Slovak Literature in the Totalitarian System


After the "victory of the working class" in February 1948, a qualitatively different opinion of literature prevailed. Literature was to reinforce and initiate further revolutionary changes in society, was to serve the notion of reconstruction in all areas, "fundamental" and "additional". It became an instrument of ideology and politics. The February "revolution" set two elements of society against each other: the "bourgeoisie" and the "masses", and brought the "class war" principle to life. Literature also adopted this view and realised it with certain variations in concrete works of literature throughout all four decades of socialism's reign. The majority of authors saw the new situation as a historical necessity and voluntarily took on the responsibility to actively assist the social and political reconstruction of society and adapted their work to this task.
           February 1948 removed from the table all discussion about the new face of Slovak literature and crudely returned artists to socialist realism. This did not mean the continuation of local tradition (Laco Novomeský and others in poetry and Peter Jilemnický, Fraňo Kráľ and others in prose), but the mechanical imitation of soviet literature, which was not just turned into propaganda in publicism, but particlarly by numerous reader conferences (on the novels of S. P. Babayevsky, V. N. Azhayev, G. J. Nikolayev, etc.).
           In the first half of the fifties, Slovak poetry was exhausted by the themes of the struggle for peace, industrialisation and collectivisation. The theme of collectivisation (František Hečko: Drevená dedina - Wooden Village, 1951) and the working class struggle for a socialist future (Dominik Tatarka: Prvý a druhý úder - First and Second Strike, 1950; Fraňo Kráľ: Bude ako nebolo - It Will Be Like It Never Was, 1950; Peter Karvaš: Toto pokolenie - This Generation, 1949, Pokolenie v útoku - Generation on the Offensive, 1952) prevailed in prose. The theme of the working class revolutionary struggle was most often linked with the Slovak National Uprising, which in the Marxist interpretation was regarded as a historic "preparatory stage" of February 1948 - Vladimír Mináč: Smrť chodí po horách (Death Marches through the Mountains), 1948, Včera a zajtra (Yesterday and Tomorrow), 1949; Alfonz Bednár: Sklený vrch (The Glass Hill), 1954; Miloš Krno: Dve cesty (Two Journeys), 1952, Lavína (Avalanche), 1954). The ideological demands placed on literature did not just apply to new works: it also had a "retrospective" influence. Many authors intervened into the texts of older works in an attempt to improve them ideologically and so second and later editions differed quite substantially from the first (František Hečko: Červené víno, Dominik Tatarka: Farská republika, Margita Figuli: Tri gaštanové kone, Babylon, etc.). Slovak literature from the early 50s is marked by obvious schematism, which tried in vain to hide behind the so-called democratisation of art and approaching the masses.
           1956 was a dividing line in the development of Slovak (and Czech) literature. On a political and ideological level, it meant criticism of the "personality cult" and fall of Stalinism and in culture and literature self-critical retrospection (2nd congress of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers) and a pledge not to succumb so much to political pressure and create pure art. It was more about ethics than new poetics, because the authors realised that they had not been speaking the truth and had therefore betrayed the high mission of art. In Slovakia, Milan Rúfus expressed it on everyone's behalf as follows: "Our generation is driven by a desire to discover the truth in life and art and an aversion to lying to oneself and others." The focus of development (especially in poetry) in Slovakia was shifted to the young generation in this period. The magazine for young people Mladá tvorba (Young Creation; an equivalent of the Czech Květen) was created in 1956 and a large group of fledgeling writers concentrated around it. Although the healing process affected all literature, the most initiative - particularly in poetry - came from the young. Among poets, Milan Rúfus (Až dozrieme - When We Grow Up, 1956), Miroslav Válek (Dotyky - Touches, 1959; Príťažlivosť - Attraction, 1961) and later the group of so-called concretists (Ján Stacho, Ľubomír Feldek, Ján Ondruš, Jozef Mihalkovič, Ján Šimonovič) asserted themselves. The young poets did not content themsleves with the eternally present "truth" about life, like the generation of fathers before them, they wanted to rediscover it constantly themselves, so they called for the artist's own face, for a defined subject. Young prose writers (Jaroslava Blažková, Jozef Kot, Anton Hykisch, Peter Jaroš, Ján Johanides, Vincent Šikula, Rudolf Sloboda, etc.) went the same way. Emphasis on the subject was at the same time a rehabilitation of literarary "intimacy" (the title of Ján Johanides' debut, 1963), the right to express the young person's emotional world (Jaroslava Blažková: Nylonový mesiac - Nylon Moon, 1961). Without a real "return to oneself" the author was not even capable of incisively rediscovering the reality around him. The young prose writing generation's main theme became criticism of Stalinism and the discovery of various social deformations, which, however, very soon became a new scheme. In 1956, Czech world literature, also widely read in Slovakia, started to appear. The young authors hungrily absorbed European and world stimuli. Existentialism, theatre of the absurd and the French new novel came back into fashion. We find traces of this reading, unfortunately rarely exprienced internally, in Johanides (Súkromie - Privacy) and Peter Jaroš (Zdesenie - Consternation, etc.). The young prose writers who resolved to look at the present from the point of view of people living on the edge or through the eyes of children achieved greater success. They managed to present a new humanism on the reverse side of reality (Vincent Šikula: S Rozarkou - With Rozarka, 1960, Možno si postavím bungalov - Perhaps I'll Build Myself a Bungalow, 1964; Rudolf Sloboda: Narcis - Narcissus, 1965, Britva - Razor, 1967).
