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Skender Kulenović in 1943
|Born||2 September 1910|
Bosanski Petrovac, Condominium of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austro-Hungarian Empire
|Died||25 January 1978 (aged 67)|
Belgrade, SR Serbia, Yugoslavia
Skender Kulenović (2 September 1910 – 25 January 1978) was a Bosnian poet, novelist and dramatist.
Skender Kulenović was born in 1910 in the Bosnian town of Bosanski Petrovac, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kulenović family was a Muslim land-owning family, though Skender’s parents ran a rented hotel and a grocery shop. Skender was the third of four sons (one of whom died in infancy) and one daughter. In 1921, impoverished by the land reforms brought in by the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia, his family moved to the central Bosnian town of Travnik, his mother’s birthplace. Here Skender Kulenović became a day-boy at the Jezuitska klasična gimnazija (the local Jesuit Grammar School). Here too, he wrote his first poems, culminating in the publication of a set of sonnets (Ocvale primule, or Withered Primroses) in a 1927–28 school almanac.
In 1930, the Kulenović family recovered a little of their former prosperity – enough to enable Skender and his sister Ćamila to continue their education. Skender registered to study law at Zagreb University – the main reason, as he admitted, being that the Law Faculty allowed students to do the bulk of their studying at home. When in Zagreb he became inspired by leftist ideas, joining the Yugoslav Communist Party (KPJ) of which his elder brother, the painter Muhamed Kulenović, was already a member, in 1935. In the same year he gave up his law studies to focus on journalism and literary work. Over the next four years he published essays and short stories in various journals, including Putokaz (Signpost), a journal of which he was a founder member.
This was a time of increasing political tension in the first Yugoslav state. Externally, the authoritarian Regency of Prince Pavle was trying to balance popular pro-French and pro-British sentiments with a need to maintain good relations with the country’s Fascist Italian and Nazi German neighbours. Internally, political life was becoming increasingly dominated by Serb-Croat hostility; in 1939, a vain attempt was made to defuse this by imposing a bipartite federal system, under which most of Bosnia became Croatian territory. In late 1939 or early 1940, Skender Kulenović was expelled from the KPJ for having refused to sign an open letter criticising the government and advocating autonomy for Bosnia and Herzegovina – a decision which prevented him from publishing in many of the journals he had worked with until then. In 1940 he married his first wife, Ana Prokop.
In March and April 1941, Prince Pavle’s balancing act finally failed: he was deposed in a popular pro-Western military coup, upon which the Nazis invaded and occupied Yugoslavia. Muhamed Kulenović was immediately imprisoned as a KPJ member; in July, he was shot after an escape attempt. In November the same year, Skender joined Josip Broz Tito’s Partisans, and was readmitted into the Communist Party. In 1942, just after the German summer offensive had narrowly failed to wipe out the Partisan army, he composed perhaps his most famous poem, “Stojanka Majka Knežopoljka” (“Stojanka, the mother from Knežopolje”), a modernist Partisan version of the traditional Bosnian lament with strong elements of the Serbian folk-epic. In the same year, Skender’s remaining brother Muzafer was executed in Belgrade.
While in the Partisan forces, Kulenović also edited various newspapers and journals, continued to publish, and helped set up a theatre group. It was here, in 1944, that he fell in love with Vera Crvenčanin, who was to become his second wife. In 1945, Skender Kulenović was appointed Drama Director of the National Theatre in newly liberated Sarajevo. In 1947 he and Vera moved to Belgrade, which was to remain their home until his death. The postwar years he devoted largely to drama and journalism: he wrote several successful theatre plays, but also a number of short stories, essays and poems, and edited various literary and non-literary journals. In 1954, after having published an essay by the dissident Milovan Đilas, he was sacked as editor of the journal Nova misao (New Thought). Though he was to continue with his theatrical work, this, with the death of his father in the same year, dealt a severe blow to his confidence and self-esteem.
Kulenović’s long contact with the city of Mostar began in 1956, when he stayed there during the production of his play Djelidba (Division). In 1959 he published “Stećak”, the first of his forty Sonnets. He also traveled to Egypt, which inspired a series of travelogues – and, later, the sonnet Vaze (Vases). 1968 saw the publication of the first twenty Soneti (Sonnets). Soneti II, the second set of twenty sonnets, followed in 1974. In 1977 his novel Ponornica (Lost River) appeared. He was working on a sequel when he fell ill late that year. After one last stay in Mostar, he returned to Belgrade in January 1978, when he died of heart failure.
He was featured on the 0.50 Bosnia and Herzegovina convertible mark bill, which has been withdrawn from circulation and replaced with coins.
Kulenović’s life story is in many ways typical of a Bosnian-born intellectual of the Yugoslav age: born into a Bosnian Muslim family, educated in the Catholic tradition and living in the Serbian capital. Just as his political ethos was one of pan-Yugoslav unity in Tito’s communism, so his cultural roots were embedded in the Ottoman, Croatian and Serbian traditions equally. Some Bosniaks and Serbs categorise him as a Bosniak poet and a Serbian poet respectively – a tendency which, the Sarajevo critic Ivan Lovrenović claims, "diminishes and degrades" the status of Kulenović and writers like him. One might also say, however, that his roots in all three traditions makes him a Bosnian (rather than a Bosniak) poet par excellence, for these were the three traditions that form the weft of culture in Bosnia. But this does not prevent him from also being seen as a Yugoslav poet – or, more precisely, as one culturally at home throughout the Serbo-Croat speaking region.
- Lovrenović, Ivan (2002) Nacionalna pripadnost ili nacionalno vlasništvo (Ethno-national belonging or ethno-national property), Dani, 29 March 2002.
- Miljanović, Mira (2000) Pjesnička ponornica: Skender Kulenović devedeset godina od rođenja (Poetic Lost River: Skender Kulenović Ninety Years after his Birth). Sarajevo: Preporod.
- Kulenović, Skender (2003) Skender Kulenović. Translated by Francis R. Jones. Modern Poetry in Translation New Series/22: 61-69.
- Kulenović, Skender (2007) Soneti / Sonnets. Special Gala Edition of Forum Bosnae, 41/07. Bilingual edition, with English translations by Francis R. Jones, artwork by Mersad Berber, and afterwords by Francis R. Jones and Rusmir Mahmutćehajić.
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