Summer readings: Translators’ guide to new fiction

Translators’ pick for best fiction in V4 countries.

Tomasz Grabiński and Margit Garajszki
20 August 2015

The Czech Republic: Reviving the icons

Básník. Román o Ivanu Blatném (The Poet), a 600-page long publication by Martin Reiner, a poet and publisher, was selected the best book of the year in the Czech Republic in a prestigious survey by Lidové Noviny, claiming the biggest number of votes in the history of the prize. This biographical novel in the form of literary collage is the effect of the author’s long-standing research on the matter of the figure and the work of Ivan Blatny (1919-1990). This outstanding Czech poet immigrated to England in 1948 and spent most of his life in a mental hospital. For this book, Reiner also received the Jozef Skovrocki Prize.

By contrast, Tsunami Blues is the third novel by Markéta Pilátova. Similarly to her previous books, she combines typically Czech themes here with a story about Latin America. This time the plot takes place in Cuba, where Karla, the novel’s protagonist, is traveling with her Spanish teacher, a renowned Czech scholar, to support local dissidents.

Jaroslav Hašek enthusiasts, who are by no means lacking, should in turn pay attention to Medvědí tanec (Bear Dance) by Irena Dousková. It is a story about the last months of Hašek’s life in Lipnice nad Sazavou. It brings back the atmosphere of provincial life and the surroundings in which Hašek was trying to finish his enormously famous novel about Josef Švejk.

Martin ReinerThe Poet (Básník. Román o Ivanu Blatném, Torst 2014)

Markéta PilátovaTsunami Blues (Torst, 2014)

Irena DouskováBear Dance (Medvědí tanecDruhé město 2014)

Hungary: Children confronted with history

Máglya (The Bone Fire), the new novel by Transylvanian-born György Dragomán, has been a long awaited book on the Hungarian market. In his previous work, the partly autobiographical Fehér király (White King), Dragomán sketched a vision of the Romanian dictatorship of the 1980s narrated by an eleven-year-old boy. In his latest book, the narrator is thirteen-year-old Emma, thanks to whom we can observe how those who rebelled against Communism struggle to adjust to the conditions of life in freedom. No one is giving them orders now, nor telling them what to do – they have to come up with everything by themselves and it is not as simple as it seems. The novel is to be published in English next year.

A child narrator, although much younger, can also be found in Péter Esterházy’s book, Egyszerű történet vessző száz oldal – a Márk-változat (Simple Story Comma One Hundred Pages – Mark’s Version), which has already been published in Slovak. In the second volume of his Simple Stories, Esterházy describes the life of a family displaced from Budapest to a former Kulak’s house in the provinces, from the perspective of a small boy who still doesn’t speak. The motifs of searching for God, questions of faith, and existence are presented against the background of the boring, humdrum everyday. The boy’s captivating story is – as usual in the case of this author – interlarded with various quotes from the Gospel according to St. Mark, but also from Pascal, Wittgenstein, and Imre Kertész.

The latter, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, also published an interesting book last year. A végső kocsma (The Ultimate Pub) includes notes from his diaries and excerpts from unpublished prose. The author is returning to the text with a novel entitled The Loner of Sodom, which he had planned to publish in the 1950s. The result is an unfinished novel that, however, takes the form of a real book.

Readers in Hungary may also be pleased by Pál Závada’s new novel entitledTermészetes fény (Natural Light). Similarly to his previous bestseller, Jadviga párnája (Yadviga’s Pillow), its plot takes place in the author’s multiethnic hometown of Tótkomlós in the south of Hungary, where Hungarians, Slovaks, and Jews live next to each other. Through János Semetka’s family’s lens, for more than 600 pages, Závada describes the complicated history of the 20th century, putting emphasis on the events of the Second World War.

György DragománThe Bone Fire (Máglya, Magvető Kiadó 2014)

Imre KertészThe Ultimate Pub (A végső kocsma, Magvető Kiadó 2014)

Péter EsterházySimple Story Comma One Hundred Pages – Mark’s Version (Egyszerű történet vessző száz oldal – a Márk-változat, Magvető Kiadó 2014)

Pála ZávadaNatural Light (Természetes fény, Magvető Kiadó 2014)


Poland: Gems in every genre

One of last year’s biggest events in Polish literature was the long awaited publication of the latest novel by acclaimed author Olga Tokarczuk, entitled Księgi Jakubowe(Jacob’s Scriptures). With more than 900 pages, this multi-layered historical novel describes the second half of the 18th century. It is based on the life of one Jakub Franek, the leader of a Jewish sect that converted to Catholicism.

