Central Europe and its cities

Polish quarterly magazine Res Publica Nowa has published a special English-language issue “Central Europe as City.” Besides the editorials, there are five articles from the issue available online on the Eurozine website and they contain some fascinating information.

Articles cover an array of topics – from the multicultural history of today’s Bratislava to the Jews of Vilnius in diaspora and a questioning of the European capital of culture designation – but Central European identity seems to be at the heart of the collaborative effort of Czech, Slovak, Polish, Hungarian and other writers.

‘This issue tries to shed some light on the stories of small towns, which often get portrayed as places that are fit for nothing better than escape. But in fact, these are the heart of today’s Central Europe. They’re the places we all come from – the shameful foundations for our small-town identities. Whether we like it or not, these places are the reservoirs of heritage that remind us of who we are,’ Res Publica’s Katarzyna Kazimierowska writes in her editorial

In Marek Sečkař’s editorial regional cities/towns are given a run through to decide whether they are Central European or not:
“Although Krakow and Wroclaw are decidedly Central European, we surely can’t say that all of Poland is. And while we likewise can’t include all of Austria, no one would think of excluding Vienna from the region. Or what about Romania? We would probably never call it a Central European country, but surely we must make allowances for Sibiu or Brasov.”

Sečkař makes the (I think very convincing) case that “anything like a definition of Central Europe must be based on its city culture. In a region of vague identities and shifting borders, cities are the stable footholds.”

Kundera’s hometown

One of the most interesting articles online is by Charles University literary theorist Jiří Trávníček on Brno and its literary image. Trávníček recounts how the formerly culturally vital city was squeezed between Prague and the emerging Czechoslovak second city Bratislava, before presenting its post-89’ return to greater prominence and independence.

In literary terms he brings up the poet Ivan Blatný, whose 1939 collection “Melancholy Walks” is also known in English as “Brno Elegies.” Blatný emigrated in 1948 and spent much of his life in English psychiatric hospitals, still writing poems about Brno.

After a further summary of Brno’s modern literary history, Trávníček mentions the two stories in Kundera’s Laughable Loves devoted to the city. The English translations of the two stories might have been “Sister of my sisters” and “I, mournful god,” but that is pure speculation since Kundera removed these stories from the collection and they have never been translated.

Trávníček’s explanation for the stories removal is that it is the fault of Brno itself, that the stories evoke the city so much that they diverge from Kundera’s literary aesthetic. His conclusion does not pull any punches:

“However in Kundera, Brno is not both loser and winner. In the battle with the author’s canon, it lost – it didn’t make it on board. Nevertheless, it has yielded two unforgettable short stories.”

The entire issue can be bought here for 20 zloty (just under €5 and about $7)

Photo – Brno in 1906

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Categories: Literary History, New and notable


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