Eighteen months ago, when Branko Ivanda’s obituary on the Cultura page of Zagreb’s Vjesnik spoke of him as ‘our supreme man of the theatre’, there were still some who wondered whether the phrase was meant in a tone of unequivocal enthusiasm; or was it to be read as meaning he was very good at a lot of things – writing, acting, directing, movie-making – and fell just short of the best in all? Had he moved up into that category of ‘supreme’ just by outliving one or two of his contemporaries, and in particular, Tomislav Buljan? Or was he truly one of the ‘greats’?
Most however were impatient of all such equivocations. We saw them as provincial, a flashback to the bad times when we Croatians lacked belief in our own talents.
Now the last remaining equivocators seem to have fallen silent, and today, when Branko’s bronze statue was unveiled in the town woods close to Dubravkin Put, one heard nothing but good things about the man, and about his films and plays that are being shown in a week celebrating his lifetime’s achievement. Springtime for Branko Ivanda! – the trees over his bronze head in full leaf, the market tables by the Zagreb railway station scarlet with strawberries. Will Judge Time confirm his place? Who knows, and why should we care? For those of us alive now in the new, liberated, self-confident Croatia, the matter is settled. Branko is ‘our very own Bergman’. He is ‘among the immortals’!
That, anyway, is what the Minister of Culture said to his widow after she had unveiled the statue and spoken briefly, with feeling and dignity, of the man and the writer as she remembered him in the final decade of his life.
‘The immortals,’ she repeated, faintly amused perhaps at the extravagance, but certainly not displeased. ‘Thank you, Minister. I hope so.’
It must be at least twenty years ago that Tomislav Buljan wrote his famous article, ‘Last season’s man’, which Branko was sure was meant to end his career as a writer and kill him dead as a force in the theatre. And because it hit hard, even with a certain devilish and unarguable accuracy, it very nearly succeeded. Branko didn’t respond. He knew that self-defence would only draw more attention to the article, and that it was best to behave as if he hadn’t felt it, didn’t care about it, was indifferent, impervious.
Tomislav was twenty-eight at the time while Branko was already in his forties – not a great difference but enough for Tomislav to feel that he and his two or three closest associates were ‘the new wave’ arriving to sweep away what was already ‘old fashioned’ in the theatre. Tomislav was tall, well-built, Byronically handsome and charming. Everyone loved him and talked about him. He was ‘in fashion’ and could do no wrong. You saw him at book launches and art openings, and at BP, the Jazz Club which had become a meeting point for Zagreb’s intellectual community. He was relaxed, smiling, witty, knowledgeable. If it seemed to Tomislav that someone, either in what he wrote for the theatre, or in what he did there as a director, was (as the deadly article said) ‘causing an obstruction in the fast lane’, then you had to listen. In the end you might disagree; but you could take it on trust that Tomislav would have acted without malice, in the interest of what he saw as progress and the greater good. He was truly ‘a nice guy’. That he was also capable, not of malice, but of a certain critical ruthlessness amounting in effect to cruelty, took everyone by surprise. There were gasps; and then praise for his courage in telling the truth as he saw it.
But that was not as it seemed to Branko Ivanda. He thought a younger man was attempting to destroy him. His confidence was shaken. He was deeply hurt and full of rage. He imagined meeting Tomislav at a party and punching him in the mouth without warning; or going to his door and doing it. And then there were dreams in which he seemed to be kicking him to death in a dark alley close to Zagreb’s Gavella Drama Theatre where their two plays had been put on, one after the other, and where his rival had won superlative reviews for a work that seemed to Branko shallow and insignificant.
We are a small country with a tight intellectual community. If things go against you, as they did for Branko Ivanda, you can be left, like the chicken in the enclosed yard all the other chickens turn against, your skin bleeding and your feathers plucked.
