Miro Gavran Interview Vecernji List – Toni Volaric
November 3, 2023
Some British experts taught me that it's unwise to present statistics because the average reader often finds them hard to grasp. Thus, as an introduction to the conversation with Croatia's most widely performed playwright, Miro Gavran, we'll mention just a few key figures to outline the breadth of his work. No better method for a newspaper article has been discovered. His works have been translated into over 40 languages, with more than 250 editions of his books both in Croatia and abroad. His plays and comedies have seen over 400 theater premieres worldwide, captivating the hearts of over 4 million people. He's earned around thirty literary and theatrical awards in Croatia and beyond. This is just a glimpse.
However, in our conversation for Ekran, I attempted to move beyond these numbers and the assumption that writers are privileged individuals who spend their days creating characters and stories, detached from the real lives of their readers. In the case of Miro Gavran, it's as though he takes a seat on a throne and produces 55 theatrical texts, 11 novels, poems, and poetry collections. Festivals bearing his name, GavranFest, are held in five different countries. It's as if he dances above our heads, describing the lives of others, even our own, while thriving in a good part of the world. Nevertheless, for Ekran, Gavran spoke like a citizen more than ever, as a resident of Croatia – Gavran, a consumer – Gavran, a voter –Gavran, a Croatian man – Gavran.
1. I assume you are still under the impression of promoting your new novel; can we introduce it to the EKRAN readers?
The novel "Portrait of a Soul" tells the story of the lives of seven women, with a central character being the brilliant portrait artist Benjamin. The story unfolds in Croatia from 1960 to 2020. These seven women are described through seven chapters, each written in a different literary or non-literary genre, such as narrative, memoir, film script, war report, email correspondence, a long letter, and poetry. Unlike my previous novels, this one is a bit more substantial, with 400 pages. I'm delighted that it has received warm reactions from readers and critics. I don't know whether it's good or bad; it's not for me to judge. I'm only sure that it's entirely unique. My publishing house, MOZAIK KNJIGA, has informed me that the novel is selling exceptionally well, which is a positive sign for the life of this novel that has just begun.
2. How do you see the reality that your Croatian and European readers are facing?
I believe that the ancient Greek word "crisis" most accurately describes the state in which Europe currently finds itself. The JEZIKOSLOVAC web portal interprets crisis as "a severe, comprehensive disruption in social, political, and economic life, the exit from which is usually very difficult and prolonged." Perhaps we can add that this crisis in the citizens of our continent is characterized by a sense of insecurity and a kind of spiritual disorientation, as well as a more than visible lack of meaning. In Croatia, we have an additional problem in that we constantly dwell on troubling stories from the past, and we lack self-esteem. We think that the grass is greener on the other side, so while some of our compatriots who go abroad succeed relatively, many end up in failure and disappointment.
3. How do you view the socio-political moment of a country that spends vast sums on sedatives?
It's paradoxical that in the past thirty years, Croatia has achieved all the major political goals around which there was social and political consensus: independence, liberation of occupied territory, entry into the European Union, entry into NATO, and the Schengen area. Yet, despite this, a significant number of Croatian citizens feel that we are experiencing a crisis, even to the extent that our homeland and its independence are not beyond question. We feel that neither NATO nor the European Union provide the kind of protection that was promised twenty years ago. We see that some of the largest and economically most powerful EU countries are in crisis, becoming insecure places for their citizens who are disoriented and disappointed. These countries are far from resembling what they were just thirty years ago. It is clear that this crisis is not just of an economic nature, and we see that the values promoted by EU officials are not our values. As a young man, I was excited at the thought of entering the European community, a community of sovereign European nations. Overnight, we woke up in a UNION that most Croats never wanted because it reminds us of past unions in which we have already been, and we know how they ended. (And we cannot forget the unsuccessful "union" called the Soviet Union.) We woke up in a union led by people who were never elected by the citizens of the EU. The only consolation is that we know that if we had remained outside these integrations, our economic and political position would be even worse than it is now. Furthermore, a significant number of young people feel that, after completing their education, they cannot find a job, start a family, or buy their first home in a reasonable amount of time in their homeland. I believe that demographic policy is the key to getting Croatia out of the crisis it is currently facing. The cumbersome bureaucratic apparatus and numerous barriers discouraging foreign potential investors are the main reasons for our economic problems. The increased use of sedatives is likely due to the three years of the pandemic and the two unfortunate earthquakes. Even when there are no existential problems, the modern European citizen, as well as the Croatian citizen, is not happy. He or she can easily slip into the trap of consumerism and an empty life.
