Reading The Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature; an anthology of the literature from the 19th century onwards put together by Peter Karpinský, has prompted reflections to do with similarities of Slovak literature to movements (Realism, Romanticism, then here and there an influence from Nietzsche or Proust). While giving us a bird’s view of Slovak literature, it is also a quick journey through Slovak identity and history.
Most of Slovak’s literary development took place in the 19th and 20th century- quite later than its European counterparts. The impetus for development was free to happen once Slovakia started to discover its own independent identity (after 1918 once it ceased to be a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and it was sustained with the creation of cultural centres in Bratislava, Trnava, Martin, Liptovský Mikuláš, Levoča, Prešov and Kežmarov. The Slovak language developed in time with Slovak society and the language was standardized by L’udovít Štúr.
Tinker’s Christmas – Martin Kukučin (1860-1928)
This is the first author introduced. This work reflects his tendency for the tragic in depicting the difficult social and political situation of Slovaks in Hungary. It was published in 1888 and describes the forced relocation of Slovak children (the Hungarisation wished by the government to increase ‘indigenous’ citizens and suppress ‘foreigners’ or minorities, under the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Slovak village life is realistically depicted.
Gajdoš’s War Horse – Jozef Cíger Hronský (1896 – 1960)
Hronský’s works focused on the Slovak village and he is seen as carrying the tradition of the ‘village short story’. This story focuses on Gajdoš, a soldier returning home from World War I with a horse; a symbol of the war with whom the protagonist develops a relationship to help heal psychological wounds and, importantly, to come at peace with himself and others.
Old Age – Milo Urban (1904-1982)
Urban strays away from realism and is praised for his heightened lyricism, used as a means to convey deeper psychological attributes to his characters. In this short story, an old man does not come to terms with the inevitability of his ageing and death. The villagers observe this old age and Pavol Duchaj, the character, becomes isolated and alienated from the social collective. As he fights it, he disturbs the local life and earns hatred. Existentialism is at play here.
Edita’s Eye – Gejza Vámoš (1901-1956)
Vámoš worked as a doctor and was influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Darwin. His work was thus often labelled as pessimistic and nihilistic. In this novella, he unconventionally handles a personal tragedy, eliciting once again controversy. The focus is here on illness, human vulnerability and sexuality.
Wicker Chairs – Dominik Tatarka (1913-1989)
Tatarka’s work, similarly to the others of this collection, consists mainly of prose. The setting is Paris shortly before the outbreak of World War II- here unfolds both a love story (a spiritual, pure form of love) and the search for meaning in life at a time of upheaval. Love and politics convey the feeling of being lost (fear of loneliness) and harken back to Sartrean pessimism for the world yet also introduces idealism.
“Do you remember? When lovers talk as they gaze into a river from a bridge, or at distant forests, the horizon, or the sea, their voices acquire a certain depth, moistness, vibration”. (p.142)
With Rozarka – Vincent Šikula (1936-2001)
This is his most famous novella and blends a cold (realist, adult) world with a more fantastic one (the protagonist’s sister’s world). In this bittersweet story, Šikula’s musical studies help to express sensitivity and underline his sense of style.
A Collection of Material – Rudolf Sloboda (1938-1995)
Many of his works, such as this one, are autobiographical. They were also written as Slovak literature experiences changes- Sloboda’s novel is ironic and as many others, sincere. Irony and resignation are also frequent in his work.
Authors, including Proust, are mentioned in this novella where Sloboda takes the reader on a journey to writing a book.
Indecisive – Ján Johanides (1934-2008)
“The predominant feature of all his work is his focus on morality; Johanides condemned violence and intolerance. The tragic and sometimes bizarre stories of his heroes are told with detailed descriptions of their inner world, emphasizing the uniqueness and value of every human life. The utilisation of the method called ‘the camera eye’ helped to make his prose very visual. […] Indecisive, a story of a surgeon whose main fault is his inability to make decisions, takes place in the turbulent period before and during the Second World War. The surgeon’s indecisiveness is the result of his disillusion with life, which leads to the death of people around him.” (p.231)
“One could say that all the good you did seemed to you like a luxury of sorts. Luxury, because you could ‘afford’ to be helpful, in the same way one could afford to buy a nice suit. You could ‘afford’ to treat an unemployed man for free, to give away medicines, but you felt distressed by the fact that you could ‘afford’ it, while others could only afford to fight and battle, to defeat or be defeated. It was as if your diploma gave you the right to your ‘regional happiness’.” (p.238)
Escalation of Feeling I – Pavel Vilikovskỷ
Short story published in 1989, with its usual tendencies of historical fiction (factual events in literary contexts). Playful and lyrical with an emphasis on images and emotions. We learn about the river Váh and the romantic Slovak writer J. M. Hurban is confronted as his classical narrative deviates through an act of violence and horror. Without spoiling the story, it is about a young paraplegic girl who realizes that she cannot feel neither pleasure nor pain. It is short and somehow violent.
“It felt like being at a party when one of the guests takes out a pack of cards and asks you to pick one. You would react with the same kind of questions like those that occurred to her now: ‘Why? What’s going on?’ But the man still insists: ‘Just pick one. Don’t worry. You will find out. Just pick a card…’ And telling him to go away seems inappropriate.” (p.277)
A Breeze and the Others – Dušan Mitana (1946)
Mitana is considered iconoclastic, with a basic principle of freedom. He pulls the reader along with himself into the theme and the story, which is strongly charged emotionally and does not shy away from themes such as sex. He is witty and this story represents his work: a shocking sexual theme with magic and mystification while remaining playful.
“‘Viktor, do you realize I’m still alive?’ Viktor lifted his head, and for a second he stared at her in dismay, as if the armchair had spoken, or the table […]” (p.293)
A Little Side Story about Bean Soup – Václav Pankovčin (1968-1999)
Kind humor in a fictitious village where magical things happen. Over this fairytale background comes the interpretation of the eternal human desire to overcome the ordinary. Here people with supernatural powers come together to tell their stories and enjoy some bean soup, which incidentally enough comes from one of the protagonists’ hair.
“He went to the flowering apple tree, fondled one of the pink flowers with his hand, and an apple appeared in it. Mr. Šalamaha ate it with gusto. His hair grew half a meter.” (p.397)
The novels of the collection are by now tainted in a dreamy fragrance where some actions seem dissolute from one another.
Pregnancy – Balla (1967)
Slovak Kafka, the reality he evokes is difficult to understand for the reader and the characters, who try hard to make sense of their realities. Whether they fully understand the reality or not, the result is loneliness and a sense of desolation. This short story depicts the absurd with a touch of mysticism and an atypical relationship between a man and two women.
“Then they took to swimming naked in the small lake, the level of which had dropped when he had opened the door to let the water surge out into the hallway.” (p.319)
Escape – Monika Kompaníková (1979)
Only woman writer of this anthology, her work looks at stereotypes of everyday life which her characters try to escape. They begin in solitude; a form of security and stability, before suddenly feeling vulnerable and looking for a change, craving contact. In Útek, the character tries to escape from his uneasiness and after a run, runs back to his starting point.