Czech Books Gateway to the world of Czech literature

20-12-2009 02:01 | Bernie Higgins

Hello and welcome to Czech Books. On 1st December a great new source of information about Czech literature was launched – an English language version of the Czech Literature Portal. I went to visit Viktor Debnár of the Arts Institute in Prague, which is responsible for the project, and Jaroslav Balvín, the portal’s editor, to find out more.

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Hello Viktor, could you tell me something of the history of the portal?

“Well, the Czech Literature Portal was founded in 2005 by the Ministry of Culture and since that time was managed directly by the Ministry. The portal was intended primarily to promote Czech literature abroad and, for various reasons, in 2009, this year, the Ministry decided to give the responsibility for the management of project to our Arts Institute and therefore we’ve been responsible for the portal since March of this year.”

Viktor Debnár, Jaroslav Balvín (right)Viktor Debnár, Jaroslav Balvín (right) And whose idea was it to establish the English language version?

“In a way, an English version was already present before the launching of the portal in December. But only parts of the texts were translated into English and what is most important is that these parts were not up-to-date, for example profiles of authors. But now we have started to translate into English new information, that means about new books, new events in the literary life of the Czech Republic, and so on.”

Hello Jaroslav, you’re the editor-in-chief of the portal. Could you tell me what listeners can actually find when they click onto your website, which is www.czechlit.cz?

“Hello, on the portal you’ll find daily updated news, literary events in the Czech Republic, such as festivals and conferences, interviews and articles about Czech literature, taken from Czech literary magazines such as Host, or newspapers such as Mlada fronta Dnes. Also information about Czech literature abroad, such as about the participation of Czech authors in festivals and book fairs, the awarding of prizes, and calls for proposals within the grant programmes of the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic. The ‘New Books’ section provides the annotation of new fiction and non-fiction. “The portal understands literature in a broader sense, it’s not merely the written, printed word – it also includes, for example, comics, audiobooks, works on the Internet and inter-media experiments.”

Michal ŠandaMichal Šanda In the spirit of you wanting to take a very broad view of literature, you also include things like a list of all the literary cafés people can find, so if they visit the Czech Republic they can enjoy a literary atmosphere.

“Yes, there is a list of cafés where you can go to watch or listen to a literary event. But we also provide a literary events section, which is daily updated, where you can find information about events both here and abroad, both in Prague as well as the regions, and we try to attach press releases or information about the authors and books presented at these literary events, if there are any.“

This is a poem by one of the authors featured on the portal, the fiction writer and poet, Michal Šanda.

would you have a dime for a hamburger?
he had. I held out my hand. but instead of a coin he grabbed it and dragged me to a snack-bar at Anděl. no chance to protest: a beefy guy around forty I was sixteen.
"you begged for food – so eat!"
he paid for goulash + 4 dumplings risotto on top of that and roast beef with cream sauce and fat pork meat and a fried sausage. I was eating it maybe an hour my eyes popping out of their sockets
I hated him. the bastard he stood there silently, unmoving, like a statue of a chaperone he saw off each of my mouthfuls. only after I’d cleaned the cardboard plate of the last drops of ketchup that ran out of the hamburger did he bring a pint with a snowy mountaintop invincible as Mt. McKinley and said:
"here's that beer you maybe had in mind young man."

One of the things I was interested to see on the website was the Newsletter – people can register to get this. Can you tell me more about what you imagine in terms of cooperation and communication with the English speaking community?

“The presence of the newsletter on the portal is a very new one and we find it very important because it enables us to stay in touch with people interested in Czech literature. The newsletter is provided in two versions, two language versions – either in Czech or English. The versions are not exactly the same, the information in the two versions differs a little because of course some information is more focused on issues and things happening in the Czech Republic and some is more useful for people abroad.”

So are you interested in hearing from people about how they could maybe participate or contribute to the portal?

“Well of course, it’s one of our big goals. We’ve very limited financial resources so we are interested in any kind of cooperation, that means that we’re interested in cooperation with regular readers, with scholars, or, for example, with various publishing houses that publish Czech authors. So, if anybody is interested it’s not a problem to write an email or to phone us and we can work on whatever topic.”

