Literature in eastern central Europe since 1989 (I)

Katharina Raabe
editor for eastern european literature at Suhrkamp Verlag

After 1989, uncensored editions of many classics of contemporary eastern European literature became available, and numerous authors were discovered for the first time in the West. Meanwhile, a younger generation of writers, their imaginations liberated by events, were quick to respond to the new appetite for understanding the communist past. Katharina Raabe, editor for eastern European literature at Suhrkamp Verlag, surveys some of the most important of these authors and describes German publishers' role in bringing them to western readers.

La littérature de l’Europe de l’Est n’est sans doute pas familière à beaucoup. Nous avons choisi – en deux volets – de republier un article d’un auteur allemand portant sur les oeuvres nées après la Chute du Mur (1989). Une nouvelle génération d’écrivains est née, libérée des carcans antérieurs. Elle est inventive, même si encore souvent elle se penche sur le passé.

Auch wenn es in einer globalisierten Kunstwelt kein Zentrum mehr gibt, die Kunstinteressierten zwischen London, New-York, Basel, Paris, oder Istanbul unterwegs sind, und vergessen viele kleine Zentren. Ost-Europa aber hat doch etwas zu bieten. Zum Beispiel : Literatur. Es geht nicht um Vergangenheit, eher um Lebensgefühl. Entscheidende als die historische Wahreit ist es, dem Lebensgefühl der Literatur Figuren möglichst gerecht zu werden. Ist dies alles die Warheit ? Es ist mehr als die Warheit. Es ist Dichtung. Am Ende entscheidet die Literatur und nur die Zählt. Ya, innerhalb Europa hat nicht Ost-Literatur ein gutes Image. Das durfte sich lagsam, aber sicher andern.

Dogu Avrupa edebiyatiyle ilgilen pek fazla insana rastlanmiyor. Alman bir yazar Berlin Duvari'nin yok olmasiyla birlikte dogan eserleri tanitiyor. Iste bu makaleyi yayimliyoruz. Yeni bir yazar jenerasyonu dogdu, daha ozgurlukcu bir jenerasyon. Gecmisine fazla baksa da yaratici bir jenerasyon bu.

Dopo il 1989, le edizioni non censurate di molti classici della letteratura contemporanea dell'Europa orientale si sono resi disponibili, e numerosi autori sono stati scoperti per la prima volta in Occidente. Nel frattempo, una giovane generazione di scrittori, che con la loro immaginazione liberata dagli eventi, sono stati rapidi a rispondere al nuovo appetito per la comprensione del passato comunista. Katharina Raabe, impegnata             vivamente  nella letteratura dell'est europeo in Suhrkamp Verlag, indago` alcuni tra i più importanti di questi autori e descrive il ruolo degli editori tedeschi 'a portarli a quelli occidentali. La letteratura dell'Europa dell’Est è probabilmente sconosciuta a molti. Abbiamo scelto di ripubblicare -in due parti - un articolo scritto da un autore tedesco sulle opere create dopo la caduta del Muro di Berlino (1989). Una nuova generazione di scrittori sono nati liberi dei limiti che esistevano precedentemente. Anche se l’autore si centra spesso sul passato, rimane sempre inventivo.

Today the map of eastern Europe is made up of smaller units, and the boundaries are more numerous. It still seems incredible that the European Union now includes the former Baltic Soviet republics as well as the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, alongside Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. To speak of eastern and western Europe seems a political anachronism. And yet this "eastern Europe" obstinately lingers in the consciousness. 

If we look at the literature it becomes apparent that this division has merely been shifted; that with the emergence of individual literatures out of the uniform greyness of the socialist landscape, the contours of old Mitteleuropa are showing through on the new map. It becomes clear, too, that the only literary centre remaining in the East is Russia.
One of the challenges of the postcommunist era has been the need to get to know not only the new political realities in the nations that emerged from the fog but also their historical and cultural situation. Travelling, intercultural exchange and building and developing relationships depended, however, on the existence of a sound basis of understanding, communication and translation. Writing a common European history, which after the fall of the Wall suddenly seemed achievable, could not be done without a common memory. How else could a common history come into being? 

