I’m currently attending the Sferakon 2014 convention in Zagreb as a guest of honour. I’m being made most welcome and am having a great time. (I’m also amazed by the fluency in English of everyone here: I have no conception of what it might be like to speak another language to that level). Zagreb is a very attractive city too, even though currently somewhat grey and rainy.
I’ve never been to Croatia before, other than a single bus journey, back in the 70s, when I crossed what was then Yugoslavia from one end to the other, on my way back from Greece to England. However, the Balkans have always had a strong hold on my imagination, and my first novel, The Holy Machine, was entirely set in this part of the world. The novel deals with a conflict between atheism and various resurgent religions, and the Balkans seemed a natural setting for that because it is a region where religions and empires meet like tectonic plates: Rome/Byzantium, Catholicism/Orthodoxy/Islam, Austria-Hungary/Venice/Turkey. (And when I formed the idea the book, in the early 90s, there was of course a terrible conflict taking place along some of those ancient fault-lines.)
Croatia itself appears in the book in a rather crucial scene, when the book’s protagonist, confused, traumatised and feverish, arrives in a village where there is a large monastery:
Very slowly I made my way down the hill, dragging one leg like an old man. There was a lull in the rain, but water was everywhere. Streams gurgled and tinkled all around me. Muddy water ran in rivulets across the road. I remember I saw a lizard on the stony ground. Because of the cold, it moved away from me not with the normal darting motion of lizards, but in slow motion, one leg at a time.
At the outskirts of the village I met a young man with a long, wet moustache.
‘Excuse me,’ I murmured, ‘excuse me…’
I reached out to him and touched his sleeve. He pulled his arm away indignantly, then dived into a house and slammed the door.
The clouds were breaking up overhead into rags of grey and white and the sun shone through in patches: a tree illuminated here, a ruined house there… The mountainside which I had just descended was now blazing with brilliant, yellow light.
I passed closed doors and shuttered windows. A thin dog came trotting past. It paused to sniff at me, as if wondering whether there was any flesh left on me worth eating.
At the centre of the village there was a square with single shop and a police station, both of them closed and shuttered up. There was a ruined building and some deserted-looking houses. The long, white wall of the monastery formed one whole side of the square. It had barred windows with pale blue stonework around them, and a single, large ornate door.
I hesitated. Where was this? Bosnia? Montenegro? Dalmatia? Istria? Venetia? What alphabet was that above the door of the police station? What language did they speak? I swayed and tottered and nearly fell.
And what religion was it here, I wondered (for I had noticed that geography was the main determinant of religious belief)? Which God did they follow? Should I ask for alms in the name of Allah, or Jesus Christ, or Bogomil, or… who? Some Slavonic god of plenty? To my confused, feverish mind, the question seemed both insoluble and frighteningly important. That dull, persistent aching feeling was pressing heavily against the inside of my eyes.
Which God? Couldn’t I at least know which God?