A review of Our Daily Bread by Predrag Matvejević, translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić
My abiding love of bread began around six years ago on a visit to Uzbekistan. As in many Central Asian countries, the bread there is sold in large, flattish rounds, shiny-crusted on the outside, white and fluffy on the inside. Bread is served with every meal; in many cases, it is a meal in itself. What’s more, it is respected. Bread must never be thrown away, and never turned upside down. It is the most basic of provisions, the giver of life. Since that trip, I have never looked at bread in the same way again.
After reading Our Daily Bread, Predrag Matvejević’s self-declared meditation on the subject, I will be seeing bread yet again in a different light. Brought to us by Istros Books in a sensitive translation by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić, the late Croatian author and scholar’s book-length reflection on this universal foodstuff is a thing of quiet beauty, a serious yet joyful celebration of something most of us probably take for granted. Crossing centuries and continents, Matvejević traces the history of bread and its cultural significance, evoking the names of gods, saints, poets and philosophers to reveal how entire civilisations have been built on grain.
Divided into seven chapters to reflect the expression ‘seven-crusted bread’, commonly in use around the Mediterranean, Our Daily Bread is a thematically ordered and very roughly chronological walk-through of the development of bread and its role in human society. An astonishing amount of research has gone into this book: Matvejević nimbly quotes everything from The Epic of Gilgamesh to the Talmud, Hafiz’s poetry to Ghandi’s speeches. We are treated to his musings on bread’s significance in world religions, the many ways it is represented in art and literature, the differences between various types of grain and – one of my favourites – the opening chapter on ‘Bread and the Body’, an almost sensuous essay on how humankind has shaped, baked and nourished itself with bread over the years. ‘. . . it is often said that the body and bread understand one another, for bread engages all of our senses, each in its own way,’ he writes.
There is without doubt a formidable wealth of information included in this book, which makes it a reading experience not to be rushed. Matvejević’s language, which has been exquisitely translated by Pribichevich-Zorić into a mellifluous, rhythmic English, also lends itself perfectly to a slow read, a savouring of each nugget of information, each pearl of wisdom that Matvejević offers us. On my first read I certainly didn’t grasp everything I was being told, but the most personally interesting pieces of information stayed with me: a linguistic exploration of the different words used for bread, some of which are associated with meanings such as ‘life’; an account of the Roma’s relationship with and proverbs about bread; how in Venice there is a box where to this day people leave ‘bread for the poor’. And yet, I felt, there was no rush to absorb everything. Our Daily Bread would certainly bear multiple readings.
The bulk of the book deals with history, much of it ancient, and it does have a slight lean towards Western civilisation, despite occasional forays into Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Yet Matvejević also makes bread relevant to readers today, discussing food security in brief but powerful passages that break away from the rather mesmerising tone in which his historical and cultural studies are conveyed. Bread, he writes in a rather troubling indictment of modern society, ‘allows us to trace a line between the poor and the rich: the former want more bread and the latter are happy to give it up’. Just as thought-provoking are his closing remarks, a plea to acknowledge climate change and the way it is ‘prompting today’s nomads, so-called refugees or economic migrants, to search, sometimes in desperation, for a life in regions where bread is not so scarce’. Having just read a love letter to this staple of our store cupboards, these final sentiments are all the more hard-hitting – especially these days, when climate change, mass migration and food security have become topics even more pertinent than they were when Our Daily Bread was first published in 2009. This book, I was pleased to find, is not merely a work of whimsy (enjoyable though that would be). It has behind it a considered and important message.
Even before its powerful conclusion, the final chapter goes a long way to explaining the rather melancholy, pensive tone that prevails throughout Our Daily Bread. Matvejević explains how he suffered hunger as a child during World War Two, but most especially how bread played a significant role in his father’s life. The story of how he came to write the book is extremely moving: just as it reads, it was originally begun as a letter, composed to a man who had survived the gulags to which the author’s uncle and grandfather fell victim. After so much scholarly research and learned writing, this personal story reflects the entire book back in a different light: as an attempt to understand something elemental yet mysterious, an effort to reckon with a very human history.
Istros Books, which specialises in literature from Eastern Europe, takes great care of its publications, and this volume is no exception; it comes complete with black-and-white illustrations sourced from the Wellcome Collection that add a certain atmosphere to Matvejević’s writing. From ancient stone carvings to a propaganda poster from the USSR, each will resonate with individual readers on a different level – much like the chapters themselves, and the bite-sized chunks of information contained therein. Just as everyone eats a different type of bread, so too will they find different meanings in this book. But in every case it is fairly safe to say that their relationship with bread will be in some way changed.
‘Bread is quiet, mute,’ writes Predrag Matvejević of his subject. Here, though, in this beautiful book, he has given it a resounding voice.
Our Daily Bread: A Meditation on the Cultural and Symbolic Significance of Bread Throughout History by Predrag Matvejević, translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić, is published by Istros Books on 10 September 2020. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing an advance review copy.