by Ranko Marinkovic

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In his semiautobiographical novel, Cyclops, Croatian writer Ranko Marinkovic recounts the adventures of young theater critic Melkior Tresic, an archetypal antihero who decides to starve himself to avoid fighting in the front lines of World War II. As he wanders the streets of Zagreb in a near-hallucinatory state of paranoia and malnourishment, Melkior

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In his semiautobiographical novel, Cyclops, Croatian writer Ranko Marinkovic recounts the adventures of young theater critic Melkior Tresic, an archetypal antihero who decides to starve himself to avoid fighting in the front lines of World War II. As he wanders the streets of Zagreb in a near-hallucinatory state of paranoia and malnourishment, Melkior encounters a colorful circus of characters—fortune-tellers, shamans, actors, prostitutes, bohemians, and café intellectuals—all living in a fragile dream of a society about to be changed forever.

A seminal work of postwar Eastern European literature, Cyclops reveals a little-known perspective on World War II from within the former Yugoslavia, one that has never before been available to an English-speaking audience. Vlada Stojiljkovic's able translation, improved by Ellen Elias-Bursac's insightful editing, preserves the striking brilliance of this riotously funny and densely allusive text. Along Melkior’s journey Cyclops satirizes both the delusions of the righteous military officials who feed the national bloodlust as well as the wayward intellectuals who believe themselves to be above the unpleasant realities of international conflict. Through Stojiljkovic's clear-eyed translation, Melkior’s peregrinations reveal how history happens and how the individual consciousness is swept up in the tide of political events, and this is accomplished in a mode that will resonate with readers of Charles Simic, Aleksandr Hemon, and Kundera.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker

"Marinkovic splices scenes of dream and reality into a kaleidoscopic short history of the world, whose pessimism is tempered by dark humor."—The New Yorker
Words Without Borders - Valentina Zanca

"One of the most outstanding Croatian novels of the postwar period."—Valentina Zanca, Words Without Borders
CHOICE - M. Kasper

"Among the most highly regarded novels of postwar Croatian literature. . . .The style is the point [of the novel], especially as it conveys the psychological intensity, the nihilism, of that place and time."—M. Kasper, CHOICE
Zoran Milutinovic
“This novel will be enthusiastically received by readers who can follow Marinković’s wide range of cultural, historical and literary references, and it will be recognized as one of the great twentieth-century European novels. Vlada Stojiljković’s translation, improved by Ellen Elias-Bursac’s editing, strikes me as excellent.”—Dr. Zoran Milutinović, University College London

"Among the most highly regarded novels of postwar Croatian literature. . . .The style is the point [of the novel], especially as it conveys the psychological intensity, the nihilism, of that place and time."—M. Kasper, CHOICE

— M. Kasper

Words Without Borders

"One of the most outstanding Croatian novels of the postwar period."—Valentina Zanca, Words Without Borders

— Valentina Zanca

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Margellos World Republic of Letters Series
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Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
4.90(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.40(d)

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Copyright © 2010 Estate of Ranko Marinkovic
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-16884-6



"MAAR ... MAAR ..." cried a voice from the rooftop. Melkior was standing next to the stair railing leading down below ground; glowing above the stairway was a gents sign. Across the way another set of stairs angled downward, intersecting with the first, under the sign of LADIES. A staircase X, he thought, reciprocal values, the numerators GENTS and the numerators ladies (cross multiplication), the denominators ending up downstairs in majolica and porcelain, where the denominators keep a respectful silence; the only sounds are the muffled whisper of water, the hiss of valves, and the whirr of ventilators. Like being in the bowels of an ocean liner. Smooth sailing. Passengers make their cheery and noisy way downstairs as if going to the ship's bar for a shot of whiskey. Afterward, they return to the promenade deck, spry and well satisfied, and sip the fresh evening potion from MAAR's air.

MAAR conquers all. When the darkness falls, it unfurls its screen high up on the rooftop of a palace and starts yelling, "MAAR Commercials!" After it finishes tracing its mighty name across the screen using a mysterious light, MAAR's letters go into a silly dance routine, singing a song in unison in praise of their master. The letters then trip away into the darkened sky while giving a parting shout to the dumbstruck audience, "MAAR Movietone Advertising!"

