Ranko Marinkovic’s “Cyclops”

Reviewed by Valentina Zanca

Image of Ranko Marinkovic’s “Cyclops”

Cyclops is a semi-autobiographical, modernist tour de force by novelist and playwright Ranko Marinkovic, and it may be one of the most outstanding Croatian novels of the postwar period. It swiftly became a bestseller when it was first published in 1965, turning the already notorious author of the controversial anti-Catholic play Glorija into one of the most prominent writers of Yugoslavia.

The reader of Cyclops accompanies theatre critic and archetypal antihero Melkior Tresic through the crowded streets of Zagreb on the eve of World War II. One evening Melkior catches sight of his ex catechist, Dom Kuzma—a priest instantly recognizable by his enormous, jutting ears. These elephantine protuberances are something of a Proustian madeleine for Melkior, who recalls the terrifying religion classes in his native Dalmatia and his sadistic old teacher. What he learns by stalking the priest is that Dom Kuzma has been starving himself, presumably to mortify the flesh and to attempt to regain control over his own death in the face of the incumbent war. Melkior decides to do the same, only in the hope of keeping himself out of combat: “How to conceal one’s existence, steal from the world one’s traitorous body, take it off to some endless isolation, conceal it in a cocoon of fear, insinuate oneself into temporary death?”

As he wanders through the city in a semi-hallucinatory state of paranoia induced by hunger, Melkior encounters a colorful array of characters—poets, actors, café intellectuals, fortune-tellers and prostitutes.  Everyone he encounters seems to be partaking of the delusion that life as they know it will never change. The protagonist's favorite den of iniquity, where he surrounds himself with this motley crew, is the Give'n'Take—a house of drink-sodden madcap living and dissipation.  The surfeit of alcohol, aimless intellectual banter, masterful pranks, scuffles and liaisons is meant to blunt the horrors of the encroaching war.

The denizens of the Give'n'Take (who refer to themselves as the “Parampion Brethren”) use monikers for one another—for instance, Melkior is called Eustachius ("visionary," to evoke the Roman general who saw Jesus between a stag's antlers while hunting). The slyly allusive nicknames embody the most remarkable stylistic feature of Cyclops: its overt, baroque, and playful derivateveness. Melkior and his fellow Parampionics endlessly quote from the classics (Homer, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and also iconic Croatian poets) and perceive reality through a highly elaborate and deceptive literary filter. They live by the Wildean dictum that life should imitate art. Nothing that's happening to them is just what it is—it is first and foremost an opportunity to show off with a quote.  Even then, there is a secondhandedness to the display, as it is often a pale imitation of some memorable scene or character from another literary work of the past. The literary filter supersedes any other mode of interpretation—whether political, ethical, or psychological. 

With the war rapidly approaching, this all amounts to a form of necessary escapism.

The constant allusions imbue the characters' lives with a depth of meaning otherwise unachievable. ("Don't proclaim every little bastard who can think of an ever so slightly twisted plot to be an Ivan Karamazov, or every lovable idiot, a Prince Mishkin".). But more importantly, the literariness of their exchanges covers the brute materiality of life ("all these moving, masticating, shouting, laughing organisms") with a veneer of immortal beauty and keeps the cruelty of war at bay.  In Melkior's words, "The trick is to regard everything as an image on a screen . . . the objects become weak and powerless, under my full control. Symbolic of a world I have created and can banish immediately by closing my eyes." Of course, this all-encompassing literary filter also exemplifies the portentous power human imagination wields over reality: "Your imagination reveals who you are; it also determines whose you are." Man's imaginings decide his destiny.

Un-originality is a deliberate choice on Marinkovic's part—when there seem to be no words that can adequately describe the chaos and alienation of a society on the brink of ruin, all that’s left to a writer is borrowing the words of the masters. His is also an extreme attempt at preserving a sense of strong cultural identity when all that's familiar and meaningful is about to be wiped away by violence and dictatorship. Melkior is paralyzed by fear when confronting "the life force within him," which entails nothing but unbearable pain, shameful urges, and inevitable decay ("does there already exist the bullet which will bore through my head?"). The modern age strives to stave off the dark side of "the life force" with technological innovations (and even war as a form of "hygiene"), whereas Melkior’s mentor Maestro (and Melkior with him) do so by taking shelter in the classics and getting intoxicated on poetry, female beauty, and alcohol.

Maestro's anti-Futurist stance is out of sync with his time in its passionate cult of the past and bitter rejection of speed as progress: "The cult of the machine! The preposterousness of it! The petrol-fumed inspiration! Their Pegasus a Ford . . .What poetry was ever conceived in an automobile . . . Progress is welcome to pass me by. I'm staying put! Let it rush, let it fly!" In Cyclops Modernity (a hydra-like phenomenon typified by electricity, advertising, and trams) and death are intertwined. To the non-believer Maestro one leads inevitably to the other—he (literally) pisses on Modernity and electrocutes himself, comparing his own grand act to a legendary death immortalized by Plato in his Apology ("Socrates was killed by hemlock and I'll be killed by the invisible God ELECTRON!").

The dense intertextuality of Cyclops does not manifest itself only as compulsive quoting. As the title aptly implies, Marinkovic is employing (in a nostalgic rather than mocking manner) some of the staple devices of epic narratives: recurring monikers; mise en abyme; and refrains like that of war as "the one-eyed beast" about to devour all living things. Like Virgil in The Divine Comedy, Maestro guides Melkior through the Hell of their Historic Times.  He declares to prefer oral literature (that is to say, epic poetry) to writing: "human thought came into being on the foot. The ancient Greeks thought in the street. The peripatetics walked. As people talk, so they walk." Melkior's peripateticism is his way of trying to make sense of a world without sense - Cyclops is a hymn to the flâneur as the ultimate philosopher.

The "Cyclops" of the title stands therefore for all the external forces that threaten the flâneur Melkior's survival in his imaginary world, while at the same time hinting at Marinkovic's artistic models: Homer's Odyssey as the archetypal quest and Ulysses as the archetypal "modern" novel. Like in Joyce's, in Marinkovic's the action unfolds in a circular motion around a big city. In Ulysses, the episode entitled "Cyclops" refers both to the first-person 'I' of the narrator and to the character of the Citizen, who fails to realize the folly of his narrow-sighted thinking: by naming his own novel after that particular chapter in Ulysses, Marinkovic insinuates that Melkior and his fellow Parampionics are the one-eyed Cyclops, trapped in their self-indulgent intellectualism and believing themselves to be above the unpleasant realities of the international conflict.

And yet, there's a certain bravery in allowing oneself to be blinded—or, one may say, guided—by beauty. With its haunting ambiguity and its wonderfully eccentric prose overflowing with literary memories, Cyclops is therefore not only a powerful meditation on the psychology of the artist at times of social crisis, but also a poignant paean to the resilience of imagination in the face of horror and death.