Located in the middle of the Croatian capital, Slastičarnica Zagreb is a traditional Central European pastry shop, serving coffee, cakes, and the kind of ice cream that creates queues on summer days. One of their flagship products is the Krleža Coffee Slice, a layered piece of chocolate, coffee and cream allegedly inspired by the recreational eating habits of Miroslav Krleža (1893-1981), widely touted as the greatest Croatian writer of the 20th century. century. It’s a charming but rather odd piece of invented heirloom, not least because Krleža’s handwriting is rarely remembered as anything sweet – hers was the literature of sarcasm, bitterness, disappointment. Even when he wrote passionately about the things he believed in – culture, socialism, Yugoslavia – he did so in a way that was difficult and abrasive. Krleža might have been a lot, but it certainly wasn’t a cake.
It will be 40 years since Miroslav Krleža’s death on December 29, prompting many to look back on the career of one of the few Croatian writers to be regularly ranked in international society. Whether he is considered a great Yugoslav novelist or a great Central European, he is an essential figure for anyone interested in Croatian culture. However, he may not be the most beloved. His prose is pungent, provocative, ruthless. Both anticlerical and pro-communist, he certainly does not fit easily into any Croatian national canon, the very idea of which he would probably have disdained.
Born in Zagreb and educated in Austro-Hungarian military schools, Krleža was (like many Croats of his generation) drawn to Yugoslavism, the idea that the South Slavic peoples should be united in a common state. However, Yugoslavia which came into being after 1918 was, for him, a bourgeois state of little emancipatory value. Editor, publisher, polemicist, poet, playwright and novelist, Krleža was at the center of Zagreb’s cultural life throughout the interwar period, and his impact on Croatian culture is hard to overstate. He transformed the Croatian language into a versatile platform for bold modernist prose, frequently using the Zagreb dialect to give his fictional characters additional, earthy authority.
He played a central role in the communist Yugoslavia that arose after World War II, organizing displays of medieval church treasures and Bosnian tombstones in a programmatic effort to extol the cultural riches of a resurgent country. Krleža was also entrusted with the production of a multi-volume Yugoslavian Encyclopedia, a project intended to celebrate the diversity of Yugoslav culture, while emphasizing themes that could unite its people. For a long time, Krleža was President Tito’s favorite vacation companion, accompanying the autocrat on state visits on his state yacht, Galeb, or hanging out at the presidential villa in Brijuni.
The closest that Krleža came to writing a “national” novel was the enormous, five-volume Zastave (“Flags”), written at the end of his career (between 1962 and 1976) and not yet translated into English. Considering the death of the Habsburg Empire and the birth of Yugoslavia through the eyes of a distinguished Zagreb family, a forensic scalpel is needed for both Croatian national sentiment and (often blind) faith in Yugoslavism which served as a counterpoint.
Krleža left a large body of work, much of which remains in the Croatian school curriculum. It is also the subject of obsessive university studies, a field called “Krléžology”, as if to suggest that human heritage is a scientific discipline in its own right. The works translated into English represent only a fraction of his work, although they include a handful of canonical titles. Krleža’s “discovery” by the English-speaking world came decades after his key works were originally written – and to Anglosphere readers he is a writer of the present and the future, rather than ‘a dead poet to study conscientiously in class. .