Excerpt: Levantine Legends and Histories of Bread

The Massachusetts Review just released a special issue on the Mediterranean and it’s filled with new and exciting translations. We’re including an excerpt here from a translation of the South Slavic writer Predrag Matvejević (bio below) by M-Dash’s contributing editor Russell Scott Valentino:

Knowledge of grain and of bread was passed from generation to generation. The ancestors bequeathed tools and techniques to their heirs, similar in their appearance, familiar in their uses. The kneading trough for dough resembled the cradle in which newborns were rocked, the bed in which one lay down to sleep, the coffin in which the body was laid out after death, the boat that ferried it from this shore to the other. The sifter and the sieve are close relatives, as are the filter and the net, just as the retina (from the Latin word for net) of the human eye filters the light and carries the image through.
       These various means and mechanisms passed through long, uncertain times: from the tinderbox and fire ring to the hearth and the oven; from the sharpened stone to the knife; from the deer antlers that were probably first used to plow the barren fields to the wedge and then the true plow; from foot stomping and grindstones, for which the jaw may have served as a model, to the millstone turned by water or wind, by mules and by slaves. These tools, each according to its nature and function, characterize bread’s past and its present. As do the amphorae, baskets, bags, and buckets in which the grain and flour were carried and transported. In the stone- or brick-lined oven the dough would acquire its finished form. It became a loaf of bread—served on a table, offered at a feast, blessed on an altar, given as alms on the street, robbed on the highway.
       Accompanied by song, prayer, and plea.

To read more, go here.

Predrag Matvejević (b. 1932) is a Central European phenomenon. Born in Mostar of a Croat mother and Russian émigré father, he has always felt himself an outsider. An intellectual to the core, he has never settled into a single, well-defined field, though one might say that all his life he has been what only in recent years has acquired the label of “cultural critic.” In the seventies he was a driving force behind the Yugoslav Praxis group, which aimed at reforming Marxism along the lines of the pre-utopian, pre-scientific, pre-dogmatic “young Marx”; in the eighties he stood up for the increasingly splintered Yugoslav state, both explicitly in his polemical Jugoslavenstvo danas (Yugoslavism Today, 1980), a sophisticated theoretical justification of multiethnic co-existence, and implicitly in Mediteranski brevijar (A Mediterranean Breviary, 1987), a poetic evocation of the elements Mediterranean cultures share. (The latter won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger and Prix Européen de l’Essai when it appeared in French in 1992 and the Premio Boccaccio Europeo when it appeared the following year in Italian. It was published by the University of California Press in 1999, in the translation of Michael Henry Heim, as Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape.) In the nineties, hounded out of the newly formed Croatia by Franjo Tudjman’s nationalist regime, he taught at the Sorbonne and the University of Rome (La Sapienza). Until his retirement in approximately 2011, he divided his time among several scholarly institutions, becoming once more a persona grata of sorts in Zagreb.
The latest of Matvejević’s books, Kruh naš (Daily Bread, 2009), matches closely the stylistic idiosyncrasies and formal innovations of his oeuvre, pulling together history, storytelling, philology, anthropology, popular culture, and personal essay. The excerpt recently published at The Massachusetts Review comes from the first of the book’s seven essays—“Bread and Body.”
Russell Scott Valentino has authored two scholarly monographs and translated seven books of literature from Italian, Russian, and Croatian. His most recent books include the co-edited (with Esther Allen and Sean Cotter) volume The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim & a Life in Translation (Open Letter Books), and the monograph The Woman in the Window (Ohio State University Press), both published in October, 2014.