CYCLOPS [Why This Book Should Win the BTBA]
Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.
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CYCLOPS by Ranko Marinkovic, translated by Vlada Stojiljkovic, edited by Ellen Elias-Bursac
Publisher: Yale University Press
Why This Book Should Win: Nice cover; Yale has two books on the list for the first time ever, and deserves some love; interesting story behind the publication of the translation; classic of Croatian literature praised by Michael Henry Heim; apparently, the title is in ALL CAPS.
Here are a few bits from Ellen Elias-Bursac’s introduction that got me all psyched about the book:
When Marinkovic set out to write CYCLOPS in the early 1960s he was thinking big. In shaping his plot he reached for the big writers, such as Joyce (whose Ulysses had first been translated into Croatian in 1957), Homer, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky. For all the influence of other literature, however, the novel is anchored firmly in a more local context. The story unfolds on the streets between the Zagreb main square and the Opera House, and the streets and cafes are inhabited by the poets, actors, and other public figures of Marinkovic’s student years in Zagreb. [. . .]
There are many comparisons that can be drawn between CYCLOPS and other works of literature, most obviously Ulysses, the Odyssey, and Hamlet. But the irreverence, irony, and satire with which Marinkovic dissects Zagreb cultural life on the eve of World War II also resonate with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). Heller’s biography affords a surprisingly productive comparison with Marinkovic’s. They both were playwrights and short-story writers, as well as novelists, and they were close in age. Heller fought in active combat in World War II, unlike Marinkovic, who spend the war as an internee and refugee, but both of them were the first, for their respective readerships, to write of the World War II in a darkly humorous vein. And they were each known chiefly for their first novel, each of which became a huge best seller, never to be outshone by anything else they later wrote.
I don’t have all the details on how this publication came to be, but the sketch I heard is pretty interesting. As you may know, Marinkovic died in 2001, and the translator of this book, Vlada Stojiljkovic, died in 2002. From what I heard, Stojiljkovic had translated this book prior to his death, the manuscript was literally found in a drawer, Ellen Elias-Bursac cleaned it up a bit, and Yale became the first press to issue an English-language translation of this Croatian classic. (In the movie version: the book goes on to win the BTBA, becomes an instant best-seller in America, and spawns a new group of Marinkovic’s fans devoted to studying and promoting this great book. Oh, and someone falls in love. During an explosion. At least that’s how I believe movies work.)
Here’s an excerpt from the opening of the book itself:
“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; 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 eventing 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 fram 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 wiht 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 soa washing 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 . . .