When I first moved to the Netherlands I would be cross-examined by my new acquaintances regarding this mysterious, unheard-of and potentially lethal country called Slovakia. On one of the occasions, after having established the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia and explaining that yes, we do have internet over there, and no, we don’t usually torture and/or slaughter tourists as seen in the movie Hostel, I got pinned by another inquiry from my friend Edmond: “Are there any famous Slovak writers? Is it possible I have read some of them?” Oh, my. I don’t even know why I took a second to think about it, since the answers were obviously: “No;” and “hell no;” respectively.
I always feel uneasy when discussing my national literature with foreigners. We don’t have a Tolstoy, Faulkner or Austen. We don’t even have an E. L. James. There are no writers, no artists among the big names of Slovak literature. Mostly, they were just people of various professions who merely happened to write something from time to time about a cause they cared about; like national liberation, women rights, or how socialism might not be the greatest idea ever. But aside from that, they were… peasants, I guess. And I mean it in the best possible salt-of-the-earth, more-than-meets-the-eye way. Didn’t care for art, fame or money. Just said what they had to say, when they had something to say. However, in the past twenty-five years or so, there’s been a shift on the Slovak literary scene.
During the socialist era, the transaction between the author and the reader was very simple—readers were looking for clues whether or not the author supports the regime. The braver the writer was, the greater impact his work had. However, after the Velvet Revolution, this unwritten rule lost its meaning, since now everyone was free to say whatever they pleased. Writers had no evil power to revolt against and consequently, readers saw little thrill in reading (not to mention having to deal with a completely new reality of life in capitalism).
Critics call for a new pact between the authors and their readers, but that might be difficult to establish, when looking at the selection of contemporary published authors. The crushing majority of what actually gets on the shelves being chick lit in various degrees of bad, one could almost say that the authors are not trying to educate their readers. I’d almost accuse them of being in it just for the money and fame, but it’s Slovakia, so, you know, there’s that.
That being said, decent contemporary Slovak literature does exist. Typically hiding on obscure blogs and on beer coasters of shady college cafés. It’s usually forgotten as soon as it’s created. Incidentally, that also sums up the life cycle of a Slovak lit graduate. Go to college because he loves literature and likes to write, enjoys the five years spent there, only to face-plant into very unemployed, extremely non-artistic reality upon his graduation. With a little bit of luck, he either gets into a PhD program, or lands a high school teacher job, facing a very uninterested, ungrateful bunch of the youth of the nation, wondering where did the beauty go and questioning his life choices, before ultimately becoming a cynic who is bitterly embarrassed by the memory of his former poetic self.
So there you have it, the reason why post-socialistic Slovak literature is still more of an awkward teenager than a mature individual. But tell that to your American or English friends, and feel the burn when they slap you in the face with their Kings and Rowlings.
I was so excited when I learned that work of what is considered to be one of the greatest Slovak authors — Rudolf Sloboda — is being translated into Dutch. I have always liked the idea of that book: how the guy means well, but then the life gets heavy and he turns into a not-very pleasant type, while being fully aware of his assholism, and hating himself for it, wondering where the beauty went and ultimately stating “I’m a killed man,” (meaning, of course, killed by life), before — spoiler alert – taking his own life. Such a nice story it is.
I got a copy as soon as I could get my hands on one and proudly gave it to my friend Edmond – wrapping paper and all. I explained about the author: how he’s considered a hero for escaping the censorship of socialism, and celebrated for depicting the true human experience. I could foresee some troubles a foreigner could have with digesting this work, so I tried to prepare him by telling the author’s life story: “In short, he was a miner and a builder, occasional writer and a full-time alcoholic. He married his mentally ill wife in the hope he could make her better, and when he realised he couldn’t, he hung himself on a bicycle chain. So yeah, don’t expect rainbows and unicorns.”
When I saw him next, Edmond told me he can’t remember reading a book more depressive or off-putting, and if this is how people in my country feel about life, it’s no wonder there are so few of us. So, I guess that answers the question of how come nobody’s ever heard of a famous Slovak writer. The past one was too much of a downer and the contemporary one is just a teenage boy whose voice hasn’t cracked yet.
Veronika Bacova was born in a country that no longer exists and raised in Slovakia. She studied Media & Communication and consequently, she doesn’t take herself seriously or anything that she sees on the news. Veronika takes keen interest in pop culture and science. She’s acquired her English language skills largely from the Cartoon Network. When she doesn’t play ukulele as means of procrastination, she enjoys making complicated sciency texts approachable to all. Because democracy.