The Camphorwood Binder
by Renata Jambrešić Kirin (translated from Croatian by Boris Gregorić)

Trench Gardens

During the Great War the soldiers obediently descended into the bowels of the earth as if they were kindred spirits of the dead Chinese emperors. Near Ypres, the city in Flanders, they fought for four years in order to push the demarcation line a little farther up, up to the point when the trenches and fields were filled with corpses, while the soil became utterly toxic. Several million were never to return home. Those whose trench feet were not rotting, whose heads were not yet distraught by shell shock, desperately attempted to escape the earthly depression. The British were reading pages of black humour, the French were reading letters from their fiancées, the Austro-Hungarian soldiers were listening to their storytellers and tambura players while the Germans tried to grow plants in their trenches, well preserved to this day. As Geert Maak recounts, some German soldiers managed to plant gardens with rhododendrons, lilies and “Parole-Uhren”, the small windmills that shortened the tedium, reminding them of a more peaceful life before the war. This type of bio matter, anti-war poetry, conservative and sentimental, remained buried in the ditches of the lesser history. The former trenches and war cemeteries were soon overgrown with fields of poppies, these companions of the gunpowder dust and soon-to-occur social revolutions. It is hard to say whether these ditch gardens were simply the expression of escapism or a traumatic injury, a type of apocalyptic anxiety or perhaps a belief in some sophisticated horticulture of a new world. In the testimony of Maak, the fields around Ypres, polluted and barren, have remained untilled and uninhabited. In the meantime, the Netherlands has become the world’s greatest producer of flowers, plants for both the house and the cemetery, while Belgium remains the country with the greatest number of well-maintained military cemeteries per capita.

Sleepwalkers in Galicia

The Europeans hastened into the night of World War One like sleepwalkers — attentive and near-sighted, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world, writes Christopher Clark. Mesmerized by his own metaphor, the historian did not commune with Heraclitus, Marx, Dix or Chagall, but rather with the well-to-do characters of Thomas Mann who, from the Lido in Venice and his Alpine lodgings, bravely walked into the officers’ battle trenches accompanied with a gramophone and caviar. While to Heraclitus the Many are sleepwalkers while a few, who are philosophers, seek after wisdom and respond to its voice; to Marx the political visionaries are such proud yet ghastly figures which threaten the bourgeois dream of the lifetime annuity. Yet no one before Moishe Zakharovich represented the sleepwalking of share croppers and wage earners in full colour of their (past and future) collective misfortune. His Galician lunatics fly straight into the skies, on the wings of the red angel, turning their backs to a shtetl, to a fiancée, to farm animals, to the dew-covered fields, to the persecutions and pogroms, to Dix’s crippled soldiers with gas masks on their faces. Maybe this explains why in many languages of Galicia there are more words for lunatics than sleepwalkers, the multitude of dreamers carrying a painted bird in their hands. From the rush after the raw oil resources in “Austrian Siberia” to the death factory of Oświęcim, this mythical border has expanded the concept of the exploitation and the infernal beyond its limits. Even today it lives from its lunar choreography, the diabolical tourism and the phantasm about how easy it is to march into the promise of the European Dream.

The Camphorwood Binder

The book that Walter Benjamin, in his Berlin flat full of books, could not, despite his promise, give to Asja Lacis was a rarity. Her hand intuitively and theatrically reached for the fragrant camphorwood binder. This was the first edition of Stelès, from 1912, a collection of prose poems by Victor Segalen. Already by the 1930’s it had become a precious book artifact—with its concertina bindings held together by boards and ribbons. Only a few readers at that time could have appreciated Segalen’s poetry, in which he had expressed his fascination with Chinese culture and poetry. Even fewer could have read the Chinese script accompanying each of the poems. Because of the way it was produced with the use of fine Korean paper and the camphorwood bindings, the book became a treasured collectors’ item. Meanwhile, Asja persisted in offering money to Benjamin until he, visibly agitated as if parting with a living thing, finally agreed to sell the book to her. At that time his ailing, love-struck son had already passed away, while Asja’s daughter had been released from an orphanage in Moscow. She witnessed the book transaction and talked of it quite often in front of the TV cameras.

