Croatia / Satellite Review / Literature


Marko Tomaš reflects on autumn, Split, and the fate of the independent bookshop

Photo © Milena Gosevski

We were stupid enough to only ever sell the books we liked reading ourselves. Along with comic strips, and graphic novels. We also sold vinyl records, which we stored in wheeled boxes so that they could be rolled around the shop.

Those sad, forsaken, Dalmatian autumns. Lit by a bluish sun, and wrapped in a breeze which smells as if the sea itself wanted to take a stroll around the city streets. I used to love the warming melancholy of the autumn. Back in the days when I was still living in Split, before the city was entirely eaten up by tourism, autumn brought a melancholy that seemed rather more comforting than disturbing. It was simply a case of the city drifting back into its normal rhythm after the heightened tempo of the summer. In those days Split was a place that people passed through en route for the Dalmatian islands. Few tourists ever spent more than a day in the city itself. The third-century palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian, which makes up the centre of Split and is known locally as the “ghetto”, was a place in which local people still lived. There were shops in the ghetto selling everyday goods; you could buy everything from fancy watches to bread rolls. People from outlying residential areas would come in to the centre every day, not just for their morning coffee but also to get their groceries. This all started to change with the construction of huge malls on the outskirts of the city. Tourism simply carried out the final coup de grace, packing the old centre off into history. Life disappeared from the Palace.

The Split I moved out of ten years ago now seems like something out of prehistory. In one short decade the city has been turned upside down. And when you turn people upside down then blood rushes to their heads, reality becomes blurred, and they begin to lose their minds.  It’s this state of disorder that characterizes Split today.

As well as the shops selling consumer goods, the heart of that prehistoric Split also contained several bookshops. One of them, hidden in the passageway that led from Marmontova into the ghetto, was named after Split’s best-known writer, the wry humorist Miljenko Smoje. Right on the Pjaca or main square was a combined bookshop and stationery store belonging to the erstwhile socialist-era publishing giant Znanje (“Knowledge”). On the opposite side of the square was Morpurgo, named after the man who founded it in 1860. Thanks to its status as the site of Split’s first-ever bookshop, the building that housed Morpurgo can, by law, only ever be used for the purpose of selling books. This protected status did not however stop Morpurgo from closing down in June 2017. The fact that the building will never be taken over by some dodgy food establishment selling tiny portions of overpriced ham and melon is not much of a comfort.

Not one of the bookshops mentioned above has survived into the present day. Nor has one other bookshop that used to be in the ghetto, the one dearest to my own heart, the one my friend Petar and I opened in mid 2005. It was called Utopia. We had to close it down at the beginning of 2009. Opening that same year was the local Split version of what was at that time a very popular concept in Croatia, the media megastore. And that was also in the ghetto. And that closed down too.

The fact that a legendary institution like Morpurgo couldn’t survive just goes to show the extent to which Split has been spiritually destroyed. And Split was never just any kind of city. It was swaggering, proud, arrogant; just like every Mediterranean city that reckons itself to be the centre of the world. In the summer season, at least, Split still does feel like the centre of the world; but as soon as the bluish narcotic light of autumn descends, it’s as if the city disappears from the face of the earth. It’s a city for single-use only. A stage set.

I will always feel a deep sorrow for Utopia, a project which Petar and I tried to run in accordance with its name. We were stupid enough to only ever sell the books we liked reading ourselves. Along with comic strips, and graphic novels. We also sold vinyl records, which we stored in wheeled boxes so that they could be rolled around the shop. Lined by ancient stone walls and overlooked by a rotten wooden ceiling, it was an altogether rather beautiful world, containing many secrets, many human fates, and a lot of music.

Next door to Utopia was the café-club called Getto, in whose courtyard I would drink coffee and wait for customers. Friends would turn up for a spot of conversation. Only a few steps away was Tri Volta, the buffet whose spacious stone courtyard would in summer heat up like a microwave oven. People who aren’t from the Mediterranean will never understand how that hellish heat becomes a source of joy, sending you into a kind of ecstasy that makes you want to stop everything and start dancing.

I always liked interacting with customers, especially those who came at regular, usually monthly, intervals to ask me for recommendations. Probably because the first time they’d asked me I had somehow managed to correctly guess their taste in literature. We were more like a family than a business. That was the way we’d imagined it to be. Springs and summers passed at great speed. Melancholy autumns and rainy, dreary winters polished Split’s stones, and I went day after day to my own little corner of the universe.

To begin with, right after I moved to Split, I lived near the famous gas works next to Stari Plac, the legendary former football ground of Hajduk Split. I would set off to work along Plinarska, passing the National Theatre, turning down Marmontova, and then towards the Music School, where I would turn towards Pjaca and walk diagonally from there towards the stepped alleyway known as Dosud, where my particular utopia was located. Autumn mornings were particularly special, when the sound of a violin or a piano would drift out onto the street through the open windows of the music school. I would always pause a while at that corner. My face would break into a smile. I would feel as carefree as a child. Secure in the knowledge that I was in the right place, doing the things I should be doing. That’s probably the reason why I come back so often, wandering in my memories along that same route through the autumnal streets of Split, towards a ghetto that no longer exists, and whose bookshops have long since disappeared.

Tourism has made a fool of the whole Mediterranean, so why shouldn’t it also make a fool of the dilapidated palace of some stupid Roman emperor, who threw Christians to lions only for those same Christians to build their own temple right in the middle of his former palace? Sometimes it seems to me that every idea is a utopia. In the ghetto, in the space of just ten years, the very idea of selling books became a utopia. But we had such fun doing it.

Autumn used to be the time when our cities were returned to us. But then we disappeared, and our cities disappeared. And without us, why would a city like Split need cosy, welcoming bookshops right in the centre of town? The closure of Morpurgo was the last nail in the coffin of bookselling in Split. Not even protecting the usage of the space itself has helped. Today it’s as empty as the city streets during a southerly wind. It drifts, just like me, who ten years later is no longer sure whether he is in the right place doing the right thing.

As far as I remember it was late winter. I was waiting for a tram at the Šubićeva stop in Zagreb, and I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with my life. The telephone rang. Petar asked me if I fancied moving to Split to run a bookshop with him. Now, I am back in Zagreb again. Waiting for a call. What I will be when I grow up, I do not wish to know.

© Marko Tomaš

Translated by Jonathan Bousfield

Born in Ljubljana in 1978, MARKO TOMAŠ is a poet, novelist and essayist who has resided at various times in Sombor, Mostar, Sarajevo and Zagreb. With numerous volumes of poetry to his credit, Tomaš’s first novel Nemoj me buditi (Don’t Wake Me Up) was published in April 2020 to considerable critical acclaim. Utopia is a slightly abridged version of a piece included in Pisma sa Juga (Letters from the South), a collection of articles originally written for the Maribor newspaper Večer, and published in book form in Belgrade (2019) and Zagreb (2020).