Next there appears a house, miserable and dirty, its roof askew, its door frame battered loose, wrinkled and stained shirts, spectral torsos with no heads or legs, jumping out of its windows in panic. To danse macabre music, the ailing victims of grime proceed to drag themselves toward a boiling cauldron bubbling with impatient thick white foam. With spinsterish mistrust, wavering on the very lip of the cauldron (fearful of being duped), the shirts leap into the foam ... and what do you know, the mistrust was nothing but foolish superstition, for here they are, emerging from the cauldron, dazzlingly white, one after another, marching in single file and singing lustily, "Radion washes on its own." Next, a sphinx appears on the screen and asks the viewers in a far-off, desert-dry voice: "Is this possible?" and the next instant a pretty typist shows that two typewriters cannot possibly be typed at once. "And is this possible?" the sphinx asks again. No, it is also not possible for water to flow uphill. It is equally impossible to build a house from the roof down, or for the Sun to revolve around the Earth ... "but it is possible for Tungsram-Crypton double-spiraled filament lightbulbs to give twice as much light as the ordinary ones for the same wattage ..." and on goes a lightbulb, as bright as the sun in the sky, the terrible glare forcing the viewers to squint. Then a mischievous little girl in a polka-dot dirndl prances her way onto the screen and declaims, in the virginal voice of a girl living with the nuns, "Zora soap washes clean, cleaner than you ever saw ... you've ever seen," she hastens to correct her mistake, too late, the viewers chuckle. The little girl withdraws in embarrassment. She is followed by a traveler carrying a heavy suitcase in each hand, the road winding behind him in endless perspective. The sun beats him with fiery lashes from above, but his step is spry and cheery; with a sly wink at the audience he whispers confidentially, "You go a long way without tiring thanks to Palma heels" and displays the enormous soles of his feet: sure enough, Palma heels! Next comes a mighty horde of cockroaches, fleas, bedbugs, and other horrible pests, afforded air support by dense formations of moths and flies and escorted by speedy mosquito squadrons ... but suddenly there is a clatter of heavy hooves and a Flit grenadier comes galloping into the fray, armed with the dreaded Flit spray can. Before long the battlefield is littered with dead bodies (of the pests). From the platen of a Remington grows the legendary portrait of the great Napoleon with a curl of hair, drunkard-like, down his forehead. As Napoleon grows so does the Remington, and when the two have covered the entire globe the Remington types across the equator the historic words "We have conquered the world" "... and ended up on St. Helena," muttered Melkior, "don't give yourself airs." Afterward a Singer uses Eurasia and America to stitch a many-colored coat for portly Mr. Globe; it fashions black trousers from Africa, and a white cap from Greenland, and Mr. Globe chortles with glee. Bata asks a passerby tottering along with lightning bolts flashing from his corns, "Is that necessary?" "No," replied Melkior, "not if you buy your shoes at Bata's. Shoes are an Antaean bond with Mother Earth, the pedestrian's secret power ..." And there is Brill kissing human footwear with its polishes, two long-haired brushes curling and cuddling like two sly cats around a pedestrian's feet; he walks on tall and proud, his shoes shining!—Kästner & Öhler's, the Balkan's largest department store, has spilled unbelievable and magic objects, "even the kitchen sink" out of its horn of plenty, and the viewers' imagination pecks away among the luxuries. Julio Meinl desires to fill everyone to the brim with Chinese, Ceylon, and even Russian tea; as for coffee, Haag is the brand—it caters to your heart. Sneeze if you can after a Bayer aspirin! Darmol works while you sleep, and Planinka Tea has the patriotic duty to cleanse Aryan blood. Elida Cream looks after your complexion. Intercosma swears to afforest your denuded head sooner than possible. Kalodont is the arch enemy of tartar, while VHG asks you, rather saucily, if you are a man. Finally, First Croatian Splendid Funerals Company takes the respectful liberty of reminding you of your dignity and ... well, see for yourself: black varnished hearses with baroque gold angels, horses with glossy black coats, a comfortable coffin, attendance of ideally sober personnel in admirals' hats, making your death another success and a thing of almost poetic beauty ...

From the tall roof MAAR announced urbi et orbi its glittering standard of living. Its mighty acoustics had all but drowned out a blind peddler's feeble supplication issuing from a dark doorway, "Shoelaces, black, yellow—two dinars; ten envelopes, letter paper inside—six dinars ..." The blind man's monotonous litany sounded tired and unconvinced; the pathetic bit of verbal advertising aspired only to mask the begging, that much and no more.

