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Croatian Tales of Long Ago

Edited by Helena Bulaja; children's hyperliterature; CD, for PC only; $24.97

Distributed by Organa. This review originally appeared in trAce, Summer 2003.

Croatian Tales of Long Ago was originally a book of stories, published in 1916 by the author Ivana Brlie Mazuranic. It is probably the most famous work of Croatian literature. This CD, the first of two, contains interactive, multi-media versions of four of the Tales.

The project was originated and co-ordinated by Helena Bulaja, another Croatian, but the adaptations have been made by people from all over the world. On this CD there are contributions from a Scot (Al Keddie), an Englishwoman (Ellen McAuslan), an Australian (Nathan Jurevicius) and a German (Katrin Rothe); and the second volume features the work of Laurence Arcadias (France), Edgar Beals (Canada), Mirek Nisenbaum (Belarus/United States) and Helena Bulaja herself.

Helena and her husband Zvonimir have been involved in multimedia publishing since 1998. Their publishing company "ALT F4 - Bulaja Publishing" began by publishing three CD-ROMs entitled Classics of Croatian Literature, containing HTML versions of more than 200 Croatian literary works from the Middle Ages to modernism. The CDs became bestsellers, with more than 10,000 copies sold - this in a country of 4,000,000 people, where book sales hardly ever get above the 1,000 mark. Croatian Tales of Long Ago has done even better, with about 5000 copies sold in Croatia so far. The second volume is planned for the end of this year or the start of next, and the Bulajas are now moving into the international market.

It seems astonishing that e-publishing should become so successful in Croatia when it has fallen so flat in the West, but Zvonimir Bulaja suggests a number of reasons for the success. For one thing, very few Croatian-language books or CDs are published each year, which means that anything which does come out is up against comparatively weak opposition. The Classics of Croatian Literature series has been stocked by multimedia stores and computer stores as well as bookshops, whereas in the West it is hard for e-literature to find retail outlets of any description. Also, the Croatian education system obliges schoolchildren to read large numbers of Croatian books, which meant there was a readymade market for the Classics series. As Zvonimir writes:

We put dozens of books on one CD, and we had very reasonable price. So, once you buy our CD for your kid, you solved the problem of most of your school readings forever (that's what our ads said)...
On the back of this success, Helena Bulaja came up with the idea for a multi-media version of Croatian Tales. She spent
two months surfing Web pages about multimedia and animation, [then] picked about ten animators that I liked the most, from different parts of the world, and sent them an e-mail... I decided to give them complete freedom in their work... Their interpretations were completely free from the ballast of heritage that such a famous work has in our culture...

As you would expect from these remarks, the different tales on this CD are interpreted in very different ways. In broad terms, two of them ("Stribor's Forest" and "How Quest Sought the Truth") have been turned into full-scale animations, while the other two ("Brother Jaglenac and Sister Rutvica" and "Toporko and his Nine Brothers") resemble illuminated manuscripts, with the text taking up most of the screen and the animations usually confined to rectangular boxes. But even within these two broad categories there are still big differences of technique.

If there is one point of resemblance between all four adaptations, however, it is, as Bulaja implies, that they have not approached Mazuranic's work with anything like reverence. Bulaja clearly regards this freedom from "the ballast of heritage" as a positive thing, and the adaptations on this CD are certainly fresh and lively, but there are points at which they seem to be at cross-purposes with Mazuranic's original texts. The most obvious example occurs in the most boldly stylish and innovative piece, Nathan Jurevicius's version of "How Quest Sought the Truth".

Three brothers live in the woods with their grandfather. A sun-god character called All-Rosy (or Al Rosy in the adaptation) appears to them and tells them their duty: to stay at home and take care of the old man. Almost immediately, they forget his instructions. One brother becomes obsessed with wealth, another with power: only the third brother, Quest, realising that he has forgotten All-Rosy's words, determines to seek the truth, and sets off into the mountains to think things over. Ironically, his search for the truth leads him to disobey what All-Rosy has told him. In Quest's absence, the remaining brothers turn against their grandfather and kill him. All-Rosy appears to Quest in the mountains, and tells him his duty a second time, whereupon Quest immediately starts back home, only to stumble into a stream and drown. Quest and the grandfather, both dead, are finally reunited in All-Rosy's celestial palace.

In Nathan Jurevicius's version, the story is divided into four chapters. Sandwiched between the chapters are games, closely related to the narrative but not essential to our understanding of it. There are also some songs, one of which ("You'll never remember", sung to Quest by some goblins when he's trying to remember what he ought to do) absolutely rocks. The animation is startlingly misshapen and idiosyncratic, tirelessly inventive and often very funny, but there are times when Jurevicius seems out of sympathy with his source material. Mazuranic's story makes it plain that Quest mistakenly goes off into the mountains because he is seeking the truth with his head instead of his heart - but this point is lost in the new version. More seriously, Jurevicius has difficulties with the religious tone of the story's climax. "As you can see," his narrator remarks, after Quest and his grandfather have both died and been reunited in heaven, "things turned out pretty well in a twisted sort of way." All-Rosy's celestial palace is reduced to an "afterlife hotel", where Quest and his grandfather live together in "a nice two-bedroomed penthouse".

Mazuranic's narratives are by no means humourless, but they are also moralistic, nationalistic and religious, and these are all characteristics which may cause problems to adapters from another era and a different cultural background. Is it best to remain faithful to the original text, and risk alienating a modern audience, or to make a bold reinterpretation and risk changing the stories beyond recognition?

As one might expect, the Tales which have been developed as illuminated texts follow the original stories more closely than the two which have been reworked into animations. Katrin Rothe, the adapter of "Toporko and his Nine Brothers", explains her working method as follows: "What I had in mind were the old illuminated books from the Middle Ages. So I created these modern 'vignettes', and that is why they are in frames... each illustration or animation is telling a bit of the story." The "vignettes" are not entirely confined to "frames", however: her Tale includes occasional full-page animations with no writing to be seen. Likewise in Ellen McAuslan's version of "Brother Jaglenac and Sister Rutvica" there are moments where the supremacy of the text is challenged: at one point a prince climbs out of a picture-frame in the top left corner of the screen, clambers across the writing, and goes to fight a dragon in the top right.

Whereas with the animated stories we may feel inclined to wonder how fundamentally the original Tales have been altered, the question with the illuminated stories - which largely retain the original texts - seems to be whether the "vignettes" are really adding anything useful. The real problem, of course, is that the original Tales were written to be self-sufficient. An ideal text for a multi-media work should share the storytelling with the other media available, instead of leaving them to repeat or embellish what has already been established. Mazuranic's writing is not such an ideal text.

For me, one of the most arresting moments on the CD occurs in Al Keddie's version of "Stribor's Forest", when a young man named Rory goes to an enchanted forest to cut firewood. "Rory sat down to rest," says the narrator, and we see Rory sitting on a tree-stump. Music begins to play, and a snake emerges from behind the stump, moving in time to the music. "The snake began to dance," says the narrator. At this point of the animation, the terseness of the narration works together perfectly with the music and the images on screen. I would have welcomed more moments like this.

But these are carping criticisms. Croatian Tales of Long Ago is a really exciting piece of hyperliterature: unpretentious, with genuine popular appeal, but not in the least shallow, sentimental or patronising to its audience. It has rightly won a hatful of international awards. If this CD and its companion volume meet with the commercial success they deserve, we can expect to see a lot more work of this type appearing in the next few years. Let's hope it's all up to the same high standard.

- Edward Picot, 2003

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