Miro Gavran Interview Vecernji List – Toni Volaric
October 29, 2023
Some British experts taught me that it's unwiseto present statistics because the average reader often finds them hard tograsp. Thus, as an introduction to the conversation with Croatia's most widelyperformed playwright, Miro Gavran, we'll mention just a few key figures tooutline the breadth of his work. No better method for a newspaper article hasbeen discovered. His works have been translated into over 40 languages, withmore than 250 editions of his books both in Croatia and abroad. His plays andcomedies have seen over 400 theater premieres worldwide, captivating the heartsof over 4 million people. He's earned around thirty literary and theatricalawards in Croatia and beyond. This is just a glimpse.
However,in our conversation for Ekran, I attempted to move beyond these numbersand the assumption that writers are privileged individuals who spend their dayscreating 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 andproduces 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 ourown, 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 theimpression of promoting your new novel; can we introduce it to the EKRANreaders?
The novel "Portrait of a Soul" tellsthe story of the lives of seven women, with a central character being thebrilliant portrait artist Benjamin. The story unfolds in Croatia from 1960 to2020. These seven women are described through seven chapters, each written in adifferent literary or non-literary genre, such as narrative, memoir, filmscript, war report, email correspondence, a long letter, and poetry. Unlike myprevious novels, this one is a bit more substantial, with 400 pages. I'm delightedthat it has received warm reactions from readers and critics. I don't knowwhether it's good or bad; it's not for me to judge. I'm only sure that it'sentirely unique. My publishing house, MOZAIK KNJIGA, has informed me that thenovel is selling exceptionally well, which is a positive sign for the life ofthis novel that has just begun.
2. How do you see the reality that yourCroatian and European readers are facing?
I believe that the ancient Greek word"crisis" most accurately describes the state in which Europecurrently finds itself. The JEZIKOSLOVAC web portal interprets crisis as"a severe, comprehensive disruption in social, political, and economiclife, the exit from which is usually very difficult and prolonged."Perhaps we can add that this crisis in the citizens of our continent ischaracterized 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 anadditional problem in that we constantly dwell on troubling stories from thepast, and we lack self-esteem. We think that the grass is greener on the otherside, so while some of our compatriots who go abroad succeed relatively, manyend up in failure and disappointment.
3. How do you view the socio-politicalmoment 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 wassocial 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 areexperiencing a crisis, even to the extent that our homeland and itsindependence are not beyond question. We feel that neither NATO nor theEuropean Union provide the kind of protection that was promised twenty yearsago. We see that some of the largest and economically most powerful EUcountries are in crisis, becoming insecure places for their citizens who aredisoriented and disappointed. These countries are far from resembling what theywere just thirty years ago. It is clear that this crisis is not just of aneconomic nature, and we see that the values promoted by EU officials are notour values. As a young man, I was excited at the thought of entering the Europeancommunity, a community of sovereign European nations. Overnight, we woke up ina UNION that most Croats never wanted because it reminds us of past unions inwhich we have already been, and we know how they ended. (And we cannot forgetthe unsuccessful "union" called the Soviet Union.) We woke up in aunion led by people who were never elected by the citizens of the EU. The onlyconsolation 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 completingtheir education, they cannot find a job, start a family, or buy their firsthome in a reasonable amount of time in their homeland. I believe that demographicpolicy is the key to getting Croatia out of the crisis it is currently facing.The cumbersome bureaucratic apparatus and numerous barriers discouragingforeign potential investors are the main reasons for our economic problems. Theincreased use of sedatives is likely due to the three years of the pandemic andthe two unfortunate earthquakes. Even when there are no existential problems,the modern European citizen, as well as the Croatian citizen, is not happy. Heor she can easily slip into the trap of consumerism and an empty life.
4. Should such a globally renownedwriter stand up and speak the truth, both in their works and personally?
A writer, like any other person, should writeand speak about what they believe is necessary at the moment. Writing andspeaking should not be done on demand or because it's "trendy." I hada genuine need to address the spiritual emptiness in which my contemporarieslive, and this led to my poem in ten cantos titled "Defense ofJerusalem," published as a booklet of about a hundred pages last year. Ayear 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 intimateprivate destinies of my vulnerable characters, it also reflects the socialreality in Croatia. For literature, it's beneficial to have love poems and goodcomedies that provide an authentic representation of our characters withoutnecessarily describing or criticizing our social or political reality. As areader and a theatergoer, sometimes I want to find answers to the mostimportant questions of our existence. I enjoy seeing both the bright and darksides of our society, and sometimes I reach for a book or go to the theaterwith 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 peopleneed to "escape" from loans, injustice, and lies through yourcharacters?
