Slovak writer Pavel Vilikovský on facts, realism and what he really learned about Central Europeanism from Olomouc and Camus
Pavel Vilikovský’s Ever Green Is …: Collected Prose was published by Northwestern University Press in 2002, while a short story (also included in the NWU collection) came out in Dalkey’s Slovak fiction anthology in 2010. That is all in English translation, which is a shame considering his stature as a writer, but also a surprise of sorts, for Vilikovský has considerable experience in Slovak-English translation.
He has translated English-language writers such as William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad and Kurt Vonnegut into Slovak, but said it was difficult to determine the extent to which these writers may have influenced him. “It’s not up to me to judge how strong this influence has been. I would like if Faulkner could have influenced me more, but I’m not an epic writer like he was. I can’t tell a story properly. It usually somehow collapses into an essay or something like that.”
His now twice-translated story “All I Know about Central Europeanism (with a bit of friendly help from Olomouc and Camus)” could be an example of one of those un-Faulknerian stories. In this case though the story even begins as an essay, with a considerable amount of speculation on Central Europeanism throughout. Along the way the reader encounters a Communist-era beauty pageant, some local color and, of course, Albert Camus.
The story is striking in its seeming randomness, as if the reader has stumbled upon the obscure mystery at the heart of Central Europeanism in the train station of a provincial Czech town. Yet far from being merely the wild associative leaps of a literary sensibility, Vilikovský insists that the basis of the story is factual.
“I am a socialist realist so it means most of the facts are real or taken from real life. The story was written for a student magazine in Olomouc that prepared a special Slovak issue. I was asked to write an essay or story. I knew that Camus had traveled around Czechoslovakia,” he said.
Even the beauty contest mentioned in the story – the “Miss People’s Democracy” pageant – really took place. “I don’t know why they had the idea – it was in 1968 – there was a little breath of freedom. They had the idea of having a jury composed of writers – so Kundera was there, Škvorecký was there and so on. I don’t know how they came upon my name. I had just one book published. They probably just wanted to have a Slovak.”
Other features from the story, such as the hotel concierge who “wrote fantasy stories reminiscent of Tolkien” existed as well. “Generally speaking, the facts were true,” Vilikovský said. “ I only lied, but I didn’t know I lied, about the fact that no one knew Camus was in Olomouc. In his notebooks there is one sentence about Olomouc – so he was there. It exists, but I didn’t know it.”
While Vilikovský’s realism seems worlds away from Realist fiction so prevalent in Anglo-American literature he insists on adhering to a base of reality and writing about actual incidents, even when certain aspects of the story extend into the patently unreal.
“For example, I have a story about the British murderer Christie [John Christie, known as the Strangler of Notting Hill], who was hanged. So I told his story with all the facts, but I told it from the point of view of a cupboard in his kitchen, where he puts some of the women after he kills them. It was my attempt not to be anthropomorphic. There can be other points of view, not only ours. For a cupboard all people are laughable, not only this murderer.”