What made it worse was that this occurred right at the time when Branko was going through the breakup of his second marriage. He was sensitised, precarious, in need of a secure place of retreat and the support of a loving wife. Before the article appeared theatre people, those ‘in the know’, had been divided, some for Branko, others for Katarina. After it, the balance swung against Branko. It was as if he no longer had the protection, or the excuse, of his talent. He was just one more unfaithful husband (‘a casting couch director’ was the common gossip), and Katarina had been right to send him on his way.
She had kept the house and their two children, and changed the locks. He was out on the street with nowhere to go but the home of friends, a couple whose welcome was genuine but troubled, affected by the climate of the moment. And with the end of that marriage Branko had lost also the financial certainty of a wife who was a middle-ranked civil servant, and whose income had given him freedom to take risks in the theatre. He needed security in his professional life and felt now there was none.
Branko had long since given up on the church, but at this time he used to go into a side chapel of the cathedral at unusual hours and light a candle, which he was always careful to pay for, in case the magic didn’t work, and which he would add to the forest of lights at the foot of the painting of the Virgin. On his knees there, his brow in his hands, he would pray for the death of his enemy. ‘Holy Mother, if you can make Tomislav’s decline long and painful, so much the better. But if I have not earned this bonus, if it must be sudden, a heart attack, a traffic accident, at least, I beg you, give me his death. And please, before his last moment let him know that I, the rival he tried to destroy, live on, still writing. Let him go to Heaven if he has earned a place there, but let him know first, and beyond any doubt, of his earthly failure.’
It gave Branko comfort to make these appeals to the same image of the Virgin he had looked upon with awe as a child, and with a reverence bordering on lust in his teenage years. Now he was liberated from deep faith, and felt able to pray without worrying that such requests might be blasphemous. He would leave it to her to decide on the technical aspects of his petition. He could tell by the way her eyes looked down at him that she was listening, and he felt he could even joke with her, as with an old friend. ‘You can do it, Mary love. I know you can. Please – just this once, for your loyal fan Branko? Give that bastard what he deserves, and make sure it hurts.’
His professional life continued, but for many months, a year, two years, he felt himself unsteady on his feet, precarious, threatened. Finally, by what all of us at today’s unveiling would agree was persistence and courage, he regained a place in Zagreb’s theatre world, but one that was still insecure. Reviews of his work were of the ‘on the one hand, but on the other’ kind; and when he met and talked to people, even good friends, there was often something unspoken hovering between them – a cloud, a reservation, a faint aura of embarrassment.
And then the news came that Tomislav Buljan had cancer. It came, as you say in English, ‘from the horse’s mouth’. Tomislav himself had decided to ‘go public’. He wanted it known that he was ‘confronting this challenge head on, and determined to beat it’. He ‘hoped he might be an inspiration to other sufferers’. There was a photo of him in Vjesnik, and one or two magazines ran stories about his current work and his plans for the future. He was interviewed on television. His wife and twin boys were pictured clustered around him. One article offered the piece he had written about Branko Ivanda as an example of his ‘fearlessness and integrity’, his ‘critical seriousness’ and ‘utter devotion to telling it as he saw it’ in everything pertaining to the theatre.
Branko made another visit to the Virgin. ‘Are you teasing me, Mother of God? Giving me my wish in a form that is itself a punishment?’
He asked this because he believed that Tomislav was making the most of very little, that he was exploiting his health scare by making it public, and that he would go from ‘cancer sufferer’ to ‘cancer survivor’, emerging with his halo enhanced, larger and brighter than ever.
‘If this is my punishment,’ Branko told the holy icon, ‘I deserve it, and accept it.’ But he knew she would be able to see into his black, unforgiving heart, and that she would find there, in its darkest corner, a faint hope, as uncertain and wavering as the candle he had just placed at her altar, that she was not teasing at all; that his prayer was being answered in the affirmative.
After that first flurry of attention the news stories about Tomislav tapered away. There were months of silence; and meanwhile the uncertainty promoted in Branko a rush of creativity such as he had not experienced since his first days in the theatre. In less than a year he wrote two new plays and a television script. All were accepted. One of the plays went straight into production in the Gavella; the other was ‘work-shopped’ at the national theatre in Split, with the prospect of full production later. The television script earned him a large cheque, with more promised when it was translated into German and produced by a company that had bought it in Vienna.