Kafka’s Restaurant

Writing the cookbook Kafka’s Soup, one of the many culinary parodies of literary classics, the author Mark Crick might not have dreamt that Kafka toyed for a while with the idea of moving to Palestine and opening a restaurant. A sharp-witted person, Kafka confided this idea only to his close associates, most of them Zionists. At the same time he let them know what he thought of the idea of a classless, desert, Jewish community. He knew that the vibrant Prague intellectuals would perhaps not be pleased by the cultural offerings of a kibbutz, that in their new (ancient) homeland they would need a place to meet and exchange ideas. Perhaps a cool diner in which to meet and have fun, just like characters in a Woody Allen film. A place in which, thanks to postmodernism, the well-lettered filmmaker and the illfated Israeli restaurant owner could exchange their favorite jokes. And thus prevent Max Brod from committing the folly of violating his friend’s bequest and handing over the manuscripts into the hands of an unreliable mistress and secretary. By opening the first chain of literary diners, with the logo showing A Hunger Artist, the treasury of the state of Israel would have benefited most. It could have taxed the globally recognizable slow food company and it might have grown richer from the lawsuit against Ruth and Eve, the two daughters of Brod’s entrepreneurial secretary, since both claimed that the manuscripts of Kafka and Max Brod were not common cultural assets, but only guaranteed the material security of their late mother and, of course, their own. The lawyers wisely claim that it has become an instance of the paradigmatic Kafkian trial of the 21st century, to be emulated by the greedy inheritors of famous writers in many other countries.

The Leftist Dowry

When she married Otokar Keršovani1, Ana (Nana) Šilović received a typewriter as a wedding gift from her uncle, the Croatian politician and ban, Josip Šilović2. In her youth this Paris trained ballerina became a communist, dedicating herself to working for the communist party. Having relinquished her theatrical career and comfortable bourgeois existence she risked her life by spending it hiding from the constant threat of police raids and imprisonment. She chose the wedding gift herself and used it to type the seminal pages of the history of the Zagreb communist movement. During one of those police raids the typewriter was impounded. The family asked ban to intervene and recover the confiscated wedding gift but he resolutely replied: ‘Let the law be obeyed!’. The blind force of the law once again intervened in the family history when Nana’s daughter, Ines Martinović, born in the USSR at the end of 1945, unaware that her mother had fallen victim to Stalin’s purges wrote to her grandparents: Mamusha has gone on a party assignment.

Adela’s Parasol

Returning to Zagreb from Rome in the summer of 1915 the author, Adela Milčinović3, managed to smuggle in the handle of her parasol a letter from the members of the Yugoslav Committee4 to the Croatian political opposition. Compared to the heroics of Mata Hari, Adela’s action resembled more an escapade of some noble patriotic woman from one of the Zagorka5 novels. Nonetheless the action was quite perilous. (The Austro- Hungarian prisons and camps were full of women, even whole families, who had been declared enemies of state, accused of disloyalty or espionage.) While in Zagreb the political leaders of the time awaited the outcome of certain historic events. Meanwhile, the brave Adela traveled to Rome in order to find out first hand about the political dreams of Trumbić, Supilo and Meštrović. As the ladies from the high society were unfolding their parasols on the Lido, or at the Alpine guesthouses, their husbands thought that having copies of the Bulletin Yougoslave was the peak of subversion. All the while this forgotten Croatian suffragette was turning female destiny into a sword with which she cut into dark and dense Croatian fabrics, through mud-filled ditches, through the black mountains of granite.

Zofka’s Horse

Throughout her life, Zofka Kveder6 was haunted by the image of the tram-pulling horses collapsing from overwork on the streets of Trieste, Prague and Zagreb. For her it was a metaphor of the suffering of women, restrained by the binds and chains of the patriarchal family (“working like a tram horse”). Often she felt like a beast of burden, exhausted and burnt out, taking care of three small daughters, chasing after slim honoraria for her journalistic and literary efforts. Not only did the dimmed gaze of the tram horse reflect their own anguish and submission, but also a dying era conflicting with the new age of speed and mechanical progress. More than by scarcity, the exhausted women were backed into corners, rented closet rooms and factory halls, oppressed by the political unconscious of capitalist moderna. At night it bore into them, pushing some to jump in front of trams: ‘Our women, when unhappy, throw themselves under trams, our widows jump through the windows and are dying of a tiny, dirty, useless death. Has God not granted us a single Judith?’, writes Zofka in her Almanac of Yugoslav Women in 1921. The news of Nietzsche’s nervous breakdown and his embrace with the Turin horse only encouraged her, years before the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, to look at the world being eroded by the catastrophe through the eyes of a metropolitan draw-horse, while the women who died on the rails watched it even closer.

