Tin Ujevic, Zagreb’s Last Great Bohemian Bard of the Bars

There’s a story that illustrates the relationship between Tin Ujevic, the bohemian drunkard poet and Miroslav Krleza, an erudite high class novelist held in the highest regard by pretty much all of his contemporaries. Krleza had just had a hit play about the hypocrisy and downfall of a decadent wealthy banking family The Glembays, and was looking for new projects. Ujevic was invited to dinner at Krleza’s villa on Tuskanac to talk about a collaboration between the two literates.

When confronted with a shabby looking man at the door, Krleza’s servant told him off and shut the door. As Ujevic was leaving he heard Krleza yell from his balcony, calling him back. ‘I’m afraid I made a mastake’, Ujevic yelled back, ‘I was going to see Krleza, but I came to the Glembays instead’.

The story became a legend, told to emphasize the difference between the two masters of words, and their different relationships with the establishment, often in Ujevic’s favor.

‘That story is not true!’ Goran Matovic passionately interrupts anyone who’s telling it every time he hears it, ‘The two would have never met. When they did occasionally bump into each other, Krleza would make fun of Ujevic’s poems, and Ujevic would call Krleza a wanker.’

Tin Ujevic in front of Blato (mud) cafe

Matovic would know. The actor, screenwriter and director spent most his career studying and interpreting the lives and works of both writers. He organizes a few festivals dedicated to them, like Days of Krleza, Memories of Tin, and The City of Poetry held last week around Zagreb.

This year’s edition was dedicated to the bars around Zagreb (and the world) where Tin Ujevic used to frequent. It was somewhat a bittersweet occasion for Zagreb locals. The festival opened with recitals of Tin’s poems in front of Kazalisna Kavana (Theater Cafe).  The cafe next to the Croatian National Theater had closed last year due to tax problems.

The Theatre Cafe was the first stop on the Smoke Trails, a set of cafes that stretched trough Masarykova street where intellectuals, actors, poets, painters, singers, lawyers and journalists met. It was also the last one to close, marking and end of an era for many locals.

Tin came to Zagreb as an eighteen years old student in 1909, and even thought he did write some poetry, he was more focused on politics. As a well versed and avid opponent of the Austro Hungaran empire and promoter of Croatian national interests he soon fell under the scrutiny of the authorities and was exiled for ten years from the empire.

Ujevic went to Paris where he wrote some poetry, but for the most part was writing articles against the empire and was searching for odd jobs. Most of his time he spent at La Rotonde, hanging out with Apollinaire, Erenburg, Trocki, Picasso, Cocteau, Modigliani, Kiesling, Fujita, Anglade and a bunch of Russian cubists.

As the Great War was raging trough Europe, Tin joined the Foreign Legion as a translator. He was fluent in twelve languages and his skills were much needed in the multinational Legion, but his military career did not last long. The ship he was stationed on was bombed near Turkey and had left Ujevic a different man. He was disappointed with politics, his mentors, women, modernity, materialism, and his former fighters for pan-Slavic ideas, thus he turned to poetry.

Since the empire fell apart at the end of the Great War he returned home, living for a while in Split, Beograd and Sarajevo, making a name for himself in local bars and cafes until settling in Zagreb. Most of his time he spent between a clerk job in the National Library, bars and his rented student room.

He was known and respected in almost every bar in downtown Zagreb, people would wait for him to show up at the door and start his famous monologues on current affairs that could go on for hours. In exchange they would buy him drinks. His poetry was well received and liked…until the newly installed communist regime had banned it in 1945.

The ban was put under the rug five years later due to lobbying from his publisher, but Ujevic managed to publish only two collections of poems before his passing in 1955.

Ujevic was almost an archetype of a bohemian poet, but in his own manner, so much more. He intentionally gave up the commodities of the bourgeois life as frivolous and hypocritical, not wanting to compromise his art, or more importantly, his soul. He was liked by freethinkers and drunkards alike, and at best, frowned upon by all establishments he lived under.  He never compromised his art or his convictions and often slept on benches in public parks. He lived piss poor and died that way. He was, and still is, Zagreb’s last great bohemian poet.


Once he wrote that if a monument was ever built for him, he would rise from the grave in the middle of the night and bite its…nose off, ‘for what use are monument to one that has walked barefoot all his life?’

Despite his wishes, the City had placed a monument dedicated to Ujevic at Cvjetni square, in front of Kino Europa, hidden among the parasols of nearby trendy bars, his bulky nose still intact.  There is however, one more less official monument just down the street. Blato (Mud) at the corner of Masarykova and Gunduliceva streets was Tin’s favorite bar. There he would gather with drunkards and intellectuals and discuss a variety of topics, read his poetry and drink. Today it’s a diner called Tip Top, but the owner had kept the feel of old Zagreb in it and photographs of Tin above his favorite seat. Many locals still go there daily for its low priced home cooked meals and that feeling of a different era. That’s where the last night of City of Poetry took place. The diner was packed with people drinking and reciting poetry in his name. The way he would have liked it.

(translated by Richard Berengarten and Dasa Maric for ‘Twelve poems by Tin Ujevic’, Shearsman Books, 2013)

How hard it is not to be strong,
how hard it is to be alone,
and to be old, yet still be young!

and to be weak, and powerless,
alone, with no one anywhere,
dissatisfied, and desperate.

And trudge bleak highways endlessly,
and to be trampled in the mud,
with no star shining in the sky.

Without your star of destiny
to play its twinklings on your crib
with rainbows and false prophecies.

– Oh God, oh God, remember
all the glittering fair promises
with which you have afflicted me.

Oh God, oh God, remember
all the great loves, the great victories,
the wreaths of laurel and the gifts.

And know you have a son
who walks the weary valleys of the world
among sharp thorns, and rocks and stones,

through unkindness and unconcern,
with his feet bloodied under him,
and with his heart an open wound.

His bones are full of weariness,
his soul is ill at ease and sad,
and he’s neglected and alone,

and sisterless, and brotherless,
and fatherless, and motherless,
with no one dear, and no close friend,

and he has no-one anywhere
except thorn twigs to pierce his heart
and fire blazing from his palms.

Lonely and utterly alone
under the hemmed in vault of blue,
on dark horizons of high seas.

Who can he tell his troubles to
when no-one’s there to hear his call,
not even brother wanderers?

Oh God, you sear your burning word
too hugely through this narrow throat
and throttle it inside my cry.

And utterance is a burning stake,
though I must yell it out, I must,
or, like a kindled log, burn out.

Just let me be a bonfire on a hill,
just one breath in the fire,
if not a scream hurled from the roofs.

Oh God, let it be over with,
this miserable wandering
under this dome as deaf as stone.

Because I crave a powerful word,
because I crave an answering voice,
someone to love, or holy death.

For bitter is the wormwood wreath
and deadly dark the poison cup,
so burn me, blazing summer noon.

For I am sick of being weak,
and sick of being all alone
(seeing I could be hale and strong)

(and seeing that I could be loved),
but I am sick, sickest of all
to be so old, yet still be young!