Author of the Week / 10 April 2024

Danijel Dragojević, the flowing hand

Author of the Week: Croatia

I first heard of Danijel Dragojević’s iconic debut in poetry Kornjača i drugi predjeli (1961), on a bus from my hometown of Split to Zagreb, from a girl who studied Croatian language and literature. I was in my very early twenties and I visited Zagreb for concerts, book readings, theatre and sometimes even love affairs. But this time I was going to pick up my first book of poetry, fresh out of the printing press, and once and for all decide if I was brave enough to step into literature through the main door, the assembly hall of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, as a student of comparative literature who knew a foreign language.

The girl’s name was Morena, and after we realised we would sit next to each other for the next five hours, we silently agreed to be travel buddies, and, once the trip was over, we would never see each other again as is the unspoken rule of such travel-made friendships. We started to chat, at first about ephemeral and not-so-personal stuff, but as the trip progressed, so did our conversation. She discovered that I was an awarded young poet and I found out that her favourite book of poetry was Kornjača i drugi predjeli. She asked me if I had read the book, and that was the start of many literary lies I told from that moment until I finally entered the assembly hall. Why, must one ask? One must.

Well, to come across as cool, well-read and sophisticated. Otherwise, what exactly had I been awarded for? I said, in an overly excited and histrionic manner, ‘Oh, yes! Yes, of course! I love that book! That book has changed my life. It is incredible!’ The truth was that, until I turned 23, Danijel Dragojević had been just a tiny dot on my reading list, and I was not the one to blame. It was all Dragojević’s work. Well, partially, it was also my upbringing. But in the so-called literary scene, he was the elusive one. Our literary canon can undoubtedly confirm my words.

Dragojević’s books are a rare find, which I discovered a day or two after my fateful trip with Morena. Kornjača i drugi predjeli and many of his other books were nowhere to be got. Bookshops – sold out. Second-hand book shops – put your name on the waiting list and then wage a bidding war when the owner calls you and says there are ten more interested parties. Ask a friend – well, they are all reluctant to lend you a book which they invested so much time, money and energy to acquire, because lending felt to them, I can only guess, as if they were giving me their prized family heirlooms.

Dragojević was well known in the publishing circles as an author who never allowed his books to be reprinted. And if I wanted to read them, the only solution was to travel from Gajnice, the westernmost part of the city, to Dubrava, the easternmost part, to borrow a copy from the local branch of the Zagreb City Library. It is a fun thing to borrow a book from a library, to own it for 20 days, maybe 40 if you extend the return deadline. I did precisely that with some of Dragojević’s books. After I graduated, enjoyed a long and productive literary career and eventually went on a poetic hiatus, I returned to Dragojević in my late thirties. 

All that time I wanted to go back to writing poetry, I was deeply troubled by the absence of it in my life. I still don’t quite understand why, but I needed my colleagues, I needed my readers, I needed a breath of life that one could only breathe in the presence of one’s peers. I needed to feel as if all the waiting – and I had waited for 13 years between my two books – was worth it. Worth what? Who knows? The waiting was not really waiting, I only call it that. It was actually hard work and nothing else. But once my second book was out, I felt as if something had shifted in me and catapulted me back into the public eye, if I indeed ever was in the public eye as a very young female poet. But I often think about what it was that Dragojević needed when he became a recluse? He withdrew from public life in the early 1990s, after receiving Goranov vijenac, Croatia’s most prestigious poetry award. But on a personal level, when did Dragojević feel the need to distance himself from the things I admit I very much needed during my hiatus? We will never find out as Dragojević is no longer with us. And we wouldn’t find out even he were.

There is a triptych of photographs taken in the early to mid-2010s, I think, of Dragojević running down Marmontova Street in my hometown of Split where he went to secondary school and lived as a professional writer for a while. People from the island of Korčula, where Dragojević was born in 1934, naturally gravitated towards Split. Later, it became mandatory that everyone with aspirations in the business of words should creatively gravitate towards Zagreb, and so Dragojević did.

The triptych depicts an older man trying to run away from the camera. The photographer is relentless, hell-bent on taking the photos and invading the elderly man’s space, in the name of I don’t know what artistic cause. He knew what Dragojević looked like because he had met him long ago and he likewise knew how Dragojević felt about his public presence. The photographer explains the photos as if his art form in itself gave him permission to invade: Many people don’t even know what he looks like because he disdains the public eye. I wanted to photograph him, but he ran away. 

Running away should’ve been enough of a clue, dear photographer. But I can understand curiosity. It was the ammonite in the sea of sandy rocks. It was an ideal position from which to question the mythos created around a poet’s life. I will do the same at the end of this essay. Be patient, dear reader.

Dragojević was beloved by his colleagues. His readers knew him for his words, and he decided to adopt a secretive lifestyle very much like the writers who chose heteronyms and pseudonyms. Only, Dragojević did it when he was halfway through writing his oeuvre. Because, in the end, he was never a real recluse. Everyone in the literary circles always talked about him, read about him and showed interest in his work, knowing that he was somewhere behind the scenes, putting his stitches in the quilt of the literary canon. In this way, he inhabited even more fully the place he so doggedly tried to abandon by withdrawing from public life. When he died, I texted a fellow writer: I don’t feel sad, I feel ready. Ready for what? Who knows? Perhaps, to paraphrase Dragojević’s poem ‘Uzao’ from his book Žamor (2005), which I have translated for this essay, someone must pull the rope from this world without delay. Dragojević must be known beyond this place.


Tie a thought to thought on any occasion.
That is how the story begins. It is raining, we cover
our heads with sacks that say zucchero
Knot as money, to buy and sell,
to not buy and not sell.
When you think you will fall and you don’t,
something is pent up in the loop: a pipe in a pipe,
a dog in a dog, air in air, you in a coat.
What else to call an embrace and a chirp?
Gifts, mistakes, new wishes, sins,
my empty self on a bed of nocturnal sounds, 
the inventory of the world: an answer we helped
grow into a wandering volcano from afar;
around it africas wilt and thrive, 
and the plot withdraws when the sea appears.
Hey you, whose dream is measured by the sky,
we will befriend machines vacillating
between a person and no one. Do not palm off, whoever you are,
a straight line to me before bedtime, I need a curve which
runs from cove to cove with the precision of the sky, traces them
all, the whole island, and returns to where
it set out from. A flowing hand says to a
likewise flowing rope: tighten, and the rope, without
delay, tightens, a little in this, a bit
in some other world. 

Translated by Marija Andrijašević


Marija Andrijašević

Marija Andrijašević (b. 1984, Split) is a Croatian writer. She holds an MA in Comparative literature and Ethnology and social anthropology (2015) from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb. In 2007, she won the Goran for Young Poets award for her book of poetry davide, svašta su mi radili (david, they did things to me). Her first novel Zemlja bez sutona (The Land Without Twilight) was published in 2021. The novel was awarded the Tportal Literary Award for best novel in 2022 and the Štefica Cvek regional award as one of the best nine novels published in 2021 in the countries of BCSM languages. In 2023, she published a book of poetry Temeljenje kuće (The Founding of a House). She is a member of Versopolis, a European platform for emerging poets. She lives between Zagreb and Split and works with Skribonauti, an organization promoting literature within marginalized groups.