February 04, 2017


Predrag Matvejević was born in 1932 in Mostar. He earned his degree in French Language and Literature in Zagreb. In 1967 he defended his doctoral degree at the Sorbonne in Paris. He taught French Literature at the Faculty of Philosophy at Zagreb University until 1991 when he left Croatia. From 1991 to 1994 he taught Slavic literatures at the Nouvelle Sorbonne (Paris III), while from 1994 to 2007 he taught the Serbian and Croatian language and Serbian and Croatian literature at Sapienza University in Rome. He was author of numerous essays and books, including several with a bearing on the question of civil courage, such as "Open Letter - Moral Exercises." The titles which have been most widely translated are Mediteranski brevijar (English translation: Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape), Druga Venecija (English translation: The Other Venice: Secrets of the City), and Jugoslavenstvo danas [Yugoslav Identity Today].

He held a number of significant positions abroad and was honored with several titles such as honorary life-long Vice-President of the International Pen Club in London.
His decorations included, in France, the Légion d'honneur, in Croatia the Red Danice [Order of Danica], and honors in Slovenia and Italy.

Now that we've heard of Predrag Matvejević's death I won't speak more here about Predrag Matvejević's biography—that will be done by his biographers and, undoubtedly, his colleagues and students. And there are so many of them...

Even if all he'd published was his collection Open Letters, symbolically subtitled Moral Exercises, in which he confirmed a dozen times over those words often attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," I feel certain he'd have earned the decision of the international jury to confer on him the Duško Kondor Award for Civil Courage for 2013. The reasoning for his award stated:
The Duško Kondor Award for Civil Courage is being given to Predrag Matvejević of Zagreb because, although fully cognizant of the risk he was undertaking, he demonstrated civil courage by the following:

• During the Yugoslav period he spoke out for human rights, particularly the right to free speech, and championed those convicted of political crimes.

• In 1998 he was a co-founder of the Association for Yugoslav Democratic Initiative, the first independent political association at that time in Yugoslavia, the goal of which was to find a peaceful solution to the Yugoslav crisis.
• He risked his life fighting against and writing against all forms of totalitarian practice.

• In 1991 he was faced with persecution, slander and abuse of all kinds. Among other things, his mail box was riddled with bullets. To save his life he fled the country.

• While in exile he became a powerful voice of criticism in ex-Yugoslav societies and spoke frankly about evil and its perpetrators.

• In 2001 he published a article, "Our Talibans," in the Zagreb newspaper Jutarnji List in which he named certain writers and intellectuals as responsible for incendiary words that fueled the war.

• In 2005, he was tried in a rigged trial for the article "Our Talibans" and given a conditional sentence of five months for slander. He never appealed the conviction because he felt that by doing so he would have been acknowledging the validity of the suit.

• With his case he forced the political elite of Croatia to examine their actions. In his first term in office, while the campaign  against Predrag Matvejević was raging, President Stjepan Mesić decorated him with a prestigious Croatian honor, and early in this century, amid the legal furor, President Ivo Josipović named him as Croatian representative to the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie.

The day before he was to leave for Sarajevo to receive the award, he called me, explaining in an agitated voice that they were taking him to the hospital. The short film we'd made about this giant was shown at the ceremony to over 1200 young people from the regions of Western Bosnia.

We delivered the award to him in person later, in Zagreb, at the premiere of our thirty-minute documentary about him shown at the Grič movie theater, right across the street from his apartment. The hall was packed with people who cherished him, respected him, and loved him...

His health gradually gave way; he was betrayed by his fragile constitution, but his spirit kept on giving generously to those of us who knew him, visited him, and loved him.

Matvejević spent his entire life, like Diogenes, seeking (and in himself, if not in most others, finding) a man, he left us his candle as a pledge. To us who are saying our goodbyes to the great man, the giant, the best among us, we are left with continuing Matvejević's moral exercises until we master the dark in which we live.

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Who bears the most blame for the lack of civil courage?


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