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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Ranko Marinković

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To purchase Cyclops

Title: Cyclops
Author: Ranko Marinković
Genre: Novel
Written: 1965 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 556 pages
Original in: Croatian
Availability: Cyclops - US
Cyclops - UK
Cyclops - Canada
  • Croatian title: Cyclops
  • Translated by Vlada Stojiljković
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Ellen Elias-Bursać

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Our Assessment:

B+ : wartime Yugoslavia, in an almost feverish intellectual trance

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Yorker . 10/1/2011

  From the Reviews:
  • "Marinković splices scenes of dream and reality into a kaleidoscopic short history of the world, whose pessimism is tempered by dark humor. His narrative examines the troubled position of the intellectual in times of upheaval with remarkable intensity. " - The New Yorker

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The main character in Cyclops is Melkior Tresić, a theater and film critic for a newspaper in Zagreb. It is early 1941, with the war not yet having reached Yugoslavia when the novel begins (it has by the end), and, until the end, Melkior repeatedly tries to evade being called up for military duty -- mainly by trying to starve himself, making himself too light-weight to serve. He's not entirely successful in starving himself, and indeed remains wracked by various hungers and lusts -- including his passion for the elusive Viviana (which isn't actually the woman's name, but that's what he calls her) -- and Cyclops follows his peregrinations (physical and mental) and encounters.
       Throughout Cyclops: "Melkior unravels and spins long and tangled thoughts", and his state often seems almost trance-like. Typically:

     The Future ? What about you -- do you believe in the future ?
     He could not tell, at first, whether it was his guest asking him or he was still listening to his own insatiable train of thought.
     No, the guest was sound asleep.
       It is quite an "insatiable train of thought" that Melkior keeps up, but he is not left entirely to his own devices, as much of the novel presents his interaction with others, from the banter with his colleagues to his intimate encounters. Marinković presents a dense, allusive text; the dialogue, in particular, is almost all referential repartee (by a band of very well-read intellectuals) -- a fair amount specific to the time and locale, but also in the greater Western cultural tradition, with much (more or less) clear to even contemporary readers. (It goes right down to the physical descriptions: one character is simply called 'Moustache à la Adolphe Menjou', while another's appearance is succinctly reduced to: "Tall, bony ? Eyes by Picasso ?" ) Marinković both revels in this and jokes about it -- suggesting early on, in describing a scene which includes a consumptive girl reading:
At this point somebody else would write that she was reading The Sorrows of Young Werther or Adolphe or The Torrents of Spring; well, just to show them make it a book by Kumičić, Jelka's Sprig of Basil, or even Chance by the same author.
       And he admits: "Originality almost frightened Melkior with its literary coyness." Cyclops tries (often successfully) for originality, but also grounds itself securely in the familiar (literary) past; so also with the mythical Cyclops, one-eyed Polyphemus, of the title, who haunts Melkior throughout.
       Melkior, dazed both because he is half-starved and utterly exhausted, as well as because of the sensory overload -- largely verbal -- he (and the reader) are confronted with, finds:
I'm alone and mindless like an idiot. Can't you see the dreams I have ? How can I sleep ? Inside your safe circle of fire, treaties, and bayonets -- don't be surprised -- I'm very poorly protected from myself.
       And later he describes his condition:
I have reason so that I can lie to myself and know that I am lying to myself so that I can go on living. In order to look forward to the next day which may bring joy. And when no joy appears I will hope again and fill my thoughts with lies to bring on sleep. And I shall dream that I am alive forever. But then Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops will wake and plug the cave of my dream with an enormous rock and there will be no way out.
       One hope he holds out for is Viviana, a love-ideal that remains just beyond his reach. She is cleverly presented, in all ways ungraspable, even when she is tantalizing close by, with even her actual name remaining elusive -- and it not being important to Melkior to know it: he cares more about maintaining the idealized image he has created for himself, which goes by the name 'Viviana'. And, as one friend tells Melkior:
     "She likes you, too, you know. Thing is, you think too much in the late Plato's terms. Which is not her cup of tea. Frankly, she doesn't understand that sort of pragmatics.
       Indeed, Melkior's 'pragmatics' don't get him very far in any respect, as Cyclops is a whirlpool-narrative that goes around in dizzying circles down into the wartime-abyss. From Buddhist asceticism -- "Oh Great Gautama, how am I to break free of the accursed wish for existence ? I know the sacred truth about pain, but I love my pain." -- to realist resignation, Melkior traverses great (theoretical) distances in dealing with the fundamental existential issues that arise as war closes in.
       Marinković's text is dense but surprisingly fast-paced -- though still, ultimately, somewhat long-winded . He packs enormous amounts in, challenging the reader -- much in the way Melkior challenges himself at one point:
Now what do you make of it ? Come on, psychologists, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, endocrinologists, criminologists, sophists, sadists, causists, Jesuits, diplomats, gnostics, mystics, dialecticians, occultists, moralists, veterinarians, dustmen, firemen ... what do you make of it ?
       There's a great deal of word-play here, even beyond the many literary allusions and references, and even this jaunty translation bogs down at times ("The Croatian word for dagger is bodež, if you strip the zh from bodež -- you get bode, a silly harmless pricking", etc.). For the most part, however, it reads well, a surprisingly lively story even in its often sleepy fog.
       It is Melkior that is the theater critic, but Marinković has another character explain to him:
We don't need tragedy to discover the dreadful truth. Indeed, tragedy cloaks the truth with the charm of art, it seduces us into enjoyment by lifting its soiled theatrical skirt coquettishly before us and showing us the seamy side of life with a fetching grin. Not even death itself is serious here. Nothing is serious, all is simply beautiful and desirable. But I want to see the truth naked, without its tragic rags. Because I know that underneath those rags lies something else tragic, a profound and genuine and terrible tragedy, one that no Racine or Shakespeare can help me with.
       Cyclops also veils its truths, Marinković resorting to dream- and trance-like states; it also is far more comic than tragic -- but also hints at that profound and genuine and terrible tragedy beneath.
       Cyclops is a tour of considerable forces, and certainly stunning in how well it captures that specific time and place. In its specifics, however, -- and its reliance on them -- it is also less accessible than the great novels of more familiar places, the early twentieth century novels of Paris or Vienna or Berlin, for example; it also doesn't quite allow for the universality of an otherwise similarly specific city-novel such as Joyce's Ulysses.
       A strong, often fascinating work, there's also no doubt that there simply is a lot to this: at over five hundred pages, it's a very weighty read that isn't entirely consistently compelling.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 January 2011

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Cyclops: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Yugoslavian author Ranko Marinković lived 1913 to 2001.

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© 2011 the complete review

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