Books and libraries have a special role to play here. The literature of the twentieth century has shown itself equal to the task of describing even the breakdown of civilization that was Auschwitz and Kolyma.
But until 1989 this literature was insufficiently known, and its reception forms part of the description of the literary process that has occurred since 1989. So too does the study of the texts that have inscribed themselves into the emerging grand narrative of the end of communism – an end accompanied by the rise of a national and post-national Europe.
In November 1990, almost a year to the day after the fall of the Wall, the renowned Kafka scholar Eduard Goldstücker travelled from London to Berlin. Speaking in debate at the Czech Centre, Goldstücker, a symbolic figure in the Prague Spring who would return to Prague from exile a short time later, made a thought-provoking statement. The most powerful novels depicting the present age, he suggested, would come from eastern central Europe, where people were confronted with their history in a more radical and inescapable way than in the West. 

Who could Goldstücker have been thinking of? What books come to mind today when we recall his prediction? And what was the role of literature in the rehabilitation of the "European consciousness paralysed down one side", to quote Jorge Semprún, speaking in Buchenwald in 1995? What part does literature play in the work of remembering?
However it would be incorrect to say that the literature of eastern Europe had been neglected.
In 1988, an unknown Yugoslav called Milorad Pavic had caused a sensation with a "dictionary novel" in male and female versions, the "Khazar dictionary" (Chasarisches Wörterbuch). Scarcely anyone showed an interest in the origins of the author or the political implications of his problematic historical mystifications. Ever since the appearance of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in 1984, Milan Kundera, who was living in exile in Paris, had been a best-selling author, and Hanser Verlag was able to commission Susanna Roth to make new translations of his earlier titles. Kundera's fellow-countryman Bohumil Hrabal, who lived in Prague and was published by Suhrkamp, was on the point of becoming a classic in his own lifetime. Thanks to the translator and long-serving intermediary Karl Dedecius, Polish literature was particularly well represented before 1989; scarcely a single important twentieth century author was overlooked. As with the Czechs, exiled Polish writers in France, the US and Canada played an important part in arousing interest and preparing the ground.
Since the mid-1970s, Hungarian writers had frequently spent time in West Berlin; in 1981 Nádas had been a guest of the DAAD artists programme in Berlin. In 1979, Suhrkamp brought out György Konrád's The End of a Family Story (German title Ende eines Familienromans, English trans. 1998), a book that made Konrád's name outside Hungary and established his reputation as one of Hungary's most important writers.
On the lookout for new discoveries, publishers in the West decided to follow up a hunch. This was that in the eastern European countries there had to be a number of as yet unknown books that did not fit into the accepted East-West frame of reference, texts whose authors were neither dissidents nor conformists, writers who were neither emigrants nor mouthpieces of the state. Texts that had never made it past the obstacle course set by the authorities could now be found directly, without diversions via copyright agencies and publishing functionaries.
In the early summer of 1993, the Czech novelist Jáchym Topol, then aged 31, was sitting in a country house in the Eifel and writing his first novel. This was the retreat offered by the Heinrich Böll Foundation to writers suffering political persecution. But if Topol, almost four years after the Velvet Revolution, felt he was being persecuted, it was chiefly by the immense everyday problems of living in transformation-era Prague and the need to earn money by churning out innumerable articles for newspapers and periodicals. Almost twenty years earlier, in 1974, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had been a guest there. Böll's summerhouse in Kreuzau-Langenbroich was the first staging post on the Soviet writer's journey into American exile. Famous black and white photos of Böll and Solzhenitsyn adorned the walls. Topol liked Böll, who in August 1968 was in Prague visiting his writer friend Bohumil Hrabal; together they had watched the tanks roll in. Now Topol, the literary descendant of Hrabal, literally had them in front of him, the "veterans of the past, of the time of fear and hatred". They were images of an era that came to an end in 1989.
Literature from the nations of eastern Europe was received as a documentary account. While some attention was paid to the style of the writing, the interest of the public was mainly documentary. There was a yearning for a new Nabokov or Márquez to ignite the imagination of western readers. People wanted to understand the conflicts and tragedies, the psychological and spiritual situation, the omnipresent pressure under which people in these closed societies had suffered and which was finally being eased. This was the burden of history – a history that could only now be told, after the nations had freed themselves from party dictatorships. Expectations of what literature could achieve were high.
