The Czech authors were nominated for their books Dziewczynko, roznieć ogieniek (Książkowe Klimaty), translated by Dorota Dobrew, and Warsztat diabła (W.A.B.), translated by Leszek Engelking. At the award ceremony in Wrocław’s Capitol Theatre on Saturday 18.10, actors performed excerpts from the nominated books as overlapping sketches. The organisers then presented the first Natalia Gorbanevskaya Award, which is decided by a public vote, to Slovak author Pavol Rankov for his book Zdarzyło się pierwszego września (albo kiedy indziej), translated into the Polish by Tomasz Grabiński. The translation was published last year by Słowackie Klimaty, it was originally published as Stalo sa prvého septembra (alebo inokedy) in Slovakia by Kalligram in 2008.
“Thank you to those who voted for me on the Internet, there were so many, that I believe that when they find the time, they’ll also read the book,” Rankov said with a smile, adding that he was glad that books by Slovak authors are being translated into Polish and hopes that there will be more. Then the organisers told Rankov that he could stay on the stage, as he was also the winner of the main Angelus Award, which had been decided by an expert jury just before the ceremony. “This is such a surprising situation, that we haven’t even prepared anything with the translator,” said Rankov. “If you’ll forgive me, I prefer to express myself in writing, so I’d rather not say anything which I’d later feel embarrassed about.”
Established in 2006, the Angelus Award is given annually to books by authors from Central Europe (including Poland). The organisers’ definition of Central Europe is very generous, they include twenty-one countries connected through culture rather than their geographical location. A Czech book has won the award once – Škovercký’s Przypadki inżyniera ludzkich dusz, translated by Andrzej Jagodziński, won in 2009. Last year, Tomáš Zmeškal’s List miłosny pismem klinowym, translated by Dorota Dobrew, was among the seven finalists. Previous winners also include György Spiró from Hungary and Ukrainian authors Oksana Zabużko and Yurii Andrukhovych The award ceremony takes place in Wrocław, the historical capital city of Silesia, located only sixty kilometres from the Czech border in south-western Poland. With over 600 000 residents, it is the fourth largest city in Poland and also one of the oldest. Three publishing houses which publish Czech literature have their headquarters in Wrocław – Atut, Afera and Klimaty.
On love and war
The discussion with most of the nominated authors, which took place on Friday 17.10 in a book shop in a local shopping centre, and the award ceremony itself in the Capitol musical theatre, were both part of the 3rd annual Bruno Schulz literary festival. On Friday evening, the nominated authors read excerpts from their books, followed by a discussion on love, war and Central Europe. At the beginning, Moderator Wojciech Bonowicz remarked that “there are many things which connect us as Central Europeans: the Second World War, totalitarian regimes, but also our relationship to history as such – we still read our present through history.”
When asked about his relationship to Central Europe, Jáchym Topol answered: “I have an ironic relationship to Eastern Central Europe, perhaps because I am a Czech from Prague, because during my childhood, in their efforts against Sovietization, intellectuals like Havel or Kundera and their colleagues from Poland and Hungary put excessive emphasis on the fact that we aren’t Eastern Europeans, but Central Europeans. I have never felt like a Western European, but I have thought to myself – so am I a Central European? Being from the East always sounded slightly pejorative. When I first got to the West, people said: hopefully the poor guy will get a literary prize, so that he can buy new teeth. Ivan Bunin lamented somewhere: Why wasn’t I born a little further west, where there are castles made of stone, and not from wood… Yurii Andrukhovych wrote somewhere: If it wasn’t for the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe wouldn’t exist. The East for me isn’t just a geographical concept, I associate it with totalitarianism. I don’t want to turn this into a political rally, I’m tired of it, but with what’s going on now – Russia, Ukraine –, I’m experiencing some déjà vu. I’m afraid of the aggressiveness and I again feel that Western Europe is different to Eastern. As a writer, the wild unpredictable Eastern Europe perhaps attracts me more, but I’m glad that we’ve met in a typically western department store.”
Referring to Topol’s book Chladnou Zemí (published in English as The Devil’s Workshop), moderator Szymon Kloska commented, “Your book is fun, history is unfolding around the main character, but for him it has no meaning. For him what’s important is his love for goats, and then for women. I don’t know if I understood it correctly, but it seemed to me that everything that happens to him occurs by chance. He doesn’t need Terezín or Belarus, he just needs human warmth. Similarly to the main character of Martin Šmaus’ novel, but he never receives it.”
“I had to make that hero unheroic, ambiguous,” explained Topol. “He’s a man who moves around in those casemates of terror with a child’s eyes, an idiot’s. He’s a picaresque hero, who stands outside good and evil. That’s why some critics labelled the book as immoral. I’m tired of the tons of literature about concentration camps, I’m tired of digging in the past – but at the same time I can’t let it go. Precisely for this reason, the hero always ends up with a woman, like a small animal.”
The Russia-Ukraine conflict came up often during the debate. The nominated authors included Ukrainian author Oleksandr Irwanec, who warned that a Russia-Belarus conflict may soon begin. Another nominee, Russian author Jelena Čižova, said that she was one of the twenty percent of Russians who don’t support Putin. In this context, she responded polemically to Topol’s thoughts on concentration camps and wars: “The past unfortunately still threatens to engulf the present and the future, that’s why it’s necessary to continue to speak and write about it.”
Translation Jack Coling