Pensive Prowler #20 by Dmetri Kakmi
Notes from a Writers’ Residency
I’m at Zvona i Nari (Bells and Pomegranates), a writers’ residency in Croatia’s Istrian coast, to finish my novel. I’ve been struggling with this story for two years and I haven’t been able to get the better of it. It’s turned into bit of a millstone actually.
What I need, I told myself, is solid time to focus on one thing and not be distracted by everyday necessities. A residency will allow me to dedicate my energies to being a writer, setting aside a length of time to immerse myself in the act of writing and to concentrate on one thing. I was curious to see how I’d go with that and what the results might be, for the writing and to my own sense of self.
So here I am, happily ensconced in a self-contained two-story, two-bedroom house for a month. For free. It’s an ideal situation. Liznjan is on a promontory surrounded by pristine coastline on one side and pine forests on the other. It’s quiet and there are few distractions. Perfect for work.
My work station is on the front porch, overlooking a garden of oleander and fruit trees. At midday, I prepare lunch in the kitchen to the tune of St Martin’s church bells, the most unmelodious clanging you’re likely to hear this side of hell. Siesta is at the height of the day’s heat. Though warm and welcoming, my hosts Natalija Grgorinic and Ognjen Raden leave me alone, respecting the fact that I am here to work but making sure I know they are there should I crave companionship.
Despite jet lag, I finished the novel at the end of the first week. The beast I had been wrestling with for two years was beaten. I couldn’t believe it. Now I could dedicate the next three weeks to cutting and refining. At 126,000 words, it is too long.
That night I cooked moussaka and celebrated the occasion in the garden with Natalija and Ognjen. Natalija is small, fine boned with pale skin and penetrating eyes that brighten when she speaks. Ognjen is a tall, broad fellow with dark-brown hair, a ready smile and a devilish goatee. They’re in their early forties and have a ten-year-old son called Ljubomir, who plays the rozenica, a traditional wind instrument that evokes either wild mountain music or geese fighting to the death. Take your pick.
Writers in their own right, Natalija and Ognjen are serious-minded with a strong social conscience. You know you’re in a socialist household when there’s a picture of a tractor on the kitchen wall.
By the time my friend Cam Rogers came to stay for ten days at the end of the second week, I was busy killing my darlings with a gusto and glee that surprised even me.
Even so, I welcomed the company. When Cam and I sat down for our first coffee in the garden, I realised I hadn’t spoken much in two weeks. Turned inwards during that time, my voice was husky and strained. I could barely speak or put a thought together. It brought to the fore a vital ingredient to the writing process.
Solitary contemplation is important. There is no TV here. I don’t read newspapers and I don’t scavenge online news. For two whole weeks I did something that is unthinkable in Melbourne. I walked around the property or through the pine forest, thinking about the novel at the exclusion of all else. Perhaps for the first time since I began writing it, I was completely immersed in the world of the story and living with the characters day and night. I went to bed with them and I awoke with them. This allowed me to enter the mood, the rhythm and pace of the story, in ways I hadn’t before.
This continued to be the case when Cam arrived, but it had been intensive when I was alone. Still, I was glad to go off at the end of the day with Cam and grab an Ozujsko beer or an Aperol Spritz at Kalahari bar, conveniently located on a nearby beach.
Compared to regulated life in Australia, Croatia is pretty wild. I love being in a country where people smoke in open-air bars and restaurants, ride bicycles without helmets and use mobiles while driving. The nanny state hasn’t come here yet.
The contrasts are wilder still. The half-naked, drunken sybarites at Kalahari bar are a mere three minutes down the road from a sweet chapel called Our Lady of Kuje. When I looked it up on Google translate, turns out Kuje means ‘bitch’ in Croatian. A friend said it connotes ‘mischief’ in Finnish. So goodness knows what goes on in that chapel after dark.
Inappropriate behaviour can’t be ruled out. One Sunday, Cam and I joined Natalija and Ognjen at a religious ceremony to the chapel. It was fascinating to follow the devout as they held aloft a statue of the Virgin, chanting along the way and bringing traffic to a halt. During mass under bosky trees, we snuck inside and were astonished by the interior.
It’s built on the foundations of a Roman villa. A metre below the contemporary floor level is the original floor mosaic under protective glass.
A more impressive Roman mosaic can be found in Pula, at one end of a busy car park. It was discovered while people cleaned up after the bombardments of World War II. It’s now two metres below the current street level, in the open and behind bars for its protection.
In the town square there’s a beautifully preserved Temple of Augustus and not five minutes away a statue of James Joyce enjoys a coffee outside a cafe while staring at a triumphal arch that dates to 27 BC. Apparently the great Irish man lived in Pula briefly and hated it, but that hasn’t stopped locals from making a buck off him. Nor was I surprised to learn that Dante Aligheri visited these shores while writing the Divine Comedy.
As always when you travel, it’s thrilling to look through the ages into worlds that are almost incomprehensible today. Moreover, the palimpsest, the layers of lives and cultures, made me appreciate the complex layering and interleaving of stories and how important it is to make the various strata transparent, like glass floors through which narrative can travel unhindered and offer a wider, deeper perspective.
Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.