4. Should such a globally renowned writer stand up and speak the truth, both in their works and personally?
A writer, like any other person, should write and speak about what they believe is necessary at the moment. Writing and speaking should not be done on demand or because it's "trendy." I had a genuine need to address the spiritual emptiness in which my contemporaries live, and this led to my poem in ten cantos titled "Defense of Jerusalem," published as a booklet of about a hundred pages last year. A year earlier, I published a political satire titled "Spokesperson," which reveals our political reality. This autumn, I released the novel "Portrait of the Soul." While the novel bears witness to the intimate private destinies of my vulnerable characters, it also reflects the social reality in Croatia. For literature, it's beneficial to have love poems and good comedies that provide an authentic representation of our characters without necessarily describing or criticizing our social or political reality. As a reader and a theatergoer, sometimes I want to find answers to the most important questions of our existence. I enjoy seeing both the bright and dark sides of our society, and sometimes I reach for a book or go to the theater with the desire to escape from the reality that we, whether we admit it or not, are determined by and often saturated with.
5. Are you aware of how much people need to "escape" from loans, injustice, and lies through your characters?
I have seen many times that literature and theater are extremely healing and beneficial, providing comfort, humor, and emotions that are lacking in our lives. I have experienced this on numerous literary events and chance encounters with people who turned out to be my readers or viewers. I admit that these moments are gratifying, and I'm pleased to know that what I write in solitude reaches the minds and hearts of many people.
6. Can it be said that writing is your way of fighting for or, if it sounds better, helping the common man?
I would like it to be so. Personally, as a reader, certain writers have been a refuge for me in some stages of my life, which brought me joy as a young reader when I found my thoughts and feelings in the sentences of some authors. Today, I am glad when my readers confide in me that they have recognized their feelings and thoughts in my texts. I cannot imagine a world without literature, without art; without them, we would be truly impoverished.
7. Have you ever considered using your reputation to actively engage in politics, as there have been such involvements in history?
In the past quarter century, I have received invitations from several political parties to join their activities. I even received offers to be at the top of the lists in election districts to enter the Parliament, but because I am genuinely dedicated to writing, I always declined with the explanation, "Who will then write my novel or my play?" I believe I am most "socially useful" as a writer. Furthermore, if I were to enter politics, I would not resist the urge to change many things, and those usually end up like Don Quixote. Greek philosophers considered politics the most honorable and important profession, and undoubtedly, many people who enter politics in Croatia and the world do so out of a desire to improve and change the world around them. Unfortunately, we can see that in the past twenty years, power and authority are no longer in the hands of European politicians but in the hands of invisible wealthy individuals and lobby groups. Politicians have become "replaceable actors" who no longer create their policies but present others' ideas. This is not good for European nations. Nevertheless, it is important for as many competent and well-intentioned people as possible to become involved in politics, and the way they should behave and act for the benefit of their communities is best explained by Pope John Paul II in the DOCTRINAL NOTE ON SOME QUESTIONS REGARDING THE PARTICIPATION OF CATHOLICS IN POLITICAL LIFE, which addresses politicians advocating Christian values. This document is an encouragement and a clear guide for Christians who want to engage in politics. I feel that the crisis Europe is facing can bring forth positive changes, a shift toward a new political paradigm where people's well-being is the primary focus.
8. When you write, do you imagine the people you are addressing, your readers, or the audience of a play?
I don't imagine an ideal reader of my own, but while writing, it sometimes occurs to me to think of a friend and feel the desire for that friend to read my text as soon as possible. It's important to me that my novel or play captures my readers and viewers. I don't write with the intention of keeping my work in a drawer; I write with the desire to share my emotions and views on life with as many people as possible, especially with my contemporaries.
