By Julia Sherwood
Twenty years have now passed since the “velvet divorce” that saw Czechoslovakia split into two independent countries. While the Czech Republic, with Prague as tourist magnet and Václav Havel as President, immediately entered international awareness, the smaller Slovak Republic, with a population of 5.5 million, has struggled to gain recognition in the world. And whereas Czech literature can boast famous names such as Jaroslav Hašek, Karel Čapek, Milan Kundera or Bohumil Hrabal, Slovak literature has yet to make a mark internationally in spite of a thriving literary scene and a lively book market.
Altogether, there are now around 1,650 publishing houses in Slovakia, of whom some 1,000 publish fiction, staggering figures for a country of this size. However, quality writing is produced by only about a hundred publishers, including smaller non-profit presses, such as KK Bagala, who specializes in original Slovak fiction and new writers or Kalligram, a press that publishes books in Slovak and Hungarian (Slovakia has a 500,000-strong Hungarian minority), while larger publishers, such as Marenčin PT, combine higher-end literary output with more commercially viable titles. Following decades of suppression under communism there was an understandable thirst for low-brow literature and several publishers have cashed in on this. Slovart, a major publisher, has signed the bestselling writer Maxim E. Matkin and the ‘true crime’ author Dominik Dán, while Evitapress caters to the growing market for romances and chick lit.
As a result, mass market fiction dominates the displays in most Slovak book stores, except for the few independents, such as Artforum, which has branches in four major cities and has recently branched out into publishing. Artforum promotes quality literature on its website and by organizing readings, and a number of chain bookstores that have sprung up in recent years, such as Panta Rhei and Martinus (also a major online bookseller), offering a mix of quality and mass market literature, have also jumped on the literary events bandwagon. Meanwhile the flagship bookstore of the long-established Slovenský spisovateľ (Slovak Writer) publishing house, located in a building in the heart of the historic downtown of Bratislava, has recently been replaced by a cheap clothes boutique. To add insult to injury, the building itself, owned by the Slovak Writers’ Union – one of several writers’ organizations that have been at loggerheads – has gone under the hammer.
Many Authors Waiting for English Translations
In spite of internecine squabbles within the writers’ community that broke out after the end of communism, reflecting past and present political allegiances, there has been a veritable explosion of writing in Slovakia, both by authors who rose to fame under the previous regime and by a new generation of writers. While a few Slovak authors have had their works published abroad, mostly in neighboring countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Germany, the English-speaking market has proved particularly difficult to break into with only a handful of book-length translations of Slovak books published over the past couple of decades. These include Pavol Vilikovský‘s post-modern satirical masterpiece, Ever Green Is… (Northwestern University Press, 2002); Peter Pišťanek’s Rivers of Babylon trilogy, a hilarious romp through the post-Communist underworld (Garnett Press, 2007-2008) and Daniela Kapitáňová’s Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book, an original take on late Communist hypocrisy told from the point of view of a seemingly innocent simpleton (Garnett Press, 2011).
A number of books by acclaimed writers who began their careers under communism, such as the late Rudolf Sloboda, Ján Johanides and Vincent Šikula, still wait to be translated into English, as does a growing body of work by younger authors who have emerged since 1989. They write in a variety of styles covering a huge range of subjects that defy neat categorization. Literary critic Ivana Taranenková, writing in the journal Romboid, believes that “contemporary Slovak fiction may well represent the first period that does not aspire to seamlessness and homogeneity […] a period following ‘the end of history’ that is comfortable with being heterogeneous and disparate and, thus, pluralist.”
Quite a few Slovak authors have depicted the effects of the turbulent history of the 20th century on the lives of ordinary people: Pavol Rankov’s It Happened on the 1st September (Stalo sa 1. septembra alebo inokedy, 2008) portrays a day in the lives of three characters over three decades, starting in 1938 (anticipating the ploy used by
David Nicholls in his bestselling novel One Day) and his latest, Mothers (Matky, 2013) presents the story of a Soviet Gula survivor; while a character in Pavol Vilikovský’s existential thriller The Autobiography of Evil (Vlastný životopis zla, 2009) tries to delve into the psychology of Joseph Goebbels. Viliam Klimáček focuses on the communist era in his Astronaut Square (Námestie kozmonautov, 2006) and The Hot Summer of ‘68 (Horúce leto 68, 2011) and Peter Krištúfek’s sweeping family saga, The House of the Deaf Man (Dom hluchého, 2012) explores the way the pressure of history makes a decent but weak man harm the people around him.
