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The City and the Writer: In Split with Damir Šodan

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Split as you feel or see it?

These days Split is a bustling Adriatic hot spot with cruise ships arriving almost daily, so it’s constantly overflowing with tourists, regardless of the season. Thanks to year-round great weather, people still go out a lot, so the taverns in the old town are usually packed with both locals and foreigners enjoying their assorted beverages and soaking up the Mediterranean sun. The population of a quarter million makes Split just big enough for seclusion and yet small enough to get around easily. These days, with so many cars, it’s nearly impossible to find parking spots, so younger locals prefer to zoom around on scooters or even bicycles, though we still lack proper bike paths.

Over the centuries, Split grew out of Diocletian’s Palace—a UNESCO heritage site—having spread well beyond its ancient and medieval precincts. Diocletian (244–312) was one of the last Roman emperors who passionately hated Christians, but, thanks to Constantine—who legalized Christianity, thus paving the way for Theodosius, who subsequently proclaimed it the official state religion of the Roman Empire—after Diocletian’s death, Christians (as of the seventh century, predominantly Croats, i.e. Slavs) gradually overtook the city. The monumental Romanesque cathedral of St. Dujam (St. Dominus), the patron saint of the city, was built right on top of Diocletian’s mausoleum. This was probably out of spite, to be honest, in order to prove that paganism was eradicated and that the Christian era had finally begun.

In the past, Split was controlled by many foreign rulers and over the centuries there were frequent changes in government and a mixing of ethnicities and classes, sometimes at an alarming speed. For instance, my own grandmother, Ruža Šodan (1912–94), changed her passport six times, even though she never set foot outside Split and its surroundings! Venetians, French, and Austrians all left their indelible mark on the city’s historical consciousness, so, between the two world wars, Split had already established itself as a strong regional center in the Adriatic with its own educational facilities, its own daily paper, and the soccer club Hajduk (an old term for an outlaw from the Ottoman times), founded in Prague in 1911 by a group of local enthusiasts who studied there. It also had its own theater, with outstanding composers like Ivo Tijardović (1895–1976). He wrote operettas with vignettes from local life, the most famous example being “Mala Floramy” (“Little Floramy”).

Split also always had great public libraries (including a branch of the Alliance Française) where I first discovered “serious” literature—Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Flaubert, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Faulkner, L. F. Céline, and, finally, Henry Miller, who remained my literary hero for a good number of years until I stumbled upon the Beats and Kerouac. His legendary novel On the Road (Na cesti) was published in Croatia in 1971. It was there that I first discovered poets like Mayakovski, Whitman, Lorca, Yeats, and, most of all, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, both marvelously translated by Nikola Bertolino (1931), a near-legendary Yugoslav translator and editor. He was a Buenos Aires-born Croat of Italian origin from Omiš, near Split, who settled in Belgrade, Serbia, in the 1950s. He is my oldest literary friend and taught me so much about the art of literary translation.

Due to such intense historical dynamics, Split was for a long time a very tolerant (Austro-Hungary was officially a polyconfessional state) multicultural environment with a visible Italian and Jewish minority. However, the seeds of that stubborn antagonistic spirit initially sown by Diocletian seem to still be strongly felt there, for the city’s residents remain to this day very passionate, opinionated, and argumentative on most topics, be it religion, sports, politics, nationality, gender issues, or cuisine.

Most recently, Split has been sharply divided along political lines between socialist liberals and nationalistic (ultra-)conservatives who have been struggling to concentrate all political power in their own hands ever since Croatia acquired independence thanks to the Homeland Liberation War, which ensued after the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991. I guess some of that antagonistic spirit can also be ascribed to the “hot-blooded” Mediterranean mentality in general, for I have witnessed similar behavioral patterns at work in different Mediterranean locations, from Barcelona to Athens, Marseille, Sicily, Malaga, Valencia, etc. Also, inside Croatia, people from Split are known to be very loud, slightly arrogant, and quite conceited, especially if someone dares to question their love and loyalty vis-á-vis their Grande Bellezza. This attitude is perhaps best reflected in the old local saying: “Ča je pusta Londra kontra Splitu gradu!” which roughly means, “How great is the great London compared to the city of Split!”


