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A Return to Truth Telling — Tim Grgec's All Tito's Children

A remarkable debut collection of poems by TIM GRGEC centered on the Yugoslav communist revolutionary and dictator Josip Broz Tito.

A Return to Truth Telling — Tim Grgec's All Tito's Children

Aug 8, 2021 Books

That there appears to be no conclusive nor definitively agreed upon legacy of Josip Broz Tito in the annals of history is but one of many shadows cast across All Tito’s Children, the remarkable debut collection of poems by Pōneke Croatian writer Tim Grgec. “Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality,” reads one of two lines of the opening epitaph. This line, from Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, intimates the direction from which the book departs; which is to say, the illusory slipperiness of language and its self-negating inability to wholly convey what it attempts to understand and therefore master, be it truth, meaning, or history.

The epitaph’s secondary line, by Yugoslav novelist and chronicler of Bosnian life under Ottoman command, Ivo Andrić, observes: “Sometimes what can be invented about a person will tell you quite a lot about him”. While Under Western Eyes is preoccupied with autocracy, political turmoil and the failures of revolutionary ideals in Tsarist Russia at the turn of the 20th century, Andrić’s line offers a further cue into a principal concern of this collection, broadly organised around the Yugoslav communist revolutionary and statesman Tito, and the extent to which we can remember, know and construct such compiled stories and myths that structure not only history, but the histori- cised self.

Threading the ominous presence of Tito throughout a shifting landscape of voices, registers, geographies and epochs, Grgec imagines and enters the Old World, dropping  readers into a time shrouded in secrets, flickering candle- light and pervasive distrust. In keeping with the sinister atmosphere of the time, Grgec deftly depicts the fraught tension between intimacy and distance, offering rich, evocative imagery while carefully disclosing the mythic figure that is Tito through manifold perspectives.

Largely remembered as a benevolent dictator and architect of the ‘second Yugoslavia’ — a socialist federation of republics lasting from World War II until 1991 that, defying Soviet hegemony, remained an independent Communist nation — Marshal Tito led the Partisans, a guerrilla movement considered the most efficacious resistance movement during WWII in occupied Europe. A revered figure who shaped a cult of personality around himself, Tito was an icon and, as the chief leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, drew international attention by bridging unifying trans-national alliances with developing nations, advocating a ‘third way’ for such nations to remain neutral during the polarising Cold War power blocs, and to ensure national independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity against foreign intervention.

Under his reign, Yugoslavia offered assistance to liberation and anti-colonialist movements in developing nations, including advocating for the Algerian National Liberation front at the UN; Tito and the League of Communists of Yugoslavia evidently seeing their struggles against fascist hegemony as linked. Viewed as a unifying symbol for his positioning of both Yugoslavia and himself as a world leader, Tito’s internal policies consolidated the Yugoslav federation, and throughout the war he marked himself by refusing to enact summary justice, aiding Jews fleeing Nazi occupation, and later instrumentalising reforms that opened the country; allowing travel to Western Europe, and opening the nation’s borders in 1967 to allow for foreign tourists.

The cultural influence of the West, including Mexican rather than American or Soviet films — owing to the 1948 Tito-Stalin split, Soviet films weren’t shown — accounted for some unique cultural phenomena, including Yu-Mex, an unlikely combination of traditional Mexican and Yugoslav music. Mexican cinema, with its depiction of worker’s struggles during the revolution, found parallels with Yugoslav’s Partisans, hence these films’ import over American cinema. This broadening influence changed the culture of the country, which consequently identified more with Western Europe than its Eastern counterparts.

Elected president for life until his death in 1980, Tito’s funeral is cited as hosting one of the largest number of state delegations, politicians and statesmen across ideological lines in history; perhaps matched only by the 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II, and Nelson Mandela’s 2013 memorial service. In the years since his death, Tito remains an esteemed figure, many households adorning their walls with his portrait alongside those of the Catholic saints, elevating him to holy albeit secular status — although notably, on return from a visit to India, he relaxed laws around religion, another distinguishing attribute of his policy reforms. Interestingly, to this day there remains speculation of his identity and origins, with one such journalist suggesting three alternative people identified as Tito.