Fiction Since 1989 Shows More Experimentation, Introspection
In her survey of Slovak fiction after 1989 Taranenková has highlighted strong elements of parody, experimentation and introspection as well as the mixing of low and high genres, represented by authors such as Tomáš Horváth, Marek Vadas and Márius Kopcsay. Taranenková identifies three key trends in Slovak fiction since the turn of the century. The first, characterized by elements of fantasy and horror, manifests itself in the stories of Václav Pankovčin, Viliam Klimáček and Márius Kopcsay as well as Balla, who has described his style as “a kind of realism, a sort of dreamy, quavering and blurry realism of course, but also one that’s fractured and scratched, with a dash of the postmodern and full of absurd elements which I believe to be part of reality.” The second, autobiographical strand is represented by Alta Vášová’s Immemorial Islands (Ostrovy nepamäti, 2008) and Ján Rozner’s Seven Days to the Funeral (Sedem dní do pohrebu, 2008).
The third trend is feminist writing from a cohort of writers associated with the feminist press Aspekt, such as Jana Juráňová, Jana Bodnárová and Uršuľa Kovalyk, while Marenčin PT publishes Svetlana Žuchová, Ivana Dobrakovová and Jana Beňová and the women authors signed by KK Bagala include Monika Kompaníková and Zuska Kepplová.
What Sells? And Can a New Literary Prize Help?
As this survey, however incomplete, makes clear, Slovak readers have a huge array of books to choose from. Quality literature is published in small print runs from 500 to 1,000 and typically selling around 500, a figure that in rare cases can rise to over 2,000, as has been the case with the runaway success of Peter Krištufek’s House of the Deaf Man. Michal Hvorecký, another representative of the younger generation of writers, who has gained a large and faithful following thanks to his choice of subjects that reflect pop cultural sensibilities, is currently the most translated Slovak author into German as well as Czech. However, all of the above tend to be drowned by the flood of mass produced popular literature, both domestic and translated (with Dan Brown and Paolo Coelho and Scandinavian crime fiction being just as popular in Slovakia as elsewhere), selling in the tens of thousands.
To put the spotlight on quality fiction and help the public navigate the large amount of books on offer, poet Katarína Kucbelová has initiated the Anasoft Litera prize. Although the country has several other literary prizes, Kucbelová felt that a new one was needed since “none of the others had received enough media attention to serve as a point of reference for readers and the general public.” In addition to a sizeable financial award (€10,000), the Anasoft Litera aims to provide media exposure for the authors and books shortlisted. Each spring, a jury comprising literary critics, writers and journalists (a different composition each year) selects 10 works of fiction from the previous year’s crop. This has been growing steadily: in 2006, when the award was launched, the jury had to read 60 books while in 2013 they had to sift through 170 titles. The shortlisted books and authors are promoted for six months through a series of literary events and readings as well as newspaper reviews and the publication of extracts.
This year, the shortlisted writers ranged from the 2012 winner Balla, through first-time author Ondrej Štefánik, to Maroš Krajňak, Lucia Piussi, Jana Beňová, Peter Krištufek, Víťo Staviarsky and Zuzana Cigánová to representatives of the older generation, Pavel Taussig and Milan Zelinka. The accompanying activities included a month-long literary festival as well as readings in July by six of the shortlisted authors hosted by the Martinus bookshop at Pohoda, Slovakia’s most popular open-air music festival.