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Most recently we witnessed the destruction of some legendary historical sites, such as the old Ambassador Hotel (1937), for decades also known as the former JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army) Officers’ Club, a shining example of original Czech cubist architectural style from the 1920s and ’30s. And the the Gusar (“Pirate”) Rowing Club (1927), located at the old fisherman’s dock Matejuška. Both edifices were located at the western tip of the harbor’s promenade and were mercilessly wiped out by ruthless new developers. Oddly, the perpetrator responsible for this most recent urbicide is apparently none other than the famous Birkenstock shoe chain, which is now building new tourist facilities along the Split waterfront. Few people know that the historic buildings were actually designed by the Czech architect, and one of the champions of Czech cubist modernism, Josip Kodl (1887–1971), who moved from Prague to Split in his twenties, trailing after his friends—Prague students like Fabjan Kaliterna and Lovre Krstulović, who, upon finishing their studies, returned to their hometown. The Gusar building was often the subject of artworks by legendary painters Emanuel Vidović and Ignjat Job.

Though I left the city in my late teens, I return several times a year, as I am still officially registered there as a “temporarily absent permanent resident.” So naturally I’m affected by everything that is happening there—good or bad.

Growing up in Split was nothing short of magical because my crew was always out in the street or sitting on the parapets outside apartment buildings in our working-class neighborhood. That’s where we first learned everything about life, from carnal knowledge to pickpocketing techniques, from cool soccer moves to guitar chords. We all dreamt of becoming pop singers or famous football players like Pelé or Beckenbauer and having a shiny red sports car and a model girlfriend. And, of course, of being able to afford to smoke classy Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes, which were frequently smuggled into town by sailors, as such luxury items were prohibited or heavily taxed by the Yugoslav Communist customs authorities. 

When I was in primary school, I studied violin at the legendary music school Josip Hatze, once attended by most of our famous pop and classical musicians, so I had plenty of opportunities to cruise around and explore downtown Split for six years, twice a week. Thus, by the time I was fifteen, I was a streetwise kid, aware of life in the city’s underground bohemian and artistic circles. So it was no wonder that a few years later I formed my own punk/new wave band. Back in the early ’80s there was a strong rock music scene in the city—there were bands in every street with a surprisingly high level of musicianship.

In hindsight I can see that I had a fantastic time during those formative years in Split, living my own Fellini-esque slice of a typical Mediterranean Amarcord-style childhood and meeting all kinds of colorful characters that later found their places in my writing. Therefore I’m probably more romantic and sensitive than I should be when I see some of those old city sites disappearing forever to make way for new developments. Thank God I’ve seen enough of the world in the meantime to know that things must simply change at one point or another, but sometimes it’s hard to let go.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

It may sound silly, but most definitely the images and the overall feel of the city when the cold northern bora (in Croatian “bura”) wind starts to blow. The bora wind always bring sharp, sunny weather. The air is so clear and crisp and if you climb the hill of Marjan overlooking the city, you can see perhaps all the way to Italy. The colors explode and become so rich and intense that you feel as if everything is suddenly reemerging before your eyes in an entirely new light, perhaps like after a heavy Buddhist meditation. The stories about the curious intensity of this wind and its unique qualities were actually spread around the world by our seamen (Split was a big port in the past and, over the centuries, we had a large sailor population, so one might say that we were somewhat better connected with the world than the rest of the Croatian inland cities, back in the old pre-Internet days, when news traveled at a much slower speed than now). Jack Kerouac mentions the bora wind in his 1966 novella, Satori in Paris, while describing being on board of a ship that was taking him to his native Brittany. “Boora pooshe”—meaning, “the wind is blowing” (for there is no “bora” on the Atlantic)—wrote good old Jack. He most probably picked up the phrase from the Croatian seamen. So, when “boora pooshe,” your senses suddenly grow sharp, your mind becomes quite agile yet at ease, and you become extraordinarily perceptive of the beauty that surrounds you.

