Literary theorist Ondrej SLIACKY on MARTIN KUKUČÍN

I Gave the Nation What Was Its Own

At this time we are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Martin Kukučín (17.5.1860–21.5.1928), a leading exponent of Slovak realistic prose. In cooperation with other cultural institutions, the Centre for Information on Literature has prepared a number of professional seminars and celebratory conferences in Bratislava, Revúca, Madrid, Prague, Dolný Kubín, Frankfurt, Paris, Vienna, to mark the occasion of the author’s birthday, which is recorded in the UNESCO List of Anniversaries. Marta Bábiková’s interwiew with Professor Ondrej Sliacky has been published in literary bi-weekly Knižná revue (published by LIC).

• Marta Bábiková: What are the essential features of his writing?

- Ondrej Sliacky: The research carried out so far shows that as a prose writer Kukučín not only discovered the world of the villager, but also succeeded in describing it in his or her own language and from his or her ethical standpoint. Not only did he take the village community as his theme, it also became the basis of his ideological orientation. In contrast to Vajanský, it was not the aristocracy, and certainly not its barren offspring, but the rural community that embodied for him the real potential of national development. Peace-loving Kukučín, who avoided presenting conflicting views, did not hesitate to reject outright the novel by Elena Maróthy-Šoltésová Proti prúdu (Against the Tide), even though Šoltésová was one of his closest friends.

• Marta Bábiková: Kukučín’s real name was Matej Bencúr. What made him choose this pseudonym?

- Ondrej Sliacky: Almost all the Slovak realists published under pen names. In the case of Vajanský, Hviezdoslav, Tajovský, Timrava and Podjavorinská we have reliable explanations, but Kukučín never spoke about it. And so we can only suppose that the pen name under which he published his first work Na hradskej caste, in Národné noviny as early as 1883, is derived from his mother’s eye disorder, which led to her being known in the village of Jasenová as Kukuča [from the Slovak word kukať, to peer]. This assumption is also confirmed by the fact that in the first versions Kukučín signed himself with a short “i”, Kukučin, which would mean “Kukuča’s son”.

• Marta Bábiková: From his main biographical data we know that Matej Bencúr completed his studies at the teacher training institute in Kláštor pod Znievom and worked as a teacher in Jasenová, the village of his birth. When and why did he think of becoming a doctor?

- Ondrej Sliacky: In connection with his secondary education, we should also mention the Evangelical grammar school in Veľká Revúca, where he arrived as a frightened eleven-yearold village boy. It was actually his experience of the Revúca grammar school that he later drew on for his emotive reconstruction of student life. I am thinking in particular of his excellent short novel Mladé letá (Young Years), which set the future trend in fiction for young people. As the grammar school was closed down by the government in Pest, with considerable support from Magyarized Slovaks, the fifteen-year old boy studied in Martin and Banská Bystrica for several months and then there was no alternative but to continue his studies at the Hungarian teacher training college in Kláštor pod Znievom. After six years working in Jasenová, where he was preparing pupils from the more affluent families for the Kežmarok grammar school’s external exams, he too sat for these exams. This shows that the budding writer did not want to spend the rest of his life as a village teacher, but was considering going on to study at university. In 1884 he left the teaching profession and went to Sopron, where he completed the eighth year of grammar school. Then he left for Prague to study medicine. It is not generally known, however, that he first stopped in Bratislava to enrol at the Evangelical Theological Faculty. It is probable that he only did this for his mother, as in my opinion Kukučín had already decided much earlier to become a doctor. After his experience as a teacher, especially as regards the dependence of the village teacher on government offices promoting the anti-national strategy of the Hungarian authorities, he realised that he would be in the same position as a village priest, and so after two or three days he took the express train to Prague.

• Marta Bábiková: At that time the study of medicine took five years. Why did Kukučín need three more years before he was awarded the qualification he so much aspired to?

- Ondrej Sliacky: It was certainly not on account of inability or indifference. He simply hadn’t the money, in particular for what was known as “exam taxes”. What he had saved as a teacher in Jasenová was soon spent in the first few semesters and he couldn’t expect any help from his parents, who themselves had hardly enough to live on in the poverty-stricken region of Orava. The fees he received from the literary magazine Slovenské pohľady were paltry, and although Prague Slovakophiles provided at least meagre lunches for such students as he was, he had no choice but to fall into debt and go hungry. Thus it happened that eight years passed before he left Prague with a degree certificate and a burden of debt and went to the island of Brač in Dalmatia.

