Which books can help us understand the city that we live in, and how.
In their songs, the Bad Blue Boys call it a ˝stinky city˝, Torcida’s chants and banners refer to it as a ˝Serbian enclave˝, the Facebook statuses of the Croatian National Theatre of Ivan pl. Zajc proclaim it ˝liberated territory˝, encyclopaedias and glossaries (particularly those from before 1990) call it a ˝port and transport hub˝, current political figures and representatives from higher education institutions describe it as a ˝university centre˝, little Jurić says it is a ˝congested city˝, Novi List’s feature ˝Rif˝ calls it a ˝rock city˝, while the application form for European Capital of culture describes it as a ˝port of diversity˝…this is but a selection of different perceptions of Rijeka from the perspective of various individuals, social groups and communities at different moments in time. Stereotypes and prejudices have an irresistible power – they are created relatively quickly, but are slow to disappear. They allow us to navigate the world with greater ease and provide simple templates to explain everything, although the truth is usually more complex and complicated.
Out of all sources of information and knowledge, we use books the least for forming our views – we are more likely to fall for Facebook statuses, celebrity quotes, anonymous comments left on a news portal, various outspoken individuals…and I am deeply convinced and backed by the catalogue that, when it comes to Rijeka, we (too) seldom truly read (quality) books and conduct our own research. Whether there is anything to read at all is also a legitimate question. The scene of experts in the social sciences and humanities, cultural workers and intellectuals that would share their knowledge and communicate with the public is not that big, and Rijeka also lacks those writers/journalists who would mythologise Rijeka in the leading national media, whether in a positive or in a negative way…it lacks its own Tomić, Jergović or Pavičić, which has the effect of sometimes making us think or feel that we understand Split or Sarajevo better than Rijeka. Rijeka is also missing from the crime novels of Pavličić, Pavičić and Hedl, and can be mostly found in locally-written texts that gain national importance only in exceptional cases. There are no institutes for the social sciences or humanities with a strong staff in Rijeka (which doesn’t mean that there are no scholars at all), or any bigger publishers (which doesn’t mean that there aren’t any good books from time to time). Considering the number of students that have been graduating from Rijeka’s study programmes in the social sciences and humanities for many years now, Rijeka has yielded far too few good writers of any kind, which is a huge pity as the knowledge and realisations recorded in books represent a permanent, communicable and tangible value – and real authors, researchers and creative writers are the only ones that can allow us to write the word ˝value˝ with pleasure.
However, let’s take a look at all those things that Rijeka does have, i.e. those books that can help us navigate the network of the stereotypes and prejudices listed above…
Do Not Be a Tourist In a Town That You Live In
The people of Rijeka love books that deal with issues related to the city’s identity – thus one of the most memorable books from the late 1980s/early 1990s is “Vježbanje života”, /The Practice of Life/, which was particularly popular in combination with the successful theatre play of the same name…does ˝Vježbanje života˝ have the same power today? My intuition says no, but this is something that is best checked by reading the book itself and evaluating it from a new perspective. The queen of popularity is certainly “Kako čitati grad” /How to Read the City/ by Radmila Matejčić, a page-turner with visually appealing new editions that is a must-have on all bookshelves. Yet, this work only focuses on one aspect of the city (architecture…) and is a primarily popular work that reminds of a somewhat more serious tourist guide (there is also a shorter version for tourists). A decent starting point, but not the entire story – for one should not be a tourist in one’s own city….
I believe that we should try to penetrate all of Rijeka’s layers through books that are not of a historical character, and which tell us who and what we are.
