The Current Literary Scene

In recent years Slovak literature has shown again and again that it is a viable literary organism, in which a variety of compositional approaches and authors’ groupings coexist without notable problems (even if sometimes inhabiting separate parallel worlds and indifferent to or even ignorant of one another’s existence). Current literature, and current literary life, take on diverse forms, and most importantly they function in an environment which at least outwardly accepts and tolerates this diversity, though aesthetic estimation might be quite another matter.

After the hectic 1990s with their revaluation of values and quest for new spaces and opportunities, there has been a gradual clearing and stabilisation of the literary milieu, a profiling of generations and a mutual respect between them, and a definition of genres and themes. The young authors who made their debuts in the 1990s with a forceful and demonstrative individualism today, in effect, form a middle generation. Prose-writers such as, for example, Márius Kopcsay, Michal Hvorecký and Peter Macsovszky, by now have a rich authorial register and a crystallised style. Turning to the older generation, its key authors (and not only in the time perspective of the last two decades) include Pavel Vilikovský, Stanislav Rakús, Dušan Dušek, Alta Vášová... New names also are appearing in literature, bringing new impulses or new points of view, e. g. Ivana Dobrakovová and Michaela Rosová. One useful way of getting a closer perspective on contemporary Slovak literature is to focus on one of its currently characteristic features: the inclination towards the theme of remembrance, autobiography and authenticity. This is not a new theme in the Slovak literary context (one need only recall the writing of Rudolf Sloboda, Vincenta Šikula or Ivan Kadlečík). In 2005, however, it seemed to resound polyphonically, and since that time it has been reappearing continually. Coincidentally, three leading Slovak authors addressed this theme at the same moment: Pavel Vilikovský in two stories in his collection The Magic Parrot and Other Kitsch, Jaroslava Blažková in her Happyends letters, and Etela Farkašová in It Happened. In all of these the foundation of the work was the autobiographically based experience of loss (the dying and deaths of near ones), conceived as a fundamental existential situation, a great external upheaval, a shock. Although the autobiographical basis is not equally transparent in all of these books, and although they do not have an equal measure of tension between the reality and documentary fidelity of the texts on the one hand and their fictional and imaginative quality on the other, nonetheless they have a common key factor, the arrangement of memories. The writing is intended to formulate what has been preserved and should remain preserved. In all three cases the stories are layered, time and space levels trespass upon one another, and in place of coherent exposition there is decomposition, while instead of continuity there are sequences, images, episodes, fleeting moments. These memory-laden prose pieces pay special attention to the question of the category of time – or to put it differently, the coexistence of a number of time layers secures the distinctive time dimension which is theirs. Incessant alternation of position on the pastpresent time axis has its counterpart in the alternation of various concepts of writing: personal notebooks alternate with texts by others, reading of others, and evocation of their world, which all together create the structured statement of the author.

Such breaches of linearity are becoming a further important feature of contemporary Slovak prose. The significance of the fragment and the aspect of memory are decisive also for the highly personal books Islands of Oblivion by Alta Vášová (2008) and Almost Invisible by Jana Bodnárová (2008). Important in both are lists, fragments, memories, writing as a method of avoiding oblivion, the desire to construct one’s album of memories, to approach the human being via the abyss of time. The two authors work from different positions on the spectrum of prosaic versus poetic writing, matter-of-factness versus lyricism, objectivity versus subjectivity, but each of them offers something in the mode of literary autobiography. As did an author of an entirely different generation, Ján Rozner (1922–2006), in his posthumously published books Seven Days to the Funeral (2009) and Night on the Front (2010).

However, the autobiographical element is equally impossible to overlook in authors of the younger middle generation. Their accumulating and ponderedupon experience of life and literature is shifting their literary statement (as compared to their preceding texts) towards more layered and intellectually structured narratives. The power of the autobiographical element can be seen in returns to childhood, reminiscences of youth, and reflection on realities actually lived. This is decisive in Veronika Šikulová‘s work (A Little House At One Stroke, 2009), and its features may be traced also in Jana Beňová’s Seeing People Off, 2008. Márius Kopcsay employs it in traditional style (Bear Rock, 2009).