Adding to his deified status, the writing of letters to Tito continues posthumously, and on 25 May of each year, thousands of acolytes descend on his hometown to pay tribute; many accounts observe that this devotion centres less on Communist allegiance than nostalgia for better times, and his mythic stature as an ‘ordinary’ man from working class origins who united the nation.

While Tito liberated and united Yugoslavia, he also, as do most authoritarians, trampled freedoms and committed human rights violations, largely aimed at Stalinists, Soviet sympathisers, anti-communists and alleged opponents, including once-loyal Partisans. Goli Otok (‘barren island’), the infamous archipelago turned political prison and forced labour camp under his watch was a brutal regime where tens of thousands were interned and hundreds died. Additionally, he was the cornerstone of the nation and twelve years after his death Yugoslavia began to disintegrate along with the Soviet Union, leading to the horrifying massacres, ethnic cleansing and atrocities of the civil war during the 1990s and its lasting damage today.

Arguably, Tito is most distinguished for his open defiance of Stalin, who considered him a threat as a con- sequence of his economic and ideological independence. Although a formal ally of Stalin’s after WWII, their relationship was one of mutual distrust, with Tito growing disillusioned with Iron Curtain orthodoxy, which precipitated a split and the expulsion of Yugoslavia. As the first and singularly successful leader to defy Stalin, Moscow’s response was to maintain Tito’s communism as ‘Titoism’ thereby justifying purges and executions of suspected ‘Titoites’ and sympathisers, and effectuating attempts at armed invasion and removal of Tito’s government by Soviet-aligned forces, along with multiple assassination efforts on Tito’s life.

One of Tito’s letters to Stalin reads:

To Joseph Stalin,

Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle. […] If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.

JOSIP BROZ TITO
Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Sept. 18, 1948

It is with this letter that All Tito’s Children opens.

Over seven chapters, an eloquent and interpretive portrait of history is summoned and compiled, enumerating
a partially imagined account of Tito the man, his life and legacy, and the people of his land, indexed through poems as newspaper clippings, diary entries, bureaucratic declamation, lists, epistolary correspondence, notations, encyclopaedia records, a scripted play, folk tales, lyric prose in stanza — a refrain of shifting voices and literary techniques that leap across time.

A cartological rendering of both Yugoslavia and Grgec’s personal history, the perspective of two central characters provides an intimate account of life under Tito. Elizabeta and Stjepan are two narrators based upon Grgec’s grandparents who in 1957, at 19 and 20, fled Yugoslavia as economic refugees. The pair are figments or representations, although they do share the names of Grgec’s grandparents, who together made multiple attempts at escape, faced capture and arrest and finally, shrouded in a truck and telling no one of their plans, paid an agent to cross them over the border. In Austria, they were accepted without papers and after several years in Central Europe arrived in 1959 at Lyall Bay, landing first in Australia but declined entry on account of a failed medical exam.

In a conversation, Grgec describes his kin as illiterate peasants with little economic opportunity whose lives were hard, and who were indifferent to communism. He observes the number of regional and other distinctions between Croatians; settling in Auckland his grandparents focused on assimilating, and weren’t an active part of the Slavic diaspora— a majority of whom were Croatians from Dalmatia. They rarely speak of their past, he notes, and don’t quite understand his interest in revisiting it. But it is, he says, an important story within the migrant milieu of Aotearoa that yet remains difficult to comprehend from our contemporary standpoint.

Such an intricate and circumspect story finds its expression in a many-sided and poetic reconstruction of the past, providing, in part, a people’s history in haunt- ing verse populated by a cast of voices speaking under, through, and around one another, circling the ambiguous understanding of what might constitute a shared idea of truth. From the preliminary letter to Stalin, we shift register into the intimate interior of Tito’s thoughts. An insightful line of verse reads: “I decided the first priority would be a return to truth-telling, that from then two and two would make four and not the solution of Stalin.” This is another hint at the internal logic of the collection which insists upon a pervasive atmosphere of distrust and political disillusionment.