On September 24 the jury announced the winner of the 2013 Anasoft Litera. Víťo Staviarsky won with his novel Kale Shoes (Kale Topánky, Marenčin PT, 2012), set in eastern Slovakia’s Roma community, among drifters, petty criminals and market stall-holders. Literary critic Derek Rebro explains that one of the things that impressed the jury was “the confident way in which the novel disrupts strict hierarchical dichotomies, such as those between high and low literature” and that he “also enjoyed the functional contrast between the entertaining and intentionally kitschy form (which reflects stereotypes of Roma culture) and its serious or – to sound more theatrical than the book itself – I might even say, humanist, message.“
The jury’s choice was widely applauded. Literary critic and former jury member Jana Cviková has long noted Staviarsky’s “clean, lively style, free of unnecessary mannerisms that mar the writing of many other authors.” Kale Shoes is Viťo Staviarsky’s third published book and his second set among the Roma. In a recent interview on Czech TV Staviarsky admitted: “People on the margin are my subject, one I might never get away from,” adding that he regards himself as an “extrovert, circusoid type of author, closer to Fellini than to Bergman.”
Although statistical data are hard to come by, Kucbelová believes that the award and the accompanying activities help increase sales. Publisher Koloman Kertész Bagala, whose authors have won the Anasoft Litera several times, appreciates the fact that it helps increase interest in authors but fears that this is only temporary and that in the long term “it won’t be possible to stem the decline in the interest in literature. Habits change and for many people something as difficult as reading has become a marginal activity.” Ján Gregor of Premedia, an innovative newcomer on the market, publishing mostly translations, as well as non fiction and graphic novels, agrees that Anasoft Litera helps promote the shortlisted authors but regrets that Slovakia “doesn’t have an award similar to the Czech Magnesia Litera prize, one that doesn’t focus solely on domestic fiction but also recognizes translation, non-fiction, discovery of the year, etc.” Albert Marenčin, who had three books in this year’s shortlist, including the winning title, admits that “this kind of ‘quality’ literature has been and probably always will be a minority interest. However, Anasoft Litera is a prestigious award. To put it bluntly: thanks to Anasoft Litera the public willy-nilly gets to hear about contemporary ‘quality’ literature.”
Distribution Issues and Trouble Getting Paid
The award may have somewhat lifted the gloom for Albert Marenčin who has spent the past few months battling a major distributor. He was not alone: TK Belimex owes a large number of Slovak publishers millions of euros for books taken on commission. Moreover, the firm, recently restructured under a new name TLP Media Plus, keeps large quantities of books in its warehouses, refusing to return them to publishers while continuing to sell them through its own bookselling arm, TK Libri, which it has conveniently transformed from a subsidiary into a creditor. Marenčin says: “In my estimate Belimex was the second largest distribution company, controlling about 10-15 per cent of the market. Because of them we have incurred a loss of nearly 10% of our annual turnover. However, most adversely affected were smaller publishers as well as some booksellers who had exclusive supply contracts with Belimex. Many are on the brink of bankruptcy. It’s a great shame.” Those hardest hit include smaller, not-for profit such as the feminist press Aspekt, who cannot afford to hire lawyers. KK Bagala, who has been publishing exclusively non-commercial original Slovak fiction for 22 years, has called the Belimex affair “the fraud of the century”.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Ultimately, the whole affair may have a cathartic effect, helping to cleanse the market. “Publishers will need to have their wits about them and stop working with [distributors] who fail to pay even though it might mean they sell fewer copies,” says Gregor. Marenčin concurs: “What matters is that the steps we have taken have drawn attention to publishers as well as this company and the public has learned who the thieves and parasites in the book market are.”
Julie Sherwood was born in Bratislava, Slovakia and is currently based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She has worked as a translator from English, Czech, Slovak, German, Polish and Russian into Slovak and, jointly with her husband, Peter Sherwood, into English. Her literary translations include Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book by Daniela Kapitáňová, Freshta by Petra Procházková, and My Life with Hviezdoslav by Jana Juráňová, due to be published by Calypso Editions in 2014. She administers the Facebook page on Slovak Literature in English translation and is Editor-at-large for Slovakia at Asymptote, the international journal for literary translation.