           Unlike poetry, where the young generation's work dominated, the so-called rebel generation, which again returned to the Slovak National Uprising, this time without obvious ideological deformation and with the aim of coming to terms with this part of Slovak history, made up the backbone of Slovak prose at the end of the 50s and in the 60s. It replaced a priori ideological focuses with experience and placed emphasis on characters in borderline situations (Vladimír Mináč: Dlhý čas čakania - A Long Time Waiting, 1958, Živí a mŕtvi - The Quick and the Dead, 1959, Zvony zvonia na deň - The Bells Ring for a Day, 1961; this trilogy was later released under the common title Generácia - Generation; Katarína Lazarová: Šarkan na reťazi - Dragon on a Chain, 1962; Dominik Tatarka: Rozhovory bez konca - Conversations Without End, 1959; Ladislav Mňačko: Smrť sa volá Engelchen - Death is Called Engelchen, 1959). The above works continued the type of rebel literature which Alfonz Bednár (Hodiny a minúty - Hours and Minutes, 1956, Cudzí - An Alien, 1960) and Vladimír Mináč (Smrť chodí po horách - The Death Marches Through the Mountains, 1947) or Ján Bodenek (Z vlčích dní - From Wolfish Days, 1947) before him introduced into Slovak prose. Two authors with direct experience of the "eastern front" continued along this line (Rudolf Jašík: Mŕtvi nespievajú - The Dead Don't Sing, 1961; Ladislav Ťažký: Amenmária, 1964). The novellas by "emigrant" Leopold Lahola (Posledná vec - The Last Thing, 1968), who explores changes in the human character on the verge of life and death, represent a high point in rebel prose. Internal "emigrant" Milo Urban depicts his experience of the wartime Slovak state and uprising in the trilogy Zhasnuté svetlá (Lights off), 1957, Kto seje vietor (Who Sows the Wind), 1964, and Železom po železe (Iron on Iron), 1996. Jozef Cíger Hronský's "anti-rebel" novel Svet na Trasovisku (World in a Quagmire, 1960, USA; 1991, Martin) also became a part of rebel prose in the final years.
           In 1963, the communist regime rehabilitated Laco Novomeský, Daňo Okáli, Ivan Horváth and other davists sentenced during the show trials of bourgeous nationalists in the 50s. They all reinvolved themselves in cultural developments. Novomeský published three anthologies partly written in prison in quick succession (Vila Tereza - Villa Theresa, 1963; Do mesta 30 minút - 30 Minutes to Town, 1963; Stamodtiaľ a iné - Out from There and Other Poems, 1964). It was important that the davist concept of socialist literature, which was more liberal and democratic than the contemporary, was returned to the literary process (DAV was re-edited) because it considered avant-garde a part of socialist literature. The liberalised spirit of the second half of the 60s had a positive influence on all the arts and all genres, including children's literature (Klára Jarunková and others). Authors old (Andrej Plávka, Ján Kostra, Pavol Horov, Vojtech Mihálik) and young, who gradually occupied a place close to the literary centre (Milan Rúfus, Miroslav Válek, concretists, Ján Buzássy, Štefan Strážay, "solitary runners": Ivan Laučík, Ivan Štrpka, Peter Repka, and others asserted themselves in poetry. A number of poets previously "excommunicated" by the communist party returned to literature in the 60s (Valentín Beniak, Emil Boleslav Lukáč, Janko Silan). Of prose writers, the emigrant J. C. Hronský "returned" with one novel (Andreas Búr the Master, 1970).