Chapter II, written from the perspective of Elizabeta, opens with a reflection on a portrait of Tito hanging above the Madonna and chronicles her days in the fields walk- ing home under “weakening light” with baskets threaded from willow straws under sun “the colour of mottled apples ripening”. Here, in a sleight of hand, a poem offers another cue into the collection’s premise: Elizabeta describes a game she played with her brother where one had to tell two truths and one lie, noting that “the trick was to speak in the style of another person”.

This prompt is self-legitimising, and in addition to the multifarious selves Grgec masterfully embodies through prose it employs varied modalities: numbered lists, written letters to Tito. Doubt is cast about what is true and what is false and a grey shadow seems to fall across the pages, seeding caution in our mind. It is within this murkiness that we ought to read the book, searching not necessarily for verification, despite the historical accuracy of a significant portion of the volume, but tone, presence, and consciousness. The two truths, one lie formulation is applied throughout the collection and slips the reader’s mind, which demands multiple, and pleasurable, returns to the book.

The purview of the collection, Grgec notes, is not to provide historical certitude but to mimic the atmosphere of distrust in the era and to describe disenchantment, not ideological allegiance. Tito was a dominant figure in people’s lives but this was, he remarks, perhaps some- thing people had to reevaluate with age. While he doesn’t anticipate the reader will look up facts given the engross- ing subject and his exquisite rendering I must dispute his conjecture.

Grgec, who half-jokingly refers to himself as a champagne socialist, maintains that the mixed legacy of social- ism in Yugoslavia means that he and his family haven’t adopted a hardline position; his view holds that the Left saw Tito as a hero because it suited them, but he was also a callous dictator capable of atrocities who cultivated a careful image; one who held the nation together under an artificial sense of unity. While southern Slavs were united under one flag there were serious ethnic and religious differences, meaning that this unification was held together at the cost of any dissent. For instance, Croat nationalists were repressed in favour of expressing Yugoslavian nationalism.

Reading this collection is a deeply affective and somatic experience; at times my heart was caught stilled within my throat, at other times thumping, and I was frequently close to tears. The poet is something of a translator of the unspeakable and unknowable, as though sifting through discoloured photographs and ashen ephemera and yet finding a medium of vision and disquisition within the dark.

The poems become something of a search to unearth clues within the intentional ambiguity, which lends itself to more than one interpretation. This negation of truth is not to undermine the veracity of the book and nor is it a confusing or frustrating undertaking; it’s an adroit device that not only asks broader questions of poetry itself, which allows for such speculation within factual exposition, but masterfully mirrors the disquiet atmosphere of uncertainty, suspicion, and foreboding of Cold War Europe.

Elizabeta closes with a quiet passage describing candlelight “stretching the shadows” which draws the curtains on her scene and with its dim light suggests that her life seeks more fulsome conclusions that remain concealed within her waiting. From there, Chapter III opens with the bureaucratic address of government ordinance as issued by Tito across the airwaves, announcing his break with Russia and its “enclosing plains of snow”, then shifts voice again to a man named Branko, evidently Tito’s assistant.

What follows are poems that employ civic and militarised idioms to relay constitutional material. Letters addressed to Tito with names and occupations blacked out. Clippings from Pravda, the Russian broadsheet and official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Barking orders. Clandestine meetings with military officials. A brilliant exposition of poems composed in the customary structure of a play draws the reader out from the interior realm of a character’s mind and into the world of the stage, though no less a furtive world; at the bottom of one page is written “remainder of the page is missing”, a reminder of the paranoid firmament.

One such play casts Tito alongside his body double in a vaguely threatening but surreal and wryly humoured scene injected with unnerving suspicion from a doctor who remarks: “Whenever you’re walking alone in the night, looking up at the sky with that feeling that only you and the moon are awake, listening to the sound of your footsteps, just remember there is a man out there exactly like you. Indeed, another you.”

In the following chapter entitled Stjepan, the narrator movingly remembers scenes of war: fleeing advancing Hungarians on foot, snow-covered battlefields, dark forests, hushed voices, old women in villages, thin plumes of smoke, rapping knuckles on wooden doors, the glow of twilight and fog. These are stanzas profuse with stunning, effortlessly sublime imagery. “History has never been an exact science,” Grgec writes, “it is simply an emphasis of fact: figures moving in and out of view with a preoccupied smoothness, the way dates and events go missing like memories treading just above the surface.”

