Most introductions to contemporary Slovak literature start with a familiar moan: it is not well known abroad (a predicament it shares with many other ‘lesser literatures’); not enough is being translated into English; and it has long languished in the shadow of its better-known ‘older brother’, Czech literature. While it is true that since 1989 fewer than fifty books by Slovak authors have appeared in English translation as compared to more than two hundred by Czech writers (admittedly, there are more than ten million Czechs and only half as many Slovaks), this cliché is beginning to wear thin, since Slovak literature has lately been making inroads into the UK, and even the US, book markets.
It’s time to stop moaning and do something to put Slovak culture even more firmly on the map. This is what ‘Raising the Velvet Curtain’ is all about: marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution a number of leading Slovak authors and artists are appearing in the UK in October and November. Three of Slovakia’s best writers – Ivana Dobrakovová, Balla and Uršuľa Kovalyk – have launched their new books in English translation in Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge and London. Introducing their debut in Oxford, Rajendra Chitnis, one of the UK’s few experts on Slovak literature, recalled that as a PhD student in the mid-1990s he ‘enjoyed Slovak writing far more than its Russian and Czech counterparts. It was funnier, cleverer and sharper, more driven by story and imagination than history and autobiography. I quickly learned that these qualities had been germinating continuously since at least the mid-1950s.’
These qualities are on full display in five works published in English in the course of the past year and reviewed in this edition of the European Literature Network’s Riveting Reviews, each fascinating in its own way. Away! Away! (translated by Janet Livingstone) showcases the unique blend of the poetic and whimsical typical of its author, Jana Beňová, winner of the 2012 European Prize for Literature, while Tidal Events (translated by James Sutherland-Smith) is a fine introduction to a major Slovak poet, Mária Ferenčuhová, whose pathos-free poems reflect on difficult themes such as terminal illness and our threatened environment. Also included are reviews of the three works, in joint translations by me and Peter Sherwood, presented at the recent writers’ tour. Ivana Dobrakovová, is one of the winners of this year’s European Union Prize for Literature. Bellevue, her first book to appear in English, delves into the mind of a young woman as she goes through a mental breakdown. Balla’s Big Love is a caustic, self-deprecating look at his hapless hero and the absurdities of present-day Slovak society, while the heroines of Uršuľa Kovalyk’s short stories escape from the snare of domestic chores and domestic violence into a magic world of their own.
With these five books we have only scratched the surface: many more authors and books remain to be discovered, from modern classics, through several generations of contemporary writers (notably, many women), poets, and not least children’s literature. I hope that these reviews and the samples from so far unpublished works by Pavel Vilikovský and Zuzana Cigánová featured here will whet the appetite of readers and publishers alike, so that the old cliché can soon be laid to rest.
By Julia Sherwood
For more information about ‘Raising the Velvet Curtain’ please visit the newly-launched website SlovakLiterature.com.
Julia Sherwood is an award-winning translator and literary organiser. She translates fiction and non-fiction from Slovak, Czech, Polish and Russian. Her most recent book-length translations from the Slovak (jointly with her husband Peter Sherwood) include Big Love by Balla and Bellevue by Ivana Dobrakovová (both from Jantar Publishing, October 2019); The Night Circus and other stories by Uršuľa Kovalyk (Parthian Books); Fleeting Snow by Pavel Vilikovský (Istros Books) and Into the Spotlight: New Writing from Slovakia (Three String Books, 2017). She is based in London and serves as the editor-at-large for Slovakia for Asymptote, the online journal for literary translation, where she also regularly reports on the literary scene in the Czech Republic and Poland. In 2019 she was awarded the Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav prize for translating and promoting Slovak literature in the English-speaking world. juliaandpetersherwood.com
Photo of Julia Sherwood by Marzena Pogorzały