Twenty-five years after the Velvet Revolution and over two decades since its “velvet divorce” from its bigger brother, the Czech Republic, in 1992, Slovakia—a country with a population of just over five million—still remains largely unknown outside Central Europe. Unlike its former sibling, it has yet to produce authors who have become household names abroad. Except for ice-hockey championships, the country rarely makes international headlines, though it did recently with the spectacular launch of the James-Bond-worthy flying car. Many people still confuse Slovakia with Slovenia, another small central European country; some refer to its cities as Czech, and, most annoyingly, even some who have known me for years believe that since I was born in Czechoslovakia, my native language must be Czech.
Of course it's quite a complicated story: although very close to Czech (as well as to Polish—all three belong to the West Slavic language family), Slovak is in fact a distinct language with its own traditions, culture, and literature. Because Slovakia was part of the Kingdom of Hungary for many centuries, it lacks the long and illustrious literary tradition of the Czechs and the Poles; its writers used Latin or Czech until 1843, when Slovak was established as a written language during the “national revivals” that shook much of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.
A new generation of patriots set out to cultivate Slovak as a literary language and produce works of literature. By the end of the nineteenth century their efforts had attracted the attention of The Universal Anthology:
The Slovaks occupy the northern part of Hungary, being about three millions in number. They are among the oldest Slavic nations in Europe, and were the first Slavs to receive the Christian religion from Byzantium. Their language was long regarded as a dialect of Bohemian, though it occupies an intermediate position between Bohemian and Russian. It was first used for literary purposes about a hundred years ago, since which time it has been perfected so as to be one of the most musical languages of the Slavs, if not the most so. In the short time of its existence, their literature has produced some remarkable productions, that compare favorably with those of more fortunate and larger nations. Having no national existence, and suffering from the oppression of the Hungarians, much of their literature is a lament and a dirge. But of late they are taking a broader aspect of life, though they prefer mainly to use national themes for literary purposes. (The Universal Anthology, 1899, ed. Richard Garnett, Leon Vallée, and Alois Brandl).
Since then, Slovak literature has seen a great flowering, with writers certainly “taking a [far] broader aspect of life.” Unfortunately, “a lament and a dirge” are pretty good terms for what it feels like to try to promote Slovak literature abroad, especially in the English-speaking world, despite government support via the Slovak Literary Centre and the valiant efforts of a few devoted translators. Aside from anthologies, no more than ten works of fiction by Slovak authors appeared in English translation between 1950 and 1989, and only a further six fiction writers had their work published in English between 1989 and 2014. Regrettably, only two of these sixteen are women: the nineteenth-century critical realist Timrava and just one contemporary author, Daniela Kapitáňová.
This dire state of affairs doesn´t do justice to the vibrant and diverse literary scene in present-day Slovakia, which, despite serious problems of funding and a skeletal and corrupt distribution network, has seen a veritable explosion of new talent in the past few decades. A striking aspect of this new development is the number of women who have established themselves as writers to be reckoned with and who now form a far greater proportion of the Slovak writing community than ever before. This Words without Borders feature aims to highlight some Slovak women authors writing today. They represent several generations, a variety of styles, and a wide range of themes.
Our selection begins with Jaroslava Blažková (b. 1933), a member of Generation 56, a group that started writing in the 1960s, during the period of the thaw in Czechoslovakia. After the 1968 Soviet-led invasion she emigrated to Canada with her husband and her name disappeared from the annals of Slovak literature. She made a comeback in the 1990s, first with reissues of her older books, followed by publications of her current writing. In Happy Endings [Happyendy 2005], written while Blažková was caring for her husband after he suffered a stroke, the author reflects on the difficulties of her daily life with wit and compassion, finding sparks of humor in the most unlikely places.
The previously unpublished short story “Sea Anemone” (“Sasanka,” 2013) is a fine example of the feminist writing of Uršuľa Kovalyk (b. 1969), whose surreal plotting and imagery often celebrates female sexuality. A trained social worker as well as a playwright, Kovalyk is the artistic director of Theatre With No Home, based in the Slovak capital Bratislava, which works with homeless and disabled actors. Her work includes several collections of short stories and two novels, Žena zo sekáča [The second-hand woman, 2008] and The Equestrienne [Krasojazdkyňa, 2013], which was shortlisted for the 2014 Anasoft Litera, Slovakia's top literary prize, and awarded the 2014 Biblioteka Prize.
A practicing psychiatrist, writer, and columnist, Svetlana Žuchová (b. 1976) has lived in Vienna and Prague and is currently based in Munich, and her writing reflects the life of young European immigrants in Western Europe post-1989. Her collections of short stories and three novels, including the latest, Scenes from the life of M [Obrazy zo života M, 2013], have been shortlisted for the Anasoft Litera. In the excerpt selected from the latter, the narrator Marisia, a young Slovak woman working in Vienna, is trying to come to terms with her mother’s terminal illness and the process of dying, registering her thoughts, feelings, and every detail of her daily routine, very much a woman writer's counterpart to Klaus Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.
Monika Kompaníková (b. 1979) is a writer of fiction and children’s books and a visual artist. The extract here is taken from her first novel, Boat Number Five [Piata loď, 2010], for which she was awarded the 2011 Anasoft Litera. The work illustrates the bleakness and social vacuum left behind by socialism in Bratislava’s jungle of concrete apartment buildings. In lean, muscular prose with strong visual imagery, the author describes the lonely childhood of her narrator, emotionally neglected by her mother and obliged to care for her dying, witchlike grandmother, and an unlikely adventure on which she embarks after a chance encounter at a train station with a mother and her two babies.
It has been painfully difficult to make the inevitably limited selection for this issue. With much regret, I have had to leave out many other, equally deserving women authors, such as Etela Farkašová, Jana Bodnárová, Mila Haugová, Jana Juráňová (whose tongue-in-cheek faux memoir by the wife of Slovak poet Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav, Ilona: My Life with the Bard, is forthcoming from Calypso Editions), Verona Šikulová, Jana Beňová, and Ivana Dobrakovová, to name just a few. However, I hope that the appetite of translators and publishers has been whetted by this sampling, and that the current generation of outstanding women writers in Slovakia will find a deserving audience of English-language readers before too long.
© 2015 Julia Sherwood. All rights reserved.