Literature in eastern central Europe (II)

Katharina Raabe

(editor for eastern European literature
at Suhrkamp Verlag)

In the second part of her article, the author continues her overview of Eastern European literature. She highlights the fact that many authors from that period are still very little known: ndrzej Stasiuk, Sandor Marai, Miljenko Jergovic, Serhij Zhadan, ... She explains that many of the younger authors of that era develop their writing styles in an international context, using multiple languages, are familiar with the internet, and are influenced by cinema and the media.   The only question now is whether intra-European exchanges are sufficient to bring these authors to the foreground all across Europe.

Yazar, makalesinin ikinci bolumunde, eski dogu Avrupa edebiyatini tanitmaya devam ediyor.  Andrzej Stasiuk, Sandor Marai, Miljenko Jergovic, Serhij Zhadan gibi son derece onemli yazarlarin altini ciziyor. Bu yazarlarin en genc olanlarinin edebiyati uluslararasi ve pek cok lisanli atmosferlede ogrendiklerinin altini ciziyor. Bu yazarlarin internetle aralari iyi ve sinema ve mediadan cok etkilendiler. Simdi ki soru ise, Avrupa cercevesinde gerceklesen bu alisverisler birbirlerini tanimaya yeterli mi yonunde.

L'autore continua la sua panoramica della letteratura dell’ex Europa dell’Est (ex Unione Sovietica), nella seconda parte del suo articolo. Lei sottolinea che molti scrittori importanti sono ancora pococonosciuti: Andrzej Stasiuk,  Sandor Marai,  Miljenko Jergovic, Serhij Zhadan ...  Mostra che i più giovani tra di loro sviluppano la propria scrittura in un contesto internazionale, dunque utilizzano più lingue. Hanno ricevuti l'influenza del cinema, dei media e anche su Internet. La questione è se il commercio intra-europeo è sufficiente per far conoscere l’uno e l'altro da punti differenti in Europa.

The metamorphoses of central Europe

The topographical or geopoetic turn completes the move away from a literature that had concerned itself with the development of the individual and the tragedy of his destruction. If, in Péter Nádas' A Book of Memories, the damaged city landscape of East Berlin had served as the backdrop for a drama of personality, in Stasiuk the landscape itself is submitted to the poetic and speculative apparatus. It is striking that the people we meet in Stasiuk's travel stories remain mute. They move through the picture, sit in the driver's cabin of a parked lorry, or cower next to their kiosks in the scorching heat; from a distance their backs are almost indistinguishable from the cows that graze a little further off in the meadow. They come from a timeless zone and remain there as extras as the traveller passes through. In the booming economic region of western Romania, they are a symbol of the hugely unequal speeds of modernization. At the same time, they embody the feeling formulated by the traveller Stephan Wackwitz, the one that wafts towards you as soon as you go east of Vienna: the indeterminacy of the expanse that in a sense extends all the way to the steppes.[37] The impression you gain as you travel from West to East is that history somehow falls away and gradually merges with the stillness of Asiatic eternity.[38]

It seems that only Hungarian writers were able to give a voice to the motionless figures of Stasiuk's world, which stretches from the Theiss plain to the forests of Transylvania. We find these figures in the novels of Ádám Bodor, László Krasznahorkai or Attila Bartis. László Darvasi, whose tales are set in the places described by Stasiuk, also writes about travel.[39] In a covered wagon, on which a blue tear has been painted, five itinerant "artists of weeping" journey through a sixteenth and seventeenth century central Europe devastated by wars, epidemics, pogroms and rebellions. They are present wherever people have been the victims of misfortune and violence. These lachrymose troubadours pass through a world that extends from Poland to Transylvania, from Belgrade to Venice, from Vienna to Szeged. Evoking human hopes, torments, injustices, indescribable cruelties and deeply moving gestures, the universe that this book traverses, in its hundreds of episodes, touches us in a unique way.

The author's talent does not consist in painting historical panoramas but in limiting himself to depicting the existential truth of his characters, all of whom are our contemporaries. When the book was written, Szeged, where Darvasi lived at the time, was a place plagued by crime, where arms smugglers operated, supplying weapons to Arkan's Serbian "Tigers" and other paramilitary gangs in Bosnia.

In the spring of 1999, after finishing his novel, Darvasi went back to the short story. In response to the expulsions in Kosovo and the Nato bombing of Serbia, he wrote the cycle "Getting hold of a woman" (Eine Frau besorgen). The action of the book takes place in imaginary settings at the time of the Bosnian war and describes a state of anomie, total barbarity and lawlessness. It is the only book in which he reacts directly to the war, although war was a brooding presence in the earlier books.