Through the writing which makes up the first part of her book, Veronika Šikulová seeks to come to terms with the loss of her father. She wants to give utterance to her sorrow and her feelings of being lost in the world. Her elaborated literary reminiscences of childhood, the family milieu, and relationships with family, neighbours and friends, are fragmentary, episodic, but cast in an epic form where words, verbal conjunctions, sentences, images, are reiterated like refrains. The emphasis is on a living, even elemental storyteller’s art, constantly evoking Vincent Šikula. In Jana Beňová, too, autobiographical experience, an authentic intimacy of relationships and a personally lived space in real time coordinates, have a stable place. She too builds upon comprehension of the world through fragments: episodes, torn-off or broken-off pieces, sequences, moments, scraps and splinters, little sections which in their accumulation create a concise literary world as a form of authorial statement about her own human quest, especially regarding the relationship of man and woman and the world around. Despite its concrete localisation and its translucent autobiographical basis, this is a text distinguished by openness: it is not bound or shackled by regional frontiers. In its own way it is universal.

Another recurring feature of contemporary Slovak prose is the renewed interest in a modern treatment of historic themes. Jana Juráňová, for example, employs stories from the past to mount a sustained attack on the stereotypes and conventional interpretations of women in society (Mediatrix, 2006, I Lived With Hviezdoslav, 2008), continuing on the lines traced out in her earlier stage play Silver Bowls, Excellent Vessels. By contrast, Dušan Šimko in Gubbio. The Book of Informers makes a six-fold sounding of the past with a single aim – to grasp one theme in the flow of time, to capture the mutations of a single type of human conduct in various social formations. Šimko’s turning to the past is a quest for answers to today’s questions; it is a search for the reasons and motivations which have led people at various times, and still lead them today, to inform. Behind the changes of viewpoint on the theme of informing, shifts in the author’s strategy are simultaneously outlined: literary fiction, autobiography, authenticity, historical documentary, journalism. And likewise a tendency away from a single interpretation towards a plurality of points of view. Although the author’s point of departure is the present, with the passage of time he is immersing himself more and more in the past. Here also a current theme has become a universal theme: informing as a matter of the morality and ethics of people in various times. Gubbio, however, is not just a book about informing – an almost equally important theme is emigration, the emigrant’s lot, the human experience of a politically or economically forced residence in foreign lands. Here the author not only draws on his own experience but at the same time sketches some distinctively personal reflections on the history of emigration in one particular country, Switzerland.

Pavel Vilikovský also addresses the theme of the past in The Autobiography of Evil (2009), which includes two characteristic detective stories with a historical background, as does Pavol Rankov, who after writing a number of short story collections produced in 2008 the historical novel It Happened On September the First (or Whenever). Set in the time-frame 1938–1968, this is an attempt to capture in epic form the historical peripeteia of the 20th century through the story of three friends and the common love of their lives.

Also settling accounts with the not-so-distant past is Stanislav Rakús, an author who has concentrated on developing a type of epic prose where coherent plot is replaced by a series of independent, diverse and at first glance seemingly unconnected episodes, united only in the main character’s head. His prose work has paid special attention to three favoured themes: the period of normalisation, literature, and literary theory. His novel The Eccentric University (2008) and short story collection Telegram (2009) confirm this line of interest. Both books lay emphasis on literature as dynamic narrative interfusing serious and comic, high and low, theoretical and elemental, aristocratic and plebeian, with the principle of narrative itself placed at the forefront.

In this brief sketch I have left the field of poetry to one side. Comparing it with prose, as an unsystematic lay reader I have the (entirely subjective) feeling that in poetry the generational change has been even more dramatic and intensely lived personally – not in terms of schools of poetry, but as a feeling of generational closeness and the corresponding search for means to express it. At the same time, paradoxically, the individual generations of authors seem to have conducted a much more intimate inner dialogue among themselves. Here for the purpose of information I can only mention a few names of those who have had a share in the formal or thematic multiplicity of contemporary poetic statement: Ján Buzássy, Mila Haugová, Ivan Štrpka, Ján Štrasser – Karol Chmel, Erik Groch, Peter Milčák, Marián Milčák, Stanislava Repar, Peter Macsovszky – Mária Ferenčuhová, Katarína Kucbelová, Ľubica Somolayová, Jana Pácalová, Michal Habaj, Martin Solotruk, Ján Gavura, and Peter Bilý.

Translated by

John Minahane