Split is really one hell of a beautiful place. This may sound like a clumsy opening line from a yet unwritten commercial for CNN, but it’s really true. The green hill of Marjan overlooking the city is a local national park, with a zoo that was established even before the Second World War and an ancient Jewish cemetery, now a perfect meditation spot. It was also once a very popular “lovers’ lane” where couples frequently hid to share those most intimate moments back in the days when not everyone had a car in their backyard. When bora blows, the color of the sea alternates between ultramarine and azure, convulsing in big waves with white foamy crusts on top of their crests. Not exactly the best time for surfing, but you can really enjoy the beauty and power of nature at its fullest in those moments.


What writers from there should we read?

Oddly enough, for a city that’s mainly known for its history, tourism, and extraordinary sports achievements (let us just remember the spectacularly passionate welcome organized for Goran Ivanišević after his phenomenal Wimbledon triumph in 2001—the whole city joined the mad celebration right there in the port, with hundreds of boats overflowing with inebriated locals), these days Split is also home to some of the most distinguished Croatian writers and journalists, such as Ante Tomić, Jurica Pavičić, Boris Dežulović, Renato Baretić, and, last but not least, Olja Savičević Ivančević, whose tough but heartbreaking novel Farewell Cowboy (Adio kauboju, 2010) was so well received in the UK, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe. Also, Marko Pogačar, our globetrotting poet, is well worth reading. He always returns to his native Split, much like myself, at least once a year to catch up, chill, and recharge his batteries. Sadly, we just recently lost our friend, the amazing Predrag Lucić (1964–2018), one of the greatest Croatian poets, satirists, dramatists, and journalists—he was hopelessly, even masochistically, in love with Split. 



Is there a place here you return to often?

There are many places in the old historic center where I still like to stroll or just sit down for a drink, like the old Hotel Bellevue, located at the lower part of Riva (the Split Ramblas—an extremely popular waterfront promenade) opposite the Church of St. Francis, where our great Renaissance writer Marko Marulić (1450–1524), the “father of Croatian literature,” was buried. To this day, the hotel has preserved its old fin-de-siècle charm, and from the terrace you can coolly watch the world go by at a safe distance, preferably with a glass of icy cold anise liqueur—with a slice of lemon—in your hand. However, in recent years I prefer the modern café-bar Cukarin (Sugaree) located right on the beach in my “hood,” Žnjan, which is becoming more and more popular because of the newly built Radisson Blue Hotel. Split has become one of the top-notch Mediterranean tourist hot spots. Cukarin is located right next to the sea and they make a great White Russian—Big Lebowski-style. Also, the music is soulful and unobtrusive. A few years ago I finished proofreading my translation of Charles Bukowski’s selected poems—Pleasures of the Damned—right there. It was a huge manuscript of nearly six hundred pages and one of the young waiters came to me and said, “Jesus Christ, man, we’ve been watching you for days on end struggling with that thing! Whatever it is, our [himself and the crew who ran the bar] advice to you is to drop it right away, as you are the only guy here working, except for us! You’re stressing everybody out, man!” I almost burst out laughing, for it never occurred to those fellows that literature can also be fun. Unfortunately, this wonderful beach spot has been scheduled for destruction, just weeks ago, because many of the cafés and bars apparently lack a proper license. Since Croatia joined the EU in 2013, our laws have been streamlined to fit European standards. It looks like I might have to find another favorite spot next time I hit the town. 


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Some of the above-mentioned writers and journalists, along with some other artists like the great illustrator Alem Ćurin, used to gather every Tuesday for years at a small tavern called Hvaranin, so they got to be known as the “Tuesday bunch,” but today the place is mostly packed with tourists from cruise ships so it’s nearly impossible to find a table. These days, the local literary scene is actually quite active thanks to events like “Bookara,” the popular live talk show with writers, run by the very talented young poet and literary activist Marijo Glavaš. And the “Pričigin” Festival, a live storytelling festival that gathers together writers from the whole region, usually attracting big crowds. Also, the Kurs Association, an offshoot of the German organization Traduki, specializes in promoting West Balkan writers in German-speaking countries and has been very active in the last decade in hosting foreign writers in Split and offering apartments in the old town for writers in residence. 