Heritage for the Future
“Rijeka – baština za budućnost” /Rijeka – Heritage for the Future/ by a group of authors (Ivan Rogić, Vesna Lamza-Posavec, Mladen Klemenčić, Rafaela Kovačević-Pašalić) is perhaps one of the best works for understanding the transitional Rijeka of the early 1990s and the feelings and views of its citizens, while also representing one of the most inspiring works for contemplating Rijeka in general. This book is actually a study that was conducted in 1995 and published in 1996, motivated by a specific need for information and analytical insights to be used in the creation of a general urban plan of the city. In line with this, it is packed with numbers, statistics, the answers of respondents etc. Due to its purpose and style of writing, it is not likely to be reissued, and can today only be found in second-hand bookshops and libraries – therefore, if you happen to be a bit younger, it is most likely that someone who is more informed would have to alert you of its existence as, in regard to its original purpose, it is no longer relevant. This work depicts a city caught in turmoil and a transformation that has not been completed even todays, a place that is somewhat confused by the new social context and frightened of the imminent uncertainty. The authors supply an exceptionally good and sociologically-oriented analysis of the wishes and views of the people of Rijeka at a moment of social breakdown, while also indulging in courageous interpretations and claims on the nature of the city and its population. These interpretations are particularly striking within the context of culture, for example:
In the previous period of (paleo)industrial expansion, Rijeka’s ˝cultural˝ capital was systematically underestimated. Above all, it was underestimated by the agents of real socialism that were in charge of systematically supporting the paleo-industrial expansion…
Viewed as a whole, Rijeka is a city with a meagre network of cultural institutions and a very small number of people that produce culture as an event or good.
Smelly and dark
It is a place that is, by its citizens, perceived as stinky and dark, with a weak cultural scene and as a generally unappealing place to live. It also testifies to how much the city is changing and has changed, particularly when it comes to certain neighbourhoods (out of the larger neighbourhoods, Škurinje was described as the most unappealing place to live by the citizens) and that it is too seldom used as a topic of public discussion. The problem is that this work is somewhat outdated, therefore it would be very interesting to see something new of an equally studious, interdisciplinary and scintillating character. For those intrigued by the topic of culture in understanding the present condition, there is also not much reading material (except comments on the internet…). Davor Mišković’s “Istraživanja u kulturi” /Explorations in Culture/ can help with this to a certain degree.
Weapons and Globalisation
We perceive the world through language – or, if we were to ask certain philosophers, the world itself is language. Thus Vanda Ekl has bequeathed us with “Živa baština” /Living Heritage/, one of the most concise studies of local toponomastics. The appendix ˝The Historical Toponomastics of the City of Rijeka and its Districts˝ is a hard scientific work that indicates all the sources where the names of certain localities appear, but resembles and octopus that will lead you on a different path with each of its tentacles. Rijeka doesn’t have too many historians that tap into the right sources and know how to tell a good tale based on this information. In such a situation, someone who is formally not a historian is actually very good at this – Irvin Lukežić. According to my personal judgment, he wrote some of the most important historiographical works on Rijeka, out of which “Povijest riječkih konzulata” /The History of Rijeka’s Consulates/ ought to be particularly stressed as a reflection of the Rijeka of the past that many yearn for, but which none of us have actually experienced. At that time, the city’s main product was a weapon that comes together with a fascinating story on the globalisation of the world and of capital. Lukežić’s book “Robert Whitehead: engleski tvorničar torpeda iz Rijeke” /Robert Whitehead: An English Manufacturer of Torpedoes from Rijeka/ represents a good option for resolving any dilemmas and understanding this popular part of the city’s fabric.
How Historians “Get” Her
We can better ˝get˝ the Rijeka of today with the help of the old issues of “Dometi”, a magazine established by the Rijeka branch of Matica Hrvatska and later issued by the Rijeka Publishing Centre, only to once again return to Matica Hrvatska. “Dometi” was quite a good magazine that featured works by local cultural workers, intellectuals and scholars and provides a good overview of the both the evolution of their thought and of the names that are still important in public life today. Also worth reading is the interview with Ninoslav Kučan, architect of the Ri shopping centre, who expressed some of the finest diagnoses of the Rijeka way of life with his insights on the merging of the city and the sea and the dissolution of the monopoly of Korzo. One part of ˝Dometi˝ can also be viewed with modern eyes, and not just as a historical source on a period of the past, as all the people that participated in its creation are still part of the city’s intellectual fabric. Also worth having is Velid Đekić’s bibliography of ˝Dometi˝, so if you come across it in a second-hand bookshop, don’t hesitate to invest fifty or so kuna for it.
