AUGUST 28, 2017
LONG OVERSHADOWED by Czech literature, its partner from the former Czechoslovak republic, Slovak literature has rarely been available in translation, to say nothing of making an impact on international readers. Almost 25 years after Slovakia attained independence as a state, however, its writers are finally appearing on the global scene, with at least three new English translations, including a comprehensive contemporary anthology, published in the last few months alone. Of these, perhaps the most significant is In the Name of the Father, by the award-winning postmodernist Balla, which has just been released by the United Kingdom–based Jantar Publishing. Its translator, Julia Sherwood, who works in collaboration with her husband Peter, has been almost singlehandedly responsible for the recent emergence of Slovak literature from near-total obscurity. This beautifully produced volume, containing the title novella and three short stories, gives a useful introduction to a writer who epitomizes the generation that came of age during the period of post-communist transition. Jantar’s edition is enhanced by two critical pieces: a brief preface by the Hungarian writer Gábor Németh titled “How to Read Balla,” and a substantial (but not onerously theoretical) afterword by the Slovak scholar Marta Součková, which helps anchor Balla’s work in its Central European and national contexts.
Slovak critics have often compared Balla (who does not use his first name, Vladimír, in his literary work) to Kafka. While this seems to be the default comparison for much of Central European fiction, it is justified in Balla’s case not only by his absurdist edge but also by his bureaucratic career. Balla’s native town of Nové Zámky in southern Slovakia hardly seems a rival to Kafka’s mystical Prague, yet with its substantial Hungarian minority, it is one of the most ethnically diverse corners of the former Czechoslovakia. It has also produced some of the more interesting writers in contemporary Slovak literature, including Peter Macsovszky, who won the most recent Anasoft Litera prize, Slovakia’s leading literary award, for his novel Tantalópolis. Balla won the prize four years earlier, in 2012, for the novella In the Name of the Father (V mene otca), which epitomizes his particular form of Central European postmodernism. The self-enclosed nature of his texts, beginning with his first book of short stories, Leptokaria (1996), is heightened by his frequent use of intertextuality. He frequently uses autobiographical protagonists who are trapped in their existential isolation and unable to communicate with an absurd outside world, as reflected in the title of his second book, Outsiders (Outsideria, 1997). Along with Kafka, another point of reference may be Gabriel García Márquez, since the banality of his small-town setting sometimes gives way to bursts of what can only be described as magical realism. Yet his deconstruction of current reality reflects the specific experience of post-communist Central Europe, in which many long-standing assumptions were broken apart, including the elevated role of the writer in socialist societies.
The age of national revivals in the 19th century, which ironically used German philosophical models to break free of Austrian-Germanic cultural domination, gave Central and East European writers pride of place in their societies. Before the existence of independent states, national identity was rooted in language, which was naturally protected and nurtured by the writer, and this relationship is reflected in the number of streets, squares, and even towns named after literary figures across the region. This tradition was preserved, mutatis mutandis, during the communist period. One appeal of the socialist system, along with the financial rewards granted to those who supported it, was the idea of the writer as the “engineer of human souls,” still playing the nation-building role but now in the service of communist ideology. Many writers thus embraced the Soviet-dominated regimes that followed World War II, including the Stalinist excesses of the early 1950s. Even those who became disenchanted with communism (in the case of Czechoslovakia, especially after the suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring reforms) served the nation through their dissident activity, opposing the regime that in some cases had richly rewarded them in the past and calling for a rapprochement with the West. But the lofty role of the writer, along with the moral compromises and risks it entailed, came tumbling down after the revolutions of 1989 that reopened the communist “Eastern Bloc” to the West. Without official state support and the shared excitement of smuggling hidden messages past the censors, literature lost much of its radical appeal (and readership) in post-socialist Central Europe. The generation of Slovak writers who came of age in the last decade of the 20th century, which includes Balla, was the first that could truly pursue “art for art’s sake,” free of political or social demands, but in an atmosphere of aggressive materialism, it remains an open question whether literature retains any role at all.
This loss of social significance found its symbolic expression in an obsession with sexual impotence, which became such a prevalent theme among young Slovak writers in the 1990s that the British doyen of Slovak studies, Robert Pynsent, ironically dubbed them the “Genitalists,” a group he characterized through their “ironization of male genitalia and an explicit concern in their fiction with modern Theory, especially French varieties.” While the Genitalist label was never fully embraced by Slovak critics, Rajendra Chitnis also employs it in his book Literature in Post-Communist Russia and Eastern Europe, which includes what is probably the best analysis of Balla available to the English reader. According to Chitnis, Balla’s Leptokaria “transforms sexual impotence from a condition of weakness into an ideal state for the writer, the endless promise of creation that is never fully realized.” Thus it is not surprising that in the opening scene of In the Name of the Father, the narrator (then 20) finds himself in a doctor’s office “with my tool hanging down and my balls in the doctor’s hands.” The examining physician orders him, “Don’t ever procreate because you will father a predator.” Much of the subsequent story describes the narrator’s dysfunctional relationship with his wife and his two sons, for which he takes little blame (“perhaps it’s my sons who are not suitable as sons”).
