Q&A with Pavol Rankov

Slovak writer Pavol Rankov’s most recent novel Miesta, čo nie sú na mape (Places That Are Not on the Map) was published at the end of 2017. An excerpt from the novel appeared in the latest Saturday European Fiction in B O D Y in a translation by Magdalena Mullek and now writer and translator have teamed up for a Q&A on the new territory the novel represents, mixing languages in this and other of his books among other topics.

Magdalena Mullek: Your latest novel, Places That Are Not on the Map could be called a detective novel, which is new territory for you. Although some of your short stories have a certain detective element, your first two books are historical novels. That makes Places a foray into a new genre for you. What made you decide to explore it?

Pavol Rankov: Personally, I would probably call Places That Are Not on the Map a horror novel. Of course, if you picture a typical horror film with gallons of blood on the walls, this is certainly not that. But unlike a typical detective story, my novel does not offer a clear resolution. By the end of the book the reader is probably not sure who the perpetrator is or who the victims are.

Mullek: The protagonists of the novel Places That Are Not on the Map are Marek and Natália, two Slovaks who have just finished their Bachelors degrees at the Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic. Since you teach at Comenius University in Bratislava, I’m sure you’re very familiar with the university environment. To what degree did your own experiences influence you in writing these characters?

Rankov: Despite the fact that Marek is a morally troublesome character, he and I have a lot in common. Marek is struggling with the same thing I struggled with as a student. Our (Marek’s and mine) problem could be summed up as follows: How is it possible that I like this girl more than she likes me? This emotional imbalance bothers Marek as much as it bothered me thirty years ago. The difference between us is that I gave up long ago, but he is still wrestling with it.

Mullek: In your novels you tend to use many phrases in foreign languages. This was the case both in It Happened on the First of September (or Some Other Time) and in Mothers. Your latest novel carries on the tradition. One of the places where it is set is Olomouc, in the Czech Republic, and Czech creeps into the predominantly Slovak dialogue of the protagonists, even though they are both from Slovakia. Why did you decide to use this kind of language intermingling?

Rankov: Most Slovaks have a very peculiar relationship with Czech, even though it is very similar to Slovak. In our everyday speech we like to use phrases or whole sentences from Czech films, Czech sayings or proverbs. One reason for this may be that we like the sound of Czech, but another is that these phrases are so fitting that translating them into Slovak would make them lose some of their potency. In practical terms, most Slovaks are bilingual. As an example, when they read a text, they don’t pay attention to whether it is written in Slovak or in Czech. The same cannot be said of Czechs. They understand spoken Slovak, but they don’t read books in Slovak.

Mullek: Writing, or at least story sketches, are central to Places That Are Not on the Map. The protagonists are constantly coming up with unwritten stories, alternative endings, etc. Do you write in this manner as well?

Rankov: I think that for Marek and Natália inspiration is an immediate reaction to an experience. They see something, or something happens, and they immediately start inventing how this real situation would go on if it were a fictional story. I am less tied to reality. When I write historical novels, I find a lot of inspiration in history books, and when I write fiction such as Places That Are Not on the Map, I let my imagination run free and create literary constructs in fictional worlds. I was very surprised when one Slovak reviewer compared Marek and Natália to two characters from autobiographical novels. I found that argument to be flawed.

Mullek: Places That Are Not on the Map, opens with the similarly-titled short story “A Village That Is Not on the Map,” which was published in 2013 in your collection of short stories On the Other Side. Was the novel your plan all along, or was it an idea that came later?

Rankov: When I included that short story in the collection, I felt that it was complete. It wasn’t until a year or two later that the idea of how the story could continue came to me one day out of the blue. That is the advantage of open-ended stories – you can weave into and out of them later.

Mullek:There is a character in the book, Dr. Voknár, whom we don’t encounter in the short excerpt, but I can’t help asking you about him because he also appeared in your novel Mothers. Since Voknár written backwards is Rankov, and you and he are both academics, the immediate question is whether he is an autobiographical character. Is that the case?

Rankov: Voknár is a palindrome of my last name, and the name also happens to sound like an actual Slovak name. He posesses all of the negative qualities of a university professor, many of which I have been trying to purge from my own life. So as a character he is the exact opposite of an ideal, although I am as far from that ideal as he is. He is about as autobiographical as if were standing in front of a warped mirror. He is an image of me, but a deformed image.

Mullek: In addition to Voknár in Places That Are Not on the Map and in Mothers, in the opening chapter of It Happened on the First of September (or Some Other Time) there is a Bulgarian who has your last name, Rankov. It seems to me that this kind of writing yourself into the text is almost akin to Salvador Dalí inserting himself into his own paintings. Is it something like your signature? Or a form of self-irony?

Rankov: Writing is play. The author is playing with the reader, but also with himself. I have hidden a few messages in each book that will probably not be understood by anyone other than me. Of course, it’s a lost cause, because I don’t read my books after they are published, so in the end no one will read those coded messages, not even me. OK, let’s say that writing is (also) a form of self-therapy for me. I think that self-irony is a form of self-therapy.

Photo – from an untitled artwork by Marilyn Stein.

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Categories: Interviews

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