Another book created on the topic of this Yugoslavian period of Rijeka, which is something we still lean on is “Rijeka i regija u Titovo doba” /Rijeka and the Region in Tito’s Era/ from which I, honestly, expected more. Nevertheless, it provides intriguing insight into an architecturally and demographically propulsive period of the city. This reminds me of the fact that a comprehensive and interdisciplinary, and perhaps somewhat less conventional approach to studying this period is still sorely missing, and that a more recent synthesis of the history of the city is still pending. As far as I know, a branch of the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts has tackled one part of this, but there is not much word on the status on this project…
… and How Do Writers
In ˝getting˝ Rijeka, we should not limit ourselves just to historians, but also take a look at some works of fiction – or more, precisely, all those works where Rijeka played an important part in the story. “Rijeka u priči” /Rijeka in Fiction/ by Danijel Bačić Karković is a respectable chrestomathy that features about a dozen works set in Rijeka, so that you don’t have to go looking for them yourself. Our of them, I would like to highlight Aldo Paquola and his “Samozatajni hermafrodit” /Self-Effacing Hermaphrodite/:
Nothing can stop us, not even smells – the stench of fast food that intelligent animals would never even bother tasting. Finally! Palazzo Modello! A palace of books. An illustrious palace. An impressive building of old. The city library. We approach the building – not with steps, but with words.
Aldo is an author who, with his columns in Novi List, provided a truly complex analysis of the city and was influential in shaping views of it, thus collections of his texts such as this one are a definite must-read.
The connection between Rijeka’s literature and Rijeka’s music, which has recently been marketed as an important part of the city’s identity, is Zoran Žmirić, who deciphered the songs created in Rijeka. “Riječke rock himne” /Rijeka’s Rock Anthems/ are a must-have for your bookshelf…
As is widely known, certain other authors left an indelible mark on the city with their politics. Gabriele D´Annunzio, a good example of proto-fascism, is nearing the ˝celebration˝ of the hundredth anniversary of his arrival to Kvarner and the beginning of his wacky experiment. Although the writer Bruce Sterling, who attracted great attention with his guest performance on the Republic and the ˝Galeb˝, described Rijeka as a ˝pirate utopia˝, we should stick to those texts that don’t just aim at impressing listeners, but are research that is rooted in fact. Ljubinka Toševa-Karpowicz took care of this with the work “D´Annunzio u Rijeci: mitovi, politika i uloga masonerije”. /D’Annunzio in Rijeka: Myths, Politics and the Role of Freemasonry/.
Theatre at Home, Parking Lot on the Dead Channel
Children’s books, particularly when they preserve memories and evoke the emotions of several generations, are also of great importance – the news that a certain publisher does not see the reissue of the book “Dnevnici malog Jurića” /The Diaries of Little Jurić/ as of any use to the newer generations attracted a lot of attention. Little Jurić is full of things to say about Rijeka, some of which are now dated, while others may appear timeless to readers. It is not difficult to laugh bitterly at the Alan Ford-esque words of little Jurić: ˝My city doesn’t even need a theatre, because we have one at home. But my city needs parking lots, because the coast, town squares and pavements are cluttered with cars. Dad says it would be best to fill Mrtvi Kanal with cement and turn it into a parking lot, because it doesn’t smell that good anyway˝.
Considering the fact that the new kids on the block experience little Jurić in a completely different way, this is perhaps the greatest value of this book – the fact that the city is changing. And these changes are largely the result of the Homeland War which, though it did not bring bombs and devastation to Rijeka, still affected it and made its development take a new path. Thus the book “Rijeka u Domovinskom ratu” /Rijeka in the Homeland War/ by Draga Ogurlić reveals those layers of the city that are, for those under thirty, not memories, but exotic novelties.
