Obituary: Ivan Lalic

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The Independent Online
Ivan Lalic was one of the finest European poets of his time. Abundantly recognised in his native Yugoslavia by the award of the most prestigious literary prizes, he was also admired abroad: his poems have appeared in book-length editions in six languages (English, French, Italian, Polish, Hungarian and Macedonian), and individual poems have appeared in more than 20 languages.

He was exceptionally well served by his main English translator, Francis R. Jones, and, with translations published also in Ireland and the United States, there were seven volumes in English alone. The Passionate Measure (1989) was awarded the European Poetry Translation Prize. The most recent volume, A Rusty Needle (1996), a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation, contains Lalic's own definitive selection of his early verse and two new cycles which together offer an eloquent testimony of Lalic's central themes.

Lalic lived through harsh times: born in 1931, as a child he experienced the trauma of seeing many of his school-friends perish in an air-raid, and he died at a time of violent darkness in his native land. All his work is marked by the knowledge of sudden, brutal death and the profound sense of responsibility entailed by survival: a duty to remember, to bear witness and to face the crucial questions of human existence.

Living where he did, in the troubled Balkans, Lalic brought a wide frame of reference to his knowledge of personal suffering: as may be seen in the two last cycles in A Rusty Needle, "Dubrovnik" and "Byzantium". These two cities, and the civilisation they represent, embody the two main poles of the Mediterranean heritage of the central Balkans.

Lalic, who lived in both Zagreb and Belgrade, had a beloved Croatian wife, Branka, and spent the summers with his family in the Istrian town of Rovinj, felt the pull of both poles and saw himself as belonging above all to a Mediterranean tradition that included Ancient Greece and the fine Renaissance achievements of the city state of Dubrovnik.

This awareness reinforced the central place in his work of memory: fragile in the face of the collapse of civilisations, but all we have. Memory allows the poet to recreate brief instants of personal joy as well as to conjure up a sense of the distant past. It allows each of us, as individuals condemned to solitude, to connect with a shared inheritance and feel, for a moment, part of a larger whole.

While Lalic's work is shaped by this profoundly serious endeavour, it is neither solemn nor dry. On the contrary, it crackles with brilliant, arresting imagery forged by the heat of concentrated thought and, above all, it breathes with compassion and humanity. The title of one of his major collections, The Passionate Measure, offers an adequate definition of Lalic's tone: poised, balanced, meticulously judged, these poems owe their existence to love, a word used with unselfconscious frequency in Lalic's work as the impetus for all achievements of value, from the intimate bonds of family to the great structures of past civilisations.

Like all enduring poetry, Lalic's work is a celebration of the delicate power of language. It is typical of the brutal sectarian chaos currently engulfing his native land that language itself should have become a victim: the language Lalic wrote, previously known as Serbo-Croat, no longer officially exists; it too has broken up into its component parts, Serbian, Croatian and, now, Bosnian. Cynically abused to distort realities on all sides of the conflict, language is being used by politicians to deny the shared heritage to which Lalic's poetry bears witness. At such a time, its searching honesty shines with a particular healing intensity.

The sudden death of Ivan Lalic, who was expected in Britain for a reading tour in the autumn, is a cruel blow for his wife and surviving younger son, and for all those for whom his work was, and will remain, a source of inner strength.

Alas o city, sandcastle on the beach!

Hear the rising of the wave and the

rustle of absurdity

Lacing its edge, as it passionlessly

erases our marks;

Who may complete with manuscript,

this book which emptiness

Flicks through with fingers of flame?

("Lament of the Chronicler": from A Rusty Needle)

Celia Hawkesworth

Ivan V. Lalic, poet: born Belgrade 1931; married (one son, and one deceased); died Belgrade 27 July 1996.