Reviews 2010

Pustolov, siroče i dječja družba: hrvatski dječji roman do 1945 [The Adventurer, Orphan and Children's Band: Croatian Children's Novel until 1945]

Pustolov, siroče i dječja družba: hrvatski dječji roman do 1945 [The Adventurer, Orphan and Children's Band: Croatian Children's Novel until 1945]. Berislav Majhut. Zagreb: FF Press, 2005. 459 pages. €20 (paperback).

In everyday communication, the term Croatian children’s literature is mostly used to refer to contemporary works. However, in the field of research into Croatian children’s literature, the situation is somewhat different. Although we cannot say that the historical approach dominates the field of Croatian children’s literature research, it would be unwise to neglect its presence. Moreover, historical works constitute a research enclave modest in quantity, but interesting, versatile and competent in terms of both its literary qualities and cultural significance. This research enclave includes studies which put the historical aspect of Croatian children’s literature in the center of their interest, such as the overviews of Croatian children’s literature of the 19th century by Milan Crnković. It also includes collections of papers, reprints and first prints of children’s literature written in the late 18th and early 19th century by Alojz Jembrih, as well as exhibition catalogues, among which the catalogue of Croatian picture books until 1945 by Štefka Batinić and Berislav Majhut stands out.

Contrary to the prevailing approach to the history of Croatian children’s novel, Majhut’s The Adventurer, Orphan, and Children’s Band: Croatian Children’s Novel until 1945 does not start with the classic of Croatian children’s literature, The Marvellous Adventures of Hlapić the Apprentice by Ivana Brlić Mažuranić, which first appeared in 1913. Although Majhut, like his predecessors, adopts a teleological vision of literary history as well as value based literary criticism, his book carefully documents all Croatian children’s novels published prior to 1945 known to him, not only those which are thought to be aesthetically successful, and he manages to mention more than thirty predecessors of The Marvellous Adventures of Hlapić the Apprentice.

It should be emphasized that Majhut’s book does not only influence the periodization of Croatian children’s novel, but also the borderlines of the history of Croatian children’s literature in general. In one of several valuable chronological tables appended to the book, Majhut displays about sixty titles aimed at child audiences, written and printed before 1850. Thus he disputes the view generally accepted in literature, which places the beginning of Croatian children’s literature in 1850.

It should be pointed out that Majhut’s radical break with formerly accepted periodization of Croatian children’s literature does not have its roots in discovering an unknown children’s library from the 19th century. Apart from a few exceptions, the Croatian children’s books that Majhut mentions have been stored, registered and available to the public at The National and University Library in Zagreb. His “discovery” is based upon a change of interpretative approach, and not on new sources. While previous histories of Croatian children’s novel included specific works into the body of children’s literature in accordance with their idea of appropriateness based upon the modern notion of the child reader, Majhut’s book starts from the historical notion of the child reader, or, rather, from the target audience precisely defined within the children’s book itself. In his case, a book is considered to belong to children’s literature if it is explicitly stated so in the name of the series, book title, subtitle or anywhere in the text. Furthermore, in his overview of Croatian children’s literature, Majhut pays attention both to the fiction and non-fiction, as well as to the translations. Majhut primarily defines children’s literature as an authorial or publishing project; a project defined in accordance with the assumption about the age-related features of the reading act. This definition of children’s literature enabled him to perceive and minutely describe the phenomenon, which would have otherwise remained invisible. The fact is that the first Croatian children’s books, which were explicitly intended for children, were also aimed at adults, as was the case in some other national children’s literatures (e.g. German, English, etc.).

In an effort to provide greater insight into the Croatian novel for children prior to 1945, rather than following the standard practice of describing the aesthetic peak of the Croatian children’s novel of the period, Majhut has focused on the stance of the reader. However, his reader is not a creature of “flesh and blood” known from the studies in ethnography or microhistory of reading. Majhut’s implied reader is defined in the scope of the Constance School reception theory and Anglo-American reader-response theory. The potential of the idea of the implicit reader was recognized somewhat earlier in Anglo-American research on children’s literature than it was in the Croatian context, where Majhut’s represents something of a break through. Its adoption into the field of children’s literature studies was sometimes a mere uncritical embracing of theoretical concepts under pedagogical supervision (e.g., Perry Nodelman), or, alternatively, it was connected with “empirical” studies of child’s reading inspired by psychological research (e.g., Michael Benton, Geoff Fox). Majhut justifiably submits both approaches to argumentative criticism. Rather than adopting the term uncritically and mechanically, Majhut offers its radical contextualization in accordance with his understanding of children’s literature as an autonomous system “that does not reproduce the relations of the system of adult literature within itself” (72). Following Northrop Frye’s theory of literary modes, he defines the implicit reader in relation to the hero, to other characters and to the environment of the novel. However, unlike Frye, Majhut advocates a nonlinear and interchangeable comprehension of the literary modes. Indeed, Majhut places the adventure novel for children across both the high mimesis mode and the romance mode. Accordingly, he successfully includes novels about an innocent and prosecuted heroine, Saint Genoveve, as well as the Croatian version of Kipling’s work entitled Pustolovine malog Moglia (The Adventures of Little Mowgli).

By placing the hero, his surroundings and the implicit reader into mutual power relations and taking their specific aspects into account, Majhut describes the three dominant genres of Croatian children’s novel: the above mentioned adventure novel present in Croatian children’s literature from its beginnings, the orphan novel which appears in 1890s and which is contrasted to the adventure novel in that that it promotes the ideology of home; and finally, the novel about a group of children, which asserted itself in 1930s, and which is important for the history of Croatian children’s novel because it affirms, as Majhut puts it, children’s values, or, in other words, an autonomously child-specific perspective of the world.

Majhut’s parallel analysis of the three genres also includes methodical and knowledgeable elaborations of their narrative elements, techniques and relevant social conventions. In the process, the author tirelessly corrects earlier ahistorical, and sometimes superficial, evaluations of Croatian children’s novels. An important contribution of Majhut’s book is the insight that distinguishing features of children’s novel in previous works on the history of Croatian children’s novel (i.e. children’s values, children’s perspective and child characters) were in fact historically new features, adopted in Croatian children’s literature as early as the 1930s.

Further merits of this book include several bibliographical lists: a general list of Croatian children’s books, a list of translated children’s novels and a list of Croatian children’s novels. Another valuable appendix is comprised of summaries of eighty Croatian children’s novels published before 1945.

To conclude, Majhut’s treatise sets firm foundations for further research by systematically presenting the basic historical data, and by critically reviewing elements of literary theory. With those components intertwined, this book establishes high standards for the modern study of Croatian children’s literature.

Marijana Hameršak
Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Croatia

Ivana Milković
University of Zagreb, Croatia