Three Anthologies of Czech Writing in English

Allskin, Daylight in Nightclub Inferno and This Side of Reality
Allskin ab1
Daylight in nightclub inferno11
This side of reality ab11
Read also The Metamorphoses of Prague by Tim Rogers, and The Unbearable Lightness of Bestsellers by Daniel Anyz and Tomas Vrba.
Click on the titles on the left or read below about three anthologies of Czech literature available in English translation. Read reviews of This Side of Reality and Daylight in Nightclub Inferno by Randall Lyman here.

1: This Side of Reality
1: This Side of Reality ed. Alexandra Büchler.
Serpent's Tail (London); ISBN: 1852423781, 1996

The following text, by Alexandra Buchler, is the introduction to This Side of Reality.

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For most of the post-war period, Czech literature existed in a peculiar state of fragmentation and dividedness. It was subject to censorship, ruptured by exile, and deprived of the influence of valid criticism and of a theoretical framework. During the time of 'consolidation and normalization' following the Soviet invasion in 1968, some of the best Czech authors were forced into exile, both internal and external. During this time, crucial cultural forums were disbanded, vehicles of publication and critical dialogue banned, and major works erased from official history. The unofficial, shadow literature continued to be written and published in the underground context of clandestine meetings, samizdat editions and exiles presses. A number of dissident writers, some of whom have in the meantime gained international recognition, were forced to leave the country and were stripped of their citizenship. Those who stayed were subjected to police harassment and persecution, or at least relegated to a twilight zone where their work, while not directly banned, was not available in bookshops and libraries.

What these writers had in common was not only their implicit or explicit rejection of formal and ideological dogmatism, but also a genuine concern for the continuity and integrity of national culture, and for essential human values crushed in an atmosphere of fear, apathy and general complicity. Drawing on a legacy of irony and humour and of the tradition of the absurd and the surreal, they often abandoned the conventions of literary realism in favour of collage, fragmented and episodic narrative through which they examined a continuously distorted image of the past and present, exploring the shifting line between imagination and reality, and testing the communicative capacities of a language corrupted by the hegemony of ideology.

Yet the attention paid to dissident writers by the police state also reflected the traditionally privileged status of the written word, its immense power and influence in a culture in which writers, the 'engineers of human souls', were seen as the ultimate moral arbiters of their society. The central significance of the writer and of storytelling as a way of mediating between society and its representations, between reality and fiction, is evident in most of the texts presented in this anthology as is the preoccupation with the very process of writing and with literary constructs and conventions. These questions, however, are not approached from the perspective of a heightened literary self-consciousness, but rather from the position of concern with moral values to which the issues of artistic integrity and responsibility are intrinsic.

Many of the stories told here share a sense of confined experience and a desire to cross boundaries in a quest for meaning denied to the reality from which they arise. From Fuks's moving story of a Jewish boy dreaming about leaving the occupied Czechoslovakia to see the world, to Murrer's Kafkaesque tale of self-repeating history, or Kratochvil's bizarre proposal to relocate a whole city to the Amazonian rainforest, 'away from all roads, ideas and bad intentions'. Much of the writing speaks of journeys, real and imaginary, of experiential claustrophobia, of breaking out of reality's prison.

Finally, this anthology traces some of the history of the past decades. While Ivan Klíma's story sums up the position of the dissident writer in 1970s Czechoslovakia, and Michal Viewegh's editorial asides reflect the more liberal but still uneasy atmosphere of the 1980s, the last two texts take the reader to the new, post-1989 era. In an intensely personal account that seemingly ignores the momentous events of the times, Ludvík Vaculík focuses on the most essential of private and civic responsibilities, the education of a child. But it is Jáchym Topol's roman-fleuve narrative that opens the floodgates to the nightmarish new reality governed by the twin superpowers of today, the media and the mafia. Literature is knocked off its high ground by market forces and censored by business priorities, the books for which authors and readers once risked their freedom has been hijacked by the jargon of economics. Ironically, this story resonates with the same concerns underlying the writing of Topol's predecessors and older colleagues, bearing witness to a new, deeper corruption of values from which there is no escape, for there are no more walls to fall.

2: Allskin and Other Tales by Contemporary Czech Women
Allskin and Other Tales by Contemporary Czech Women, ed. Alexandra Büchler, Women in Translation 1998(Seattle); ISBN: 1879679116, 220pp.

'It took the insider-outsider mentality of the editor of the collection to recognize the need to bring women's voices into a translated canon dominated not just by male writing, by often by very sexist male writing. Allskin is an impressive first foray into new literary ground, a non-judgmental attempt to show what's out there.'

From Andree Collier-Zaleska's review in The Prague Post, (August 1998).

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Allskin and Other Tales is the first anthology of fiction by Czech women to appear in English translation. Readers familiar with Czech writing in translation will recognize the characteristic features: its inclination toward the fantastic, the absurd, the grotesque and the surreal, its penchant for political allegory and satire, its sense of irony and black humour, its lopsided view of reality. It is a paradox that much of modern Czech fiction owes its richness and stylistic innovation to the fact that from its beginnings it developed under the watchful gaze of generations of censors serving repressive regimes that knew the power of the word in a culture where writers held a privileged position as social and political commentators. The stories in this anthology claim the same legacy, but the women who tell them often work from different premises, employ different strategies and develop different aspects of the shared literary tradition, drawing on a much broader tradition of storytelling that encompasses myth, legend and märchen and on folk culture with its belief in magic and the supernatural.

Here the slightly fantastic and often ironic style of Czech literature has merged with post-modern consciousness to create texts that question identity and history, and that also spin new fairy tales from old, as in Daniela Fischerová's story, Allskin Dances on Tables, taken from the folk tale of a girl who dresses in animal skins to hide her beauty. In 'Talibe', expatriate Iva Pekárková tells the story of a Czech woman cab driver in Manhattan who marries another immigrant from Africa for a green card, and perhaps for love. 'Between Us Girls' is a chilling and witty story of an unusual pregnancy told by noted science fiction author Eva Hauser, while Teresa Bouková takes on the subject of infertility in post-Chernobyl Central Europe in the haunting 'A Woman from the region of Tyre'.

3: Daylight in Nightclub Inferno
Daylight in Nightclub Inferno, ed. Elena Lappin
Catbird Press; ISBN: 0945774338, 1997

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The opening up of the Prague Spring in the mid-1960s set off one of the great literary explosions of this century, led by such writers as Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Josef Skvorecky, Vladimir Paral, and Ivan Klima. No other small language has been better represented in English.

But what has been happening since the Velvet Revolution of 1989? And who are the writers who are hoping to replace the Prague Spring generation?

Are the Czechs looking back or forward, inside or abroad, shallow or deep? Is there a new Czech style, a new sense or humor, new themes, new complaints? Are Czech women coming to the fore at last? In short, what's the story?

Daylight in Nightclub Inferno is Catbird's attempt to give at least a good part of the story. It is the first English-language collection of stories and novel excerpts by the best and most representative younger Czech writers. You will discover that, unlike the older generation, they have not been disillusioned; their darkness comes not from the disappointment of hopes, but from never having had any. The daylight in the title refers to the quality of the writers' work and to the fact that they can now publish it freely, even if it is harder to get the attention of readers faced with so many new alternatives.

This collection also introduces a new generation of American Czech-into-English translators. And it contains a few bonus selections from excellent members of the older generation who somehow were passed over.

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