Images from the Corner

The street vendor on Ferhadija7 vehemently reacts at the film crew of Jasmila Žbanić’s documentary Images from the Corner. He does not wait for someone to explain these are local filmmakers; he deftly turns the framed canvases on his stall so that they can’t be filmed by their intrusive cameras. In the city strafed with the flashes of countless photo and TV cameras, as often as by shells, in the city where the curse ‘May your house be seen on the CNN!’ has been invented — the citizens fear the repetitive images of their destiny. Better to say, they are fed up with digital archives filling up with the scenes of their traumas, their screams and all other types of human misery. The street vendor is a skilled merchant; an intermediary of the higher spheres blending the art of persuasion with the ethics of social responsibility. As an art dealer in the poverty-stricken world, he protects human dignity, spirituality and the customers’ right to enjoy clichéd sentimental images he sells. When the need arises, he puts down the canvas on the ground, refusing to be shamed by the ironic eyebrows of the idle flâneurs. Still, this vendor is not the corner photographer of Jasmila Žbanić’s documentary. If the professional in question uses two rolls of film to shoot the hard-wounded young woman without helping her, the people on Ferhadija do not need another lesson in remote, televised humanitarianism. Their well documented urban hell seems spacious enough for everyone — and what might be problematic — it is a path paved with good intentions of the theory-mongers of hyperreality.

Claude and Dina

As a young professor of sociology and philosophy, Claude Levi-Strauss arrived at the University of Sao Paulo with his wife Dina. Being ethnologist and anthropologist she was interested in the fieldwork among the Amazon indigenous peoples. After the couple planned and completed several expeditions together into the depths of the Brazilian savannah and rainforest, they organized an exhibition of the ethnographic artifacts collected during the Mato Grosso expedition entitled Mission Claude et Dina Lévi-Strauss in Paris in 1937. However all traces of Dina’s research and writings are missing from the history of contemporary anthropology while her husband becomes the writer of Tristes Tropiques (1955) — the seminal postcolonial, self-critical, autoethnographic piece of writing; a melancholic, visionary, insightful book in which the creeds and lives of several indigenous peoples of the Amazon were studied with understanding and responsibility, with empathy and deep insightfulness into the closeness of all life phenomena. In Tristes Tropiques Levi-Strauss however mentions his wife only twice. Firstly as a side remark that at the Franco-American dinner neither my colleagues nor myself – nor our wives who accompanied us – had any inkling of the involuntary role we were to play in the evolution of Brazilian society. And secondly he noted that his wife, who had taken part in all early expeditions exploring the material culture, picked up a dangerous gonococcal eye infection from Nambikwara people and became so gravely ill that they had to evacuate her. But by persistently ignoring the professional, collaborative, and emotional role of his spouse the famed guru of modern structuralist humanism only confirmed the idea of anthropology’s „second sex“ or the asymmetrical gender relations of power and knowledge confirmed by canonical texts. Still, in one of the most famous field photos from Brazil we see Claude and Dina seated and relaxing between two hammocks in a tent and nibbling corn on the cob. The following observation from Lévi-Strauss, that may depict beautifully the previous homely scene, brings out the emotional closeness and interdependence among the Nambikwara men and women considered by neighbouring communities as “the most primitive” of all nomadic groups: (…) their embraces are those of couples possessed by a longing for a lost oneness; their caresses are in no way disturbed by the footfall of a stranger. In one and all there may be glimpsed a great sweetness of nature, a profound nonchalance, …something that can be recognized as one of the most moving and authentic manifestation of human tenderness.

