I’m an ordinary, forgettable man…..the difference between me and most men is that I’m heartless and say so while others are heartless but don’t let on.
The narrator of Balla’s first work of fiction to be translated into English is an embittered, self-centred, dirty old man: he’s a workman and revels in not washing and in having oil on his overalls. He has sordid affairs. His marriage is a wreck and his wife goes mad. Both his sons dislike him, his relationship with his own parents was unhappy, and he perceives the people of his country (first Czechoslovakia under communism, then independent Slovakia) as apathetic and having a ‘slave mentality’. He can find nothing to love and no beauty in his family, his life, his house, his hometown. But however hard the narrator tries to alienate the reader with his nihilism and neurotic self-analysis he can’t succeed in pushing us away – quite simply because the writing is so good.
Bizarre, intense and passionate, In the Name Of The Father reads beautifully, in spite of the bleak, banal and lonely life of the protagonist, and we’re told, the real life of the author, Balla. Sometimes he’s even funny. He’s always enlightening because, at the very heart of this story, is the search for the meaning of life. Yes, that old chestnut! But in this case try to imagine Kafka, Beckett, Bukowski and Borges sitting down together over beer, bread and Eisbein then you get the flavour of Balla’s rather earthy, existential quest. It is unexpectedly coherent too, even when it tries to throw us off-piste with its flourishes of Eastern European experimentalism and surrealism, and by jumping back and forth over the fragments of the old man’s life. Writing like this gives meaning to this life without meaning. As ‘the father’ tells us, you can’t escape because, you’ll still be stuck with the problem that is yourself.
When the story starts it’s 1963, the narrator is twenty and feeling unwell. He goes to the doctor:
He examined my testicles and after feeling them for a while he made an announcement that turned out to be quite crucial later on: “Don’t procreate, comrade! Don’t ever procreate because you will father a predator.
The young man does not heed this warning, goes on to marry and procreate and move into a house built by his brother.
We’re moving into the house in Lovecká Street. …My wife is walking ahead of me. She opens the door…The patio where we are standing in silence affords a view of a large empty field… ‘This is where we’ll put up some pens and a chicken coop,’ my wife says. I don’t say anything, trying to imagine a football pitch. My son must become a football player. That’s what real men are like: they have bodies made to pick up girls but also to make money. That’s what it’s all about. …Now that’s what a good father sounds like! I’m proud of myself but I feel self-conscious at the same time. Will I be up to it? Will I rise to this challenge? My own house, my own wife, a child. Responsibilities.
So it is that, crippled by guilt and anxiety, over nearly one hundred pages, ‘the father’ fails all these challenges.
Balla has said that this book is about himself, adding: I do worry about people who like my writing. Because there’s usually something wrong with them. There’s obviously something wrong with a large number of us.
Balla is considered a major figure in Slovakia, whose literature is largely invisible in English, but which is gradually becoming more visible thanks to the remarkable work of Slovak literary-translator-champion Julia Sherwood, and her colleagues; and in the case of Balla’s first fiction in English, thanks also to Jantar Publishing in London, who’ve been prepared to take a gamble.
I read in the publisher’s notes that Balla is fifty. He has a day job in the local council’s audit office (no wonder he has been nick-named the ‘Slovak Kafka’!) in Nové Zámky, a provincial town in southern Slovakia, a region with a large Hungarian minority. Issues of language – Slovak, Hungarian, Czech – pop up frequently in Balla’s work. Since his first short story collection, Leptokaria, twenty years ago, he has published eleven books, mostly short fiction, the latest a novella Veľká láska / The Great Love. V mene otca / In the Name of the Father was published in Slovak in 2012 and won three Slovak literary prizes.
Understandably there is no easily digestible take-away message at the end of this existential and entertaining tale but there is this – dare I say joyful? – profound and exquisite writing to savour:
Sometimes it feels as if your life has been cast in stone. You can’t subtract or add anything. After all, I tried for a long time to reach a state of finality. Now even the imperfections have become perfect and final. The wounds have been inflicted in all the right places. They hurt exactly the way they’re supposed to. They won’t heal because they’re meant to stay open. They are what make me what I am, a wall outside, feelings inside, aroused by those who’ve ever had anything to do with me. All the feelings are still inside this person who’s pieced together from what he has lived through.
By Rosie Goldsmith
In the Name of the Father
Written by Balla
Translated from the Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood
Published by Jantar Publishing (May 2017)
Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.
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