What does Europe think of Czech Literature?

What does Europe Think of Czech Literature?
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Jachym Topol
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In the following paragraphs, critics and translators from several European countries with a knowledge of Czech literature answer two questions:

1. Who is, in your opinion, the most important Czech author of the 1990s?

2. What has been the position of the Czech literature in your country within the last few years, and what could be done to make it better?

Eero Balk, Finland

1. A difficult question. At the moment I think it is Bohumil Hrabal.

2. Czech literature has a certain number of fans and a hallmark of quality. During the 90s, small publishing houses took it up while larger ones gave up on it. The last books published by the major publishers were Hrabal´s Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále in 1991 and Kundera´s Immortality in 1992. So now, Czech literature in Finland is viewed as some kind of elite, high quality literature for a small number of readers. For comparison: Polish and Hungarian literature is being published by large as well as small publishers. What is the reason for this I cannot say.

What could be done? On the one hand it is a good thing that every year Czech books are published here at all. On the other hand, it would definitely help if the editors of large publishing houses came back from the Frankfurt book fair with several new Czech titles every year - as they bring, for example, Polish titles. I have never been to the book fair myself, but I suppose that Polish literature must have a better presentation there. Literary prizes and awards also play some part in such decisions: our publishers follow the Polish prize Nike. In the Czech Republic, there is no such a prestigious prize surrounded by media attention and publicity. What could we, the translators of Czech literature, do? I don´t know. Maybe we just need the nerve not to stop promoting Czech literature. Very important is also the (already existing) system of grants supporting the Czech literature to foreign languages. A translation grant can be decisive.

Jana Kubista, Germany

1. Jáchym Topol. He has been successful during the 1990´s, he is very versatile - a prose writer, poet and translator -and he is well-respected and translated into many languages.

2. The position of Czech literature in Germany is not very strong. In fact, it is the opposite - when you realize we are close neighbours. It is not the fault of the publishers. They used to publish a lot of Czech literature. It is because what is read most, what sells now more and more are the 'mainstream' books - including Anglo-American translations. Or the readers prefer to read about their own problems - which explains the succes of some German authors. There was a time of great interest in Czech dissident literature, but now times are harder for quality literature. What can be done? More promotion, more readings, more education in the sense that Czechs are our neigbours and we should care more about their culture and not only about the price of their petrol. Perhaps things are going to get better when the Czech republic becomes a member of the EU, but even then it won't be easy. The translators play an important part in the procces. They give tips to the publishers on interesting new books. The reason why most of these suggestions are not followed are financial - Czech literature doesn't sell well. I live in Dresden and there are some very good promotional activities like the 'Prager Nacht' in which the Bosch Foundation presents mainly books from their 'Tschechische Bibliothek'. There are many readings in a variety of unusual Dresden locations - the cemetary, a hotel. This literary night was a great success. The Dresdner Lyrikpreis is also of considerable importance.

Leszek Engelking, Poland

1. Among the authors who appeared after the Velvet revolution - although they published before in samizdat - the following are my favorites: Daniela Hodrova, Michal Ajvaz, Jiri Kratochvil and Jachym Topol. Among the poets known from the 60´s, the most important, it seems to me, is Ivan Wernisch. I also like some of Pavel Srut's work. Among the youger generation the most interesting to me is Petr Borkovec.

2. The position of the Czech literature in Poland is not particulary bad, especially when compared to the literature of other smaller nations. Both Bohumil Hrabal and Milan Kundera are very popular, and Hasek, of course. In recent years years, two novels by Jachym Topol have been published, one by Daniela Hodrova, Grusa´s Dotazník, a novel and short stories of Josef Skvorecky, a book by Hrabal, articles by Milena Jesenska, and an antology of Czech essays. Three books by Michal Ajvaz are coming out soon, as well as a second book of poetry by Ivan Wernish, and Topol's latest book, Nocní práce. This doesn't mean that there are no gaps which need filling. There are no translations of books by Ludvik Vaculik, Jiri Kratochvil, Vera Linhartová, or Karel Milota. A translation of some older books, by Jan Amos Komensky, for example, would be most welcome.

What could be done? What is needed most for the promotion of new authors is money. Many Czech books have been published in Poland thanks to grants from various organisations and institutions. More grants, more opportunities. In most cases, it is only the grants that allow the translators to work. What else? As far as I know, the Czech- Polish cultural treaty has not been renewed, which means, there is no possibility for example for Czech translators to to come on a study trip to Poland and vice versa. This is a real shame. The Czech Cultural centre in Poland could be more active, and the Polish Institute in Prague as well. The translators should be informed about new books in the Czech Republic and the best thing would be for publishers to send them books right away. I regularly receive a catalogue from Petrov, Host, Periplum and Votobia and it helps me immensely in my work.

Alex Zucker, USA

1. I'm biased of course, but for me the obvious pick for most important author of the '90s is Jáchym Topol. His debut novel, Sestra, was ranked higher than any other novel of the decade in a Lidove noviny poll of Czech critics and authors titled The 100 Greatest Czech Prose Works of the (20th) Century. On the other hand, there were probably other authors who had a greater influence on the direction of Czech literature as a whole. In other words, I don't think Topol has inspired any imitators or served as a model for other writers. So it may be years still before we know for sure who was the most important. And then again, how about this: Who sold the most books in the 1990s? Isn't that important too?

2. The position of Czech literature in the U.S. is primarily a function of the size of the population and its consequences for the economics of the publishing industry. Secondarily, it's a matter of politics.

In other words, there is a market for Czech literature in the U.S., but it is small. So the question for any publisher putting out a Czech work is how do I find my readers? In a country as big as ours, it is extremely difficult. The Internet is great for the individual consumer, allowing her to find whatever she wants, whenever she wants. But for the publisher, it is hell. How do you find those 5,000 people out there you know want to read that novel, when each dwells within his own little niche in cyberspace. Where should you advertise or publicize the work in order to reach those few?

And even more important, the costs of printing a book, which is the most expensive part of putting out a novel (unless of course you have a marketing campaign) are such that it is near impossible to break even, let alone make a profit, from a book that sells fewer than 10,000 copies. This is not just a problem for Czech literature, by the way; 90 percent of translations in this country sell fewer than 5,000 copies. So really, the odds are heavily stacked against any foreign literature at all in the U.S.

Apart from that, historically, the publishing of Czech novels in this country has tended to follow trends of interest in things Czech as a result of political events. In other words, there was a wave of interest after Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of 1968, and there was another, smaller wave again after the 'Velvet Revolution' of 1989. Will there ever be another? I wouldn't count on it.

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