#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews MAYBE WE’RE LEAVING by Jan Balabán

Jan Balabán is one of the Czech Republic’s foremost writers of the last half-century, but is hardly known in the UK; very little of his output – three novels (one graphic), a play, a novella and five volumes of short stories – having been translated into English. He died suddenly in 2010 aged forty-nine, so this collection of short stories will hopefully help build his reputation in this country.

Almost all the stories here are set in and around the town where he lived, Ostrava, in the north-east of the Czech Republic: a gritty industrial area that was once the centre of coal mining and steel production. His stories reflect the roughcast of the region and his writing is filled with a sense of yearning for something lost and something else not yet found … a sense of regret about what happened in the past, overlaid with dissatisfaction, fear even, at times approaching Schadenfreude, for what might happen in the present. Take the case of Leoš, a successful university professor, who is convinced all the bad things in his past are behind him; who was forced as a child to listen to his mother’s sexual predations on his father in the common bedroom, but has transmuted his disgust at her behaviour into something very similar in his own adult life. He has bought himself a ‘nice wide bed. A real airport for long taxiing and sheer takeoffs’ for his seductions. But he finds an unexpected letter, in a hand-written, white envelope in his letterbox:

‘It shone there like some radioactive substance, to which it was wise to give a wide berth; but no arc was wide enough to pass this one by. He…pulled it out…unwillingly scanned the lettering…he opened the ashcan and…tore the letter into pieces.’

Somehow, he understands his past is catching up with him…

Balabán’s stories are a litany of the sadness and pointlessness of life, of relationships, even of memories: of violent lovers’ quarrels; of people who, at the very point of closeness, shun the moment of intimacy that could bring happiness, change their lives; of parents, whose relationship with their children is put at risk the moment the unexpected comes along: 

‘…the one tram that comes this way won’t be by for another half hour … What now? Hans … suddenly didn’t know how to begin. What to do with the boy?’  

Or Roman, out for a cycle ride with his son, as they pass a pretty teenager on a bridge over the Odra river: 

‘“That was a beautiful girl,” Roman said … he regretted the words immediately. From the corner of his eye, he noticed how his son leaned his head to his right shoulder, allowing his father’s words to pass by his ear over his left shoulder.’

Child victims, family breakdown, people trapped in their worlds of self-interest, Balabán’s view of humanity is bleak and in only a very few instances do we feel the hope of genuine expectation of something good. In his introduction, the translator speculates that the dashed dreams of Aleksander Dubček’s ‘socialism with a human face’, which Balabán experienced at the age of nine, may lie behind his fractured view of human relationships. Maybe so, but certainly, this is a collection of extraordinary power, perhaps to dip into rather than read in one go. Glagoslav are to be congratulated for its publication; but, please, a little more care in the proof-reading would not go amiss. And while I appreciate that the American market is likely to be bigger than the British, I did find the New York diction put into the mouths – and heads – of the Ostravans somewhat grotesque … there are also some, shall I say, curiously infelicitous passages in the translation.

Reviewed by Max Easterman

MAYBE WE’RE LEAVING 

Written by Jan Balabán

Translated from the Czech by Charles S. Kraszewski

Published by Glagoslav Publications (2018)


Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 25 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university  lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.

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Category: October 2019 - Czech RepublicReviews

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