It must have been some time in 1990 that the news came – confirmed, denied, then confirmed again – that Tomislav Buljan’s battle was all but lost. Chemotherapy and radiation had both failed. Secondaries were spreading and his liver was affected. Death was still some way off, but inevitable.
Tomislav’s dying was protracted. By now Croatia had declared its independence and we were coming under Serb attack in the Krajina. The war, as it developed, occupied almost all our waking thoughts. Wasted, pale, coughing in a way that was hard to listen to, his lovely hair all gone and his youth and good looks destroyed, Tomislav appeared on television, and gave a ‘final’ interview. It was as if he was reluctant to leave, felt it an injustice that he should be required to, and an insult that so much attention should be paid to the war and so little to himself. He was no longer rational. Someone was to blame, someone should be made to answer for what was happening to him. He rambled, asserting that the whole medical event had been mishandled and misreported and that he intended to live many years. Then he wept. That was his last public appearance.
Meanwhile one of Branko’s new plays was produced. At first the reviews were positive but cautious, concentrating on performances rather than the play itself. But then an article by Zagreb’s most authoritative theatre critic appeared in Vjesnik. It hailed the play as something entirely new, not only for Branko Ivanda but for Croatia – ‘brilliantly new’ it said, ‘a step forward, out into the future, out into the unknown.’ ‘It breathes the very air of this moment in our history,’ the critic went on. ‘It is a work of Croatian genius.’
Ten days later Tomislav Buljan died.
The war was bitter. At its height Branko disappeared from Zagreb, and it was reported he had been involved in the fighting in Bosnia and in the Krajina; and later that he had been wounded, his arm broken, when Serb forces shelled Zadar from the hills above the town. He wrote of none of this; but there had always been an element of Croatian nationalism in his work, and now it seemed more obvious – something that should have been recognized and welcomed sooner. Steadily, as peace returned, Branko re-established himself in the theatre, and was re-instated to his old place of respect and, gradually, of dominance. It was as though Tomislav Buljan’s article had never happened.
Branko lived alone now, saw his two children, a son and a daughter, regularly, was civil to, even friendly with, their mother, who, with a new, faithful and (it was said) rather boring partner, was inclined to retrospective forgiveness. In his private life Branko contrived to have a succession of women friends, each of whom had to accept that he was not about to repeat for a third time the painful experiment of falling in love and marrying. He described himself as a serial monogamist but with a rapid turnover.
He worked industriously and with a kind of stillness that was new. He was in a state of expectation, ‘waiting’ (as he explained it once to close friends) ‘for the blow to fall’. He had prayed to the Virgin, in whose powers he did not believe, requesting the painful death of his rival, and she had proved her powers by answering his prayer. This could not be right. It could not be the Justice of Heaven. Sooner or later Herself would have to be even-handed. Something more must come – a blow, an unexpected reversal. During his involvement in the war he had expected to die, or worse, to be maimed. It had made him fearless. Self protection would not help. During the bombardment of Zadar, when walls had crashed around him, he had said to himself, ‘Ah so here it is at last’ – but had woken with only a broken arm and a headache.
He had a small apartment in Zadar, left to him by his mother. It was close to the sea, and he worked there alone, driving up to Zagreb in his little Skoda when required in the theatre. In spring and summer his day began at first light when the swallows did their sudden chattering swoops across his terrace under its shallow roof and down into the gardens of vines and olives stretching away towards the harbour. The sun came up behind the houses and seemed to touch alight the farthest reaches of the sea. After breakfast he swam, or walked several kilometres along the seafront, and then settled to a long morning’s work. Lunch might be at home in his own kitchen, or in the town with friends and colleagues; then a siesta, and more work late in the afternoon.
Everything in his life was productive and orderly as it had never been before. That peculiar stillness held. He did not feel safe. He worked, and he waited. Whatever form the blow was to take, he hoped he was ready for it.
