To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe and twenty-six years of Slovakian independence, a programme of cultural events is being held across the UK throughout October and November. This corresponds with the launch of the Slovak Literature in English Translation website, which is dedicated to bringing Slovak writing to an English-reading audience.
In honour of this, NB Magazine features three major Slovakian works of fiction translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood here (Julia Sherwood is also one of the driving forces behind Raising the Velvet Curtain): The Night Circus and Other Stories by Ursula Kovalyk, Big Love by Balla, and Bellevue by Ivana Dobrakovová. All three authors are currently taking part in festival events.
The Night Circus and Other Stories by Ursula Kovalyk is a short story collection that addresses contemporary issues through the use of fable and fairy tale. The first story, ‘Predator’, is related by an unnamed male narrator, he should be concentrating more on his driving but he is preoccupied with his passenger, Paula, the titular predator. She is licking an ice cream and ‘smiling flirtatiously’:
“Not even a corpse could resist Paula’s sex appeal. She isn’t all that young or beautiful or even particularly fit but every time I see her I’m ensnared by her charm like a fly falling into a pot of honey.”
Paula is a friend, he won’t sleep with his friend but she is the quintessence of sex. The two are caught up in a discussion:
“Do you know what a woman feels in bed after twenty years of marriage?” she asks, shooting me the hottest glance ever. “No,” I say, swallowing hard. “Nothing,…”
Paula’s eyes light on a hitchhiker and they pick up the young blond man… The male narrator sees Paula as a predator because of the way she looks, the way she expresses her own desire. This is a musing on the expression of female sexuality and complacency in marriage.
‘Rainy Day Joe’: The little creature turns up in the garden one day, he is a strange looking, “like a creature from another world.” She takes him in, calls him Joe, makes love to him. They give each other a lot of happiness. Then her ex-boyfriend turns up and begins to pervert Joe’s innocence, turn him into a little version of himself. What she had with Joe begins to evaporate. A musing on the corrosive nature of a bad relationship and the loss of innocence. ‘Red Shoes’ is a nod to the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. This is a dark story of rape and abuse and misplaced trust that really hits home. ‘Suicide’: “After I committed suicide in my bathroom on 8 May at four in the morning, my soul slipped out of my body like a bar of wet soap from the hands of a clumsy child.” The disembodied self examines her life from the moment of birth (a recurring theme in the book). ‘The Night Circus’: Eleonora is invited into the Night Circus for an evening of taming the wild beast, trapeze jumping, knife-throwing and fire eating. Taming of the wild beast is announced. A metal cage falls trapping Eleonora inside, she is not frightened, more intrigued to meet the beast but … A woman clad in black, underwear, long gloves, high boots and carrying a whip enters, she places a collar around Eleonora’s neck.
In all, there are sixteen brief stories in this stark, provocative collection, sexually frank, exploring issues of violence against women and what it is to be a woman in the modern world. Kovalyk blends gritty earthy prose and a wonderful economy of words with fairy tale themes in these powerful and poignant stories. Ursula Kovalyk is a writer, playwright, social worker, and co-founder of the Theatre Without a Home which works with homeless and disabled people. 4*
Big Love by Balla. The writer prefers to go by his surname. The black out happened just outside Andric office, the doctor is pretty quick to dismiss it as a ‘minor indisposition’. But Andric doesn’t give up so easily, he tries to explain to the doctor that it’s like being remotely controlled. As if some one has a switch. What if they decide not to turn him back on? The doctor listens and then comments:
“You say you’re being manipulated but in fact you’re just dying to be manipulated. You’re frightened of the void you might plummet into once you realise there’s no one above you. How desperately we all wish there was someone above us!”
Andric is a victim of his fears, he struggles with the shift from living under a system where there are strict rules, patterns that daily regiment life, to the ‘apparent’ freedom of a capitalist world – it’s the central theme of Big Love. What is life like when the prevailing values and sense of purpose, the meaning, are removed? When communism fell it may have felt like a blooming of freedom and choice, in some ways that was an illusion (the poor are still poor and trapped by their poverty). For many people what was created was a vacuum. Balla is saying beware that capitalism can become as much of a trap as communism, he is exploring the dysfunction of both systems.