"The use of man" (Der Gebrauch des Menschen; original title Upotreba coveka) by Aleksandar Tisma, which came out in 1976 in Belgrade and in 1985 in French translation reached German readers just as Yugoslavia was disintegrating. After Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence in June 1991, the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic mobilized the Yugoslav People's Army. Many people read the book in their summer holidays, as the first images of people lying dead in flowering southern gardens flickered across television screens.
The novel tells the story of the Nazi invasion of Novi Sad, where hitherto Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Germans and Jews had co-existed peacefully in the small town. The story centres on the fates of four young people who had all attended the German classes given by the Fräulein. One of them is killed fighting for the resistance, but the others survive, one physically mutilated, another incapable of finding a way back to everyday life after the war, the fourth finally destroyed by the trauma of having been an "Auschwitz whore". Whether perpetrators or victims, they are unable to avoid each other. With great precision, Tisma describes how violence takes control of the lives of people and destroys them: "An agonizing masterpiece", wrote one critic, "that burdens its German readers with feelings of guilt about our history that we would prefer to repress; never before has the shame of the victims been so precisely described as in this novel."
Imre Kertész too had to speak through a book that was twenty years old when, in the spring of 1996, he undertook a writer's tour with his Roman eines Schicksallosen (original title Sorstalanság, published in English translation as Fateless in 1992 and in a retranslation by Tim Wilkinson as Fatelessness in 2004).  Writing entirely from the perspective of a boy who, unlike the reader, does not know what awaits him, he tells of deportation to Auschwitz and of slow deterioration in the camp. The story ends with the liberation of Buchenwald (where he had been transferred), his return to Budapest and his scandalous nostalgia for the concentration camp. The critics saw the author as the equal of Primo Levi and Jorge Semprún. It is doubtful whether the all-pervasive presence of the Nazi concentration camp, and the way its logical laws were learned, has ever been so radically expounded. Without comment, in an attempt to get under the skin of a creature entirely deprived of freedom, whose life is totally determined by others, the author Kertész (not his narrator!) wrote about the world of the camps as the most extreme form of experience. For him, the fact that existence in totalitarian Stalinist society was a continuation of his internment prompted him to write this book – in contrast to Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski and Jean Améry, who all took their own lives.
Investigations like these continue right up to the present; in 2003 Wojciech Kuczok wrote his novel "Muck" (original title Gnój; German trans. Dreckskerl, 2007) about a violent father, a scholar destroyed by communism, who as a child had lived under the same roof as Germans. This is a paean of hate, inspired by Thomas Bernhard, against the torpor of the Polish Catholic family and indeed the People's Republic itself.
This Europe of ruins, which is in danger of disappearing in the process of the postcommunist transformation, is the subject and source of inspiration for the best-known Polish writer of the middle generation: Andrzej Stasiuk. When his lyrical prose work "The world behind Dukla" (Die Welt hinter Dukla) appeared in the autumn of 2000 as the centrepiece of Poland's contribution to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the one-horse town in southern Poland that figured in it was enthusiastically declared the new literary capital. To lend an aura to derelict villages, empty streets, foul-smelling chicken coops and rusty farm equipment by describing, page after page, the transcendent light that falls on them – Stasiuk's aesthetic project imperceptibly introduced a new paradigm shift.
The most urgent warning of the negative consequences of EU enlargement for the countries beyond Europe's new eastern border came from Andrzej Stasiuk. Connections have been cut as the borders shifted eastwards and southeastwards. The "Europe of the fringes" looks different today than it did in 1989. It is no accident, therefore, that two Polish publishing houses – Pogranicze in the northeast and Czarne in the southeast have become the outlet for the productive potential appearing at the margins.

(Suite in the next European Spectator)

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

Contributed by Osteuropa
© Katharina Raabe / Osteuropa
© Eurozine