One morning, taking his walk towards the town, he saw a woman he recognized as Tomislav Buljan’s widow, Vesna, coming towards him. They passed within feet of one another. He was sure she knew him, and knew that he knew her. There was embarrassment on both sides. It happened again the next day. Clearly each had a routine which might put them together in this place at this time of the morning. He thought he should avoid her, but on the third day gave up a planned swim in order to see her again. He knew he should speak, tell her how sorry he was that Tomislav had been cut off so cruelly in what promised to be a brilliant career; sorry that she and the twins had sustained such a loss. But he could not say it; knew he would choke on the words – so they passed with flickers of recognition, each silent but seeming to give the other an opening to speak.
A week or two passed with no encounters, and then they found themselves in the same room at an art opening. Now Branko felt he must speak, but was prevented by something new. Each time he had passed her on those morning walks he had been struck not only by the recognition that she was a fine-looking young woman, but by the feeling, stronger each time, that he was in love with her. It hit him full force, as if he had been a very young man. His heart raced, his mouth went dry, he was breathless. He told himself this was nothing more than a fit of nerves, a panic attack, confusion brought on by the memory of what her late husband had written about him. But he didn’t believe it. He believed he was in love.
So, in that room full of new fresh bright paintings, oils and watercolours, with french doors opening on to white pillars and a green garden, he looked at Vesna Buljan and looked away; looked again...
It was she who broke off her conversation with a friend and came towards him, blushing slightly but holding out her hand.
‘Mrs Buljan. Vesna. I should have spoken first. I’m sorry. I’m sorry about... So sorry that he...’
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry too.’ And he felt that perhaps she was not just saying she was sorry Tomislav had died (though no doubt she was), but sorry he had written that terrible article.
Their talk was brief, and as soon as it was over Branko left the party and walked all the way back to his apartment. He had not felt such passion since the first and unrequited love of his youth. Much of the night he lay awake inventing brilliant things he would say to her which only morning would reveal were quite inappropriate. Just before first light he fell into a deep sleep from which he failed to wake when the swallows made their noisy early morning strafes across his terrace.
Two wretched days later he had to be in Zagreb, and there he found time to call on his friend the Virgin. He bought her a larger, more expensive candle, lit it and placed it where she could see it. ‘So this is my punishment, Holy Mother? I am to be in love with the wife of the man I killed. The woman I can never touch.’
Her smile as she looked down at him was faint, enigmatic, but he believed she was answering, ‘Yes’. Her sense of humour was subtle, but the pain she was inflicting was real.
On an impulse (so much now was impulse) he went into the confessional. After the usual preliminaries he said, ‘Father, it is a long time since my last confession. No doubt I have committed many sins, but I am here because I killed a man.’
Even through the heavy grill he felt the priest’s excitement. ‘How did you kill him, my son?’ His voice was young.
‘I prayed to the Virgin that he would die of a painful disease, and that is what happened.’
There was a sigh, perhaps of relief, more likely of disappointment. ‘You did not kill him, my son. Only God decides who dies and how they die.’
‘But I prayed to the Virgin...’
‘That has nothing to do with it.’ The priest’s voice was impatient and had lost its authority. Branko felt a rush of amusement. ‘Ah father, if even you doubt her powers, who is there left to speak for them?’
In the weeks and months that followed Branko’s work continued uninterrupted, but when he looked up from it, or moved away from his desk, the thought of Vesna Buljan was likely to return. He tried to avoid her, but saw her often enough to know that some other force within himself was contriving to ensure that they met.
Once they had coffee together on the seafront and, thinking it might precipitate some kind of resolution, he told her that when they were together there was always an elephant in the room. She probably knew what he meant but waited for him to explain..
‘Last season’s man’, he said, using the name Tomislav had given him.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, putting her hand over his on the table. ‘I was sorry at the time. I argued with him about it, but that was Tomislav. Once he had an idea, he carried it through. He was unstoppable. It must have been very painful.’