• Marta Bábiková: Why there?

- Ondrej Sliacky: Kukučín needed to free himself of debt and it was not just that he could not find a well-paid position in Slovakia, he could not find one at all. He therefore accepted the offer of a Brač wine wholesaler, Didolič, and on January 1, 1894 he set out for the little Brač town of Selca. Financially Didolič’s offer was attractive and in two or three years Kukučín would be able to pay off his debts, so his departure was in no way traumatic, and he certainly did not regard it in a tragic light. The tragedy was that in fact he was leaving the environment of his birth, so essential to him as a writer, never to return.

• Marta Bábiková: By the 1890s Kukučín was already a renowned Slovak prose writer and Brač was, after all, remote from cultural life and, moreover, he was starting a career as a doctor in a foreign environment. How did the young man come to terms with this situation?

- Ondrej Sliacky: However unconvincing it may sound, his work as a doctor came easier to him than writing. He very soon became a popular doctor and was much in demand. From the surviving eye-witness accounts we know that he was an excellent diagnostician and his colleagues, doctors from other districts, used to call him to complicated births but, above all, he did not neglect a single patient. He would plod along on a mule for several hours in any weather to see his patients.

• Marta Bábiková: How did the new environment influence his writing?

- Ondrej Sliacky: For a long time no one on the island of Brač even suspected that Doctor Bencúr was a writer. They thought the reason why he stayed up late at night was to prepare the basic medicines, which he really did make himself. Only after the visit of an intellectual from the mainland did the news spread that they were being treated by the best Slovak writer. However, the new environment was not beneficial for his creative activity. He had already expressed in his writing what he had accumulated at home and he could not find fresh topics in this different milieu and dissimilar culture. He managed to produce a sketch, a reference record and a short story, but he knew that their verbal expression and aesthetic value were not of the standard of the texts he had written in the first half of the 90s in Prague. From his letters to the Slávik brothers, Evangelical pastors in Dobronivá and Almáš, today’s Jabloňov, we know that he was not particularly worried about this. After all, he had come to Brač for just a year or two and he would soon be returning home, when he would once more be close to his source of inspiration.

• Marta Bábiková: But he never returned home.

- Ondrej Sliacky: I’m tempted to say – fortunately. Because if he had, Slovak literature would not have its first modern novel Dom v stráni (A House on the Hillside), which has its roots in Brač. But it is all a bit more complicated, more humanly dramatic than it seems at first glance. The people among whom Kukučín lived on Brač were friendly towards him. Šor dottor was generally respected and many a wealthy family would have considered it an honour if he had asked them for their daughter’s hand in marriage. In spite of this, Kukučín found himself more and more often overcome by nostalgia. It is enough to browse through his account of travelling through Dalmatia and Montenegro and it suddenly becomes obvious to us what he is hiding not only from strangers, but also from himself. His terrible yearning for home. Everything he sees, everything he comes into contact with, reminds him of his native Orava region. He only has to catch a glimpse of a Montenegrin shepherd and that very moment he is on the slopes of Choč, among his own people. As if they guessed this, his Slovak friends begin to remind him that the time he set aside for his stay on Brač is already over and he should return home. His friend from the Revúca grammar school, Evangelical pastor Jur Janoška, even finds out that there is a vacancy for a general practitioner in Liptovský Mikuláš. Kukučín is overcome with euphoria. His dream of becoming a doctor at home among his own people is to be fulfilled after all and he will write, write once more. After all, he has heaps of plans. He would like to write something longer. He is attracted to the idea of a novel about the Štúr generation. But then the news comes like a bolt out of the blue: some of the inhabitants of Mikuláš don’t want him; after all they need a doctor and not a writer and so they are supporting his rival candidate. In the campaign they launch they do not hesitate to send anonymous letters to Brač, thus hurting the feelings of the sensitive Kukučín. All of a sudden Slovakia becomes a nightmare for him that does not allow him to sleep and every letter with the Liptovský Mikuláš postmark agitates him so much that he stops opening any post from Slovakia. It may have been just then that he sat down at his desk and began writing a novel. But it is not a novel with a Slovak background; it is Dom v stráni (A House on the Hillside). He needs to write, because after almost a decade living on Brač he has come to realise that society on the threshold of the 20th century is quite different from what he has been describing in his works up to then. In Jasenová love could move mountains, but on Brač the reality is that a relationship between two young people of differing social backgrounds is doomed to remain unfulfilled, because the obstacles in life created not only by traditions, but above all by cultural differences, are insurmountable. Kukučín the pessimist, the tragic visionary? No, it was only that Martin Kukučín had matured to his greatest realistic achievement.

