Igor’s father, Emil Mandić, was the owner of a bookshop in Šibenik prior to World War II, but it was seized by the new government in 1948. He didn’t complete high school, but was very capable and educated, speaking Italian, German and Hungarian fluently. His mother was ethnically Italian, from Premantura near Pula, and spoke only Italian under she was 18. As a survivor of an upbringing in the strict spirit of Catholicism, she raised her two sons in the same way. Igor never really accepted those canons, so it wasn’t difficult for him to discard them:
“When I was a little, my mother cooed to me in Italian, so my mother tongue is actually Italian. My homeland language is Croatian, and the linguistic language that I serve is Serbo-Croat. I was actually a provincial son, although that doesn’t exist as an explanation, but that’s how I felt during all of my schooldays. My father was a small bookseller in Šibenik, but when general nationalisation was carried out in Yugoslavia after World War II, he was ousted, he fell on low branches, and for a long time I dragged that blemish of being a provincial son. When I finally accepted it, I started to deepen it and, as a newly born Marxist, I wanted to cleanse myself of it by joining the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. I really wanted that, but they didn’t want me. They didn’t give me a chance to make a career in the party.”
Although he was born in Šibenik (1939), Igor Mandić grew up in Split. As a boy, he played the violin and read books. He completed studies in comparative literature at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb, and since publishing his first book in 1970 he has written more than thirty:
“From my first stroke of the pen, I wanted to write intellectual, critical prose, for that to be my critical view of the world. So, I spent a lot of letters and paper to publish that pile of books that I sometimes think is mainly waste material. And then I’ll convince myself that I’m wrong. At some gatherings, literary evenings, it happens to me that after the conversation people approach me with some copies of my old books to sign. I parted from them long ago, thinking they are not used by anyone. When I see some book of mine from the 1970s of ‘80s that some reader is offering for me to sign, I convince myself that those books are still needed by someone. Except for my critics and colleagues.”
I wanted to have a happy family, a solid job and a peaceful death. Those are the only values I know. Two of those three values didn’t work out for me, I didn’t realise them. Or I did, briefly. It was easy for me to be honest, because when you’re poor it’s not hard to be honest
Igor Mandić has turned 78, and has been on the public scene for more than five decades as a journalist, literary critic, polemicist, essayist and intellectual who has always had the strength to confront negative happenings in society:
“I’ve been on the scene for fifty years, like few others. I did what I wanted, how much I wanted and how I was able. I could have gone to the toolmakers, to be a professor in cobbling… but the writing was my life obsession. I started writing to survive because my father could no longer support me. After finishing college and army service, I returned to Split, where I soon lost all hope that I could live there. I had no option other than to return to Zagreb and conquer it. It was a megalomaniacal idea that I lived with and which kept me awake constantly.”
When he arrived in the city for his studies, he found a room with a local Zagreb lady and soon fell in love with her daughter, Slavica. She had a cat, Mukija, who she adored and constantly pampered, and Igor decided to let her know that he liked her by saying, “If only I was your cat!” That love was formalised by marriage, and in 1968 they received a daughter, Ada, who graduated in French and Italian and married a German with whom she lived in Heidelberg, preparing a doctorate with the topic “The motive of exile in Croatian novels”. She died tragically in 2004 in a hospital in Basel after an attempted suicide. Igor wrote about this in his book ‘Self under the skin’, while he also speaks about it today, as this tragedy greatly marked his later life:
“I have nothing to hide there. During a depressed state, Ada attempted suicide by jumping from the balcony of an apartment in Basel, at a height of nine metres. She landed on her feet, broke her hip and something else, but was alive and conscious, and she invited her husband and me to tell us that she had done something stupid, but then God gave her another chance. She was taken to the top cantonal hospital, located five minutes from the house where she lived with her husband. She was operated on there by top surgeons and received the best possible care. This was primarily because her husband, Dr Constantine Beier, was a professor of anatomy at the Medical School within that hospital. Cared for in that way, she died on the fifth night after surgery in bed in the clinical ward. I don’t know whether she died from an embolism or shock lung, it doesn’t matter, but the doctors in Croatia said that such a complication occurs once in every two thousand cases! But Ada died on the watch of world-renowned Swiss medicine, while her husband sat beside her holding her by the hand. It is so terrible that it becomes bizarre and grotesque in its unnaturalness.”