A collection of books ostensibly issued by Tito from the National Library occasions a strange sequence of poems; the reader is not quite certain whether these are verifiable passages from the books themselves or alarmingly accomplished prose scribed by the hand of the poet. However, the notes section found at the back of All Tito’s Children, alongside a chronological timeline of Tito’s life, assures answers for those who seek and accordingly these are stunning, haunting poems that require multiple readings and charge the atmosphere in which one reads with an electric stillness.

Here, as elsewhere, Grgec subtly summons Paul Celan:
Blackness, sacks over their heads
in the middle of the night
So late it’s early. Frost,
the collective drawing of breath
He continues: “The first painting in my gallery / of dreams: a canvas the colour of factory smoke.” And with subdued power describes “the dead farmer wanders out of his grave”, “the washed sky, at first foggy then red — the sun slipping / through its own lining”. “How dissatisfaction and stillness for / years thicken one another.”

In vivid explication Grgec observes “the morning spread / heavily, the hills forgetting which way to cast their shadows across the plains”; “the whole village trembles / with the thought of being shrugged away”; “One relative is Zagreb who is now missing (the flick of a torch, blindfold).”

The closing chapter, Escape, rouses both drama and solemnity, eliciting the protracted fear of absconding at night, dodging guards; a fear that finds multiple expressions. Here is where memories begin to dislodge, the narrator not quite certain of their recollections; now question- ing whether their village ever existed at all. What follows are poems that recount the surreptitious journey; hiding under a mound of potatoes to the Slovenian border, boots over crunching leaves, the blackened forest.

It is said that Yugoslavian-made maps
have intentionally false borders,
tracing the corners of neighbours
like the black lines of a forged signature
so accurate that you begin to question
your own name.

In Austria the narrator, now a stranger in a strange land, sits quietly and eats ćevapčići, a grilled dish of minced meat; perhaps an attempt to normalise such an undertaking.
without papers, a passport,
the balding official
suspected I only existed
in my own head:
another of Tito’s children
in the end.

Subsequently, we arrive in Lyall Bay in 1959 and the voice now imparts brief, somewhat hurried but careful snatches of memories, sights and observations that appear to wash in and out with the tide. The images drawn fall somewhere within the narrator’s past and the present, that strange isthmus where memories and landscapes interlace and become an entirely new country for this unfamiliar mortal that washed ashore a new island where the tall trees may at first glance resemble those of old Europe but the light strikes in an unknown order, somewhere between the threat of torchlight and suburban streetlights. What remains is a quiet but steady susurration.

While the passages of the final chapter are distilled and sharp in their reminiscence they yet blur the Old World with the New, as if in one hand attempting to grasp the fulcrum of the present moment while holding in the other the past, knowing that what is being observed will pass, or be misremembered, or was perhaps never in existence at all. As if memories are themselves perilous and that which may wound us in the end, despite them being very often what keeps us alive. Perhaps what we remember shifts in the way that matter transforms and it is less the clarity or truth of a memory and more what it intones, how it feels, what it might become, and how we are changed through this.

Indeed, Grgec’s subdued narrator alludes to my suggestion offered here while watching the shifting surface of the sea: “an entire country lost in thought” as “my shadow unpins itself from my body / and wanders off into the night”. Perhaps that is the central tension of the book: we record our memories for fidelity to the moment as it was, or might have been, or what we hope for, seeking to understand our own modest and marked nation of the self within a larger world while knowing there are certain fundamentals we cannot change, and that bridge a distance that travels beyond the limits of language. As Grgec’s book claims, all of Tito’s children are bound as his by virtue of their shared history, irrespective of how they might feel about it.

To refrain from overusing excessive superlatives to describe this collection is what I am attempting to do; however, the arrival of All Tito’s Children heralds a singular and astonishing new talent. This exquisite and inventive volume is a masterpiece, filled with genuinely beautiful, astute and gripping sentences that hold time still, set within an ingenious concept that exceeds its own limits. With this collection Grgec has crafted an essential history within Aotearoa, and a vital addition to poetry.

All Tito’s Children, by Tim Grgec, is published by Victoria University Press, and is available now.

This review was published in Metro 431 – Available here in print and pdf.

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