• Marta Bábiková: In spite of what you have said, Kukučín did not turn his back on Slovakia; after all, he sent his novel A House on the Hillside to Jozef Škultéty, who published it in Slovenské pohľady (1903–1904). Why then did he leave the friendly environment of Brač for unfamiliar South America?

- Ondrej Sliacky: Perhaps it can be explained by Kukučín’s character, his eternal feeling of uncertainty, which did not allow him to settle anywhere permanently and which drove him to seek what he had not yet found. But, like everything to do with him, this is not so simple. With the novel A House on the Hillside he had written a work that could not be compared to anything else in Slovak literature and therefore he had no need to solve a creative crisis. He had no personal reason either, as he was no longer a bachelor, having married young Perica Didolič in 1904, after falling hopelessly in love with her. Maybe he was truly happy for the first time in his life. Three years later, however, the little town of Selca was again out and about, but this time not to shower their doctor and his young bride with grain, but for a very different reason. The town was saying farewell to its doctor, who was leaving Brač for good. In recent years, there had been clashes between the Didolič and Štambek clans and both families wanted to get Doctor Bencúr on their side. But Kukučín refused outright to come to any such decision. It was against his very nature. So he resolved the situation in his own way. In vain did the municipal authorities put a stop to the undeclared war, in vain did they promise Kukučín the moon: for him in 1907 the Brač idyll was over. Slovakia knew nothing about this. When someone stopped by to pay his respects to his famous countryman, Kukučín was already in Santiago de Chile, in a hospital, where he was preparing for the validation of his degree in medicine.

• Marta Bábiková: It was as if he was beginning all over again. But he was not beginning among complete strangers. In Punta Arenas, where he settled, there were many Croatian emigrants. You could say he was among his own in a foreign land.

- Ondrej Sliacky: Yes. By then Kukučín really did regard the Croatians as his own people. It is therefore natural that he cast his lot with them. He became involved in both their leisure and political activities. A few years later the First World War broke out in Europe and in Punta Arenas, as in other Croatian émigré communities, they began to dream of post-war national freedom. Kukučín dreamed with them. He dreamed of returning. Returning home. If there was one thing his Croatians longed for, it was the land of their birth. But how to ensure that this return would be permanent? That there would be no repetition of the social conflicts that would again drive people to all corners of the world. How to make sure that money served a higher moral purpose and not the self-destruction of human society? The novel in which Kukučín asked himself similar questions received the title of Mať volá (The Homeland Calls).

• Marta Bábiková: Kukučín could not resist this call of destiny. In 1922 he left South America and returned to Slovakia. Once and for all?

- Ondrej Sliacky: It seemed so. However, the new social situation, complicated by the conflicts arising between the Czechs and the Slovaks, disorientated him. Kukučín had been away too long to find his bearings. In the end he even found himself in a paradoxical position as a writer. Officially he enjoyed the respect given to him as the most important writer, but in reality literature was already following different paths from his own. His human situation was further complicated by the serious mental illness of his wife and made even more difficult by the fact that Kukučín no longer felt at home in Slovakia. It is true that in Martin he worked from morning to night on preparations to fulfil his old dream of creating a great “fresco” about the Romantic generation, but nevertheless he longed to be among his Croatians. After staying in Martin for several months, he left for good to live among them, and eventually he died among them too. In the end, however, his countrymen did do him a service. Although many of them had done everything possible to prevent him from returning to Slovakia when he was alive, in every town thousands of people came to pay tribute to the train carrying his coffin as it made its way to the cemetery in Martin.


Translated by Heather Trebatická


Professor Ondrej Sliacky, csc.

Literary historian and critic, lexicographer, author of children’s books, radio and TV dramatist. He is currently the editor-inchief of the children’s magazine Slniečko, and of the revue for art for children Bibiana. Since 1991 he has lectured in the theory and history of children’s literature at the Pedagogic Faculty of Comenius University in Bratislava. He has been awarded the Pavol Dobšinský Prize and the Triple Rose Prize for his contribution to children’s literature.