Many people have heard of a small number of Czech authors, for example the most famous writers known abroad I think are Kundera, Klíma, Hrabal. Could you, Jaroslav, give some tips about writers listeners might find interesting, maybe one or two of your own favourites?

Emil Hakl - 'Of Kids and Parents'Emil Hakl - 'Of Kids and Parents' “I must say that I prefer novels and short stories. I like foreign authors like Michel Houellebecq and Elfriede Jelinek who use or reflect the language of the new media, pop culture and the mass media, and they write about really contemporary topics, but they also have a certain Romantic sensibility. I must say that I am still searching for Czech authors who combine these two elements together, but there are some, like Svatava Antošová, Blumfeld and Emil Hakl, from the poets Radek Malý, and other novelists such as Jaroslav Rudiš, Milan Kozelka or Petr Placák.”

I’ll just read an extract from the English translation of a novel by one of the authors you mention, Emil Hakl, which was published by Twisted Spoon Press last year. This is Of Kids and Parents – a novel based on a dialogue between a middle-aged man and his father as they ramble about various Prague pubs.

“I wanted to ask you something… Why exactly are you here, do you even know?”
“Because you made me.”
“Well, that’s true, sorry about that, it happens… But why do you live in Prague all you life?”
“Because I’m afraid of changing my life for the worse. Prague is the only place where I can live.”
“And how do you know that if you’ve never tried it anywhere else?”
“Spending a week or two in some other town is more than enough time for me to see that I’d go bonkers from the nothingness, the lack of ambiguity, the seriousness of people’s lives there. Once you become a tailor there, all you can do is tow the line and remain a tailor until you die because that’s how everyone sees you no matter how hard you try to be something else.”
“And what don’t you like about that?”
“It’s boring! To take on one role and act it out until you completely decompose!”
“Whereas here?”
“Life unfolds here as if it were a comedy by Frič, or some touching naff Italian porno... Like the assassination of Heydrich performed by a children’s puppet theatre…”
“And you like that?”
“I like that very much.”
“What, for goodness’ sake, do you like about it?”
“The Theatrical dimensions, the small space. The way a gangster has a similar social standing to a minister, and vice versa. All the clowning. All the messing around and rubbing of elbows… All those stories about how someone used to drink beer and play cards with the president…”
“A total circus.”
“But a merry one.”

The portal is still under construction – it already has I think around 250 authors and there are profiles and information about most of them and many of them also have extracts of their work in English, as well as in the original Czech of course. Viktor, can you tell me about the future plans for the portal, apart from obviously building up more information, providing more extracts in English?

Emil HaklEmil Hakl “Well, for the next year we plan many different things, but one of the important things is we’d like to focus more on things connected with Czech literature happening abroad. We’d like to have a network of collaborators who would cover several regions that we find important - of course that means the German-speaking countries, France and of course the English-speaking world. We would like to provide regular information about activities happening in those regions.”

Maybe a ridiculously broad subject, Jaroslav, but why should people care about Czech literature in particular?

“If we speak about foreign audiences, they know mostly Czech authors like Hrabal, Škvorecký, Hašek, Kafka. But there are new, contemporary Czech writers we want to present on our portal. These authors reflect somehow the world in which they live - they don’t reflect only the Czech Republic because they travel abroad a lot - and so maybe it would be interesting for foreign audiences to read Czech authors who reflect also their world, from their own persepective from a post-communist state in Eastern or Central Europe.“

The Arts and Theatre Institute in PragueThe Arts and Theatre Institute in Prague Thanks very much Jaroslav and Viktor. I think it’s clear that for anyone really interested in knowing what’s going on in Czech literature this is an invaluable resource. And I hope that many of you listening will accept the invitation to sign up for the newsletter and also if you’re interested in cooperating in building up this English language resource about literature then you’d certainly get in touch.

So, thank you very much, Viktor.

“Thank you very much.“

Thank you, Jaroslav

“Thank you very much.“

LINKS:
Czech Literature Portal – www.czechlit.cz
Arts and Theatre Institute – http://institute.theatre.cz
Translation from Emil Hakl’s Of Kids and Parents, Marek Tomin – published 2008, Twisted Spoon press – www.twistedspoon.com
Translation of Michal Šanda – Tomáš Míka and Bernie Higgins

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