9. Various fears are being propagated from all sides; how do you combat that?
Oh, yes, we are inundated with unnecessary darkness and pessimism from all directions. It's as if people are competing to see who can be the greater pessimist, who can produce more fear and discourage people of all generations. Fortunately, I was raised as the child of rural teachers, and I look for the best in people. I strive to be positive and productive. I genuinely have an affirmative attitude toward life, and that is reflected in my texts. Perhaps this is what contemporary readers need. I don't calculate; I write in accordance with my worldview and my aesthetic beliefs. So, I combat the production of fears through my work, in the only way available to me.
10. Does love disappear, suffocate in the pursuit of material interests?
We shouldn't generalize. Love is eternal, resilient, ingrained in the foundation of every life. Hatred, envy, jealousy, the need to dominate and manipulate others are also eternal. The times we live in are not much different from what our fathers, grandfathers, or our ancestors experienced. Every era brings its challenges, difficulties, and temptations, as well as an abundance of beauty, kindness, opportunities to affirm humanity and friendship. Perhaps the modern European and the modern Croat are too spoiled, so we want everything to go according to our ideas. Mother Teresa said: "When you are in trouble, find someone who is in more trouble than you, help them, and you will feel better." So, a few days ago, I was at the celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Zagreb Caritas, and it was moving to see all the volunteers, Caritas staff, supporters, beneficiaries... Sister Jelena Lončar designed it all so beautifully that all of us who attended that event witnessed that there is a more beautiful Croatia and that many people, about whom our mainstream media rarely write, are involved in it.
11. How did you envision life as a young man, and how did it turn out?
Honestly, my life turned out much better and more interesting than I dared to imagine in my youth, and I am grateful to God for that. As a high school student, I had that vague desire to engage in writing, to write stories... as a drama student, I devoted myself more seriously to it and had the luck to debut in the theater at the age of twenty-two, publish my first book the following year, and before the age of thirty, have my work performed in theaters in all former republics of the former state except Macedonia, as well as in the Netherlands, Poland, and the United States. At the age of twenty-five, I became a dramatist, and at the age of twenty-eight, I became the director of the Zagreb ITD Theater. Everything happened much faster than my boyhood dreams. What is most important to me as a writer is that for the past thirty years, I can live for literature and off literature. That was my youthful dream: to be a professional writer. That is a true blessing for me.
12. You have written a lot for children. Is it too demanding for our children to learn, or are the educational programs too demanding?
For a while, I really enjoyed writing for children and young people. Recently, my book "All Sorts in My Head" reached its 15th edition in Croatian, and "Head Over Heels in Love" even reached its 19th edition. Two prominent publishers from Tokyo recently published my novels in Japanese: "Happy Days" and "Forgotten Son," both translated by the esteemed translator Ikuko Yamamoto, with whom I haven't had the honor of meeting in person yet. I am happy when I see that what I write about children and young people reaches them... As for educational programs: I think the primary problem is not their complexity but the system in which test mania and grades have become more important than students and real knowledge. Unintentionally, we have come to a point where, in this system, the pursuit of top grades harms children, parents, and teachers. I am against determining who will enroll in which school and on which faculty through an average of grades. I advocate for introducing entrance exams for high schools, vocational schools, and universities... so that those who perform the best on the entrance exam move forward, rather than turning children and parents into hunters of high grades, often lacking genuine knowledge. Since I was part of the first generation affected by the education reform after enrolling in high school, where I focused on education toward philosophy for the third and fourth years, I studied pedagogy and didactics, learning various definitions of knowledge. My favorite definition was the one that said, "Knowledge is what remains when everything is forgotten"... and that certainly isn't rote reproductive knowledge, but creative knowledge that drives the world in both natural and social sciences. Therefore, I appeal for us not to turn children into nerds but to arrange the education system so that young people graduate from schools and universities with the ability to think for themselves in a creative and practical way.
13. How should we raise our children so they learn and become honest?
The best way to educate children is by example. Children learn everything through imitation: walking, speaking, as well as good and evil. Therefore, it's extremely important that teachers and professors possess not only knowledge but also human qualities and are socially recognized and respected.
