Why I Kept Writing All Those Years

Interview with Pavel Vilikovský

Igor Navrátil: You are highly ranked not only as writer but also as translator of British and American fiction. Even though a combination like this is not exceptional, it can be seen – at least in the Slovak literary context – as a rare one, a sort of exception that proves the rule. Especially if we take into account the fact that you are successful on both levels – as author and as translator. How can you manage to combine these two literary activities – which domain is your priority, where do you feel „more powerful“, more at home?

Pavel Vilikovský: I would not attach much worth to high ranking or success in our domestic setting. Neither do I think that a combination of an author and translator is a rare one, though it´s true that in our literary context it is more common among poets than among novelists. But Alfonz Bednár or Jozef Kot, for example, have also been translating from English. Anyway, my priority has always been writing, even if it may not seem so because I had not published anything for almost two decades. All my ambitions, if I had any, were associated with it, that´s why I kept writing all those years. No matter how funny it may sound with regard to our royalties, I have took up translating as a means of bettering my income and, basically, it still fulfills that function. But, of course, once you are doing something, you quite naturally try to do it the best you can. On the other hand, as far as feeling at home is concerned, for me writing is a risky business with unpredictable results, so I feel much more at home with translating where I can guarantee a certain level of quality – generally speaking, from mediocre to slightly better than mediocre.


Igor Navrátil: It is no secret that you belong to the most prestigious contemporary Slovak authors. This statement can be proved not only by numerous literary prizes you have been awarded (regardless of the fact that literary prizes may not always and necessarily reflect the real literary values) but, at the same time, by the interest in your literary work presented from abroad where several of your novels and novellas have been published in translation (most recently in the United States). Why, in your opinion, is it so difficult for the Slovak literature to make its way to book markets in the West or, to put it differently, what is the Slovak literature lacking that prevents it from being successful west of the former „iron curtain“?

Pavel Vilikovský: Being a part of it myself, it is very difficult for me to say what the Slovak literature is lacking from the point of view of  Western readers. I suppose they expect it to be provincial, with nothing new or interesting to say, just a belated and clumsy replica of thematic or stylistic vogues that were taking place at the centre several years or decades ago. Is it not the same attitude we have to literary works of a „more Eastern“ origin, e.g. Bulgarian, Albanian or Rumanian ones? How many Lithuanian, Estonian or Ukrainian works have we translated since 1989? The truth is, none of these works is supposed to bring any profit on a free book market, and the same applies to the Slovak literature in the West.


Igor Navrátil: A few months ago you participated (along with three other Slovak authors) at a „promotional literary tour“ in France. You paid a visit to four French regions, including Paris, where you were presenting your literary work both in Slovak and in French translation. What would be your view – after a certain lapse of time – on this attempt of the Slovak literature to assert itself, to gain ground abroad? Do you think the problem lies, generally speaking, in „unsatisfactory“ qualities of our literary creation? Or should we rather look for the reasons in the sphere of extra-literary (social, historical, political, economic) factors?

Pavel Vilikovský: I believe that extra-literary, especially political factors play an important role in acceptance of minor literatures in the West. When, due to political development, certain country takes up the headlines in Western newspapers, it is an opportune moment for the literature to set its foot in. It was so with the Czech and Slovak literature after 1968, and with the Czech literature after 1977. Of course, if its qualities prove to be „unsatisfactory“ (for whatever reasons), the interest gradually wanes – it is bound to be short-lived anyway. This fact should not discourage us to undertake such promotional projects as the one you have mentioned, though the results are always dubious. They are just small drops, but if they fall frequently enough they might have desirable effect, after all. My own experience indicates that the most important factor is an enthusiastic translator who enjoys some respect in the publishing sphere of the receiving country. Unfortunately, with an exotic language like Slovak, there will never be many of them.

Igor Navrátil: Just as the year 1989 was an important milestone in geopolitical and sociopolitical situation, the year 1993 was a milestone in the historical development and the state form in Czecho-Slovakia and, subsequently, in Slovakia. Do you think these fundamental changes have had their reflection in literary creation in Slovakia? And, from the point of view of quality, have these turning points, these „twists“ in politics and history been an asset to the development of the Slovak literature?

Pavel Vilikovský: I am sure the historical and political „twists“ you have mentioned have had a beneficial effect upon the literary development in Slovakia, though it may be to soon to see it. As far as I know, they have reflected themselves in the subject matter of literary works of such writers as Ján Johanides, Ivan Kadlečík, Pavel Hrúz and others. The main asset, in my view, is the fact that the Slovak literature is free to develop according to its own laws and instincts. It does not necessarily mean a sudden increase of its quality, of course, but at least the conditions are favourable.

Igor Navrátil: It is generally known that every evaluation, every criticism by literary reviewers is more or less subjective and that´s why authors mostly do not care very much about the „verdict“. Thus we may agree upon the fact that the most telling indicator of the quality of a literary work is its echo, its reception among readers. Nonetheless, I dare ask you a teasing question: On the list of your literary production which original work and which translation would you treasure as your best – and why?

Pavel Vilikovský: As you have said, every evaluation is subjective, and rightly so, because reading is a very individual and personal activity. For the same reasons, however, authors are the most biased critics of their own texts, and I would not like to insinuate my views into minds of my readers. But not to evade your question completely, I would say that I prefer „Ever Green Is…“ (Večne je zelený) and „A Horse Upstairs“ (Kôň na poschodí) as the „purest“ examples of two opposite poles of my writing – satiric and sentimental. As for my translations, the answer might differ from time to time, but I think Malcolm Lowry´s „Under the Volcano“ and essays of Virginia Wolf would always be among my favourites.

Igor Navrátil: For you as a reader and a connoisseur of (not only) Anglo-Saxon literature is there any author (or period, literary movement etc.) who is exceptionally close to you and to your poetics and/or who may have influenced – even if indirectly – your literary work?

Pavel Vilkovský: I cannot recall any direct and obvious influence but, generally speaking, I have been influenced by every good writer I have read. Youth being the most impressionable time of life, the authors I find closest to me (not necessarily to my poetics) are those American writers who were at the peak of their creative powers then: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Saroyan.