14 January 2015

The Haunted Houses of Josip Broz


 
 
MIRACULOUS TANGERINE TREES
 
(On the thirtieth anniversary of a photo exhibition)
 
 
Here is a quiz question for you: which island in the Adriatic is a habitat for the elephant, the ostrich, the zebra, the antelope and the like? No need to think too hard, for the question is of the rhetorical kind. The island – or, more precisely, string of islands – in question went by the name of Brioni during the heyday of the former Yugoslavia. When the formation of southern Slav states fell apart, it was officially renamed Brijuni. Off the Istrian coast across from Fažana close to the town of Pula, this tiny, picturesque archipelago was chosen by Tito as his idyllic retreat after the Second World War. Having settled on his discovery, the great and victorious Partisan leader in the full bloom of his power proceeded to pour inordinate amounts of money into the place, and whipped it up into a veritable Paradise on earth. Nobody cared or had the guts to question his entitlement to such comfort which Comrade Tito – renowned leader, friend, god, mother and father to all beasts and men, who had pulled himself up by the bootstraps, and who would later come to be known for relentless excess in the pursuit of luxury – had more than earned through sheer merit. (Those few who did cast aspersions received special treatment for their trouble in the form of exile as political prisoners on the island of Goli otok [Barren Island] or hard labour in the quarries; the prison anecdotes of chief mate-turned-dissident Milovan Djilas come to mind.) The real identity of the Fearless Fighter, the Great Hunter from the small Croatian village of Kumrovec, had always been subject to much speculation, but none of these suppositions have ever been substantiated by any evidence worth considering. Among them were claims about his Hungarian-Jewish extraction (“József Bróz”), which triggered a string of conjectures about his alleged imprisonment in St Petersburg and possibly a swapped identity in the Soviet Union after the First World War.
 
One circumstance specifically deserving mention in connection with the Brioni Safari Park, which still exists albeit in the form of a rather rum spectacle, is a fascinating press scandal linked to Tito’s name that broke out in Újvidék (today Novi Sad) in the 1970s. What happened started out as a mere misprint: the title of the editorial in the local Hungarian paper MagyarSzó read TITO ELVTÁRS A NAGY VADVEZÉR, calling “COMRADE TITO” a “GREAT GAME LEADER” instead of “GREAT COMMANDER” (correctly HADVEZÉR in Hungarian, a difference of one letter). Sinister turmoil ensued as the Communist Party got to work identifying the perpetrators. The waves eventually subsided, and whether the typo had been intentional or just a nasty twist of the unfortunate printer’s fate remained behind closed doors forever. Nor did it ever come to light whether anyone had been sent off to break rocks or haul boulders to and fro on the “Barren Island” to atone for the mistake, although it is more than likely that a few careers were crushed beyond repair. Incidentally, Goli otok, this former Gulag of the Mediterranean, is working hard these days to recast itself as a tourist attraction on a par with Brijuni. Jumping on the bandwagon, the Croatian gay rights organisation has set its eyes on the island as a potential gathering place. These plans have sparked fierce protests from a former prisoner-of-war group, who abhor the idea of SM festivals or any such “worldly lust” on the island where they were beaten, bludgeoned, pissed on and made to endure all the torments of hell. That place, they say, should be made into a memorial museum instead. The tug-of-war is still going on, closely followed by media in Croatia, as well as Serbia.
 
The pre-Titoan history of the Brioni Islands – to stick to our leitmotif of stones, and specifically invoking the metaphor of stolpersteine, disregarding other associations for the moment – begins in the distant Palaeolithic, as far as we can see. Later, the place was settled by Illyrian tribes. The Romans brought prosperity and erected luxurious palaces, particularly on Brioni Grande, for the wealthiest citizens to take a well- deserved rest from doing nothing, as Tito, the sardonic historian, once observed. Next the islands came under the control of the Venetians, who proved much more efficient – certainly in taking with them everything they could take when they saw their own days of fortune numbered. The fishermen of Fažana maintain that some of the Venetian ships, overloaded with greed and in great haste, sank on the way home; fishing nets have been known to get snagged on the wreckage resting at the bottom of the sea, which is quite shallow in these parts. Incidentally, the wrecks are not all that much to consider any more, given that whatever had remained on board has been looted over the years by treasure-hunting divers of all descriptions.
 
