#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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Reviving the #EU27Project

114 days or 17 weeks until the 29th of March, which is my self-imposed deadline for the #EU27Project. Yes, by then I want to have read at least one book from each of the EU member countries with the exception of the one flouncing off. I started this project quite a while ago, even before Britain triggered Article 50 in 2017. And, just like Britain, I was not quite prepared and spent a lot of time faffing about and procrastinating. Or doing the same thing over and over, like reading books from France and Germany.

So let’s do some arithmetic, shall we? I still have 15 countries to go through, for which I’ve read absolutely nothing. In the case of some countries (Cyprus and Luxembourg), I am struggling to find anything in translation. And I am likely to want to ‘redo’ some of the countries, for which I didn’t find quite the most satisfactory books (Romania, Greece or Italy, for example). That means at least one book a week from this category. Eminently doable, until you factor in all the review copies and other things that crop up. However, this will be my top priority over the next few months – my way of saying goodbye (sniff!) to the rest of Europe.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Here are some books that I have already sourced and will be ready to start shortly:

Bulgaria: Georgi Tenev – Party Headquarters (transl. Angela Rodel)

Hungary: Miklos Banffy – well, I need to finish that trilogy, don’t I? (Especially in the centenary year of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire)

Slovenia: Goran Vojnovic – Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, transl. Noah Charney – struggled to find something from this country, but this seems to fit the bill: the author, like the protagonist is Serbian/Slovenian and  this novel about discovering your father is a war criminal will fit in nicely with my Croatian read.

Croatia: Ivana Bodrozic – The Hotel Tito, transl. Ellen Elias-Bursac – another author and protagonist who experienced the war as a child, considered one of the finest works of fiction about the Yugoslav war.

Estonia: Rein Raud – The Death of the Perfect Sentence, transl. Matthew Hyde, described as a spy and love story set in the dying days of the Soviet Empire

Latvia: Inga Abele – High Tide, transl. Kaija Straumanis – experimental and anti-chronological story of a woman’s life

Lithuania: Ruta Sepetys: Between Shades of Gray – this is not a book in translation, as Ruta grew up in Michigan as the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, but the book is very much based on her family’s tory at a crucial and tragic time in Lithuanian history

Slovakia: Jana Benova – Seeing People Off, transl. Janet Livingstone – winner of the European Union Prize for Literature

But then I met Julia Sherwood at the Asymptote Book Club meeting, and she has translated Pavel Vilikovsky’s Fleeting Snow from the Slovakian, so I had to get that one as well. So two for Slovakia.

Malta: Very difficult to find anything, so I’ll have to rely on Tangerine Sky, an anthology of poems from Malta, edited by Terence Portelli.

Belgium: Patrick Delperdange: Si tous les dieux nous abandonnent  – bought a few years back at Quais du Polar in Lyon, highly recommended by French readers

Denmark: Peter Høeg: The Elephant Keepers’ Children, transl. Martin Aitken – one of the most experimental and strange modern writers – I can see some resemblances to Heather O’Neill, whom I also really like, but they are not everyone’s cup of tea – this one I found at the local library, so yay, finally saving some money! But it is quite a chunkster, so… it might be impractical.

Greece: Ersi Sotiropoulos: What’s Left of the Night, transl. Karen Emmerich – because Cavafy is one of my favourite poets

So, have you read any of the above? Or can you recommend something else that won’t break the bank? (I’m going to try not to buy any more books in 2019, which may be an obstacle to reading my way through the remaining countries, as libraries do not stock them readily).

Cycle route 6 in Franche-Comte, with my beloved Montbeliard cows sipping Doubs water.

Final point: I do not intend to stop reading books in translation from all of these countries after the UK leaves the EU, by any means. In fact, I’m thinking of doing the EUVelo 6 cycle route from Nantes on the Atlantic to the Danube Delta across all of Europe and reading my way through each of the countries en route (10 of them). Maybe when the boys leave home, if my joints will still allow me to…

Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag #EU27Project

This is in many ways the perfect #EU27Project read, although three of the countries it refers to are outside the EU.

Stasiuk is a Polish writer who is not smitten with the idea of the West or even Central Europe, as so many other writers and citizens from former Communist states are, in moth-like fascination. Instead he is looking at lesser-known and decaying pockets of Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Albania and Hungary. He is therefore doing those neglected and forgotten places a favour. Yet, by deliberately staying away from the tourist route (there is no mention of Budapest or Bucharest or Brasov or any of the more popular sights), he is presenting perhaps an equally lop-sided view as the Tourist Offices of those countries.

