To keep this blog film-related, I decided that the title of each subsequent post dealing with my experiences after the Zagreb earthquake, and the destruction of my home, will be the film title of a great film I love, with a symbolic undertone. For this post, I chose Yasujirō Ozu’s Early Spring. Although it is May already, for me, after the earthquake, the spring has just started. I want to share with you a rather uncanny, but fascinating reading experience which occurred a week after the earthquake. For my birthday, my father bought me a collection of short stories by a German romanticist Heinrich von Kleist called The Marquise of O – and Other Stories. I opened this book and the first story I read was called The Earthquake in Chile. This was the first story I read in my life which deals with the catastrophic, but paradoxically liberating, consequences of an earthquake and I was struck by this strange coincidence.
The short story is based on a historical fact of an earthquake which destroyed Santiago on 13 May 1647. But the famous 1775 earthquake in Lisbon which shook the theodicy of Enlightenment, must have been imprinted in Kleist’s mind even more. The story follows two young lovers, Jerónimo and Josefa. The young girl was forced into a convent against her will, and unwilling to renounce her lover, becomes pregnant by him and during a solemn festival collapses in labour pains on the steps of a cathedral. The young couple is condemned to death on the charges of sacrilege, but the most extraordinary thing happens. While Jerónimo is in his prison cell, awaiting execution, ready to hang himself in despair, a miracle and a disaster happens at the same time. The earthquake destroys the city, kills thousands of people and Jerónimo gets out of prison unhurt; Josefa survives as well. Joyfully they meet in the forest, exuberant and beyond belief. The survivors of the earthquake show self-sacrifice, courage and compassion toward each other, but when the couple goes to mass to thank the Lord for their survival, they are recognized by the crowd and executed for their crimes of sacrilege.
One particular sentence struck me while I was reading this book’s introduction written by a pair of scholars. “The earthquake also saves her imprisoned lover Jerónimo only seconds before he is about to hang himself in despair, shattering the walls of his prison and terrifying him into a renewed desire for mere physical survival. [my emphasis]”. The second part of this sentence helped me understand my own situation regarding the earthquake, and the unexpected passion for life I felt after the walls of my home were shattered. I was working from home (before the pandemic), was building my personal library, started renovating my apartment, read a lot, was spending a lot of time with people I love.
Yet, every day, although interesting and fulfilling, was the same as the day before. It is no coincidence that I was reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education at that moment. In this novel, as you most likely know, everything stays completely the same. One youthful dream and fantasy is giving way to the other, but after reading about 250 pages, the main character’s infatuation with one particular bourgeoisie woman was still a constant preoccupation; his romantic involvement with her did not happen. In terms of the young man’s career, although he did not have to work due to his inheritance, the situation was the same.
After the earthquake, I truly was terrified into a renewed desire and passion for life, different from the one I felt before. I realized that I have strength in me, which I thought was lost in the whirlwind of the day-to-day stressful existence. As Ernst Jünger, the author I am reading at the moment to prepare for an essay for a literary magazine, wrote in his novel Storm of Steel: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger; and what kills me makes me incredibly strong.” Don’t get me wrong, losing one’s home is hell, but it is the kind of hell in which the most wild, amazing and colourful flora grows. In this way one can say that this time is an early spring for me, a time to reimagine one’s own life, and enjoy the passion of nature coming alive again.
PS. I returned Sentimental Education to the library without finishing reading it.
Author’s home was destroyed in a devastating earthquake which hit Zagreb on the Sunday morning, March 22nd. All the help is most welcome, in this challenging moment. If you enjoyed reading this blog, you can join many people from Croatia who have already donated to this cause. Thank you!