The same archipelago, and Brioni Grande in particular, became a hive of activity and construction under the Monarchy, although this boom in development was not what brought fame to the island. That came courtesy of a diminutive mosquito of the Anopheles family, a carrier of malaria. The Istrian peninsula had previously been a breeding ground for the disease until at last steps were taken to wipe it out for good. In Brioni, this was almost single-handedly accomplished by a man named Robert Koch, who was in the service of Paul Kupelwieser, an imperial steel tycoon who had business interests on the island. Having contracted the disease himself, Kupelwieser – between onslaughts of fever and teeth-rattling cold shivers – called for Professor Koch who leapt into action and rushed to the rescue in Brioni. Koch, whose well-marked manly profile and round-rimmed glasses coincidentally bore more than a passing resemblance to Tito in his young underground Communist days, paused on the shore, put his hands on his hips, knitted his brows, surveyed the situation, and issued his instructions in the peremptory manner of a military commander. Marshes were to be filled up, mosquito nets and repellents procured, and the ill and stricken treated with quinine. Today, the place where he first set foot on the island, just below the rock-face of the former quarry, a statue stands in Robert Koch’s honour while a promenade winding its way toward the central Tito mansion commemorates his name and the epidemic he conquered.
 
Koch’s strategy, simple enough on the face of it but tricky to implement, eventually proved successful, at least as far as Brioni was concerned. Truth be told, the disease survives to this day in pockets throughout the Adriatic, owing to the resilience and chameleon-like adaptability of the unicellular parasite Plasmodium falciparum.
 
Tito’s favourite island Vanga, which was known for its fruit-laden tangerine trees, remains closed to visitors. He built two spacious stone houses there, upgrading them over time into veritable palaces. It was in this location that he entertained the innumerable politicians, athletes, artists and movie stars whose acquaintance he coveted. Sophia Loren, Elisabeth Taylor, Gina Lollobrigida and Jacqueline Kennedy were all lavished there with his distinguished and gallant attention. Indira Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth naturally expected and received an entirely different treatment. (Although the annals of history recorded an episode when Marshal Tito, the incorrigible maven of the dance floor, took the Queen of England for a round of light waltz.) And while on the subject of celebrities, we should mention here that Tito’s chauffeur-cum-bodyguard, who fawned upon his boss with inordinate pride, had no doubt in his mind about the true nature of the liaison between this notorious womaniser (an archetypal macho in today’s parlance) and the enchantingly gorgeous Lollobrigida. Few doubt the credibility of his accounts. After all, he was the one with an eye on the rear-view mirror. The rumours were corroborated by Tito’s cook, and two depositions in accord, as we know, amount to mighty convincing evidence.
 
The safari park in Brioni is now thirty years old, a dingy, shrunken ghost of the spectacle it once was. In the Tito mansion, next door to all the stuffed game and moth-ridden trophies, under the watchful beady eyes of a lynx and the mangy neck of a dwarf giraffe, there is an exhibition of mostly yellowed photographs bearing witness to the bygone halcyon days of the island. While sadly there are no racy snapshots of Tito’s myriad relations with Hollywood darlings, there is still much of interest. Chief among them are the photos documenting political history, particularly that of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement, which peaked with the meeting between Tito, Nehru and Nasser in 1956. This friendly work meeting is remembered as the forum where the leaders of Yugoslavia, India and Egypt expressed their shared sympathy for the cause of Algerian freedom, and pledged support for efforts aimed at bringing an end to the hostilities and settling the conflict peacefully through talks. The tryst had significance beyond the specific case of Algeria, in that the trio spoke out in unison for world peace and amiable cooperation, meeting the approval of hundreds of millions around the globe. As for the so-called German Question, at the very same summit they came to the shared conclusion that the key to resolving the situation lay with the German people and that, once again, a peaceful solution was to be preferred by all means. It was no doubt in gratitude for this stance that Germany’s Chancellor Willy Brandt paid a visit to Brioni in 1973. One of the photographs captures a laughing Brandt giving a light to Tito over champagne glasses and a pile of what looks like lobster, with a date palm in the background.
 
