WITH THE death of Antun Soljan, Croatian literature has lost one of its brightest stars. A sophisticated, cosmopolitan figure, he brought a particular kind of sparkle to the cultural scene in Croatia from the moment he began to write in the early Fifties. This was a time of pervasive drabness and Soljan's wit, uncompromisingly independent stance and insistence on the widest contemporary cultural frame of reference were a tonic.
He began his career as a poet and continued to publish poetry all his life, the last volume appearing this year. His poems express the essential quality of all his writing: a remarkable blend of intellect, irony and passionate commitment to basic human values. Their language mixes modern colloquial speech with archaic references to older literary texts. If it is possible to identify a central theme to his poetry it would be the search of the contemporary urban intellectual for his lost identity. Soljan's prose is preoccupied with the problems of the Cold War generation.
His first important novel, Izdajice ('Traitors', 1961), introduced a new, analytical, controlled style. Soljan's 'traitors' are outsiders incapable of inclusion in the world around them. Kratki izlet ('Brief Excursion', 1965) describes an allegorical quest for medieval frescoes in the myth-filled landscape of Istria, in which the main character is finally left alone to contemplate the meaninglessness of existence. Luka ('The Harbour', 1974) is a satirical description of the building of a harbour, an enterprise doomed to failure from the outset. Drugi ljudi na mjesecu ('The Second Man on the Moon', 1978) returns to the subject matter and artistic procedure of Soljan's first novel.
In addition to poetry and fiction, Soljan wrote short stories, plays - for stage and radio - criticism, and essays. He was also a painstaking compiler of anthologies, a task which bears eloquent witness to his deep commitment to and wide knowledge of the world's literature and that of his Croatian homeland. As if this activity were not enough for one lifetime, he was also a remarkable translator of English and American prose and verse: he knew the English language with a thoroughness, sophistication and ease which many native speakers would have envied.
With his friend and colleague Ivan Slamnig he introduced TS Eliot to Yugoslavia. Among his acclaimed translations are those of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, made in 1984, and recently Alice in Wonderland. It was from these firm roots in Anglo-Saxon culture that he spoke out with such assurance in the gloomy days of political conformism. This knowledge helped form the demanding artistic criteria he strove to meet, at the same time setting standards for others. His voice was strong, unwavering, salutary, sharp.
A close friend and fellow writer refers in his valedictory note to the 'crystal' clarity of Soljan's tone and the analogy with cut glass seems apt, conveying as it does both the incisive quality of his intellect and the transparent lightness of his wit.
Soljan's work will remain and with time acquire increasing definition as one of the outstanding achievements of 20th-century Croatian literature, and Soljan the man will be remembered with love and gratitude by all who knew him for his unfailing energy throughout his career and his 13- year struggle with cancer, which was never allowed for long to curb his infectious humour and irrepressible zest for life.