A GREAT CROATIAN NOVEL – Review by Igor Zic
Adhering to the first rule of writing – writeabout what you know best – Miro Gavran, having been born in 1961, has placedthe plot of his novel, Portrait of a Soul in a period he lived through.He bears witness, through the thoughts and actions of his characters, to allthe horrors and perversions of Yugoslavia as a state of narrow minds,informants, and tattletales. It's challenging to remain virtuous in a corruptcountry, one that relied on foreign funds and eagerly dispatched Croats to workin Germany, exchanging its worthless dinars for Croatian remittances in GermanDeutschemarks and other foreign currencies from Croatian tourism andshipbuilding. The most potent form of criticism is a poetic 'casual' criticism,with no raised voices; horror is best served cold.
The book is an easy read due to its precise,simple Croatian. After a somewhat longer introduction, the text captivates thereaders and compels them to discover what happens next. Everything ismelodramatic because it is conveyed through the destinies of seven femalecharacters. The female voice is remarkably strong, even when the heroineswhisper. Serious threats are spoken softly. Gavran doesn't write from theperspective of a dominant white male who has usurped European history. As anauthor, he may be a bit too subdued for my taste, like a silhouette in thetwilight filled with shadows. He revives the theater scene with muted sobbing.
The spirit of Gavran's novel perfectlycomplements the films of Douglas Sirk, a German director who fled Nazi Germanyfor Hollywood due to his Jewish wife. His films, such as MagnificentObsession, 'All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, ATime to Love and a Time to Die, and Imitation of Life, wereunderrated by critics in the 1950s but later recognized as masterpieces. Theyalso provide a profound critique of American society in the 1950s, an Americathat epitomized a fairy-tale consumer society, marked by unimaginable wealth,opulent buildings, oversized cars, and melodramatic movies.
Gavran's novel is intriguing and meticulouslystructured, spanning four hundred pages. It consists of three major chapters: Karolina(narrative), Marta (screenplay), and Ena (memoirs), each of whichis approximately one hundred pages. These are interspersed with shorterconnecting chapters: Hana (poem), Vera (letter), Iva (warreport), Julijana (email correspondence). One can sense that the novelwas crafted over more than three years, with Gavran meticulously refining thetext, making it simpler, more understandable, and easily accessible. The storyfeatures numerous characters whose lives intertwine in various ways and atdifferent points in their lives.
The Catholic faith also plays an essentialrole, as it does in every epic depiction of Croatia. Faith is introduced in amanner that requires no deceit or sermonizing. Language and faith define who weare, not the secret police. In essence, Portrait of a Soul is aremarkable Croatian novel that has the potential to become a significantsuccess in Croatia. All Croats, and even a few collaborators of secretservices, can find a part of their lives reflected in this book.
The book encompasses all the loves, deceptions,tragedies, false hopes, and ecstasies experienced in a country that is a pieceof paradise amidst the abyss of the secret police’s neverland. A searingcritique of Yugoslavia that will evoke deep emotions in many, even if they donot openly express it. I believe the book, like Kafka's Friend before,holds great cinematic potential. It's evident that Miro Gavran, renowned as themost accomplished Croatian playwright, envisions every scene and, through hisfemale characters, traverses the Via Crucis of his own life, a journey uniquelyshaped by his homeland, Croatia.
Review published in Vijenac, October 12, 2023.
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