There are many other equally interesting themes here and the book is written in a manner that emphasizes the specificities of the era. Last year, Zygmunt Miłoszewski, an author known for his widely read crime novels, claimed yet another success by publishing the last part of his trilogy about prosecutor Szacki, called Gniew (Wrath). The book sold more than 150,000 copies and the author was awarded Paszport Polityki – a prestigious cultural prize for young artists. “I wanted these three books to be a sort of commentary on Poland – three different cities, three different topics,” said the author in an interview for Polish weekly Polityka. The film adaptation of the second part of Miłoszewski’s trilogy, Ziarno prawdy (A Grain of Truth), premiered at the end of January. The first two volumes of the trilogy are also available in Czech and Slovak.

It is also worth mentioning Józef Hen (born in 1923), probably the oldest active author in Poland today, who published another volume of his journals at the end of 2014. This is even more interesting, as one encounters not only here, but also in previous volumes of his journals, many Czech and Slovak themes. This is no coincidence, as one of the classic Slovak films of the 1960s, The Boxer and Death by Peter Solan, was based precisely on Hen’s short story.

Polish non-fiction literature, especially reportage, is a phenomenon remarkable at least in the Visegrad Group. It is hard to single out only one among the numerous authors whose works belong to this genre, but it is worth mentioning a publication entitled 100/XX. Antologia polskiego reportażu XX wieku (100/XX. Anthology of Polish 20th Century Reportage). This work edited by Mariusz Szczygieł contains the best 100 Polish reportages published in the 20th century – two volumes, more than 1,800 pages.

Olga TokarczukJacob’s Scriptures (Księgi Jakubowe, Wydawnictwo Literackie 2014)

Zygmunt MiłoszewskiWrath (Gniew, W.A.B. 2014)

Józef HenDiary continued (Dziennika ciąg dalszy, Wydawnictwo Literackie 2014)

100/XX. Anthology of Polish 20th Century Reportageed. Mariusz Szczygieł (100/XX. Antologia polskiego reportażu XX wieku, Wydawnictwo Czarne 2014)


Slovakia: The star and the up comers

Without any doubt, the most significant figure on the Slovakian literary scene is novelist Pavel Vilikovský. Last year was exceptionally successful for him – for his book entitled Prvá a posledná láska (First and Last Love) he received for the second time the most important Slovak literary award, Anasoft Litera. Moreover, he published two other works in 2014. The novella Letmý sneh (Occasional Snow) raises some vital existential questions – Magdalena, the narrator’s wife, is gradually losing her memory, and thereby having identity problems. The other book by Vilikovský, Príbeh ozajského človeka (Real Man’s Story), is the diary of an average Slovak from the communist era, with his exaggerated ambitions and convictions of exceptionality. It is worth noting that the book was immediately translated into all four languages of the Visegrad Group as the first volume of the Central European series K4.

After years of silence, Peter Pišťánek, author of Rivers of Babylon, a classic Slovak trilogy from the beginnings of the 1990s, published a new novel –Rukojemník (Hostage). He tells the story of a boy named Peter, who was four years old when his parents immigrated to Vienna, leaving him behind with his grandparents and the faith that his parents would come back one day. A film bearing the same title, directed by Juraj Nvota and starring Milan Lasica, premiered at the beginning of the year.

It is also worth mentioning the latest book by Peter Krištúfek, who after his several hundred-page long novel Dom hluchého (The House of the Deaf Man) – which has already been translated into English and will be published in Poland later this year – wrote a short novella entitled Ema a smrtihlav (Emma and Death’s-head Hawk-moth). It is the story of a boy, Šimon, who was forced into hiding in the 1940s by the Slovak State. In seclusion, where colorful magazines were his only companions, dreams gradually merged with reality.

Pavel VilikovskýFirst and Last Love (Prvá a posledná láska, Slovart 2013)

Pavel VilikovskýOccasional Snow (Letmý sneh, Slovart 2014)

Pavel VilikovskýReal Man’s Story (Príbeh ozajského človeka, Kalligram 2014)

Peter PišťánekHostage (Rukojemník, Slovart 2014)

Peter KrištúfekEmma and Death’s-head Hawk-moth (Ema a smrtihlav, Artforum 2014)


Translated by Maciej Świderski

Tomasz Grabiński is a translator and former deputy director of the Polish Institute in Bratislava.

Margit Garajaszki is a playwright and translator.

Photo by: geralt|pixabay