"Over central Europe there hovers the odour of boiled cabbage and stale beer, and the putrid smell of overripe melons is in the air," wrote Josef K.,[40] an observation that aptly describes the world of Darvasi's stories. Provinciality, superstition, fear and fathomless melancholy prevail. A character who crops up in several tales in "The saddest orchestra in the world" (Das traurigste Orchester der Welt) bears the name of Kopf. The obtuseness of the young man is that of a child in a world as vast as it is opaque. "You don't need to know everything", explains Baron Demeter Absolon in "The tear jugglers" (Die Tränengaukler) – words that not only express an insight into the incomprehensible mysteries of existence, but also suggest the resignation of someone powerless to intervene in the workings of the world, because decisions affecting him have always been taken elsewhere.

Darvasi, who describes himself as a disciple of Mészöly and Bodor, Kafka and Borges, is regarded as one of the most original European writers of his generation – and almost impossible to sell. The same applies to his contemporary Jáchym Topol. Perhaps their very ability to give expression to the turmoil of the postcommunist present and to steer clear of the glorification of central Europe counts against them.

It is probably significant that the most successful eastern European novel after 1989 was one that presented a kitschy picture of central Europe: Embers (English publication 2002, original Hungarian 1942) by Sándor Márai. It is the fictional story of a world that, wrote Karl-Markus Gauß, "the evening sun of the Habsburgs gently shone upon".[41] Gauß pointed out that this fine author, who produced two novels a year, wrote works of variable quality and that it was Márai's more trivial books that first captured the international market – Márai was discovered by the Italian publisher Adelphi, who also secured the world rights. In the wake of the huge success of Embers, a wide variety of Hungarian writers of the interwar period, including Antal Szerb, Dezsö Kosztolányi and Ernö Szép, the "elegant giants" as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called them, have been reprinted and have sold well.
The presence of a new war
"Europe is dying in Sarajevo", wrote the Zagreb publisher Nenad Popovic on a placard he had propped up on the desk in front of him during a discussion at the Berlin Literaturhaus in February 1993. Popovic, who since the beginning of the war had been an irreplaceable adviser and intermediary for journalists, publishers and publishers' readers in France, Italy and Germany, had rescued the Bosnian writer Dzevad Karahasan from the besieged city of Sarajevo and in 1993 published his "Diary of resettlement" (Tagebuch der Aussiedlung), an early literary document of the war. He discovered Miljenko Jergovic, today the internationally best-known Bosnian-Croatian writer of his generation. Sarajevo Marlboro, short stories from the besieged city, was published alongside Semezdin Mehmedinovic's slim volume of short prose pieces Sarajevo Blues.[42] The book published by Popovic reacted directly to the horrors of the ethnic hatred that were unleashed, the expulsions and rapes, and also to the deliberate destruction of the Serbo-Croat language, to emigration, exile and the loss of homeland. They included Bora Cosic's "Journal of a Homeless Man" (Tagebuch des Apatriden); Dubravka Ugresic's My American Fictionary (English translation 1994) and her polemic The Culture of Lies (English translation 1998); and Slavenka Drakulic's The Taste of a Man (English translation 1997). These writers have been dispersed to all points of the compass: to Vienna, Graz, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Berlin, or like David Albahari, a Serbian Jewish author from Belgrade, to Toronto.[43] For the last few years Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian writer from Chicago celebrated in the US as a successor to Nabokov, has been creating an international furore.[44]

Paradoxically, the accumulation of catastrophes enabled the most original and hitherto completely unknown voices from the former Yugoslavia to finally gain a hearing in the German-speaking countries. Here too the fog was lifting: the bloodthirsty tales of Miodrag Bulatovic were giving way to the critical and postmodern texts of Dubravka Ugresic, inspired by the Russian avant-garde and the epic narrative art of Dzevad Karahasan, recalling Ivo Andric. Danilo Kis, who died in 1989 in Paris, continued to be published in new editions. Bora Cosic's amusing and shocking book My Family's Role in the World Revolution, a subversive classic of Yugoslav literature originally published in 1970, came onto the market in German translation in 1994 (English translation published in 1997). There were European writers of distinction to be discovered.