Melkior took refuge in the doorway with the blind man and fell to watching: what can this MAAR thing hope to accomplish? The viewer stands entranced with his head thrown back and drinks in, henlike, the filmed comfort of well-being. From his earthbound condition he watches MAAR's looming mirage, listening to this voice "from the other world" and is already intoxicated by the luxurious illusion of his eternal longing to be pampered—and then there comes the voice of the accursed petty things—the shoelaces, black, yellow, for two dinars ... and he fingers his two dinars in his pocket and his petty need for shoelaces, black or yellow as the case may be. Tungsram-Crypton's glare has dimmed ... and what do I need the Flit grenadier for ... and I see this business with Napoleon is just a ruse.... The evening has gone down the drain. To think that he was actually willing to die for the sake of First Croatian! Can't they have blind people weaving baskets or something instead of letting them beg like this? Melkior felt the thought himself, through irritation with the beggar's plea. Why indeed can't they open a center with heating provided, for the poor blind people to gather, think of the savings on electrical lighting ... he made to redress his cruel thought, even bought a pair of yellow shoelaces (although he needed black) and generally cast about for a way to help the blind man.... He dropped a silver piece on the ground, picked it up again, and asked him, "You lost this coin, didn't you?" "Could be, I've got a hole in my pocket," replied the blind man half-jokingly, just in case, but he did, eagerly, accept the coin.

The quaint act of charity moved a person nearby. A clerical collar around his neck, the man had cast only a passing, sadly indifferent glance up at MAAR's magic tricks as he squeezed through the throng. Then his spirits soared with a "true glow" when Melkior found a way (and how Christian a way!) of being charitable to the blind man. "When giving alms, no need to make a show of it." He patted Melkior on the shoulder and, giving him an approving smile, dipped into the crowd again. Melkior only managed to catch a glimpse of his head, wrinkled, sad, wrung between the hands of some terrible misfortune, and a pair of large ears thereupon, jutting grimly out on either side. He was astounded by how oddly large they were, so similar to a very familiar and well-remembered pair.... But back in those days the head had been ruddy and full, young and terrifying, with those selfsame batwing ears amid waves of thick hair which protected them from ridicule.

"That pale scrawny neck!" cried Melkior in a low voice, "is it possible?"

After him, then! He had to see those ears again!

But who is to know whether or not ears have a hiding place for their memories? A secret spring-catch drawer from which at night, when they burrow into solitude, they take out trinkets to caress and sob over?

Melkior launched into a romantic tale about the mysterious soul of a priest roaming through the urban hustle and bustle seeking peace and salvation.... But the romantic tale is something else.... Those ears carry with them a different secret, one that darkened his entire childhood. He still wears the catechistic slaps, riddlelike, on his cheeks. And all that subsequently befell Dom Kuzma was cobbled together by his imagination into a story of a man apart. He was even ready to proclaim Dom Kuzma a martyr, for all that the martyr had whacked a pair of red-hot slaps on his darling cheeks. (The older ladies used to say at the time how "that child" had such darling cheeks—and they would kiss him, even nibble at his cheeks, the old maids.)

All the pupils in Melkior's school, including the tiny first-graders who didn't even know how to write an i, knew how to draw an ear. They all, everywhere and at every opportunity, drew ears. Ears on the blackboard, on the classroom desktop, on the floor, on the roadbed, on fences, on walls, on any wall near which they happened to have a piece of charcoal handy. All the books, the notebooks, were doodled over with ears. Ears on agave leaves, on the beach sand. There sprang into being a secret sect of otosists, aurists, ear maniacs, in hoc signo vinces. Ears everywhere, like early-Christian fish. A large, huge, outsize ear on any potatolike head. The head did not matter, what mattered was the ear ... to draw it as well as possible. To master the technique and the cliché. The older lads did the Charleston in trendy bell-bottomed trousers; the small boys drew ears fanatically. They did not know why it had to be the ear. Their parents, their teachers, asked, "Why ears?" "Everyone is drawing them," the child would reply, puzzled that this, too, should be forbidden. "An epidemic," people shrugged, "the measles." And the local gendarmerie post received a telegram from higher up: had the phenomenon anything to do with the Communists?

The silly puerile manias. Collecting stamps was all right—adults did it, too, philatelists, postal-oriented thinkers. But carob beans!—that was for seminarians (the independent faction). Melkior had kilos of the things. He threw the lot away when sock knitting caught on. The socks naturally never reached the length of the heel; the boys were ignorant of either the utility or the futility of work.

The ear-drawing was an outburst and it spread like the plague. Later on, measures were taken (by the educational authorities), but they served only to fan the epidemic: they helped to reveal the meaning of The Ear ... which previously no one might have divined.

When he learned the reason Melkior thought it seriously insulting and undignified, and he never drew an ear again. But Dom Kuzma's hand eventually reached him nevertheless. After the physical pain subsided he felt ashamed before the catechist, he claimed his part of the guilt. Shame made him stop going to school, lest he meet Dom Kuzma again. Which he did not ... until tonight. (But in such pathetic shape!)

