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Thoughtful Torture

THIS CLASSIC OF MODERN European literature, which appeared in Croatia in 1965, has just been published in English for the first time. The novel opens with the narrator describing a familiar scene as a math equation. Standing in a public building, Melkior observes two neon signs, one for “Ladies” and one for “Gents”, glowing above intersecting staircases. “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.” No matter what cultural symbols we hide behind, Ranko Marinković coyly reminds us, the lowest common denominator of humanity will always be human waste.

Such cerebral imagery is typical of Marinković, whose narrative epic—set in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1940s—is based on Ulysses, which had appeared in Croatian a few years before Cyclops. The narrator’s compulsion to turn every experience into an intellectual exercise, partially as a response to the horror of World War II, puts Cyclops squarely in the genre that James Wood has called hysterical realism. Melkior, a theater critic who lives alone in a boardinghouse populated by eccentrics, seeks to escape his aimlessness—and his fear of the encroaching fascists—by endlessly perambulating the frenetic city of Zagreb and the insular world of his own thoughts. His mind is a “torture chamber” to which he willingly confines himself, believing that in the mental “labyrinths around which he raced blithely shouting, ‘I’ve disappeared, I’m not here,’ he would really and truly disappear from the sight of the absurdity that lay in wait for him.”  

Like Melkior, the reader avoids despair—and most other emotions—by trying to keep up with Marinković’s rapid thought associations, peppered with references to Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Petrarch, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Voltaire, and a handful of Croatian poets. Although Cyclops seeks to reveal the problems inherent in trying to think one’s way out of reality, the narrator embodies those problems to such a degree that Marinković leaves the reader feeling mightily confined. Still, the stylistic quality of Cyclops—which preceded similar and seminal works of Pynchon, Rushdie, and DeLillo—easily places Markinkovic among the great social novelists of the twentieth century.

As Melkior wanders between bar, café, and bedroom, he meets a zany cast of bohemians and intellectuals who gorge on booze, chase women, and indulge in futile philosophical debates. All of his conversations are punctuated by unspoken paranoia and convoluted fantasies, due in part to sleep and food deprivation. Hoping to avoid conscription by rendering himself unfit for service, Melkior has declared war on his own body, giving the “greedy brute” just enough nourishment to (mostly) avoid fainting, and talking to himself at night to stave off “fortifying” sleep. In trying to protect himself from the physical suffering of war, he develops such loathing for his body that he fears he will slit his own throat in his sleep.

The dangers of Melkior’s solipsism are all the more ironic given that he has no inkling of the suffering from which he is “protecting” himself. Upon reading the headline, “BOMBS HIT LONDON IN WAR’S WORST RAID: Six Hours of Hell and Horror,” Melkior feels only indifference: “he could picture nothing specific behind those alarming words, no dead child, crushed skull, man despairing over his demolished home and slaughtered family, none of those terrible scenes which were really there behind headlines.” Preferring lofty literary torments to unknown ones, Melkior imagines war as Polyphemus, the one-eyed cannibal, and himself as a modern-day Odysseus, trying to escape from the Cyclops’ cave. This “eternal companion of a thought” is more real to him than Hitler’s advance.

Melkior’s detachment from immediate, bodily reality is so extreme that he believes rape is a myth invented by women who are spurned after sex. In one of his many imagined conversations, he tells a momentary object of his lust that women all secretly long to be taken with force: “If a savage were to convert while on top of her, in a manner of speaking, this could even blossom into love. She would forgive him everything thanks to his subsequent redeeming tenderness. ‘Ah, I remember how rough you were when you first took me! But I can now confess that I liked it so much. What a he-man! What a warrior! Then again, perhaps it’s the only way to find true love.’” Although this potentially rich provocation is never unwound for the reader, it suggests that Melkior denies the possibility of any authentic experience unmediated by self-serving thoughts and ugly notions. Rape, like love, exists only as an idea.

Melkior does spend a good bit of time pursuing his idea of the beloved, a seductive beauty he barely knows. He purposefully avoids learning her name, preferring to call her by an invented moniker. And even as he pines for his “Viviana,” he continues sleeping with a married woman who rhapsodizes about her husband’s love for her while she revels in Melkior’s crass ravishment. Bemoaning Enka’s needy duplicity, Melkior asks himself, “Oh Lord, must they all be like that? And the Lord inside him replied cruelly: Every single one!” This is, of course, the same cruel internal Lord who believes in the mind’s strict alienation from the body.

But no matter how much authority Melkior grants his thoughts, he cannot “steal from the world his traitorous body” and live in the mind alone. Despite his hatred of Enka, he continues sleeping with her. Despite his obsessive attempt to weaken his body, he is still called up for duty.

While Melkior desperately denies the animality of the human form, one of his drinking buddies embodies the lonely dignity of living through tangible experience. The candidly named Maestro prefers walking to the tram, silence to conversation, oral poetry to books. As he is strolling home from the bar with Melkior one rainy evening, he tells his friend about his hatred for electrical cables, which inspire the fear and awe once reserved for God:

“Fold the umbrella, look up … those black lines, those staves, empty of notes, across the sky, That’s It—the Powerline. You, of course, find my hate of those copper wires ridiculous?”

“I’m already used to your bizarre ways….”

“But I’m not after anything bizarre…I genuinely hate the thing,” said Maestro very quietly, indeed with a kind of modesty.

The moment is arresting for its clear communication of a personal feeling, so glaringly and programmatically absent from the rest of the book. Alas, a few pages later, Maestro electrocutes himself by peeing on this powerline: one authentic death in a city “already lying down in submission,” and “waiting patiently for the tramp of army boots.”

The unrelenting bleakness of Cyclops is allayed somewhat by Marinković’s exquisite wordplay. After Enka’s husband nearly surprises the two lovers in bed, Melkior escapes from her apartment through a hidden passageway. Equating lust with another unsavory common denominator of humanity, Markinovic describes Melkior “seeking a way out of this abdominal darkness, like a piece of feces on its scatological journey down Enka’s spry intestine.”

Despite the lively, witty imagery through which Melkior’s cynicism is conveyed, the unexamined constancy of that cynicism is wearying. Unlike the antiheroes of Notes from the Underground and Sabbath’s Theater, Melkior lacks the coherent sense of identity which would allow the reader any emotional engagement with his antics. That this refusal of compassion is deliberate may make Cyclops a successful literary exercise, but it does not make for pleasant reading.

Hannah Tennant-Moore is a writer living in Brooklyn.