I was enchanted when I heard Igor Štiks read his short story At The Sarajevo Market earlier this year.  A sad tale about those selling off their belongings at a wartime market.  Have you ever wondered what might happen to your beloved book collection in harder times?

People were selling their personal libraries, especially retirees no longer receiving their pensions. Most of the books were printed in Cyrilic or concerned communism.  Regarding the latter category, no one here believes that such books could possibly be useful to anyone anymore.  Still, some of the sellers were trying to keep their prices up.  It must have been hard to part with what were clearly the most beloved books on their shelves.

It takes you right into the heart of the market and the sellers, doesn’t it?  The story is available in the Best European Fiction 2010
anthology and having both heard and read it, I knew I wanted to read more by this author.  So I was delighted to find his  Best First Croatian Novel (2000), A Castle in Romagna, has been translated into English. (We’ll not quibble about the novel tag – at 102 pages, I’ll place it firmly in novella territory.)

Even more delighted to discover that it has two settings: one in Renaissance Italy 1535, the other in Tito’s Yugoslavia 1948 with both strands demonstrating that same assured creation of time, place and character. Like all good novellas (i.e in the mould of my beloved Theodor Storm), the central narrative is framed by contemporary incident.  In this case, a Bosnian tourist is accosted by an exiled compatriot friar as he visits the Castello Mardi in Rimini.  He is on the trail of Enzo Strecci , that giant of Renaissance literature, who spent days of hardship awaiting his death in the dungeons there.

The friar turns out to be a Strecci specialist and more than willing to share the tale of love, intrigue and betrayal.  He gives an exuberant performance.

During the entire length of the story of Enzo Strecci’s fate, the friar would stand up, act out scenes, make speeches, imitate characters, express their thoughts and dreams, and convey the contents of letters and official documents.

It soon becomes clear that Strecci’s story is much more than a story from the past.  It is one that the friar has experienced himself.  In alternating chapters, he  reveals the story of the Renaissance poet alongside his own, that of a son of a discredited communist during the birth of Tito’s Yugoslavia.   Both settings are in times of great political turbulence. The character configurations are similar: an older man, a younger suitor, a beautiful woman and a woman scorned.  There are so many parallels that it is easy to see why the friar feels connected to Strecci.  Even so, Štiks doesn’t simply repeat the same plot.    The stories are close but not quite the same;  more like variations on a theme and yet by the end it can be said that history does repeat itself.

“Now, that’s practically literature!” the tourist cries when the friar finishes the story of Enzo.   “That is literature!”, cried Lizzy after turning the final page.  A Castle in Romagna was as engaging as I expected it to be and thoroughly lived up to my expectations of Štiks after that first short story.  I believe his second novel(la), Elijah’s Chair,  won the 2006 Best Croatian Novel.  I do hope I won’t have to learn Croatian to read it!