Dom Kuzma brought too much passion to his struggle to prevail. What he did was senseless, even mad; he seemed to want to wipe all those provocative "ears" around him with his bare hands (or, slaps). He went in for mindless collective face slapping in his classes, for purely preventive reasons. His vengeful fervor, brandishing a heavy hand, reached everywhere, like God's punishment.

Vengefully, he gave every pupil a zoological nickname. Or two, in tandem. He used the names of curious animals so that he could ridicule a person, to provoke laughter.... But there was no laughter, only the low cunning of children: how to weather the blows.

Dom Kuzma spied a bumpkin sitting at his desk and, wiping his avian nose on his sleeve, the thatch of his hair overgrowing his neck and (remarkably large) ears:

"What is hope? ... you there, Andean Condor!"

The ornithological individual felt the two bright swords of Dom Kuzma's gaze on his avian countenance and promptly identified with that large predatory bird of the Andes.

"Ho- ... hope is ... hope is when ..."

"Come here, I'll whisper it ... in your ear."

The Condor approached the lectern, hand on ear (as though unsure of his hearing), but Dom Kuzma smacked him on the other ear with his meaty hand. A boy with a funny nose, which gave him a permanent grin, instinctively flinched at the blow to the Condor's ear. That is why Dom Kuzma chose him:

"And what is love, you ... Duckbilled Platypus?"

"L-love ... love is ... when ..."

"... when you get one across that snotty duckbill," Dom Kuzma finished for him, while the Platypus's nose made a wet and hollow sound under the blow, letting out a trickle of blood as proof of its virginity.

"Now then. I want you, Seal Penguinsky, to tell him what love is." It was a shortish attentive boy who could not open his mouth for terror. His large eyes suspiciously followed the movement of Dom Kuzma's hands: he was mustering all his scanty cunning to dodge the blow.... But it suddenly happened that the boy resolutely raised his head and fixed an impertinent stare on Dom Kuzma's ear. The ear was clearly ashamed at the stare. It began to change color, going pale, reddening, more and more violently, angrily red, into scarlet, purple, the colors of a stormy sky. Thunder and lightning were imminent. The entire class dropped their eyes, hugged their desks, they knew what was coming next. In their minds they were each drawing a terrible, vengeful, murderous ear: everyone knew, now, what was behind the ear-drawing craze.... But the ear began to darken into a leaden blue-gray, to a gloomy indigo: the rage had died inside it, leaving only dead, beaten blood. Dom Kuzma let his hands drop to his sides, turned around, and went out of the classroom.

Melkior nearly applauded. What an example of human greatness! He felt curiously unburdened of a grueling thought about Dom Kuzma: all the cruelty of the man's fate was revealed to him in an instant, dimly and darkly. It was indeed the first time that the word had made itself known inside him; soundlessly he said Fate and felt moved almost to tears.

"And God saith ...," Dom Kuzma was saying majestically; he was creating the world before their very eyes. "And there was light!" Again saith the Lord ... but Adam and Eve ate the apple and God banished them from Paradise. Dom Kuzma was personally banishing them from the classroom, pointing his forefinger at the door. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread! And that was where human suffering began. Cain slew his brother Abel; Absalom rebelled against his father David; Jacob fled from his brother Esau and his brothers sold his son Joseph to the Egyptians; Potiphar's wife tempting Joseph; Joseph testing his brothers; Benjamin. The three young men in the fiery furnace; Daniel in the lion's den; Jonah in the whale's belly; David slaying Goliath; the terrible story of Samson who slew thousands upon thousands of Philistines with an ass's jaw but was subdued by a fallen woman who delivered him to the mercy of his enemies. At the point where the accursed Delilah was shearing Samson's hair Dom Kuzma's face was transformed, his words hobbled by bitterness, his eyes veiled with sorrow. Melkior pictured Dom Kuzma standing shorn and blinded in the center of the Philistine temple, his ears protruding in solitude among the pillars.... But then Samson, in desperation, called unto the Lord and said, Oh Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, Oh God, that I may be at once avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes. And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people who were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.

Excerpted from CYCLOPS by RANKO MARINKOVIC. Copyright © 2010 by Estate of Ranko Marinkovic. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Ranko Marinkovic (1913–2001) was a Croatian writer of plays and novels. Vlada Stojiljkovic wrote eleven books for children and adults, several of which he illustrated; translated Orwell, Swift, Golding, and Lear; and was an illustrator and painter. Ellen Elias-Bursac has been translating Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian authors into English for more than twenty years.

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