

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