Central Europe: The devil’s playground

Book World Prague roundup

Prague’s book fair just came and went and though I missed seeing a lot of the bigger names and featured events I was left with one strong impression that seems highly significant for Central European literature and the region as a whole. It is that Central Europe is fucked – no exaggeration, not that atmosphere of impending doom that can make a book or film interesting, but the “why would I possibly have a child here when his or her future is so frighteningly bleak.” Fucked.

In a panel presenting Visegrad Insight magazine prominent writers from Poland, Hungary and Slovakia gave their take on their countries’ respective nationalisms, illusions and the role history plays (or doesn’t play) in their national consciousness.

Krzysztof Varga, writer and journalist at Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, talked about being half Polish and half Hungarian, and that Central Europe is a melting pot as well as being “God’s playground”, where so many developments, ideas and historical experiences have been played out. But then he frankly stated his pessimism about the future here, that nationalism is rising and that the situation is dangerous:

“Central Europe is a great cultural melting pot and I love it but Central Europe is the devil’s playground too.”

Winner of the 2012 European Prize for Literature for his novel Turkish Mirror, Viktor Horváth pointed out the dismal situation in Hungary, where the governing Fidesz party makes use of the growing far right for its own purposes. Another winner of the European Prize for Literature from last  year Slovak Pavol Rankov joined the consensus, though he made a distinction between the Slovak and Hungarian outlook in regard to history: “We want our future to be better than our history was while Hungarians want the future to be the same as history was.”

Rankov also pointed out how the Czech’s characteristic irony distances them from the kind of historical glorification more typical of Hungary and Poland. Of Poland’s need to see itself as a suffering victim Varga was particularly scathing: “Polish people can’t live without historical catastrophes. They can’t live without wars and uprisings. Freedom is an uncomfortable situation.” And though he thought that by now Poland would be a boring country where the parliament talked about taxes and the GDP, instead they go on about history and the nation.

(An aside: if prize-winning writers are so pessimistic just imagine how gloomy it is for non-prize-winning writers).

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4 Comments on “Central Europe: The devil’s playground”

  1. 20/05/2013 at 9:27 pm #

    Erm, yes, I tend to fall into that well of depression every time I visit my native country. But maybe it’s the optimists who are deluded, right?

    • 20/05/2013 at 9:46 pm #

      Ha ha, I guess the flipside of this is that I prefer this regional well of depression to the optimists and medicated depressives of my native country, but frightening political realities and clear evidence of not learning a thing from history are pretty dispiriting.

  2. 04/07/2013 at 7:14 pm #

    There is encouragement and a breath of fresh air to to be had from reading Olga Tokarczuk’s post-Smolensk article in the NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/16/opinion/16tokarczuk.html?_r=0

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Book World Prague 2013 report in Publishing Perspectives | literalab - 02/07/2013

    […] here for a previous Literalab article “Central Europe: the devil’s playground” about a BWP 2013 discussion between three writers from the […]

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