           The process of "normalisation" as a result of the occupation of Czechoslovakia put many authors out of action and split the literary front into three camps: 1. authors publishing legally, 2. samizdat authors, and 3. emigrants. Ladislav Mňačko, Jaroslava Blažková, Emil Knieža, Rudolf Skukálek, Agneša Gundová, and others emigrated and published abroad. Authors silenced at home published in samizdat or abroad (Dominik Tatarka, Ivan Kadlečík, Pavel Hrúz, Martin M. Šimečka, Hana Ponická). Many of them maintained close contact with Czech dissidents (D. Tatarka, I. Kadlečík, M. Šimečka). Unlike the situation in the Czech lands, the authors whose work was published by individual domestic publishers created the main literary movements. The regime's ideology and cultural policies demanded current, socially relevant themes from authors. The method of socialist realism was "dusted off" again. Although it no longer had a normative character, it meant the restriction of expression. Authors did not want to return to panegyrics on the present and so the majority of them "left" for recent or more distant history. In prose the generation which had grown up in contact with Mladá tvorba matured as people and artists and was instrumental in "new historism". This also related to the new configuration of the Czechoslovak Republic (a federation), which reinforced the element of national independence and patriotism (Vincent Šikula: Majstri - Masters, 1976, Muškát - Geranium, 1977, Vilma, 1979; Ladislav Ballek: Pomocník (Assistant, 1977), Agáty (Acacia, 1981); Ivan Habaj: Kolonisti (Colonists I..III., 1980, 1981, 1986); Anton Baláž: Sen pivníc (Dream of Cellars, 1977), Tiene minulosti (Shadows of the Past, 1978). Through self-criticism or by distancing themselves from Charter 77, several authors whose pens had been taken away by normalisation were allowed to publish (Anton Hykisch: Čas majstrov (Time of Masters, 1977); Ladislav Ťažký: Evanjelium čatára Matúša (The Gospel According to Sergeant Matthew, 1979); Peter Karvaš: Noc v mojom meste (A Night in my Town, 1979).
           In the 80s, conditions in Slovak Literature were liberalised again to a certain extent; more obviously in the "perestroika" and "glasnost" period. New magazines were established (Literárny týždenník (Literary Weekly), the monthly for young literature Dotyky (Contacts)), serious social and cultural issues were discussed, playfulness entered poetry Štefan Moravčík), taboo themes such as sex were written about (Taťjana Lehenová). Other authors dominated poetry, such as Lýdia Vadkerti-Gavorníková with her unsentimental, rough, down to earth poetry, Viera Prokešová, with her dominant motif of solitude, Mila Haugová, whose verses alternate everyday observations with the female myth, and the younger Dana Podracká, depicting feelings of alienation and suffering. Civilism started to be cultivated more systematically (Daniel Hevier, Ján Štrasser). Milan Richter appeared with a weighty social issue (the holocaust), Ján Zambor and Ján Švantner brought the subject of home and human touch into poetry. More full-blooded satire appeared (Tomáš Janovic). The dynamic genres in prose were the short story and novella (Pavel Vilikovský: Prvá veta spánku - The First Sentence of Sleep, 1983, Eskalácia citu - Escalation of Emotion, 1989, Kôň na poschodí, slepec vo Vrábľoch - A Horse Upstairs, ABlind Man in Vrable, 1989, Večne je zelený... - Forever Green..., 1989; Dušan Dušek: Poloha pri srdci - Position by the Heart, 1982, Kalendár - Calendar, 1983, Náprstok - Thimble, 1987; Martin Bútora: Ľahkým perom - Light Pen, 1987), flirting with the postmodern, humorous, parodying serious themes (historism) and relativising fixed values. Dušan Mitana asserted himself as a novelist (Koniec hry - End of Play, 1984) and Jozef Puškáš (Záhrada v piatom období roka - Garden in the Fifth Season, 1986). The critics highly praised Rudolf Sloboda's novels Druhý človek (Second Person, 1981), Rozum (Sense, 1982), and Stratený raj (Paradise Lost, 1984).
           During the four decades of real socialism the weakest link in Slovak literature was drama and theatre. For years, the only stable dramatist onstage at the Slovak National Theatre was Peter Karvaš. His plays, mainly from the 60s (Antigona a tí druhí - Antigone and the others, Jazva - Scar, Veľká parochňa - Big Wig, Experiment Damokles - The Damocles Experiment, Absolútny zákaz - Absolute Ban), in which he opposed the personality cult and totalitarianism, had a clear social significance. Other playwrights (Ján Solovič, Osvald Zahradník) achieved varying degrees of success. Small theatres were established in the friendly atmosphere at the end of the 60s, e.g. Divadlo na korze (Theatre on the High Street), which became popular through its protagonists Milan Lasica and Július Satinský. But the process of normalisation liquidated the theatre and it was only restored after 1989. Radošínske naivné divadlo (the Radošina Naive Theatre), led by Stanislav Štepka, who performed without interruption from its establishment (in 1962), met with a slightly better fate, but it was exposed to persecution from the regime and disfavour from leading politicians for a time. The playwright Karol Horák has worked experimentally with student theatre for decades.
           Writers also fought for more space for literary creation and freedom of expression as publicists. They published their critical opinions in Kultúrny život (Cultural Life), Slovenské pohľady and Mladá tvorba. Tatarka's "fantastic treatise", Démon súhlasu (Demon of Conformism, published in book form in 1963), in which he attacks the position of the eternally endorsing writer, was published in Kultúrny život in 1956. In 1963, Ladislav Mňačko published his Oneskorené reportáže (Overdue Reportages), where he condemned the political trials of the 50s. These aroused readers' attention because they revealed the dark sides of the totalitarian presence.