Central & Eastern Europe / Croatia / Literature

Rebel Rebel

The time is ripe to rediscover the work of cult Croatian writer Janko Polić Kamov

Kamov speaks to us in the edgy, disturbing voice of a writer who could quite easily be one of our contemporaries.

Leaning nonchalantly against the railings in front of Rijeka’s Continental Hotel is a life-size statue of a lanky young man, angular faced turned towards the sky. It’s one of those urban sights that tourists might pass more than once during their stay in the city, without ever paying too much attention to the question of who it actually represents. There is, after all, no plaque.

Sculpted by Zvonimir Kamenar in 2000 it portrays Janko Polić Kamov (1886-1910), the Rijeka-born writer who blazed a brilliant path through the world of modernist poetry, fiction and non-fiction before dying in Barcelona’s Hospital de la Santa Creu (now the National Library of Catalonia) at the tender age of 24.

Rijeka is enormously proud of Kamov, a key figure in the Croatian literary canon who might have been bracketed with Camus, Salinger or Rimbaud had he lived longer, written in a major language, or just had a better editor. With Rijeka’s stint as European Capital of Culture due to begin in 2020, maybe the time has come for Kamov to make the belated jump from Croatian cult to global classic. The recent publication of Kamov’s short stories in English, Farces & Novellas (translated by Martin Mayhew; it’s available from the usual online booksellers as an e-book or digital print), serves as the perfect literary springboard.

Janko Polić was born on November 7 1886 in the Rijeka suburb of Sušak. His merchant father was the co-founder of Polich, Minach et Comp, Rijeka’s biggest department store, and also a key figure in publishing Croatian patriotic newspapers. This bourgeois-nationalist background provided Polić junior with plenty of reasons to rebel.

As a high-school student he co-founded a short-lived nationalist group called Cefas, which harboured lofty but unfulfilled ambitions of using terrorism to bring down the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Expelled from school after spitting in the face of a teacher who gave him too high a mark, Polić ended up in the Ožegovićianum, a church-run boarding school in the wind-whipped Adriatic port of Senj, an experience which if anything hardened his rebellious nature.

When his dad’s business went down the drain the family moved to Zagreb, where the teenage Janko was introduced to the world of cafes, brothels and everyday grotesque that forms the background to the best of his stories. He spent three months in prison after taking part in demonstrations against the Budapest-appointed governor of Croatia, Ban Khuen-Héderváry. Subsequently he joined a travelling theatre troupe as a prompter and occasional actor, travelling through Dalmatia and Bosnia and generally living a bohemian life. His father and mother died in 1905 and 1906 respectively, setting him adrift from any semblance of a settled life. Polić became an inveterate traveller, a cultural nomad before his time, drifting through the cities of northern Italy and becoming fascinated by the raffish ports of the Mediterranean rim. He spent several summers on the Croatian island of Krk, and also made fleeting return visits to Zagreb, before heading for Barcelona on his final journey in June1910.

Adopting the nickname Kamov (based on the Biblical Ham, son of Noah, who once found his father drunk and naked), Polić had begun contributing essays and criticism to Zagreb journal Pokret in early 1907. His collections of poetry, Psovka (The Curse) and Ištipana hartija (Pinched Paper), both published in 1907, were precocious, morbid and morally ambiguous “I will rape you, blank paper” he wrote in the poem “Prelude”, setting out a provocative literary programme to which he remained true for the rest of his life. Kamov’s short stories, Farces and Novellas (Knjiga lakrdija i novela; 1908) read like a series of dispatches from the bohemian-misfit world which Kamov had chosen to inhabit.

Kamov’s erratic, difficult-to-read and quite possibly untranslatable novel Isušena kaljuža (“The Drained Swamp”) was written in three blocks beginning in Zagreb in 1906 and finished off in 1909. It wasn’t published until 1956, when poet and publisher Dragutin Tadijanović set to work organizing Kamov’s collected works.

Indeed the initial reaction of the Croatian literati to Kamov’s oeuvre was at the outset rather ambiguous. Aside from poet and revolutionary Vladimir Čerina, who set himself the task of bringing Kamov’s work to a wider audience after his death, Kamov was regarded by most of his Croatian contemporaries as a writer of great potential who had not yet arrived, a promising newcomer who had published too much unpolished work too early in his career. They also had a problem with the fact that Kamov was not, despite the radicalism of his teenage years, a socially engaged writer. He was too distrustful of Croatian nationalism to appeal to a patriot like Antun Gustav Matoš, and too disinterested in politics to get the unconditional thumbs up from committed lefties like Miroslav Krleža.  Nowadays it is the prose of Matoš and Krleža that seems slightly archaic, almost Edwardian; and it’s Kamov who speaks to us in the abrasive, disturbing voice of a writer who could quite easily be one of our contemporaries.

The other problem that Croatian writers had with Kamov was that they found it difficult to tell which literary genre he belonged to. Kamov’s writing anticipated lots of twentieth-century avant-gardes but he was writing at a time when none of those avant-gardes had yet been given a name. There are elements of

Futurism in his prose, especially in the non-fiction pieces he wrote for Pokret. However the Futurist movement wasn’t launched until 1909, by which time Kamov had already established his own style; he was a writer doing his own thing at a time when there were no clear manifestos to follow.

Indeed Kamov’s style is unorthodox, spluttering, unpredictable, moving from calm exposition to a troubled urgency to get it all out. And this is what makes Kamov seem contemporary, as if we are reading the prose of some edgy new discovery rather than someone who died over a hundred years ago.

It’s arguably as a precursor of existentialism that Kamov has been most appreciated. His stories are full of loners and rebels who feel out of place, unsure of to what they should commit themselves, unable to decide whether alcohol and sex constitute dissipating vices or a worthy modern calling.

As the main protagonist of “In The Country” observes, “to eat and do nothing in the city is never idleness, because to live in the city is already a kind of occupation.” It was in Zagreb rather than Rijeka that Kamov first fell for the attractions of the modern city, and his stories revel in the moral ambiguities of the urban scene.

The city offered a choice between possible lives, something that the characters in Kamov’s stories regard as both an opportunity and a trap. “Where is my ‘me’?” wonders the vacillating, shall-I-shave-or-not protagonist of “The Beard”. “In seriousness or in mischief, in cynicism or in verse, in smile or in contempt, in love or in coldness?”

The eponymous hero of “Bitanga” drifts through the city’s cafes, theatres, brothels, park benches and political gatherings. “Only in this city was Bitanga able to mature into a metropolitan. Meaning firstly: the belittling and ironizing of the whole of society, liberating himself from fundamental provincial prejudices and backwardness; to take an interest in speeches, editorials...”

What he called the “ironizing of society” was arguably the one aspect of modernity that interested Kamov the most. The protagonist of “The Disaster” survives a train crash only to see his memories of the event confused and modified by his subsequent exposure to newspaper reports and the recollections of others. In “The Suit”, a man dons a new suit only to discover that it reminds people of what a bedraggled loser he was before he got it.    

The final story of Kamov’s Farces is “A Confession”, in which he demystifies the whole process of writing short stories, and frankly admits that it's the promise of the fee from the publisher that urges him on to write more. The story turns into the kind of creative-writing master-class that could still be delivered at the start of the 21st century, never mind the 20th. “I grasped life and began to pull out from it all those events which are so tiny and worthless all of those that everyone has an excess of and overlooks; but on the other hand are so great and unusual, therefore it is worth emphasizing them. Tiny as a material fact, great as a psychological reality.”

Farces and Novellas, by Janko Polić Kamov. Translated and published by Martin Mayhew (www.martinmayhew.com)

© Jonathan Bousfield