14. What role do the media play in the development of society?
The media can do a lot of good and a lot of harm. People are susceptible and tend to imitate what they have seen in the media. Every media content, consciously or unconsciously, has an impact on society and its audience. Some major countries like Britain, France, and the United States have, at times in history, used their media as a powerful propaganda machine, which we may not have noticed when these contents were presented to us through entertainment shows, movies, "objective documentaries," and even through children's and educational programs.
15. Why do you think TV shows now depict someone's wife with an unknown man ("Frauentausch/Wife Swap" on RTL, and similar)?
When the most serious daily newspaper for Croatians, "Vjesnik," was abruptly shut down, I knew it would affect the deterioration of the media landscape. And that's what happened. I never like to sign petitions or publicly address certain issues that are the "topic of the day," but when the closure of "Vjesnik" was announced, I personally wrote against it, trying to emphasize how important "Vjesnik" is for our culture. However, neither my words nor the words of other intellectuals and artists who raised their voices could stop the execution of the only daily newspaper in our homeland that lacked sensationalism, hidden advertisements, or banality. "Vjesnik" had an excellent culture section, an excellent foreign policy section, a great sports and city section, and letters from readers were written by the strongest writers, university professors, and academics. Of course, domestic politics expressed the views of the ruling party (at that time, the SDP was in power in a coalition with HNS), which is not a problem if done with a sense of balance because almost every highly developed democratic state in the world has a daily newspaper where the diplomatic corps in that country can conclude the government's stance on key economic and social issues. So, what should ambassadors accredited in Zagreb do now? Should they read our tabloids and watch entertainment shows on commercial television where politicians talk about their private lives and their clothing preferences? Is that how they should decipher our state policy?
16. What happened that supposedly the most interest is generated by lowbrow content and vulgarity? Is it easier this way, or do politicians want to appear desirable and decent even when they lie and steal?
High-level politics has become sensationalized, starting in Italy during the era of Berlusconi and later spreading to America, Spain, Greece, and possibly originating about sixty years ago when the media focused more on Jacqueline Kennedy's wardrobe than on her husband, President John F. Kennedy. It has all gone too far, and it's bad for both politicians and society. I think the moment will come when people will cry out, "Give us back boring politicians who don't pander to the media, who will quietly and in peace do their job, and whom we will judge by their deeds, not by their words and public exhibitionism!"
17. You and some of your colleagues seem like islands where a few swimmers land briefly, quench their thirst for culture/water, and then swim on toward the waterfall. Am I exaggerating?
If that's your perspective, I appreciate it. I don't think about these things in that way. When I'm dedicated to writing a new text, the only thing I think about is how to tell it in the most compelling way and touch the essence of our lives with as few words as possible. Only when the text is finished and I start looking at it like an ordinary reader, as if it's not mine... only then can I evaluate what it means to others and if it succeeded.
18. When people talk about you, they highlight the most prolific, most performed, most translated, etc. But how do you actually live?
There's nothing spectacular in my private life. I live an average life of a middle-class person. My family and friends are in the foreground. When I'm not writing, I'm not a writer; I'm an ordinary person with the virtues and flaws of an average Croatian, with problems and joys that also affect my friends, neighbors, and colleagues. There's no need to mystify anything. I repeat: a writer is only a writer while writing. When I get up from my desk, I'm just a regular person. I try not to act as anything great, and in conversations with friends, I try never to be the one to bring up the topic of literature and theater. I gladly talk about it only when someone asks me about it. I try not to burden my friends or myself with my "image and work." It's the best for both me and my surroundings.
19. How do you see recent Croatian history, the initial accumulation of capital, and the idea of a narrow circle of the very wealthy?
I'm quite familiar with the situation in most Eastern European countries. I have often stayed in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary... We've all sailed between the same Scylla and Charybdis on the way out of one system and into another, and there has been an abundance of unnecessary wandering and injustice for all. And then I think of Honoré de Balzac's novels that described the "masters of transformation" two hundred years ago, after the bloody French Revolution, their new rich... and I think that the world keeps revolving in a cycle with some nuances in each new historical cycle.
20. To paraphrase Goran Bare, where has the human disappeared to? In a party, an interest group, a gang, or?
NOTE: Goran Bare is a popular Croatian rock musician, the counterpart of Iggy Pop.
