It has been difficult to find any Slovak authors in translation; by contrast, there is an abundance of Czech literature for the English-speaking reader to choose from. So I was happy to see that the small family-run indie publisher Two Dollar Radio from Columbus, Ohio, has published Jana Benova’s Seeing People Off, translated by Janet Livingstone.
Jana Benova is well-known not just in her home country, but also a winner of the European Union Prize for Literature, widely translated into other European languages other than English. She is a playful, experimental writer, with a fizzy, poppy style that one might expect from a younger writer (she is of my generation rather than a pure-bred millenial, by which I mean somebody born in the 1990s).
The original title of this novel is Café Hyena, and that is the meeting place for a group of artistic friends in Bratislava, in particular two couples who share an income which allows them to pursue their literary endeavours.
They had a system where one of them would always work and earn money while the others created. They sat around in the café, strolled around the city, studied, observed, fought for their lives. The fourth, meanwhile, provided the stipend. Just as other artists get them from ; the Santa Maddalena Foundation in Tuscany, the Instituto Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, the Fulbright Foundation in the USA, or the Countess Thurn-Taxis in Duino.
The Quartet are formed of Elza and Ian, who live in the much maligned district of Petržalka on the ‘wrong’ side of the river, and Rebeka (Elza’s childhood friend) with her husband Lukas Elfman. They are the post-Communist generation, but refuse to subscribe to the desperate capitalist hustle that seems to have engulfed everyone else. They feel they are not selling out on their artistic ambitions.
Elza and Ian were Bratislava desperadoes. They didn’t work for an advertising agency and weren’t trying to save up for a better apartment or car. They sat around in posh cafés. They ate, drank, and smoked away all the money they earned. Like students. (Slogan: Only genuinely wasted money is money truly saved.) They joined that carefree class of people who buy only what they can pee, poop, and blow out – recycle in 24 hours. It was because of those desperate people that the cafés and restaurants in the city, where everything costs a hundred times more than it should, could stay open.
Petržalka is a real neighbourhood of Bratislava, a sea of concrete tower blocks, home to 100,000 inhabitants. Somewhat ironically, it borders Austria, and in recent years has been repainted in an effort to shake its grey image. It is probably no better and no worse than hundreds of other Communist developments across the Eastern bloc, which cannot be torn down because it would leave so many homeless. Yet the author describes it like a circle of hell and makes fun of it relentlessly – the thin walls, eccentric neighbours who try to know everything about you, how easy it is to get lost in its identical alleys. To Elza, it feels like banishment from the ‘real city’ and the bridge connecting Petržalka to the Old Town is full of dangerous temptation to jump in. The river is ‘too close’ and ‘calls you’. Could that be because Petržalka is the place where losers go?
Elfman claims that the genius loci of Petržalka is the fact that, in time, everyone here starts to feel like an asshole who never amounted to anything in life. A guy who couldn’t take care of himself or his family.
So the Quartet takes refuge in their (often aimless) discussions and in their imaginings. Elza is obsessed with Kalisto Tanzi, a charismatic actor who might be her lover or perhaps a figment of her imagination. Elfman drinks excessively even by the group’s standards, while Rebeka ends up in a psychiatric ward. Very small and fast dogs seem to pop up in this strange mosaic-like collection of memories, insights, observations and anecdotes. We also catch glimpses of Elza and Ian’s childhood and youth. Just to confuse matters even more, Elza is in the process of writing a book called Seeing People Off, and the narration switches at some point from third to first person.
Confused? So you should be! This is certainly not conventional storytelling, but it is quite successful in capturing a certain type of person, place and time. Something that is difficult to articulate but that you recognise as vignette succeeds vignette. I might prefer a novel with a clearer story arc, but I was caught up in its verve and (sometimes black) humour. It certainly catches the mood of much of contemporary literature (see for example Attrib and Other Stories by Eley Williams, or Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation).