Big Words From a Small Country

The revolutionary changes in 1989 were received with great joy and hopes for a new way of life, but Slovak society was soon reminded of all the risks and threats that would come with these changes. Of course, feelings of joy and threat were far too strong as it usually happens in such intense moments of history. In the literary milieu, however, the enchantment with freedom to read and write was virtually from the beginning mixed with gloomy forecasts of an inevitable ending of  literature in Slovakia. These catastrophic scripts were based on the fact that literary and cultural institutions and established publishing houses practically ceased to exist and literature was no longer supported by the government. Many good writers of the older generation entered other fields, until then inaccessible to them – such as politics – and as a result they almost stopped writing. As it seemed, literature would not be the most attractive form of self-actualization for members of the younger generation. After all, there were suddenly so many opportunities to live a life, not only to read or write  about it. However, it soon became obvious that these grim prognoses were wrong – books are still written and even get published in Slovakia.

            Today, almost fifteen years after the changes in 1989, the role of literature in the social life of our country is still marginal, but within the rather closed circle of its lovers it has proved its ability to function. Contemporary Slovak literature  is represented mainly by works of  the younger generation of writers, poets and dramatists. The older generation, whose aesthetic is rooted in the 60’s, is published less often, while authors of the middle generation (who entered literature during the late 70’s and early 80’s) are more or less ignored by critics and readers because of their general vagueness.

            Although young authors refuse to assume the traditional role of „national conscience“, they have not become modern day „celebrities“ either. Their thinking is postmodern which is why they have no ambition to point out moral and ethical problems of our society and no urge to portray society as a whole. On the other hand, they have no great expectations as to the commercial success of their works and mostly do not even try to find ways of effective communication with their prospective readers. Literature has become an intellectual hobby with all its positive and negative aspects. If the most positive aspect is unlimited freedom to write, then the most negative aspect is total lack of feedback from readers and literary discussions. Slovak literature often resembles a very private dialogue between the author and the few informed readers who somehow grasped the aesthetic key to his writing.

            This introvert nature of contemporary Slovak literature has strong influence on virtually all its aspects – it can be observed in the choice of genre, theme and style. As far as genres are concerned, it is quite clear that short texts prevail in prose as well as poetry and drama with only a rare occurrence (and usually problematic aesthetically) of full-length texts. In prose, which is the most popular and artistically most productive part of literature, a marked preference for the genre of short story has been observed despite the fact that some texts are closer to the novella or novel, but often only in length. Of course, there are reasons why short texts are so popular, aesthetic and semantic, but there is also one practical explanation: if writing becomes a hobby, one cannot be surprised that it is arbitrary and fragmentary and takes on the form of shorter texts. In other words: if the novel is a result of long-time concentration, then today’s young authors prefer expressing themselves ad hoc in much narrower frameworks.

            The preference of shorter genres is closely related to the themes of choice which  primarily relate more to the state of the individual mind than the state of society as a whole. This is not accidental – the main themes being the loneliness of man among people, basic  feeling of estrangement, loss of authenticity and mistrust of communication as means of achieving mutual understanding. Language as a basic tool often turns into a theme and literary texts are reduced to writing about writing  or even about the impossibility of writing. Mistrust of words and language often leads the author to ironic gestures in relation to his own texts and also points to the fictitious nature and untrustworthiness of literary communication. 

            This rather sophisticated approach to writing results in considerable stylization which is typical for the younger generation of writers. It is not only the domain of intellectual or experimental texts but it is used even in basically traditional narratives. Elements of fiction, metafiction, fabulation and stylization in Slovak literature therefore prevail over mimesis, the realistic picturing of everyday life. Contrary to latest trends in Western literature it would be hard to find a recently published book by a Slovak author, that was written in accordance with modern realism. As it seems, story-telling is not popular in Slovakia, at least not yet.

            Stylization which is so typical for present day Slovak literature can be interpreted as a gesture of self-defense against the world of reality, or an attempt to stay above things, not taking his/her own text too seriously. It certainly is an expression of the desire to be original, to give unique testimony even at the risk of losing some communication value in the process. However, it is  more important to say that this stylization is also a touching attempt to cover up for the absence of a great theme which could be explored by our national literature. This sophisticated way of writing indirectly shows that Slovakia probably lacks the fundamental story, that this country is too normal, too ordinary and too small to offer its own themes to literature. In this sense the use of stylization that is mainly ironic, trivial or cynical is a gesture of keeping distance, indirectly expressing an awareness that there is nothing extraordinary about things that happen around us. After all, such things happen elsewhere – on a larger scale, with more drama and perhaps with more meaning. Because realistic or mimetic description may involve the risk of dragging ordinariness and pettiness into literature itself, most authors try to avoid it by using specific means of expression.

            Slovak reality at present does not inspire burlesque comedies or grandiose dramas, there is no space for the exotic and, paradoxically, not even for the strongly experienced intimity of home. Distrust of the world we live in is expressed in Slovak literature not only as the „international“ feeling of existential loneliness and estrangement, but there is another dimension – the feeling of „incompetence“ and pettiness – which is, maybe unwittingly, reflected in contemporary literature.

            They say that small is beautiful. Young authors evidently don’t share this opinion and so, having to live in small circumstances, they like to choose big words. Or they try to escape.  And readers comply with this tactic – as it seems, it is not by chance that the most popular of young prose writers, Michal Hvorecký, writes about the global world of pop-culture. Of course, he is well aware that this theme is not rooted in Slovakia and that his writing is just an echo of something that has already been lived through (and written about) somewhere else. His attempt to write without national and cultural specifics is just another form of indirectly expressing some absence of experience. The author himself often uses witty references to the provinciality of Slovak milieu from which he took off into the global world.

            Contemporary Slovak literature is an interesting, though not always the best, attempt of a small country to speak to the world. Most young authors are sufficiently knowledgeable to take their country too seriously. Yet at the same time they are well aware of the fact that they have no other country.

Translated by Alena Redlingerová