Igor tiks's 2000 novella "A Castle in Romagna" (originally titled "Dvorac u Romagni" and translated from Croatian by Tomislav Kuzmanovic and Scott Valentino) gives me hope for "An American Tragedy," which I have been trudging through for two months now. tiks initially has the same drawback as Dreiser: a verbose style that force the reader to go over the same sentence twice. The introduction to my edition of "An American Tragedy" promises that the emotional power of the story will eventually make up for the sluggish beginning. Luckily, such was the case with "A Castle in Romagna," in which the recklessness of love only leads to personal destruction.
There are two narrators and three narratives in three separate time periods: Romagna, Italy in 1535, Romagna in 1995, and the Croatian island of Rab in 1948. The first speaker, an exiled Croat from war-torn Bosnia, has arrived at the ancient Castello Mardi for a tour with two female friends. The resident friar, Niccolò Darsa, makes a crude joke about the young man's homeland, and then apologizes, speaking perfect Croatian and offering to tell his own story and that of Renaissance literary giant Enzo Strecci, a guest of Francesco Mardi who was later imprisoned and executed. I feel like natural sympathy with Enzo, Niccolò says, "You won't believe it if I tell you that he was like you and me. No, you won't believe it. Just like you and me." It turns out that the old cleric is an ethnic Italian who lived on Rab until Yugolsav President Josip Broz Tito's split with Stalin shortly after World War II, which precipitated a period of repression and paranoia that saw innocent people turned in and executed for being Cominformist agents. So too did Enzo live in a tumultuous era, as the threat of invasion led to a fear of Habsburg spies lurking among Mardi's household and villages.
As Niccolò, a natural storyteller, recounts his own tale and dramatizes Enzo's, a stronger bond between the two Italians becomes evident: that of forbidden romance and its inevitable follies. The rash and stubborn behavior of senseless youths in love is made all the more foolhardy by a hostile political environment that threatens to crush everyone, victims and perpetrators alike, in its relentless crusade against "subversives." Leaders, acting emotionally, use their authority to carry out personal vendettas. Lives, time and again, are destroyed by love and war. The moral of the story is, conclusively, that humanity remains the same even as the perpetual march of history alters the superficial appearance of things.
Despite its weighty subject matter, "A Castle in Romagna" is a very short book of only 102 pages. It is nevertheless a slow start, due to tiks's fondness for rambling sentences that can easily make the reader lose track of the original topic. (Sample: "Maria thought quickly, clearly, and correctly, but, unfortunately, on an unsound foundation, that love needed to be fought for, and she took firm hold of the tail of Enzo's horse, which, it seemed, willingly allowed her to take it as it made its way toward Catarina.") Of course, the trouble with critiquing prose in a translation is that, no matter how skilled the translator, you are still not reading the original work. Nabokov once griped about reviewers who praise translated books for "reading smoothly," contending that one who does so is a mere "hack who has never read the original, and does not know its language, [and who] praises an imitation as readable because easy platitudes have replaced in it the intricacies of which he is unaware." That being said, however, another Croatian novel translated by Tomislav Kuzmanovic that I have also read, Zoran Feric's "The Death of the Little Match Girl," did not have this same issue of long-windedness, so I would assume it is indeed reflective of tiks's authentic voice. Which brings up yet another question: can one properly review a translated book if they are not familiar with the other work the translator has done? Food for thought. But as I said, as the suspense and emotional intensity of "A Castle in Romagna" increase, so does its readability until it finally starts to sail - dare I say it - smoothly.
Additional thought: "The Death of the Little Match Girl" is also set on Rab and deals with war and paranoia. Recurring themes in contemporary Croatian literature or is that too broad an assertion to make from two books? Hmmm.
* Review copy *