Committed intellectuals returned to the scene, and they came – mostly – from eastern Europe. "Europa im Krieg" (Europe at War) was the title of a series of articles initiated in 1991/92 by the tageszeitung. Not unexpectedly, former dissidents, "anti-political" writers and other contributors to the Central Europe debate of the 1980s such as György Konrád, István Eörsi and Richard Wagner – not forgetting Herta Müller, Slavenka Drakulic, Lothar Baier and many others – all had their say.[45] The late-flowering career of Bora Cosic (b. 1932) owed much to the readiness of German-language periodicals, newspapers and book publishers to take southeast European writers seriously as chroniclers and commentators.

"The Sarajevo setting is putting buyers off", complained the sales manager of a German publishing house in the mid-1990s. No wonder, then, that it was at first the smaller houses, especially in Austria, that took on young writers from the nations of the former Yugoslavia. It was almost impossible to separate publishing and humanitarian concerns, or political and personal commitment. An exemplary case was Lojze Wieser, who founded the Klagenfurt-based Wieser Verlag in 1987. From the start, Wieser's orientation was towards both Yugoslavia and the rediscovery of forgotten central European authors.
The imperishable nature of the zone
Twenty years after the fall of the Wall, Jáchym Topol finally fled eastern Europe. After two more novels, "Night Work" (Nachtarbeit) and "Circus Zone" (Zirkuszone), which deal with the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Warsaw Pact, the expulsion of the Germans from the Sudetenland and the outbreak of World War III on the Bavarian-Czech border, he decided to write a book about... Greenland. First, a diversion leads through Belarus. More mass graves. Finally, having arrived in the north, a hurricane in the middle of the wilderness drives him to seek shelter in what turns out to be a World War II bunker; American names are carved into the walls, German ones too. Cartridge cases lie on the ground, undamaged, as though they had been fired yesterday; they never rust on Greenland's icy ground. For Jáchym Topol there is no escape from European history.

Since then, the children of the age of transformation, the children of the Topol generation, have entered the scene. In Poland and the Ukraine in particular, authors are writing in an acerbic language packed with contemporary idiom and jargon, none of which existed twenty years ago.[46] They don't need to step out of the shadow of the past, since they either carry less baggage or they have jettisoned what they had. Their communities are young, and the world they live in now is – in the words of Andrzej Stasiuk – no longer measured by the yardstick of the past. The backdrop for their work is not mass graves but heaps of beer bottles at bus stops in provincial backwaters otherwise deprived of consumer goods. The protagonists are not parents suffering from war trauma but young advertising copywriters, owners of delivery firms, nightclub proprietors, arms dealers or people out of work.

The youngest writers – particularly those who fled Yugoslavia as children or teenagers and today live in Vienna, Berlin, or London or are back in Zagreb – move in a transnational sphere and communicate in a new language. They are at home with the Internet, come from the music scene and are influenced by film and the media; they read Foucault and Deleuze, and either know the codes of the postcommunist society or connect with more distant traditions. Serhij Zhadan for example, 35 years old, a lyric poet from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, a postproletarian punk who is interested not in Bruno Schulz but the Ukrainian futurists and the "shot renaissance"[47] writes about the Soviet anarchist Nestor Machno and takes on an inheritance likely to concern us for longer and more dramatically than the eastern central Europe that forms the subject of this essay. I refer to the decaying mass of the Soviet empire, which today radiates more strongly and ominously than it did twenty years ago.

The networking and inter-relationships between young eastern central and young western authors are today probably as intense as they were at the time of the avantgarde of their great-great-grandparents before and after World War I. If the perception of the European turn was at first very strongly dominated by Russian themes and Russian writers, this changed as interest increasingly focussed on the "minor" literatures of central Europe and eastern central Europe. Currently, Russia is relatively poorly represented by outstanding new young literary voices, although this could soon change.

A Romanian writer, Filip Florian, also recently took a mass grave as his starting point for a novel. But the theme is not the re-examination of the past but rather of the present, in which the past only lives on as a rumour. However Romania, unlike Poland, is beset by corruption, lies and the continued existence of the old party elite. To that extent, the past has never really gone away. What is new, however, is that Florian "has withdrawn from the duty of the historical reporter", as the critic Lothar Müller remarked.[48] This applies, despite all the differences, to all the writers of the youngest generation. Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, they no longer want to commit themselves to a "mission". They are writing against a chaotic reality and are concerned with deciphering layers of new codes and with the maelstrom of change and destruction in the routines and spaces of their old lives.

Original in German
Translation by Gordon Wells
First published in Osteuropa 2-3/2009

Contributed by Osteuropa
© Katharina Raabe / Osteuropa
© Eurozine