Absolute Comrades

For bourgeois Europe the specter of Bolshevism once wore a short skirt and was holding a book in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The first female students faced suspicion and opprobrium, often even open acts of enmity and banishment, because their contemporaries recognized in their knowledge and independence the great enemies of the “natural” female role in the family and reproduction chain. Nothing could have more clearly represented the depth of the transformation of the existing society, championed by Marxists, anarchists and feminists, than a woman teaching or holding a megaphone. The high-school student, Marie Skłodowska, experienced a nervous breakdown when she could not enroll at the University of Warsaw during the Great War. Mileva Marić for the reason that the University of Zurich had rejected her dissertation, yet was later quoted by her husband, Albert Einstein. Virginia Woolf, nee Stephen, suffered until the end of her life because Cambridge remained closed for her.

In tsarist Russia short-haired female students were considered nihilists and grave defilers, while in Sarajevo “all middle school female students were corrupt,” as witnessed by Crnjanski. In western capitals headstrong female intellectuals were desirable patients for the newly opened psychiatry clinics. One of them was Bertha Pappenheim who is remembered today as one of the best known cases of female hysteria and one of the pioneers of Austrian feminism, without whom there would have been no psychoanalysis. In the Balkans, the progressive female youths were profiled by police and even imprisoned long before they would gain their voting rights. A psychiatry ward always remained a possibility for women offenders. Resisting the patriarchal authority for centuries they perfected certain methods of conspiratorial activity, of mimicry and of persistently breaking through toward their desired goals. Left wingers have particularly appreciated educated women from better families, especially those who spoke foreign languages, could type or use shorthand. These versatile, dedicated women often imposed themselves as irreplaceable “absolute comrades” — as the social democrats of Russia called their member, the journalist Elena Stasova. Besides the Agitprop, note taking, transcribing and coding, the illegal female workers also mastered the technique of writing using invisible ink. Through clandestine correspondence with their leaders who lived abroad, or underground, or who were imprisoned, these “absolute comrades” have left us with a valuable testimony of their life’s path and political careers. Their own “underground adventures” and merits, however, have often remained invisible and buried in the deeper layers of history. Several prominent women were memorized through leftist anecdotes and there exist group photos, but even these still did not guarantee them a lasting place in social memory, state archives, or school textbooks. Nonetheless, from these „blank“ leaflets one just needs to place them over a flame and they shall start speaking eloquently again, threatening with some new global conflagration.

1 Otokar Keršovani (1902-1941) was a notable Croatian and Yugoslav journalist and left-wing politician. He was one of the first victims of the Ustashe regime’s retaliation for Partisan activities.

2 Josip Šilović (1858-1939) was a Croatian jurist and university professor who served as rector of the University of Zagreb, member of the Croatian Parliament and the first Ban of Sava Banovina from 1929 to 1931. In the 20th century Croatian Ban was a chief government official in Croatia, effectively the first prime minister of Croatia.

3 Adela Milčinović (1879-1968) was a Croatian writer, journalist, and feminist. In 1925 she settled in New York where in 1943 she became translator and editor at the Office of War Information, and radio journalist at the Voice of America.

4 Yugoslav Committee (Jugoslavenski odbor) was a political interest group formed by South Slavs from Austria-Hungary during World War I aimed at joining the existing South Slavic nations in an independent state. Croatian politicians and intellectuals (A. Trumbić, F. Supilo and I. Meštrović) played an important role in it.

5 Marija Jurić Zagorka (1873-1957) was a journalist and author of popular historical novels.

6 Zofka Kveder (1878-1926) was a Slovene-born writer, translator, editor and journalist who wrote in Slovene and later in life also in Croatian. One of the first feminist intellectuals who supported the idea of multicultural Yugoslavia.

7 The popular walking street in the historical centre of Sarajevo.

Packingtown Review – Vol.9, Fall 2017

Renata Jambrešić Kirin is a Research Advisor at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb and a co-director of the postgraduate course Feminisms in a transnational perspective (2007– ). She is the author of the book Dom i svijet: o ženskoj kulturi pamćenja (Home and the world: on women’s cultural memory, 2008) and, most recently, Korice od kamfora (The Camphorwood Binder, Meandar, 2015) is a collection of microessays and microfictions.

Boris Gregorić is a literary translator and a visual artist, and the author of nine books of prose. He has received the Hellmann-Hammett Award. His most recent publications include Kiwi broj 27, and the translation of Hippodrome by Slovene poet Miklavž Komelj (co-translator Dan Rosenberg).