Man is a creature of choice: some have chosen the path you mentioned, while others have decided to represent different values at the cost of existential losses and personal damage. I say, goodness and evil are characteristics of all societies and all periods, only the proportions of good and evil should concern us. And I am concerned about the relativization of good and evil. Neither one should be relativized. I dare to say that I know more positive than negative people, and that's why I love this world and this life despite the malicious people and the less pleasant things and phenomena that surround me.
21. You have long surpassed local boundaries with your works, so I'm really curious about how it feels to return to your homeland?
I never left my homeland: I have only spent a month outside of Croatia five times in my life: twice in America, twice in Britain, and once in Malta. All my other numerous travels were even shorter, just like the recent week I spent in Prague at the 14th GavranFest, an international festival dedicated to me. It was wonderful to socialize with actors, translators, and directors from several countries who worked on my texts, to witness that the discerning Czech audience still loves me (currently, there are six of my live performances in the Czech Republic, three in Prague), and yet I was pleased to return to Zagreb and continue with my everyday life. I am truly in love with Croatia, despite its flaws, which I am aware of; it's a beautiful country. And still, traveling to other countries and meeting people who live in a different environment refresh me in a miraculous way. Every journey is a kind of cognitive and experiential gain for every person, especially for writers.
22. How did you grow up, what kind of childhood do you remember?
As the child of rural teachers, I can say that I had a beautiful childhood, which I didn't know would one day become a future treasure chest full of emotional episodes that a future writer would often reach for.
23. What music did you listen to in your youth, and whom did you read?
Music wasn't decisive for me in those years; I listened to the current hits of our pop music, from Arsen Dedić and Oliver Dragojević to then-popular foreign singers. My sister and brother, who were older than me, bought records, and music was very important to them in their upbringing and development. I listened to what they brought home, and fortunately, they had good taste. As for literature, in my childhood, I liked Ferenc Molnár, Mark Twain, Mate Lovrak, Ivan Kušan, Erich Kästner, Karl May, Jules Verne... and in high school, writers like Camus, Kafka, A.B. Šimić, Dobriša Cesarić, Meša Selimović, Vladan Desnica, Marinković, touched my heart.
24. How much of that maybe strangely sweet boy within you do you keep today?
He is precious to me. I hope he hasn't been lost after all the storms and tempests I've been through. But my loved ones can testify to that better and more accurately than me.
25. I will, of course, list the successes of your creativity, but what is success that fills your heart?
Once, in a conversation for a newspaper, I said that the greatest success for me is to do this job and still remain a normal person. During my time at the Academy for Theater, Film, and Television, I saw actors, directors, and writers who would suddenly shine, success would go to their heads, they would become arrogant and lose their peace, and often even their humanity. Suddenly, not even their girlfriend or boyfriend, friends, wife, or husband would be good enough for them, they'd imagine they were worth more than they are, forgetting that none of us deserves the talents we have. We truly have no merits for our talents; our only merit may be working on the talent. For example, I don't play any musical instrument; it was decided somewhere up in the sky, just as it was decided that some of my friends play and compose brilliantly and give me the fruits of that talent for which they are not responsible. Perhaps success is recognizing your talent, perfecting it, and giving it to others.
26. A libretto for a musical is a special category; how does it come into being?
I worked with composer Darko Domitrović on the libretto for the musical "Byron," with Tonči Huljić on the musical "Patients," and with composer Sanja Drakulić on the opera "Kings and Grooms." Those were great experiences. A musical is a kind of "total theater," a more complex job than film. I'm glad I tried my hand at it. There are still some librettos I've written that haven't been realized in theaters, such as the musical "Veli Jože," for which Tamara Obrovac composed the music, the musical "The Theft of the Mona Lisa," for which Alfi Kabiljo wrote the music, and the operatic libretto "The Return of the Prodigal Son," for which Anđelko Igrec composed the music.
27. I asked Arsen and Šerbedžija what life actually is, so now I'll ask you?
NOTE: Arsen Dedic was a Croatian legendary musician, composer and singer. Rade Šerbedžija is a Croatian actor who made a career in the UK and in Hollywood.
Life is a wonderfully exciting journey where, despite numerous obstacles, we will meet wonderful people and helpers who will enrich us with their words, deeds, or just their presence.
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