The ethnically mixed setting of Balla’s stories also reflects a historical issue whose ramifications continue into the present. As a nation with no independent kingdom in the past (unlike the Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians), Slovaks faced the existential struggle of defining themselves against linguistic and political assimilation on several fronts. Under Hungarian rule, minority ethnicities faced increasing suppression as national consciousness grew stronger. After 1918, when the Czechoslovak republic was established, conflicts shifted from the Hungarians to the Czechs, who expected loyalty from the Slovaks and often looked with condescension at the smaller nation’s desire for autonomy, which was finally achieved under morally fraught circumstances. Hitler’s occupation of the Czech lands allowed for the creation of a Slovak puppet state, whose leader was executed for Nazi collaboration after the war, but whose long-repressed memory still inspires right-wing nationalists. In the postwar Eastern Bloc, these national tensions were superficially submerged beneath socialist brotherhood, only to reemerge after 1989, leading to the collapse of the Czecho-Slovak federation in 1993 and continuing conflicts with Hungary over language and citizenship issues. Thus, when Balla’s characters address each other in Hungarian at the beginning of the novella, these phrases (which Sherwood’s translation keeps in the original) both reflect a social reality and challenge the cultural assumption that it is a betrayal for Slovaks to write in any language other than Slovak.
Slovakia, then, is a complicated homeland — and the central metaphor of In the Name of the Father is the bizarre house built by the narrator’s brother, whose sprawling underground labyrinth represents not only the family but the nation. As the narrator observes, “This town’s inhabitants had nothing in common with any kind of nation.” Most of the characters speak a mix of Slovak and Hungarian, which adds to the general confusion and alienation. The mysterious tunnels built by the narrator’s brother are meant to help the citizens cope with their insignificance: they are designed to create a sacred energy “to induce a very specific mood that would make the town’s populace realise that there was no point expecting any major change […] they would remain second-rate citizens of the border region of a second-rate country.” It is typical of Balla’s fictional world that a character would expend superhuman efforts and create a mystical force just to remind people of their inherent mediocrity. After the family moves into the house, the narrator’s wife insists on keeping the curtains closed so that no one can see inside — as a result, everyone is forced to live in darkness. Later he finds her digging into the concrete in the basement, and she confesses that she has planted the seeds of Yggdrasil, the sacred tree of Nordic myth. One of the narrator’s only friends, Mr. Labadaj, comes to see the tree and offers his erudite advice: “As long as mankind is divided into two sexes, war and natural selection will rage between them […] followed by coupling, by procreation of the winners, that is to say the losers of the future.” This nihilistic view of human reproduction is followed by one of Balla’s autobiographical allusions. Labadaj asks the narrator if he has heard of Baldur, “the most beautiful, purest and youngest of the Germanic gods. It could easily be you, don’t you think? A vestige of the god’s name in your surname suggests this.” This ironic contrast between the spiteful narrator and the sublime god with a vaguely similar name points to Balla himself — particularly toward the end of the story, when the narrator reveals that his younger son has become a writer.
The translation published by Jantar includes three stories from Balla’s previous collections: “Before the Breakup” (2005), “Spring is Coming” (2008), and “Contagion,” from the 1996 Leptokaria. The last of these stories echoes the theme of an unhomely house, but with a focus on friendship rather than family. The narrator inherits a house from his parents, then throws away the furniture, but has a feeling of dread about staying there alone. He invites a passing friend to stay with him, despite the fact that their friendship has lost any positive value: “In fact, we hated each other, but come to think of it, is it really so strange for friends to hate each other?” They end up living together and spend their energy repeatedly redecorating and renovating the house. Yet the feeling that it is possessed by a mysterious contagion drives both the friend and, finally, the narrator to leave the city, and then to escape over the border. Another inexplicable threat appears in “Before the Breakup,” where a woman named Miša discovers something hiding behind the TV set while her husband Jano is away on an international business trip. Despite its underlying paranoia, this story has a somewhat lighter tone: when Miša’s friend suggests that she see a psychologist “for starters,” she responds indignantly: “It’s as big as a wardrobe and you’re calling this starters?” When Jano returns, he sees the threatening object too, but comments that “it made the living room even cozier than before.” Only later does Miša’s friend Soňa confirm that she and nearly everyone she knows has seen the same thing: “You’re no different from anyone else. How do you diagnose madness when everyone is mad?” The shortest of the stories, “Spring is Coming,” also features a female protagonist, who watches her husband drinking and thinks, “Who is this?” A mirror appears as a symbol for alienation; the character stares into it and asks the same question, answering herself: “Nobody.”
Balla’s fiction seems to offer little comfort to the reader, except for the grim pleasure of confronting reality in its true emptiness. Yet the author himself insists that his intention goes beyond the mere exploration of despair. In the new anthology Into the Spotlight (also translated by Julia Sherwood along with Magdalena Mullek), Balla comments: “I’ve been writing to appeal precisely to those people who share my strange perception of life, and this helps to create the kind of community that is able to survive in a world that feels quite alien to them.” It is in this search for meaning, hopeless though it may be, that Balla evokes the older, quasi-sacred role of the writer in society. However, his community is not that of traditional religion or the nation (Slovak, Hungarian, or otherwise), but one of outsiders, misfits, and lonely souls who are unable to identify with these or any other categories — a group, he suggests, that is much larger than we might think.
Charles Sabatos is associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yeditepe University in Istanbul, Turkey. He is the translator of Pavel Vilikovský’s Ever Green Is … (Northwestern, 2002) and has published translations of several other Slovak authors, including Ján Uličiansky and Peter Karpinský.