A great Croatian writer is seen at his most animated and unsparing in a venomous satire (first published in 1939) on political aggrandizement and xenophobia.
Krleza (1893–1981) was a formidably accomplished novelist, poet, dramatist, translator, and editor whose vast oeuvre is only sparingly represented in English (his most highly praised novel, The Return of Philip Latinovicz, has been translated, as has a superb story collection, The Cricket Beneath the Waterfall). Blitva is about a fictional Baltic republic created after WWI as a result of the enmity between Blitvan dictator Kristian Barutanski and his former boyhood friend Niels Nielsen (“a neurotic, European-educated intellectual”), who has become the embarrassingly visible editor of an antigovernment newspaper (and, the dictator suspects, a possible sympathizer with the enemy republic of Blatvia). Though plot is secondary to the principal characters’ fulminations, Krleza does liven things up with the killing of Barutanski’s handpicked president-“elect” during the bombing of the dictator’s equestrian statue, and with a farcical parade of advisors, factotums, and enablers variously entrusted with the cultivation of the dictator’s image. The whole thing climaxes at a posh “banquet” disturbed by further violence, leaving the dictator paralyzed with fury as his worst fears are realized and the story breaks off (this translation contains only the first two of the original’s three volumes). Agenda-driven, the novel sometimes creaks under the weight of authorial commentary, but its very considerable satiric force is enlivened by Krleza’s crisp portrayals of Barutanski’s yes-men (like the Dr. Wystulanski entrusted with developing “poisonous gases” to help suppress dissent). And the dictator himself, a disciple of Renaissance polymath Giordano Bruno with the soul of a thuggish peasant, is an altogether marvelous creation.
Difficult, but much worth reading as an introduction to an unjustly neglected European master.