I have seen many times that literature andtheater are extremely healing and beneficial, providing comfort, humor, andemotions that are lacking in our lives. I have experienced this on numerousliterary events and chance encounters with people who turned out to be myreaders or viewers. I admit that these moments are gratifying, and I'm pleasedto know that what I write in solitude reaches the minds and hearts of manypeople.
6. Can it be said that writing is yourway of fighting for or, if it sounds better, helping the common man?
I would like it to be so. Personally, as areader, 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 inthe sentences of some authors. Today, I am glad when my readers confide in methat they have recognized their feelings and thoughts in my texts. I cannotimagine a world without literature, without art; without them, we would betruly impoverished.
7. Have you ever considered using yourreputation to actively engage in politics, as there have been such involvementsin history?
In the past quarter century, I have receivedinvitations from several political parties to join their activities. I evenreceived offers to be at the top of the lists in election districts to enterthe Parliament, but because I am genuinely dedicated to writing, I alwaysdeclined with the explanation, "Who will then write my novel or myplay?" I believe I am most "socially useful" as a writer.Furthermore, if I were to enter politics, I would not resist the urge to changemany things, and those usually end up like Don Quixote. Greek philosophersconsidered politics the most honorable and important profession, andundoubtedly, many people who enter politics in Croatia and the world do so outof a desire to improve and change the world around them. Unfortunately, we cansee that in the past twenty years, power and authority are no longer in thehands of European politicians but in the hands of invisible wealthy individualsand lobby groups. Politicians have become "replaceable actors" who nolonger create their policies but present others' ideas. This is not good forEuropean nations. Nevertheless, it is important for as many competent andwell-intentioned people as possible to become involved in politics, and the waythey should behave and act for the benefit of their communities is bestexplained by Pope John Paul II in the DOCTRINAL NOTE ON SOME QUESTIONSREGARDING THE PARTICIPATION OF CATHOLICS IN POLITICAL LIFE, which addressespoliticians advocating Christian values. This document is an encouragement anda clear guide for Christians who want to engage in politics. I feel that thecrisis Europe is facing can bring forth positive changes, a shift toward a newpolitical paradigm where people's well-being is the primary focus.
8. When you write, do you imagine thepeople you are addressing, your readers, or the audience of a play?
I don't imagine an ideal reader of my own, butwhile writing, it sometimes occurs to me to think of a friend and feel thedesire for that friend to read my text as soon as possible. It's important tome that my novel or play captures my readers and viewers. I don't write withthe intention of keeping my work in a drawer; I write with the desire to sharemy emotions and views on life with as many people as possible, especially withmy contemporaries.
9. Various fears are being propagatedfrom all sides; how do you combat that?
Oh, yes, we are inundated with unnecessarydarkness and pessimism from all directions. It's as if people are competing tosee who can be the greater pessimist, who can produce more fear and discouragepeople of all generations. Fortunately, I was raised as the child of ruralteachers, and I look for the best in people. I strive to be positive andproductive. I genuinely have an affirmative attitude toward life, and that isreflected in my texts. Perhaps this is what contemporary readers need. I don'tcalculate; 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 availableto me.
- Does love disappear, suffocate in the pursuit of material interests?
We shouldn't generalize. Loveis eternal, resilient, ingrained in the foundation of every life. Hatred, envy,jealousy, the need to dominate and manipulate others are also eternal. Thetimes we live in are not much different from what our fathers, grandfathers, orour ancestors experienced. Every era brings its challenges, difficulties, andtemptations, as well as an abundance of beauty, kindness, opportunities toaffirm humanity and friendship. Perhaps the modern European and the modernCroat 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 moretrouble than you, help them, and you will feel better." So, a few daysago, 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 allof us who attended that event witnessed that there is a more beautiful Croatiaand that many people, about whom our mainstream media rarely write, areinvolved in it.
- How did you envision life as a young man, and how did it turn out?
Honestly, my life turned outmuch better and more interesting than I dared to imagine in my youth, and I amgrateful to God for that. As a high school student, I had that vague desire toengage in writing, to write stories... as a drama student, I devoted myselfmore seriously to it and had the luck to debut in the theater at the age oftwenty-two, publish my first book the following year, and before the age ofthirty, have my work performed in theaters in all former republics of theformer state except Macedonia, as well as in the Netherlands, Poland, and theUnited States. At the age of twenty-five, I became a dramatist, and at the ageof twenty-eight, I became the director of the Zagreb ITD Theater. Everythinghappened much faster than my boyhood dreams. What is most important to me as awriter is that for the past thirty years, I can live for literature and offliterature. That was my youthful dream: to be a professional writer. That is atrue blessing for me.
