Miljenko Smoje is legendary Croatian journalist, writer, chronicler, eternal rebel and one of the greatest humorists in Croatian literature.
He was born on February 14, 1923 in Varoš, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Split. At the time, this picturesque, Fellini-like neighborhood of poor laborers, old stone houses and narrow streets was known for its strong opinionated individuals, anarchists and socialists that left a significant influence on Smoje’s life.
He was a master of portraying ordinary people living in Split and Dalmatia. He captured the way they think, talk, walk, their gestures, and their vivid personalities, which were often “allergic” to establishment and authority. He developed a unique writing style using the Split dialect “Čakavština” and combined it with humor, satire and elements of tragedy.
Miljenko moje as a journalist
After the end of the World War 2, Smoje graduated from university where he studied Croatian language and history after which he worked for a short time as a teacher.
In 1950, he started working as a reporter for the Split daily newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija, where he stayed until his formal retirement in 1979.
In addition to the articles he wrote for Slobodna, he wrote short stories, plays and novels.
Smoje as a television screenwriter
His biggest success came in 1970 when he wrote the script for the television series “Naše malo misto” (“Our Small Place”). This show depicts life in a small Dalmatian coastal town during the period before and after World War 2.
In his specific way, full of humor and sarcasm, Smoje describes economic, political and cultural changes of those times through the lives of ordinary and animated characters. The success of the series was huge and earned cult status in Croatian culture.
Following the success of “Malo misto”, Smoje wrote another television script that was based on his own novel. This new series called “Velo misto” (“The Big Place”) described life in Split between 1910 and 1947.
“Velo misto” was also great success. The series was based primarily on real life people and historical events.
As you probably know if you’re reading this article, Croatia is well known for its football. In “Velo misto”, Smoje wrote about the beginnings of football in Split, sometimes referred to as “balun”.
The word “balun” on dialect “Čakavstina” literally means “the ball” and is used by locals as a synonym for football. You can hear kids on the streets saying: “Hoćemo na balun?” – (“Shall we play football?”). The word “balun” is only used for football, and not for any other sport that includes playing with the ball.
In “Velo misto”, Smoje showed the development, rise and fall of one of the most iconic symbols of Split – Football club Hajduk.
Hajduk’s mascot is based on Nikola Gazdić, called “Rico”, who was one of the best Hajduk players ever and portrayed in “Velo misto”.
Both “Malo misto” and “Velo misto” became iconic and represent one of the best examples of Croatian cinematography.
The series introduced many legendary characters, both fictional and real, that are portrayed by famous actors including Boris Dvornik, Zdravka Krstulović, Karlo Bulić, Asja Kisić, and Ivica Vidović.
Dino Dvornik, a singer known as the Croatian king of funk, had his first TV appearance in “Malo misto” when he was just a boy. Young Dino played the son of the character Roko Prč, whom was played by Boris Dvornik, his real life father.
Many quotes from his shows became legendary and even part of everyday language, such as:
“Neću politiku u svoju butigu.” – “No politics in my store.”
“Jema, jema puno lipi’ stvari, ali nesmin kazat.” –“There are lot of nice things, but cannot say.”
“Evo, ja iz ove svoje butige nisam maka’, a čet’ri san države prominija!”- “I haven’t moved from my store, but I have changed four different countries.”
Smoje wrote in dialect, which meant swearing (beštimati). Swearing in Dalmatia is a part of the culture. The entire family gathers at the table, usually over a meal, and they shout and swear at each other. A non-Croatian fly on the wall might think they are arguing but that is not the case. This is how Dalmatians often communicate.
In one interview, Smoje said: ”I can swear, why not? I don’t swear to impress someone, but because that is part of our lives. I am child of a fisherman and in my house, like in the whole Split, we do three things: eat, drink and swear.”
Swearing is usually the first thing locals will teach foreigners.
Controversy and Death
Despite his significant impact on Croatian culture, Smoje was not without controversy. In the 1990s when Croatia was fighting for independence, he was characterized by some as a sympathizer of Yugoslavia and communism.
Smoje died in 1995 and was buried in žrnovnica, a village near Split. In his final days, he wrote for the weekly satirical newspaper Feral Tribune. In his last article, the very last word he wrote was: ”pisati” (writing).
For the love of Dalmatia
When he was asked to describe Dalmatia, Smoje said, “Dalmatia is one nice, summer, sunny day.” (Dalmacija je jedan lipi, litnji, sunčani dan).
Such a simple, yet very true statement.
Often you could see him sitting in a local cafe, just listening and talking to people about everyday life. He spent many summers on island Brač in a rented bungalow with his wife Lepa – his biggest critic and muse. They were accompanied by their dog šarko, the subject of Smoje’s book “Pasje novelete” (Dog Stories).
Today, Split and Dalmatia may not look like what Smoje described in the Malo and Velo misto series. Maybe there are more apartment rental signs than “mudante”(underwear) hanging from the walls. However, the spirit and the core that Smoje was talking about is still there.
There are still places that represent real Dalmatian culture where one can see stone houses, tiny streets (kale), coastline, boats, and fisherman. Anyone visiting the local market (pazar, pijaca) and traditional cafes can feel that spirit.
The best way to feel the culture and pulse of the locals is observing and talking to them, just like Smoje did.