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The City and the Writer: In Zagreb with Tomica Bajsić

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Zagreb as you feel/see it?

Zagreb is a melting pot of Continental and Mediterranean moods. Spring is light and promising. Summer is dreamlike with empty city streets open to the south toward the coast. Autumn is soothing with colorful, long shadows. Winter is dreary with icy northern winds from Medvednica (Bear Mountain), which overlooks Zagreb. 


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The memory of memories I used to have. As time passes, they seem like they do not belong to me anymore, but on the other hand, they constitute all that I am—the visions of childhood, my youth with the tragedies of war and death, the joy of love and parenthood.   


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Zagreb’s gardens and orchards. So many plants and diverse trees create a forest of forbidden fruit, and during childhood, from the end of spring through early autumn, we used to roam and plunder Zagreb’s orchards by night, climbing up high to eat delicious cherries and hang on treetops. We used to call those secret passages through the gardens on the hill where I lived elephant trails. I still climb the cherry tree in our garden in late May. 


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Miroslav Krleža, the cornerstone of Croatian twentieth-century literature, lived in Zagreb, as well as marvelous poets Tin Ujević, Vesna Parun, and Nikola Šop, whom I used to know well and whose poetry was translated into English by W. H. Auden. It seems to me that Zagreb literary identity nowadays is uncertain, although Dorta Jagić and some younger poets write remarkable poetry. Edo Popović wrote some fine contemporary novels, like Zagreb, Exit South (available in English). 

Vjekoslav Majer was the chronicler of twentieth-century Zagreb, and some of his stories later became the best musical comedies of Zagreb, such as Tko pjeva zlo ne misli (One Song a Day Takes Mischief Away). In the roaring twenties and thirties, they were screened as films and staged in theaters. Ivan Slamnig’s collection of stories Neprijatelj (Enemy) is a masterpiece. Marija Jurić Zagorka, the first female newspaper reporter and a feminist, wrote wonderful romance and cloak-and-dagger books. Ivan Kušan’s splendid series of adventures of a Zagreb city kid, Koko, initiated a love for books and adventure for many generations. And August Šenoa’s The Goldsmith’s Treasure, the first Croatian historical novel, tells the tale of a forbidden love between the daughter of a goldsmith and a nobleman’s son in sixteenth-century Zagreb. It was written in 1871 and translated into English in 2015. The statue of Dora, the goldsmith’s daughter, holding the key to the city in her hand guards the Stone Gate, which is part of the thirteenth-century fortified city. In the words of Šenoa himself: “Below the mountain, a jewel most precious to us glimmers in the sun, strong like a mighty hero—the town of Zagreb.”


Is there a place here you return to often?

The Maksimir Park is an endless wonder for runners and walkers. You can always discover a fresh path on the hiking trails and ski slopes of Medvednica. I drive around the city with my bike to deliver books, fetch groceries, and gather memories, not just my own. And I return to view Zagreb’s sunsets over our School for Applied Arts and Design, founded in the nineteenth century and where I learned my craft. 


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The Flower Square, where people meet and also where the Bogdan Ogrizović Library is located. It’s where we hold most of our poetry readings and book presentations. And uptown, in the historical center of Zagreb, where there are many museums, like the world-famous Museum of Broken Relationships.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The subterranean city—secret springs, fairy caves, and ancient, four-mile-long tunnels under Medvednica Mountain. There you can find the skeleton of a Roman soldier, a snow leopard, even a prehistoric rhino.  


Where does passion live here?

In theaters. Drama is the only art not yet abandoned in Zagreb. Sometimes, mainly in spring and summer, passion spills out into the streets.   


What is the title of one of your works about Zagreb and what inspired it exactly?

“Crna kraljica” (“The Black Queen”) is a poem that appears in my third book, and it is inspired by the fate of the legendary Barbara Celjska (Barbara of Cilli). People who lived around Medvedgrad (Bear City) on Medvednica Mountain above Zagreb told legends about her, mostly vicious ones—how she always wore black, threw lovers from the tower, had bears for pets, and sent ravens to attack peasants, and how the Devil himself fired the cannons and chased away the Tatars during the siege in exchange for her beauty and freedom. But when she saw that the Devil had tricked her, promising he would bring back her beloved, who was killed in the war, she cried so much that her tears made a well—to this day, mountaineers call it the Queen’s Well—a fountain of water that saved the peasants and their crops during severe drought.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Zagreb does an outside exist?”

We are an emigrant nation. Thousands of young people are leaving for Ireland or other countries around the world, just like many generations before fled to Ellis Island, Sydney, Guanabara Bay, Valparaíso, or Buenos Aires. I think Zagreb exists mostly in nostalgia—the friends left behind, our intimate way of life—because in big cities around the world, you are close to everybody and nobody at the same time. 


Tomica Bajsić was born in 1968 in Zagreb, Croatia. A poet, prose writer, graphic artist, and translator, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb. He has published five poetry books, two prose books, and a picture book. Most recently, his poetry collection with drawings, Nevidljivo more / Invisible Sea (2018), was published by Fraktura Publishing. Bajsić’s photography of the Amazon Rainforest and its inhabitants were exhibited at the KIC Gallery and the Mimara Museum in Zagreb. He has won numerous awards, including the Ivan Goran Kovačić and Dobriša Cesarić Awards, and the National Award for Poetry, among others. He is an editor of the Croatian literary magazine Poezija, and founder of Druga priča Design & Publishing. He serves as president of the Croatian PEN Centre, vice president of the Croatian Writers Society, and coordinator of the Lyrikline for Croatia.

Published Sep 6, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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