Sunday, September 4, 2016

On the Antediluvian in The Return of Philip Latinowicz

There's a cliche in travel writing. Every country has one foot in either the 13th 16th, or 19th century, and another foot in the 21st. (The only countries that don't have their legs spread out across the expanses of human history are located either in North America or Western Europe, or are Japan or South Korea.) Travel writers love the African woman with a cell phone who carries a water jug on her head, the fundamentalist Muslim with an Apple computer, and the remote Black Hmong village in Vietnam where the kids listen to Britney Spears on Friday nights.

There's plenty of Orientalism or neocolonialism or or essentialist thinking or whatever you want to call it that underlines these surprises. Anthropologists and other academics have done a lot of interesting work through the years to describe the ways technologies and various cultural trends coexist and continue to inform one another.

I am in the middle of a novel by the great Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža, The Return of Philip Latinowicz, which was published in 1932. It tells the story of a painter who returns to his small Pannonian village. The paragraphs are structured to reflect the creative processes of a collage artist. As in any modernist novel, various sensory stimuli are thrown together and incongruent images are juxtaposed and given new and subtle meanings. The difference is that Latinowicz as he combines these stimuli is thinking through the act of collage-making of the ways these various sensory stimuli may serve as the sources for his work.

He has his own one-foot-in-X-century and one-foot-in-the-20th-century moment. He describes his journey on a carriage through the countryside. He meets two nuns carrying baskets of eggs. Above them flies a passenger airplane.

"Above the pig-breeders' hovels and mulberry-trees, the silvery aluminium guitar, with taut canvas wings, a soaring musical instrument, sailed above Joe Podravec's carriage with its sacks and Philip's suitcases. Above all that is static, fixed and immovable, great azure circles of light, and clear sky. Above the roofs and branches and lightning-conductors and steeples and peasant carts, which crawl like snails along the muddy roads and creak antediluvially, and get stuck in the mud, -- a wonderful shimmering flash of lightning. And watching this glittering metallic streak which moved above the earth like a line of silvery chalk across the heavenly dome, Philip felt like taking out his handkerchief to wave to the aircraft in greeting. To signal his presence, like a shipwrecked man catching sight of a white, sunlit ship, which with mathematical precision sails towards a shining harbour across the whole gloomy morass of present-day reality." (Translation: Zora Depolo)

Latinowicz's eye sets a clear marker between the images of the 20th century and what is to his mind the primitive past through which he travels. Up there is the brightness, the lightning, the "soaring musical instrument." Down here is the "static," and the "mud." This is the eye of a man who grew up in this past world, travelled, and then came back. But is this the eye of the peasant, of the nuns with the egg baskets, of the driver of Latinowicz's carriage who tells fart jokes? Is this what the reader sees?

When I imagine this scene in my head, I can't quite see what Latinowicz sees. I can't see a clear marker between earth and sky, between the modern and the antediluvian. I see a collage of shapes that interact with one another. An" aluminium guitar" and the "steeples and peasant carts" are one with each other, part of the same tableau, the tools and architecture made up of a series of geometric shapes, all the work of the human species.

(This post is part of some notes in which I consider certain passages in Serbo-Croatian literature and their possible relationship to the "flat graphic" animation of Zagreb Film. I wrote another such post a few months ago about Aleksandar Tišma's The Book of Blam. I don't know if any of these posts will make it into my finished dissertation, but I'd like to think they're productive brainstorming jams.)

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