Being a good or great writer is certainly no guarantee of having a great, good or even remedial grasp of politics, culture or, really, anything at all. Yet there are writers whose intellect outside their books approximates their intellect in their books, and so it can be worth hearing what they have to say. For writers from Central and Eastern Europe it is enough of a struggle to get their novels, poetry, essays, diaries etc. translated that expecting to be able to read their magazine editorials and interviews seems a bit much to expect.
But that’s where the Slovak civic association Project Forum comes in, with regular translations from regional Visegrád country magazines, articles that often boast writers opining on this or that.
For some recent examples:
Besides writing great novels both with and without penguins, Andrey Kurkov writes about Ukraine without mincing words, with humor, and with a calm perspective that allows him to write about how bad things are in the country accompanied by the reminder that they could be much worse. So while in neighboring Russia the political musical chairs is between the office of president and prime minister, in Ukraine it’s a game of even higher stakes, and the reason why President Yanukovych won’t let former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko out of jail:
“For if she is released, she will immediately return to politics, her party will gain the majority of seats in parliament and she will easily replace Viktor Yanukovych as President and do everything she can to make him replace her in prison.”
Hungarian novelist Péter Esterházy talks about one of my favorite subjects – the “Central European mentality.” He splits it into two teams (okay, so he doesn’t use the word teams, but it ties into the next article). On one side is Claudio Magris, to whom he attributes the “Danube or the Habsburg myth” and says that he takes a wholly cultural as opposed to a historical approach. The other Central Europe, reflected in Danilo Kiš, “reflects the same spiritual wealth, while constantly confronting it with the presence of brutality …” Surprisingly (to me at least) Esterházy then makes a case for the Magris outlook.
And speaking of teams, Polish writer Jerzy Pilch on the link between Czech literature and football (soccer): “One might speak of a certain light touch, a playing esprit. One might, if it weren’t pure showing off. However, the Czechs really are very shrewd, very smart. It’s always a pleasure to watch them play, for even before the ball reaches a Czech player, he knows what – mostly unexpected – move to make. Instead of having trouble noticing that he’s got the ball. A lightness of touch, rather than martyrdom.”
Back to more serious matters (though football can be very serious, as can Czech literature) Slovak novelist Michal Hvorecký offers suggestions on teaching literature in Slovak High Schools. The ideas are all very good, and would certainly be an improvement over rote learning and worthless memorization, but from my perspective at least, High School itself poisoned even the best ideas, so while I will probably never read Lord of the Flies or Catcher in the Rye because of the memories they evoke, I feel grateful that my English teachers never mentioned Kafka or Kundera or Gombrowicz.
Photo – 1) Czech national under-21 team showing their lightness of touch (and perhaps overdoing it just a bit) in 2011 by Viborg Kommune 2) Serbian Danilo Kiš stamp by Marina Kalezić from Wikimedia Commons