‘I wanted him dead,’ Branko said. And then in a rush that felt desperate, suicidal, ‘I prayed that he would die.’
She nodded. She was disconcerted, but managed to say, ‘I understand.’
It was this – not the almost twenty year gap in their ages, but the sense that he had killed her husband – which made it impossible for him to touch Vesna; to kiss her; to invite her home to his bed. He knew that his prayers to the Virgin, in whose powers he had no faith at all, had nothing to do with Tomislav’s death. But some intractable part of himself, some dark child in his psyche, believed quite the opposite. This dark child was Tomislav’s killer, coldly triumphant, and not yet satisfied. It was the dark child who now made him believe he was in love.
Branko was invited to London. One of his plays had been translated into English and was to be produced at the Donmar Warehouse. He was to watch and comment on rehearsals and to be present on the opening night. His English was only fair, but sufficient, and everything went well. While there he went, when he could, to the RSC, in those days at the Barbican, and to the National Theatre. It was at the National he saw a production of Richard III, done in modern dress, with Richard a military dictator.
Shakespeare was difficult, the language unfamiliar. Reading the play the night before he was to see it, Branko found the scene in which Richard successfully woos the wife of the prince he has murdered unbelievable. But in the theatre it came to life. It was powerful, full of the hero-villain’s wit and daring. Richard the crookback killer had the glamour of wickedness. It made Branko feel that nothing was impossible.
When he returned to Zadar he sought Vesna out and did not find her. He had no address for her and her name was not in the phone book. How strangely the Powers that ruled his life were behaving. What if, having so to speak stumbled on her by chance, he should now fail to find her by design? He pursued more than one phantom Vesna along Kalelarga, and had to make embarrassed apologies.
When at last he saw her in her usual place on her morning walk along the seafront his relief was so obvious she blinked in surprise, backing away and laughing as he rushed up to her.
‘I thought I’d lost you,’ he explained. ‘Will you have lunch with me? Or dinner?’
Two nights later they were lying together naked on his bed holding hands and staring at the ceiling. The sliding doors were open on to the terrace. The moon was silver on the olives and gold over the sea. He dozed, and woke when she said, ‘Why did it take you so long.’
‘To ask me out. To invite me here.’
‘I thought you’d think...’ he took a deep breath ‘...you might think it was because of Tomislav’s article. That it was just an act of revenge.’
She didn’t reply. Was that a thought he should not have aired? But she yawned and stretched, and he saw it had made no significant impression. ‘It might have been my revenge,’ she said.
‘On Tomislav? For what?’
‘I don’t know. For dying. For leaving me all alone.’
He rolled over and, propped on one elbow, looked into her fine eyes, ran fingers through her tousled hair, and kissed her.
So they settled into a life of living apart but together. Branko was happy, but still with the feeling that he was unsafe, that the story was not yet over. It was another year before they married. They spent the last decade of his life together, tranquil, orderly, fond, settled into that unfashionable but mysteriously powerful unit, a married couple.
His death was sudden, a smoker’s heart attack (‘Good,’ he would have said. ‘Over quickly and no fuss’) and today, with the Minister of Culture’s tribute, and Vesna’s unveiling of the monument, he was duly celebrated, his place in our literary history acknowledged.
After the crowd had dispersed from Dubravkin Put I stood looking at him, now permanent in bronze against the spring-green background of the town woods. He was not far from the statue of Miroslav Krleza, in the same style, and a good likeness. I had known Branko many years. I and my wife were the couple who had opened our doors to him when his second marriage foundered. Bronze is bronze, but the shape of the head, its slight downward and sideways turn, and the sense the sculptor had imparted to the lean torso and limbs of someone whose movements must have had a certain grace and elegance – it was Branko as I had known him. I felt I was looking into his eyes, and into his soul.
‘Old friend,’ his effigy said, ‘you must know there is no Justice. That I am here and Tomislav is not is neither right nor wrong. The Universe is indifferent and does not love us. Everything is Chance.’