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

As I already mentioned, Split is packed with various historical sites dating from different eras of the city’s rich and diverse history—so there’s Roman Split, Medieval Hungarian Split, Byzantine Split, Venetian Spalato, Napoleonic French Split, Habsburg Split, pre-World War I Yugoslav Split, as well as many other Splits coexisting inside the single city of Split, so that a mere walk downtown can sometimes feel like a time-travel adventure. When I was a young and (briefly) promising violinist, I sometimes used to skip classes at my music school, together with the now world-famous classical pianist Kemal Gekić, so we could sneak Indiana Jones-style into some of the still unexcavated parts of Diocletian’s cellars. I remember my heart beating like crazy for fear we might stumble upon skeletons of ancient legionaries or maybe luck out and find some of those super valuable old Roman gold coins. Usually we would go down armed with starter guns, just in case. 


Where does passion live here?

I still believe great passions lurk behind those Renaissance balconies in the old center, so reminiscent of those in Romeo and Juliet’s Verona. I remember a chilling story about our literary master Marko Marulić, who was allegedly a debaucherer par excellence in his youth—a relentless chaser of pretty, upper-class girls. Legend has it that he would usually launch into those nocturnal activities in the company of one of his best mates, and those willing among the girls would tie several sheets together and throw them down so that one of the boys could climb up into their chambers, while the other would wait downstairs in the narrow kala (small street) standing guard, until one night someone apparently lowered a basket on a rope containing the severed head of Dmino Papalić, Marko’s best friend, probably a warning from some outraged father to stop defiling those virtuous virgins who, anyhow, had already been contractually promised to someone else, as was the custom in those days. No wonder then that later in life Marulić became a somewhat remote figure, a Catholic mystic to be precise. I heard this story years ago from my art history teacher and I somehow believe it might be true. 


What is the title of one of your works about Split and what inspired it exactly?

A play entitled Two Pairs—Five Dumb Ones (Dva para—pet ludih), inspired by the stark class inequalities that exist nowadays within my generation, who paradoxically grew up in an egalitarian socialist system in the former Yugoslavia that promised a better future for everyone, only to collapse in a merciless bloodbath and civil war in the ’90s, with so many casualties and the overall disintegration of all humanistic values.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Split does an outside exist?”

Let me answer this lightheartedly, with a potential Zen-like clarity, by paraphrasing John Lennon: “Your inside is out when your outside is in, your outside is in when your inside is out . . . come on, let’s take it easy, everybody’s got something to hide except me and my city!” (Heavy guitar riff!)


Poet, playwright, editor, and translator Damir Šodan was born in Split, Croatia, in 1964. He graduated from Zagreb University with a BA in English literature and history. He has published several volumes of poetry, including Sound Changes (1996), The Middle World (2001), Letters to a Wild Scythian (2009), Café Apollinaire (2013) and The Enemy Within (forthcoming). He is the author of two collections of plays—Safe Area (2002) and The Night of the Long Beams (2009)—and an anthology of contemporary Croatian “neorealist” poetry, Walk on the Other Side (2010). He was awarded the Držić Prize for the burlesque Chick Lit (2012) and first prize at a playwriting competition for ex-Yugoslav writers in Vienna for his dark comedy Safe Area in 2000. Internationally, his work has been translated into a dozen languages and has been featured, among other places, in the American Poetry Review (2007), New European Poets (Graywolf Press, USA, 2008), Les Poètes de la Méditerranée (Gallimard, 2010), and The World Record and A Hundred Years’ War (Bloodaxe, 2012 and 2014). He has translated works by Raymond Carver, Leonard Cohen, Charles Bukowski, Charles Simic, Richard Brautigan, Frank O’Hara, and many others into Croatian. For over two decades he worked as a translator for the United Nations in The Hague, the Netherlands, and he is now a freelance writer. He is an associate editor of Poezija and Quorum magazines in Zagreb and a member of the Croatian Writers’ Association (HDP) and the Croatian P.E.N. Centre. He divides his time between The Hague, the Netherlands, and Split, Croatia.

Published Sep 19, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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