An equally amiable air, indeed one of camaraderie, must have surrounded the visit to Brioni of Che Guevara who, wielding his trademark cigar, poses before the lens like a seasoned posturer, while Tito looks away to one side as if being addressed by someone else. Sharing a sofa with Castro, this time with no cigar or even Cuban rum in sight, Josip Broz appears somewhat crestfallen as he stares into the camera, as if wondering whether his guest is ever going to leave. An even gloomier atmosphere seems to hover over the visits of both Brezhnev and Khrushchev. (Tito obviously frowns in one shot, whether Brezhnev is doing likewise is harder to tell with those bushy brows of his.) The mood is strikingly tense meanwhile at Tito’s meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, as if the two men were struggling to find a word to share. Josip Broz fumbles with his straw hat while his pursed lips just about force a smile as the two take a stroll down a footpath between exotic shrubs. Khrushchev, trousers pulled up over his belly (or guts, to use a more appropriate expression), is staring rigidly at his feet, apparently intent on avoiding a wrong step. They seem poised to go separate ways there and then, the Yugo and the Soviet parting at a crossroads as they had done before, without so much as bidding farewell. Another photo shows Tito holding a hi-tech camera, probably a gift from John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He cuts a more credible figure as a photographer however than sitting at a white piano. Try to imagine him knocking out some, say, Beethoven, even if just Für Elise. (I am not by the way implying that the offspring of a locksmith cannot possibly have absolute pitch or manual dexterity.)
 
The catalogue is undoubtedly topped by a masterful photo capturing Tito at the helm of a motor boat, with Ho Chi Minh in the passenger seat suavely waving his hat to the onlookers with a wistful smile, apparently resigned to participating in his host’s stunt. The scene manages to have a certain subtle charm to it that is somehow positively enchanting.
 
In 1979, Josip Broz Tito waved his own featherless hat as he said good-bye to Brioni for what turned out to be the last time, on his way for another summit of the Non- Aligned in Cuba. The following year, he took leave of this vale of tears of ours after succumbing to complications from diabetes, including an amputated leg. He left behind staggering statistics of prominent personages he had known personally. His funeral in Belgrade was attended by 209 dignitaries from 127 countries, most of whom had been to Brioni. As researchers and historians are fond of pointing out, this number was a world record until the passing of Pope John Paul II.
 
For years after the death of Josip Broz, at precisely five minutes after three on 4 May, sirens would sound around Yugoslavia, traffic in the streets came to a halt, and everyone stopped in his tracks to honour the unforgettable president with a brief moment of silence and reflection. The custom remained for a long time, until it went the way of so many other things: out of fashion. The comments one can read on the net about the grandiose funeral these days cover a wide spectrum between two extremities, although it’s probably fair to say the majority of observers take a positive view of Yugoslavia’s decades under Tito. As I mention in my book Kinek Észak, kinek Dél [North vs. South: Horses for Courses], many still hanker after him and speak of a bygone golden era. It is difficult to say however how many of those are in fact weeping rather for the sweet bird of their own youth.
 
Interestingly, Tito has never become a frequent butt of jokes, neither during his life or posthumously – perhaps not just on account of the threatened sanctions but also because of the universal respect and even admiration that he garnered, even among those who did not love him. Brioni and its lavish, ridiculous presidential mansions never became targets of jests or investigation, despite the common knowledge that the island was just one part of a network of palaces, mansions and other buildings complete with curtained private suites and well-laid tables, that Tito maintained throughout his realm from Slovenia in the north to Macedonia in the south. These included a huge, posh nuclear shelter built under the Bosnian town of Konjic. (Throughout the works, the locals pretended not to notice what was going on underneath, sleeping peacefully and working diligently amid a dreadful din of drills and heavy machinery.) Last but not least among Tito’s hideouts to be mentioned here is the medieval castle still standing perched on a hill near Kranj, which your author had, for most of his military service, the good fortune to personally guard in command of a squad armed with YU-issue Kalashnikovs. The majority of Tito’s more than twenty installations were built by prisoners well-versed in the art of breaking up rocks. With the exception of Plavi voz, the Blue Luxury Train, and a luxury boat named Galeb or Seagull (which somehow escaped the fate of being converted into a discotheque and, as recently as a few years ago, was seen rusting and rotting on the shore), most of these relics are empty ghost houses today, where the draught whistles freely through the broken windows. As in Brioni, everything moveable has long since been sawn off, unscrewed, dug out or carted off as booty by nearby residents.
 
For an ending to this reminiscence, one could do worse than recall the curious fact that Josip Broz Tito, the man who while alive aspired to the riches of Croesus, did not bestow a single farthing to his relatives in his will. He left behind all the properties to the state or, rather, the states of the former Yugoslavia, which obviously did not, and for the most part still do not know what on earth to do with them. Ravaged, run-down or blown up (the one in Belgrade was bombed by NATO), they remain essentially consigned to obscurity and helpless oblivion. The massive shortage of funds needed for their renovation or demolition only serves to perpetuate their pathetic bafflement.
 
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel



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