Iron and Velvet: a Decade of New Czech Writing
Jáchym Topol
Daylight in nightclub inferno1
Daylight in Nightclub Inferno
Petr Borkovec
Anna Zonová
Die rache des baumeisters
'...new Czech authors have found their place at the top of the bestseller list, today's equivalent of the queues of old at bookshop doors, when people arrived at the crack of dawn...'

by Alexandra Büchler

Transcript welcomes its readers warmly to its sixth edition, devoted to the Czech literature of the 1990s. Almost fifteen years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the lifting of the iron curtain. During this time, the Czech Republic, newly divorced from its long-time partner, Slovakia, experienced a period of transition and reorientation, and while the Velvet Revolution brought the desired freedom of expression, along with it came a period of re-evaluation and uncertainty, made all the more difficult by the privatisation of the cultural industries, including publishing.

Unsustainable growth of the book market and hasty, indiscriminate publication of what had been banned and censored until 1989 made for a chaotic scene with dozens of titles by former dissidents released all in one go and with many publishers operating on the basis of false assumptions, insufficient knowledge and lack of experience.

Czech literature, which for decades served as a tool of ideology - whether promoting the official line or challenging it - found itself at a loss over its social function and future direction. But Czech readers have made their choices over time, though choice has to a large extent been influenced by the media. In recent times, several new Czech authors - Jáchym Topol, Michal Viewegh and Milos Urban - have found their place at the top of the bestseller list, today's equivalent of the queues of old at bookshop doors, when people arrived at the crack of dawn to get their hands on the latest title by Bohumil Hrabal. However, new Czech writing has not yet found its way into the English-speaking world, where Kundera, ironically still largely unpublished and unread in his home country, is the best known Czech writer, followed by Ivan Klíma, whose books have for some time left Czech readership unimpressed.

One could say that Czech writing was internationally better known in the 1970s, when in the wake of the Soviet invasion of the country and the subsequent banning of many writers, the smuggling out of manuscripts and publishing of dissident writing became the hobby of Western liberals, and Czech authors were published by the likes of Penguin. A short-lived wave of interest followed the Velvet Revolution with publications of several books by and about the Czech playwright-president Vaclav Havel and three anthologies of Czech writing published in English.

Not even the presence of a large English-speaking community in Prague (a small market in itself) has made much difference to English-language publishers' intentions, although it has produced publication vehicles in the form of the Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press and several literary magazines such as Trafika or The Prague Review, as well as a new generation of translators of Czech literature such as Justin Quinn, Alex Zucker, Derek Paton, and Ivan Gutierrez, all of whom deserve credit for their dedication to making Czech literature known outside the country and beyond the language barrier. Yet, during the past decade, new Czech writers whose work has been translated into numerous languages, including French and German, have failed to impress English-language publishers enough to give them a chance. A celebrated author such as Jachym Topol whose novel Sister is seen as a major achievement of the 1990s has so far been published by a small US press specializing in Czech literature, while the only Czech prose writer to be published in the UK in the 1990s is Ivan Klíma.

Missing is a more open-minded attitude on the part of publishers but also a body of literary journals and reviews that would regularly inform readers about developments beyond the immediate horizon of English-language writing. There is also a lack of systematic promotion of Czech literature abroad and of financial support in the recipient countries to complement the limited resources at the disposal of the Czech cultural authorities.

Any step however small which furthers the cause of Czech literature abroad is a step in the right direction. We hope that this issue of Transcript will set readers on the road to a greater awareness of the Czech literary scene today.

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