Igor Mandić has never avoided conflict on the public scene by writing in newspapers. Here he continued the best tradition of great writers Antun Gustavo Matoša and Miroslav Krleža. He was able to be ironic about others and towards himself. He explained how he wanted to be, at the very least, another Tito, but he failed to enter the Party. A little more seriously, he explains what the highest qualities of the lifelong president of Yugoslavia were:
“He created an authoritarian system that had become totalitarian a few years after he took power. But this system quickly managed to grow to such an extent that Yugoslavia had such democratic freedoms that it was made into a serious European country that was important in world proportions. This is to Tito’s great credit and it places him among the greatest politicians of the 20th century. I, however, spent a great deal of my life, like any ignoramus, idealising capitalism. When I was at the height of my anti-communist sentiment, I asked Milovan Đilas: Is there a way to defeat communism, socialism? He answered: There is, fascism. Unfortunately, I lived long enough to convince myself that he was right.
Actually, perhaps I wasn’t really overly anticommunist, but again, as a naïve fool, I supported the notion of a multi-party system thinking that it was some sort of solution, despite the achievements of democracy in socialism. I didn’t know I was falling into the eternal misconception of all the fools who think this kind of democracy is something good. We all succumbed to Churchill’s claim that democracy, of this kind or the other, is the best of all solutions. As we see now, it’s not. Unfortunately, I made a mistake like tens of millions with me all over the world who are now hitting themselves in the head.
Democracy, unfortunately, is not possible. it is contradictio in adiecto. The people have never ruled nor will they ever rule. The people do not rule, nothing comes from the people, the people are a stupid mob. Here applies Njegoš’s verse the common folk are like stupid cattle.”
Mandić didn’t miss the opportunity to besmirch the HDZ, the party that was created by Franjo Tuđman and came to power after Croatia became a country. Asked why he can’t abide HDZ so much, Igor specifies:
“Because of everything they’ve done. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Tuđman’s Croatia is the continuation of Pavelić’s NDH [WWII fascist state], with different means in a different constellation of forces and relations in this region and around the world. Tuđman managed to realise all of Pavelić’s ideas, first and foremost when it comes to expelling Serbs from Croatia. What Pavelić didn’t get the chance to do, Tuđman implemented: he cleansed Croatia of Serbs. This is the most damaging result of his rule, and it was continued by all his successors, allowing the Ustashoids to penetrate the very pores of Croatian society.”
When the Lexicon of Foreign Writers was published in Croatia in 2001 by Školska knjiga, a company specialising in publishing schoolbooks, Igor was one of the few to publicly condemn the project:
“Describing our neighbours as ‘abroad’, that lexicon showed that we entrenched and encamped ourselves in a little bedsit apartment. In such a fenced-in environment, I recognised the worst petty, egomaniacal fear of being weighed against neighbours. I’m sure that publishing company intended to make something good, but in their endeavour to present foreign literature they made a serious violation against ourselves. Suddenly, Croatian literature became surrounded by such tiny literature, here I primarily mean Serbia, because other literature, Slovene or Macedonian, for example, doesn’t matter to us at all. That presenting of Serbian literature is shamefully low, because many world famous Serbian writers have been omitted, presumably so it would indirectly show Croatian literature to be greater. This is a disgrace of Croatian intellectualism.”
For me, actually, nobody ever taught me to be a Croat. Neither my father nor my mother, nor in high school in Split, was I taught that I am a Croat. Classical high school has no national identity
Today he says of his political beliefs that he’s a convinced centralist: “By posture, housing, everything that determines me, I am a centralist. From a height view everything prepotently”.
When he faces resentment for his lack of patriotism, Igor Mandić has long since replied “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, adding that he didn’t come up with this expression [it was stated by English writer Samuel Johnson in the 18th century], but he has adopted it:
“I can love or defend the stone I grew up on, my mother, my father, my favourite cove, but it still isn’t a homeland. And who even dares to ask us such a question, to place us in front of this court, and ask us to express love for something as abstract as a homeland, which is difficult to conceive under the same name and in the same whole. In particular, this is not Croatia that is a disparate, disunified, outdated and non-sovereign little state. How can it be a homeland that we should love completely? No abstract concept can cover all the parts of my totally tangible love.”
“For me, actually, nobody ever taught me to be a Croat. Neither my father nor my mother, nor in high school in Split, was I taught that I am a Croat. The classical high school has no national identity.”
This writer claims that all projects in the last 200-300 years aimed at creating a Croatian state have failed, except the project when Croatia was a republic in Socialist Yugoslavia. He says that today’s Croatia is coming apart at the seams, concluding that the country is being abandoned by the people it needs the most – doctors, teachers and scientists. Instead of them, “some little general is asking for more weapons to be procured as if someone’s threatening us and we need those weapons”.