- 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 enjoyedwriting for children and young people. Recently, my book "All Sorts in MyHead" reached its 15th edition in Croatian, and "Head Over Heels inLove" even reached its 19th edition. Two prominent publishers from Tokyorecently published my novels in Japanese: "Happy Days" and"Forgotten Son," both translated by the esteemed translator IkukoYamamoto, with whom I haven't had the honor of meeting in person yet. I amhappy when I see that what I write about children and young people reachesthem... As for educational programs: I think the primary problem is not theircomplexity but the system in which test mania and grades have become moreimportant than students and real knowledge. Unintentionally, we have come to apoint 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 onwhich faculty through an average of grades. I advocate for introducing entranceexams for high schools, vocational schools, and universities... so that thosewho perform the best on the entrance exam move forward, rather than turningchildren and parents into hunters of high grades, often lacking genuineknowledge. Since I was part of the first generation affected by the educationreform after enrolling in high school, where I focused on education towardphilosophy for the third and fourth years, I studied pedagogy and didactics,learning various definitions of knowledge. My favorite definition was the onethat said, "Knowledge is what remains when everything isforgotten"... and that certainly isn't rote reproductive knowledge, butcreative 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 theeducation system so that young people graduate from schools and universitieswith the ability to think for themselves in a creative and practical way.
- How should we raise our children so they learn and become honest?
The best way to educatechildren is by example. Children learn everything through imitation: walking,speaking, as well as good and evil. Therefore, it's extremely important thatteachers and professors possess not only knowledge but also human qualities andare socially recognized and respected.
- What role do the media play in the development of society?
The media can do a lot of goodand a lot of harm. People are susceptible and tend to imitate what they haveseen in the media. Every media content, consciously or unconsciously, has animpact 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 powerfulpropaganda machine, which we may not have noticed when these contents werepresented to us through entertainment shows, movies, "objectivedocumentaries," and even through children's and educational programs.
- 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 dailynewspaper for Croatians, "Vjesnik," was abruptly shut down, I knew itwould affect the deterioration of the media landscape. And that's whathappened. I never like to sign petitions or publicly address certain issuesthat are the "topic of the day," but when the closure of"Vjesnik" was announced, I personally wrote against it, trying toemphasize how important "Vjesnik" is for our culture. However,neither my words nor the words of other intellectuals and artists who raisedtheir voices could stop the execution of the only daily newspaper in ourhomeland that lacked sensationalism, hidden advertisements, or banality."Vjesnik" had an excellent culture section, an excellent foreignpolicy section, a great sports and city section, and letters from readers werewritten by the strongest writers, university professors, and academics. Ofcourse, domestic politics expressed the views of the ruling party (at thattime, the SDP was in power in a coalition with HNS), which is not a problem ifdone with a sense of balance because almost every highly developed democraticstate in the world has a daily newspaper where the diplomatic corps in thatcountry can conclude the government's stance on key economic and social issues.So, what should ambassadors accredited in Zagreb do now? Should they read ourtabloids and watch entertainment shows on commercial television wherepoliticians talk about their private lives and their clothing preferences? Isthat how they should decipher our state policy?
- 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 becomesensationalized, starting in Italy during the era of Berlusconi and laterspreading to America, Spain, Greece, and possibly originating about sixty yearsago when the media focused more on Jacqueline Kennedy's wardrobe than on herhusband, President John F. Kennedy. It has all gone too far, and it's bad forboth politicians and society. I think the moment will come when people will cryout, "Give us back boring politicians who don't pander to the media, whowill quietly and in peace do their job, and whom we will judge by their deeds,not by their words and public exhibitionism!"
- 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, Iappreciate it. I don't think about these things in that way. When I'm dedicatedto writing a new text, the only thing I think about is how to tell it in themost compelling way and touch the essence of our lives with as few words aspossible. Only when the text is finished and I start looking at it like anordinary reader, as if it's not mine... only then can I evaluate what it meansto others and if it succeeded.
- 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 inmy private life. I live an average life of a middle-class person. My family andfriends are in the foreground. When I'm not writing, I'm not a writer; I'm anordinary person with the virtues and flaws of an average Croatian, withproblems 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 whilewriting. When I get up from my desk, I'm just a regular person. I try not toact as anything great, and in conversations with friends, I try never to be theone to bring up the topic of literature and theater. I gladly talk about itonly when someone asks me about it. I try not to burden my friends or myselfwith my "image and work." It's the best for both me and mysurroundings.
