Debate 4/2012 Your favorite novel on CE

What a novel, written after 1989, you could recommend as the best illustration of the problems of Central Europe? Give at least two novels that you are willing to consider. Explain your choice.

8 thoughts on “Debate 4/2012 Your favorite novel on CE

  1. When I was thinking about novels on CE, the first name that came to my mind was Bohumil Hrabal, a well-known Czech writer. Once I read his books: „The Gentle Barbarian” (1973) and „An Advertisement for the House I Don’t Want to Live in Anymore” (1965) and I thought that it embodies the spirit of those times pretty well. I would like to compare them to „Who I am” (1989) and ” „Kouzelná flétna” (meaning „The enchaned flute”) (1990).
    Writing about people is almost the same as writing about their environment – both of them are connected with a net of interdependencies. Even a slight change of human mentality or their surrounding may produce another effect.
    Two earlier books concern not only lives of its protagonists, but a specific atmosphere of those times and of Central Europe in general. Central Europe was always fighting with regimes and trying to attain some kind of independency. „The Gentle Barbarian” is a good example of that idea because artists are usually opposed to tyrannical authorities, even the book was published by a secret anti-Communist publishing house. The dream about autonomy and freedom is always vivid, always kept in hearts of those people.
    I have also observed a very interesting feature typical for Central European mentality, not only in literature: the reality is quite hard, living under despotic reign leaves a lot to be desired, people feel they are poor and unsatisfied and despite it all they are able to love their countries and feel a strong need of local patriotism. They want changes, but they are able to love things as they are and accept it. It can be seen in Hrabal’s books. Citizens laugh at the regime, write graffiti on the walls, take part in some illegal organisations and assemblies.
    Not only in Hrabal’s prose, but also in reality, people preserved an optimistic, even ironic approach. The everyday life under the rule of undemocratic government and often with insufficient resources, in a sordid place should be the cause to be grieved and joyless. However, it happened that people developed a new sense of humour, learned to cope with their slightly depressive background. The literature is here a perfect mirror for that behaviour, reading those books I was so sad yet so amused, that it created a unique aura, charming, reflective and brilliant.
    Another notable thing is perception of the surroundings from the angle of the inner world. Hrabal’s heroes are common people, but they may see a beautiful phenomenon in every puddle, on every wall made of bricks, in every drop of a golden beer. It is so delightful, graphic, magical and so ambiguous at the same time. What is interesting, even now I can hear many sarcastic but innovative sentences from this vein, even now we are able to retrieve Hrabalesque visions in books of other Central European writers. Later on, it seems that the attitude of people, European citizens, has altered.
    Probably, 1989 became a breaking point even in Hrabal’s writings – indeed, he was an elderly man who kept remembering some things but that is not the only thing that influenced him.
    In „Kouzelná flétna” (which is not a novel, but I think it is the best illustration of problems of Central Europe) he wrote that once Czechs had had a dovelike characters but everything was changing. According to his experience, people started to kill doves and the human mentality has also became worse. Actually, he was really suspicious of the new rule. Supposedly, he wrote what many people were afraid of. One cannot find there that mischievous smile and sarcastic, sharp sense of humour, the optimism, this is the book of fears, doubts and questions. Tyranny was a bad thing, but it was familiar to the people, they got used to that symbiosis. Unexpected changes and demons were something new, sinister and surely in a part unwanted.
    Hrabal expressed his resignation and sadness being an effect of decisions of many young people to emigrate. They „vanished from the centre of Europe”, as the writer puts it. It tells us a lot about what people did after 1989. I think it is a huge surprise, all these fears, unsureness, leaving the total account of the past events behind their back, even if there was something good and worth remembering.
    There is also another significant information – in his book, Hrabal constantly underlined that he was a Central European. He felt a strong link with his Prague and the rest of Central Europe and wanted the others to go this way, to be proud of it. That is another reason to find the book meaningful. I would recommend it and I respect the ideas contained in it.
    The book „Who I am” is a mixture of sadness, sardonicism, self-reflection and hope, despite Hrabal’s often used motive of suicide. It was a book about himself, but the readers cannot forget, that every artist is shaped through his surroundings. That is why every person of Middle Europe can find there not only fragments of his soul, but also a piece of common history and perspective and thus they may discover in the book their own feelings and thoughts.