This Croatian writer was friends for years with Serbian writer Momo Kapor, and their friendship didn’t end when war broke out in Croatia in the early 1990s. Igor liked Momo as a talented and very affable man, whom he discovered as a writer as soon as he read his first book, Notes of One Ana. After that, he made efforts to become Momo’s friend. And after Momo’s Death (2010) he wrote the text as an annexe to the book The Legend of Kapor and titled “What composes us, damn it”.
“I do not even know what put us together, but that’s where friendship, just like love, is difficult to describe. It’s just like that, kind of plain. It happens that human paths converge and cross until something separates them. It is known what in this case. The inevitable destiny of, for now, one of us.”
In Igor’s working study hangs a portrait painted for him by Kapor and some other Kapor paintings. Mandić was in Belgrade for Kapor’s funeral, with a sad feeling of losing a friend, one of our great writers and painters, as well as a great in terms of lifestyle, wit, casualness. Speaking today about Kapor and his fate, Igor says:
“Politics dragged us into her, grabbed us with her claws, and we didn’t suffer in her. There were deep, fateful reversals that dragged people into political whirlpools. When it comes to Momo, it was actually mostly speculative gossip, often also lies… I was drawn into various literary polemics, and not just literary, often with only myself to blame, but that didn’t determine me very important. And nor did him, I think.
Both Momo and I suffered from the beginning of the 1990s in the post-Yugoslav area, without any kind of nostalgia. We both were and remained rational and ironic about everything
“Both Momo and I suffered from the beginning of the 1990s in the post-Yugoslav area, without any kind of nostalgia. We both were and remained rational and ironic about everything. And he was also witty with it. His supremacy is clear, as can be recognised in how he managed to deal casually with all false and serious problems.”
Igor’s latest book, published just a few months ago, has attracted a lot of attention from the Croatian public, primarily due to the topic, but also because of one part in which he settles accounts with those who annoy him today on the political scene in Croatia. Under the title Pre-Death Diary, Mandić faces his own awareness of death, dealing specifically with the topic of ageing, suicide and death.
The topic of suicide has obsessed him from the moment his daughter decided to attempt to take her own life at the age of 36. For this book he compiled a long list of famous people who have killed themselves: singer Janice Joplin, musician Jimi Hendrix, poet Sergei Yesenin, actress Marilyn Monroe, painter Vincent Van Gogh, writer Jack London, poet Željko Sabol, writer Heinrich Mann, authoress Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, writer Branko Ćopić, actor Bekim Fehmiu, psychiatrist Sigmund Freud et al. Speaking about himself, Mandić says that he’s been ready to die for the last ten years:
“Death is a lying whore and chooses randomly, so she snatched our daughter before her time. I didn’t think about death until 2004, until the death of our child. In our civilisation death is a punishment that people fear, but I don’t fear death. I have come to terms with death. Old age is the ugliest period of human life. We’d be better off without it. I was born a little old man and quickly became old. And when our daughter died, since then I’ve been under the power of old age. There are few books on these obscure topics, such as ageing, death and suicide. I no longer have any ideals, everything has been purged. Old age ate everything. Nevertheless, in the book, I develop the emotional chronology that leads me towards death, with the remaining tendency to continue fighting to the death.”
It could be said that Mandić is calmly awaiting death, but hasn’t surrendered to it. He regularly takes medication prescribed for him by his doctors, takes care of his diet and, despite not liking to see anything green on the table, he regularly eats a portion of lettuce prepared for him every day by his wife Slavica. For his whole life, he was a hedonist, always enjoying good food and drink, and he even co-authored a book with Slavica, entitled Married Couple’s Kitchen, in which they offered 240 recipes.
Death is a lying whore and chooses randomly, so she snatched our daughter before her time. I didn’t think about death until 2004, until the death of our child. In our civilisation death is a punishment that people fear, but I don’t fear death. I have come to terms with death. Old age is the ugliest period of human life
“I loved to drink, some would say I loved to exaggerate in drinking. Drunkenness is for me an escape to the other side, it is a kind of religion, though undoubtedly a tormenting religion.”
No matter how much he has spoken and written about death, Igor is still very interesting, even funny, and intellectually curious. And, as he has been all his life, very cynical. Thus he writes in his new book:
“Just when I think how much cheer my death will bring, it occurs to me to realise it, but I still give up regardless, knowing that everyone is awaited by the same end. No emptiness will appear when my obituary appears, because even above this humble opus of mine, as otherwise above everything, after death follows eternal Nothingness. Every single death sinks into it like a stone thrown into the sea, and that might not even disturb the surface in my case.”
“I wanted,” says Igor, “to have a happy family, a solid job and a peaceful death. Those are the only values I know. Two of those three values didn’t work out for me, I didn’t realise them. Or I did, briefly. It was easy for me to be honest because when you’re poor it’s not hard to be honest. That went naturally for me.”