#EU27Project: Slovakia’s Jana Benova

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).

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January Reading Summary

So what has my first month of reading freedom brought me? By freedom, I mean of course not having to read any books for review, following my own whims and jumping into rabbit holes. There was only one book that I had already promised to review, and that was the controversial story of child killers The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts. But other than that, I was free as a bird or a butterfly, so which flowers have I alighted on?

11 books, no less, and some of these were massive 500+ books, so great in terms of quantity, but also of quality.

First and foremost, January has got me obsessed with Romanian playwright, novelist and essayist Mihail Sebastian. I read his polemical novel about being Jewish in Romania, his essay in response to the outrage he experienced upon publication of that novel, and his diaries which pick up the story from where he left it off in the novel. I am also now rereading his novels and trying to get hold of his plays (in Romanian, of course, but some of his work has been translated into English, with more forthcoming).

Traditional uniform of Hungarian Hussars.

I’ve become equally absorbed with the work of Miklos Banffy, as I read the second and third books in his Transylvanian trilogy after a year’s break following the first volume. I was so reluctant to reemerge into the real world after bathing in that beautiful description of a vanished world, although I was slightly disappointed that the story stops with the outbreak of the war (and Balint’s family all gaily setting off as Hussars in the army). I will be reviewing the trilogy shortly for my #EU27Project, and beware! It might end up being a bit of a mammoth post.

The third obsession this month has been poets talking about poetry, where they find inspiration, the craft of poetry, what a poet’s role is in society etc. I’ve started with Denise Levertov and Maxine Kumin, but have a few others planned for next month.

Idyllic landscape of Rwanda today, hiding the scars of yesterday, from Africa.com

I read a lot of women this month too. In addition to the two poets, I also read Scholastique Mukasonga’s remarkable account of a rapidly disappearing traditional way of Tutsi life in Rwanda just prior to the genocide The Barefoot Woman. Another woman’s account of war was Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls, a very different book, not based on personal experience, more shouty than understated.

I’ve also read Jana Benova‘s Seeing People Off, a Slovakian entry to my #EU27Project. I still have to write the full review of this short, snappy novel, a series of vignettes offering an often hilarious, satirical account of post-Communist life in the artistic milieu in Bratislava.

Another short but biting satire was Fernando Sdrigotti’s Shitstorm, forcing us to take a good hard look at ourselves and how we conduct our lives and debates online, moving quickly onto the next scandal that we can be indignant about, without really being fully implicated. I can’t help but wonder what Sebastian would have made of it all. I think this may become my theme when looking at any present-day news: ‘What would Orwell and Sebastian say about this?’, although Sebastian, with his gentler, more forgiving approach, is perhaps closer to me in spirit.

So much happier now that I’m following my own interests in reading, with no qualms about abandoning books that promise to be average or not quite captivating. This month I didn’t finish The Binding for example, a new book just out which sounded great in concept, but failed to set my heart alight. I’m sure it will do well commercially though, it has The Miniaturist success written all over it.