Schizophrenic Facade of the City
We already mentioned “Kako čitati grad” in the context of its focus of architecture. It is truly telling, though not surprising that the people of Rijeka most liked a book that talks about buildings – Rijeka has a schizophrenic facade and is, in a way, Janus-faced – on one hand there is the polished Austro-Hungarian face full of statues on facades and Klimt on the theatre cupola and, on the other, the concrete, socialist face with pioneers at the entrance to ˝Nikola Tesla˝ primary school. I’m not certain that the story of the evolution from the world of palaces to the world of skyscrapers has been adequately told, although Julija Lozzi Barković, whose books on Rijeka’s architecture are a must-read, is doing quite a good job at this…
We also need to penetrate the minds and visions of people such as Igor Emili, a fascinating individual and the architect who created the ˝new˝ Old Town and the coffee houses that cannot be seen anymore, and indebted us with the most unusual complexes of high-rise buildings erected right above heavy industrial plants. In connection with this, Mlaka and Turnić were the neighbourhoods that were described in the aforementioned book “Rijeka – baština za budućnosti” as being the least desirable for living. Discover at least a few facts about this legendary architect in the book “Igor Emili” – it would be nice to see a real, detailed biography of this gifted and vigorous man.
Recently, some names in architecture have distinguished themselves more than others, as is the case with Saša Randić and Idis Turato, whose work between 1992 and 2000 can be viewed in the book “Randić i Turato: arhitektura tranzicije” /Randić and Turato: Architecture of the Transition/. Randić and Turato have marked Rijeka’s physical and virtual projects, particularly in the period not encompassed by the book, and have conducted countless studies in schools for young architects, which examined the city…Turato inspiringly reinvented Hartera, Delta, Mlaka, the port belt and Benčić, but true support from investors and the execution of his visions in this context is still missing. In order to understand Rijeka, we need to study all those books that were created as tender documentation for realised and unrealised preliminary designs. The project book for the construction of Delta and the vision of the library on Klobučarić Square, together with the always-inspiring words of architects, speak for themselves and become dystopias/utopias which we can already read as unrealised history.
Bread, Milk and Novi List
It has to be said that Rijeka never had a strong communication or marketing industry, which the local marketing whiz Johan Sartori ascribes to the lack of consumer industry – engines from Benčić never needed this kind of advertising. However, the excellent exhibition catalogue “Reklama u Rijeci” /Advertising in Rijeka/ reveals many exotic tidbits, among others the special tale of the pharmaceutical company ˝Alga˝ from Sušak, which also represented the first modern marketing endeavour. Today, Rijeka’s most successful entrepreneur story also is connected with pharmaceutics, and it is nifty to observe such continuity.
Objectively, even though we live in it, we truly (ac)know(ledge) Rijeka only through the media and, in this, one stands out above them all – Novi List. The story of this daily, whose future is discussed with trepidation and which has always been part of the ˝bread, milk and Novi List˝ ritual has been preserved in the newspaper’s self-published monograph issued in honour of the hundredth anniversary of its existence. The story of one medium can be told in an infinitely more complex way (Peter Burke and “The Social History of Media” always provides good lessons for historiographical and literary approaches), but this is not a bad start…
We Need a Different Approach
All these books are bound to take a month or so from your life, so we will stop here and conclude with a few more observations. In evaluating the quality of Rijeka’s literature, it is easy to step on someone’s toes – as Kučan says in the aforementioned interview for ˝Dometi˝, despite all its expansion Rijeka is still largely reduced to – Korzo. However, I’m convinced we need a new approach to research – more questions, more creativity, teamwork and new topics….Will this ever happen? I think there is cause for concern. It appears that the number of quality researchers, authors, journalists and other writers skilled at turning reality into interesting writing is not growing together with the number of students of social sciences and humanities and with the number of gadgets at our disposal (internet, mobile phones, computers, digital cameras…). I’m afraid that these negative social processes are further exacerbated by the economic crisis and the foolish cutbacks on public budgets, the consequences of which we will only become fully aware of at some point in the future. Economic crises happened in the past, too, but people needed less and would continue working on their passion, and writing is sometimes such a passion. Now, needs are greater, life is more expensive and people give up on their passion for research and writing a bit more easily. People are stuck in the rat race, which demands more money today, and it is easy to reach other countries, new jobs and careers…
Maybe all of this sounds too harsh, but I always expect more from Rijeka, and I hope this is not a bad thing to expect from your own city – a city that is not small and should not be unimportant. Also, I think that, this time around, this energy won’t appear by itself, but needs to be carefully seeded and cultivated.
This is my selection of books – perhaps your list of books that helped you ˝get˝ Rijeka would be completely different…
Source: City Library Rijeka Magazine, Kristian Benić