Idyllic village image from Publikon.ro

If Britain or the US might be said to have a nostalgia for empire or world domination, Stasiuk here has a nostalgia for marginalisation and oppression, for what he calls the ‘Balkan shambles’. As if suffering confers authenticity and profundity. This is not so much a tribute to a vibrant and resilient community as a eulogy to a dying way of life.

I’m not sure I agree with this premise, which is why I read this book with a mix of feelings. On the one hand, I loved his atmospheric descriptions of everyday life in villages, which reminded me of summers spent at my grandmother’s house:

From occidentul-romanesc.com

Telkibanya, a village that hadn’t changed in a hundred years. Wide, scattered houses under fruit trees… From windows of homes, the smell of stewing onions. In market stalls, mounds of melons, paprikas. A woman emerged from a cellar with a glass jug filled with wine… Old women sitting in front of the houses on the main street. Like lizards in the sun. Their black clothes stored the afternoon heart, and their eyes gazed on the world without motion and without surprise, because they had seen everything.

The author also has a good grasp of the historical and political nuances of this troubled part of the world, and is adept at conveying all this complexity with a frankness which would be unwelcome from a writer who has not grown up there.

…everyone should come here. At least those who make use of the name Europe. It should be an initiation ceremony, because Albania is the unconscious of the continent. Yes, the European id, the fear that at night haunts slumbering Paris, London, and Frankfurt am Main. Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer…. so I drank black Fernet and tried to imagine a country that one day everyone would leave. They would abandon their land to the mercy of time, which would break open the envelope the hours and months and in pure form enter what remained of cities, to dissolve them, turn them into primal air and minerals.

It soon becomes clear that this is not a typical travelogue. The author criss-crosses these countries, and there is little attempt at chronology or systematisation of his travels. Instead, one memory gives rise to another, themes flow easily from one to the next. Yet he has an uncanny ability to define a region’s main characteristic. Here he talks, for instance, about the fertile hills of Moldova, conveying something of the gentle nature of the Moldavians.

Continual green, continual fecundity, the land undulating, the horizon rising and falling, showing us only what we expect, as if not wishing to cause us the least unpleasantness. Grapes, sunflowers, corn, a few animals, grapes, sunflowers, corn, cows and sheep, on occasion a a garden, and rows of nut trees always on either side of the road. No free space in this scenery, no sudden disjunction, and the imagination, encountering no ambush, soon dozes. Most likely events took place here a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago, but they left no trace. Life seeps into the soil, disperses into the air, burns calmly and evenly, as if confident that it will never burn out.

So what did I dislike about it? I am conflicted regarding his romanticism about the messiness, untidiness, lack of discipline, the sheer ‘Orientalism’ of this part of the world.  He claims to genuinely love the shambles

…the amazing weight of things, the lovely slumber, the facts that make no difference, the calm and methodical drunkenness in the middle of the day, and those misty eyes that with no effort pierce reality and with no fear open to the void. I can help it. The heart of my Europe beats in Sokolow Podlaski and in Husi. It does not beat in Vienna. Or in Budapest. And most definitely not in Krakow. Those places are all aborted transplants.

Yet this to me smacks of traveller’s voyeurism, like the British love for India at arm’s length. ‘Everything half-assed and fucked up’ is a wonderful place to visit for the authentic experience, but it is not necessarily a desirable place to live. I’ve never understood the appeal of disaster movies either, other than a triumphalist affirmation of our own superiority in the face of catastrophe (meanwhile, great swathes of the world are still trying to recover from the previous disaster).

And yet, and yet… expecting all parts of our naughty, moody, spotty continent to behave in consistent and elegant fashion is neither realistic nor desirable. Much of this messiness is not just historically inflicted, but also self-inflicted. So what should those unruly teens aspire to? Especially when some of the older democracies and hitherto solid ‘grown-up’ civilisations seem to be losing their elegance (ahem! naming no names!).

Ultimately, Stasiuk sees himself as a chronicler of the period of transition from East Bloc to post-Communism. Many of the scenes he describes have perhaps already disappeared. So yes, it is a valuable document, rooted in its time and place. Just forgive this reader for not being able to read it entirely objectively.

The depressing and still unrecognised republic of Transnistria, from The Calvert Journal.