Andric meets Laura:
“the first time he saw Laura, she had just been in a car accident and was still in shock and in a neck brace for whiplash. He, on the other hand, spent all his life in a state of shock and permanently in a condition of preventative fear:…”
Andric is always waiting for the worst to happen, always trying to preempt perceived calamity. His pessimism causes him to misunderstand, misjudge, abuse the relationship with his partner Laura. She has no illusions of men or Andric:
‘…men were not really aware of most things or events, but simply made them up, relying on misinterpreted illusions and superficial observations, but that was in no way understand the way of the world and the rules that govern it, and those who didn’t understand the basic rules would fail at the basics, such as raising children.’
The relationship between Andric and Laura is stale, lacking in love, dispassionate, at times perfunctory and all the while they are ageing:
‘Their value on the vast market place of bodies was depreciating.’
Balla refers to his own “strange perception of life”, I concur. He comes from the first generation of writers free to write what they want to write but they are still used to absurdism as a way of expressing ‘seditious’ thinking. It’s strange and challenging but lively and thought provoking. Big Love is not so much rabid anti-communism as a contempt and disdain for its replacement rampant capitalism. Balla likes to ramble and his musings are often fun to read, he tackles themes of alienation, materialism, the moral and intellectual vacuum, dislocation and societal malaise. Sometimes ironic, always satirical, this brief novel revels in the anxiety of modern living. There’s a brilliant introduction by Charles Sabatos. Balla is considered to be one of the leading lights of contemporary Slovak literature. He is also the author of In the Name of the Father (Jantar, 2017). He has published twelve books since debuting in 1996 with Leptokaria. 3½*
Bellevue by Ivana Dobrakovová. Blanka is frustrated because her boyfriend Peter isn’t interested in travelling to the US for the summer (a work and travel package). Peter says he will be staying in Kosice over the summer to study for his final year exams in Spanish. So Blanka makes her own plans; to spend part of July with Peter, then get a temp. job in Prague before taking off on her own in August. She finds an opportunity to get away in Inex’s international exchange catalogue, a summer camp, a care centre for people with physical disabilities in Marseilles (18+, fluent in French). It involves working six hours a day, there’s free board and lodge, there will be seven other volunteers with her. Blanka writes a motivational letter, ‘platitudes’, about how she yearns to help people, she gets accepted.
Blanka has an OK time with Peter until her sister gets her a job in Prague working for an organisation helping holocaust victims and their families access compensation. There’s a little hostility from the Czech girls and already we sense a change in Blanka.
“I spent hours reading about fathers who’d been taken away, never to be seen again, about the harsh winter of 1942, about starvation, fears and dashed hopes.”
By the time she moves on Blanka has had enough. She eventually arrives in Marseilles and is met by two Arab women from the care home. Everyone stares at her, she makes friends with Martina, a Czech girl. But it isn’t long before things begin to go wrong. Blanka is ill-suited to the job, she lacks empathy and she doesn’t like the place:
“That night I stayed with Drago again, we both took it for granted, the thought of going back to the little house by the bamboo grove and listening to the old Romanian woman snoring all night never even crossed my mind…”
Blanka doesn’t have the wherewithal for this job, she is pessimistic, she comes to hates her work, inevitably things spiral out of control, eventually Blanka breaks down. The main themes of Bellevue are anxiety and mental ill health, the problems of being a young woman in the modern world. Bellevue is a warning to all those people who don’t realise how vulnerable to mental illness any of us might be. The topic is tough but this is a beautifully written novel. The prose changing to reflect Blanka’s descent toward breakdown. Bellevue is genuinely gripping, sad and poignant, but enriching.
Ivana Dobrakovová is the 2019 winner of the European Union Prize for Literature for her collection Matky a kamionisti (Mothers and Truckers, 2018). She is a translator from French and Italian to Slovak her other works include Toxo (2013) and a collection of short stories, The First Death in the Family (2009). 4½*
All three novels address the modern world, change and how people adapt to it, be that well or badly, depending on their circumstances.