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Slavic epic: Gundulic's Osman.

By Zdenko Zlatar. (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1995. Pp. XXX + 599, acknowledgments, list of illustrations, list of maps, bibliography, index, ISBN 0-8204-2380-7 cloth.)

The Slavic Epic is a lengthy, detailed discussion of the seventeenth-century Croatian poet Ivan (Djivo) Gundulic and his best-known work, the literary epic Osman. Osman, a poem that Gundulic never completed, is a narrative drawn from the 1621 Battle of Hoczym that relates the defeat of the Sultan Osman as he struggles against Slavic (Polish) rebels led by King Wladyslaw during the ascendancy of the Ottoman Empire. Zlatar suggests that the poem portrays most importantly Gundulic's own aspirations for Slavic liberation from foreign domination, and that "Gundulic's final vision" (p. 460) is expressed in the pan-Slavism that pervades Osman. He ultimately argues that "Osman, imperfect and incomplete as it is, is the greatest epic... ever written by a Slav" (p. 451). Zlatar's convictions on this score are not persuasive.

In the Preface, Zlatar poses the following question: "Why a book on Gundulic's epic Osman?" (p. xv). Indeed, any number of reasons might justify a monograph on a literary work as important as Osman. But the justifications Zlatar provides for writing this book are disappointing. He answers his own question by providing a series of quotes from various dictionaries of literature and encyclopedias which extol the merits of the epic. The 600-page book effectively becomes an attempt -- from a broad array of perspectives -- to rehabilitate an author who was widely appreciated in the nineteenth century but who has been frequently denigrated during the twentieth century mainly on aesthetic grounds.

The Slavic Epic is symmetrically divided into three major parts, each of which contains three chapters. Part One ("The Making of a Poet") presents an elaborate historical account of Dubrovnik (apparently a backdrop for understanding Gundulic and his poetry), followed by a lengthy discussion of Gundulic's other major works besides Osman. Zlatar also treats Gundulic in a comparative light, underscoring especially his well-known emulation of the verse and creative philosophy of Torquato Tasso, the great poet of the Italian Renaissance.

Part Two ("The Slavic Epic in the Making") begins with an evaluation of historical accuracy in Osman. Zlatar (unlike some other critics) argues that Gundulic was indeed very knowledgeable about both Ottoman and Polish history. He maintains that when history in Osman appears excessively embellished, it simply reflects Gundulic's adherence to Tasso's approach to the role of history in epic, namely that poetic license and aesthetics determine its rendering. The influence of Petrarchian lyric on Gundulic and other Dalmatian poets as well as Gundulic's later inspiration from Dante are also pursued here. Possibly of greater interest for readers of this journal is Zlatar's treatment of oral tradition (especially epic and myth) in relation to the poem, though the interface between Osman and oral literature never really becomes a compelling issue. Disturbing in this section is Zlatar's insistence on passing judgement on topics relating to oral literature in superlatives. For example, he confidently states that "what shaped [the early South Slavic epic] oral tradition most of all was the feudal, courtly notion of love and fealty" (p. 206). This is an echo of a suggestion made by Nikola Banasevic in the 1920s, but it places undue importance on the influence of the Old French chansons de geste on an oral poetry that drew primarily from its own traditional heroic culture, extending back into a distant Balkan past. In Zlatar's discourse on myth, important questions of symbolism are raised, particularly in connection with the dragon and eagle which figure so prominently in the epic. Examples such as from Bogomil myths of creation are exploited in the interpretation that Osman essentially narrates a cosmic struggle between the forces of Good and Evil, with strong dualistic implications. This is picked up again in Part Three ("The Wheel of Fortune"), where Zlatar situates the wheel of fortune in dualistic philosophy (especially Zoroastrianism). He then relates this to Gundulic's world view: his animosity toward Islam as opposed to his veneration of Christendom and leaders of Christian "nations."

Despite the integrity of Osman, it is an unfinished epic. The work was to include twenty cantos, but Gundulic left two unwritten. Scholars have long debated the reasons for this omission. Zlatar also takes on the subject, suggesting that Gundulic refused to finish the epic "because the expected turn of events never materialized:... the Ottoman Empire was not destroyed... during Gundulic's lifetime" (pp. 370-71). He examines the Croatian Romantic poet and pan-Slavist, Ivan Mazuranic, who painstakingly composed the missing cantos in 1844. Zlatar also discusses the scholarly reception of Gundulic during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the poet was alternately glorified and repudiated. Aiming to redress the negative reputation of Gundulic particularly in the twentieth century, Zlatar concludes the book by arguing for the "greatness" of Gundulic, especially in his vision of pan-Slavism as expressed in Osman: "Gundulic's greatness lies in his... capturing of the profound longing of the South Slavs to be free... [He] thus provided... a vision of Slavs achieving their own liberation by themselves" (pp. 461, 462). Such a vision, however, seems strangely out of place in the context of today's Balkans.

Zlatar is exceedingly well-read, not only in Gundulic and general Croatian literature, but also in the broad range of epic scholarship ranging from Homer, to Tasso, to twentieth century heroic poetry (much about which he has written already). His reading on the whole is insightful and at times novel, but there is much repetition of argument, lengthy paraphrasing of other viewpoints, many long quotes, and endless digressions. Despite the length and redundancy of the volume, Zlatar's treatment is truly an Osmanophile's dream -- a relentlessly thorough analysis of the major issues surrounding the epic on a wide variety of planes written by a scholar passionately immersed in his topic.

Margaret H. Beissinger

University of Wisconsin

Madison, Wisconsin
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Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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