- 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 thesituation in most Eastern European countries. I have often stayed in Slovakia,the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary... We've all sailed between the same Scyllaand Charybdis on the way out of one system and into another, and there has beenan abundance of unnecessary wandering and injustice for all. And then I thinkof Honoré de Balzac's novels that described the "masters oftransformation" two hundred years ago, after the bloody French Revolution,their new rich... and I think that the world keeps revolving in a cycle withsome nuances in each new historical cycle.
- To paraphrase Goran Bare, where has the human disappeared to? In a party, an interest group, a gang, or?
NOTE: Goran Bare is a popularCroatian 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 representdifferent values at the cost of existential losses and personal damage. I say,goodness and evil are characteristics of all societies and all periods, onlythe proportions of good and evil should concern us. And I am concerned aboutthe relativization of good and evil. Neither one should be relativized. I dareto say that I know more positive than negative people, and that's why I lovethis world and this life despite the malicious people and the less pleasantthings and phenomena that surround me.
- 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: Ihave only spent a month outside of Croatia five times in my life: twice inAmerica, twice in Britain, and once in Malta. All my other numerous travelswere 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 withactors, translators, and directors from several countries who worked on mytexts, 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. Iam truly in love with Croatia, despite its flaws, which I am aware of; it's abeautiful country. And still, traveling to other countries and meeting peoplewho live in a different environment refresh me in a miraculous way. Everyjourney is a kind of cognitive and experiential gain for every person,especially for writers.
- 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 daybecome a future treasure chest full of emotional episodes that a future writerwould often reach for.
- What music did you listen to in your youth, and whom did you read?
Music wasn't decisive for mein those years; I listened to the current hits of our pop music, from ArsenDedić and Oliver Dragojević to then-popular foreign singers. My sister andbrother, who were older than me, bought records, and music was very importantto them in their upbringing and development. I listened to what they broughthome, and fortunately, they had good taste. As for literature, in my childhood,I liked Ferenc Molnár, Mark Twain, Mate Lovrak, Ivan Kušan, Erich Kästner, KarlMay, Jules Verne... and in high school, writers like Camus, Kafka, A.B. Šimić,Dobriša Cesarić, Meša Selimović, Vladan Desnica, Marinković, touched my heart.
- How much of that maybe strangely sweet boy within you do you keep today?
He is precious to me. I hopehe hasn't been lost after all the storms and tempests I've been through. But myloved ones can testify to that better and more accurately than me.
- I will, of course, list the successes of your creativity, but what is success that fills your heart?
Once, in a conversation for anewspaper, I said that the greatest success for me is to do this job and stillremain a normal person. During my time at the Academy for Theater, Film, andTelevision, I saw actors, directors, and writers who would suddenly shine,success would go to their heads, they would become arrogant and lose theirpeace, and often even their humanity. Suddenly, not even their girlfriend orboyfriend, friends, wife, or husband would be good enough for them, they'dimagine they were worth more than they are, forgetting that none of us deservesthe talents we have. We truly have no merits for our talents; our only meritmay 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 myfriends play and compose brilliantly and give me the fruits of that talent forwhich they are not responsible. Perhaps success is recognizing your talent,perfecting it, and giving it to others.
- A libretto for a musical is a special category; how does it come into being?
I worked with composer DarkoDomitrović on the libretto for the musical "Byron," with Tonči Huljićon the musical "Patients," and with composer Sanja Drakulić on theopera "Kings and Grooms." Those were great experiences. A musical isa kind of "total theater," a more complex job than film. I'm glad Itried my hand at it. There are still some librettos I've written that haven'tbeen realized in theaters, such as the musical "Veli Jože," for whichTamara Obrovac composed the music, the musical "The Theft of the MonaLisa," for which Alfi Kabiljo wrote the music, and the operatic libretto"The Return of the Prodigal Son," for which Anđelko Igrec composedthe music.
- I asked Arsen and Šerbedžija what life actually is, so now I'll ask you?
NOTE: Arsen Dedic was aCroatian legendary musician, composer and singer. Rade Šerbedžija is a Croatianactor who made a career in the UK and in Hollywood.
Life is a wonderfully excitingjourney where, despite numerous obstacles, we will meet wonderful people andhelpers who will enrich us with their words, deeds, or just their presence.
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