  2. I need to start by confessing that I can’t remember to have read any novel written after 1989, irrespective of the topic. The small number of novels I can confess I read after 1989 are well known, almost classical ones, from the XXth century or even before, as part of my attempt to have my own reading on what looks as mandatory list for any civilized person. As for those written after 1989, behind my lack of trust in immediate successes – that resist or not after their shinning launch – there is something more important that made novels less attractive to me. I felt I did not need them, whatsoever. Here comes the explanation! On one hand, studying philology by the time of regime change, my head, curricula, even readings consisted of lots on aesthetic theories about the difference between facts (reality) and the final object produced by artistic sensibility. Using an epistemological coin, I dare to call it distortion of reality. I did not need interpretations, but facts. Raw facts!
    Our world was full of distortions: that of history, especially in its recent times, the distortion of moral values, not to mention that of political culture. All was to be cleaned and reshaped shortly after 89, therefore after publishing my poems, I decided to end with belletristic and start a radical reading/ looking for those sources expected to talk about facts; more or less accurate sources about facts as they have taken place, as they happened. So, I turned to documents – when available – journals, memoirs, as well as essays in history or politics. I thought that limiting to an “imagined reality” was of no help any more, and later on, I discovered I have no time for fantasies. There is too much to catch up with, too much to correct, to replace, to re-explain.
    In terms of Central Europe, this has been a taboo topic until 89. So I had to read descriptions of facts, lots of history and international relations to come to a working picture. It follows that I will point few ideas from some essays I managed to read thoroughly – without even the courage to hope that I went too far in this direction. Much is still to be done. My main concern was in finding where to start from, what could Central Europe mean, how to describe it, how it worked, when, why it stopped working and, on these grounds, to figure “what is still possible to be done”. Here, a brief of my findings:
    First of all, Central Europe has no borders. “It would be nonsense trying to draw exactly the borders of Central Europe. It is not a state: it is a culture or a destiny” (M. Kundera, 228). “Istvan Bibo called it the community of destiny… all the Central European cultures come into being against the political superstructures” (J. Rider, 56). Well, it is touching to read such formulas, but here I need to make a remark and a distinction. During the communist times, the Romanian society was talking about a “survival solution” identified in the “surviving though the culture”. Now, after 22 years, I have doubts on the efficiency of such an option. On the other hand, I can’t disagree with the authors above cited and while asking myself where the deadlock stays, I come to understand that culture has to be a method, a background to yield means of behavior, resistance, understanding. It ought to be the dictionary, not the aim, not the entire story. And while in Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic I think it worked like this, in Romania it swallowed everything, energies, ideas, people, pushing aside the real aim. And here is where the differences may come from.
    A second conclusion – thou not funny, but somehow coming out even from the lines of the students taking part at this debate – we, the people of Central Europe must always define and redefine, explain, draw maps in order to make the Westerns understand where we come from and what are we talking about. I remember a Conference in Lille, 2004, with a presentation about the former Yugoslavia. The presenter, coming from Serbia, if I am not wrong, was studying in France, so his French was really good. But he had to draw a map of the “new” countries appeared after the collapse of Yugoslavia and still, he had only two real listeners: a Hungarian professor and me (from Banat), while the Westerners, be they from France, England or elsewhere remained still puzzled on the big number of countries and places they had no reference about. “There is a certain injustice: someone from Paris does not need to take his city out of anonymity all the time…While me … I always need to find the most practical way of expression, being condemned to abbreviations.” (C. Milosz, 61).
    Besides, being so little known, these communities have to face an ever worse fate, the one called by M. Kundera (230) as the fate of “the small nations”: “A small nation is that one whose existence can be questioned in any moment: it can disappear and she knows it. A Frenchman, a Russian or an Englishman is not used to asking about the survival of his nation. Those hymns are talking only about grandeur and eternity. The Polish one, in exchange, starts with the line “Poland did not die yet!” How small are we? Looking back in the history, we may find a Big Poland (plus/ minus the Union with the Duchy of Lithuania) and an (Austro-) Hungarian Empire. A big and important Czech culture. But we need to say it again and again, especially to people who are not always willing to learn. Therefore, we may be as small as they wish (to acknowledge) or as big as we manage to explain and transmit.
    Talking about our characteristics, C. Milosz described the Central European person as: proving “intellectual avidity, passion in discussions, having the intuition of irony, fresh feelings… always immature, governed by a sudden afflux or reflux of the inner chaos” (73) How much do such features matter in the present day world? How much profit, adaptability, mobility? Nobody seems to “waste” time in discussions, performance is differently measured. Are we already lost? Is there any chance, still, behind the corner? What about the reciprocal stereotypes, jokes, the (sub) regional ghosts of the past or of our imagination? Do they matter in a global movie? If not, what are we to do with all these? Is it worth ignoring them? Can we simply put all aside? Did others just delete their own ghosts? On the other hand, how to be significant, to have a say in such concerts, with our sweet fantasies and unrestness and self-irony? Namely, how to stay defined as Central Europeans and avoid becoming provincials, in the same time? How to shape our identity to make it charming and attractive for the others?
    Perhaps the most provocative analysis I read was written by Szücs Jenö, in his attempt to complete and enlarge Istvan Bibo’s 1946 essay on the East European states. Szücs Jenö attempts to find an explanation for the differences between Central Europe and the Western side, presenting their common origin and moving slightly towards the “guilty moment/ process”. According to him, this might have been the late, thus incomplete modernization in Central Europe, generating some Western structures filled in with Eastern or even different behaviors and thus, opening the room for malfunction, distrust in modern institutions and, eventually, in the collapse of both regional and imperial aims (322).The preference for freedom, for culture and educated behavior, for “a kind of noble res publica” (Szücs, 323) prevented the simultaneous evolution of the monarchy, political class and culture, institutional network and political behavior. The author mentions the “anti-mercantilist policy” in medieval Poland, causing a slower development of the market and of a market consciousness (as compared to the Principality of Brandenburg, p. 324). The checks and balances between an elected ruler and the local powers and noblemen, finally precluded the creation of a national monarchy and of strong military forces in Central Europe. (324). As a consequence, Szücs argues, we notice a corpus politicum but not any nation until very late, when all was done in a hurry and with lots of pains and resentments. (325-328) Sticking to the “medieval dualism of royal power and Estates” (329, about Hungary), unable to modernize from within, these societies turned to “warped” ones (330) with reminisces that influence, perhaps shape our political decisions or, at least dreams, even today. These “diseases” as Szücs called them (330) have been largely explained by Bibo as the continuous feeling that Western Europe “owed assistance” to these “betrayed nations” (31) and, on the other hand, “each of these nations lost confidence in the amalgamating effect of democracy” (34). In the first case, Bibo argues by listing and analyzing Poland’s partitions, claims and defeats, Hungary’s catastrophes in 1849 and Trianon Treaty, while for the former state of Bohemia, we recall the “divergence between linguistic and historical borders”(29) first with Germany, than with The Habsburgs, the Slovaks and back with Germany. It is, altogether, a problem of space and enlargement, of various states-building in roughly the same territory. As for the democracy issue, Bibo discusses the everlasting problem of minorities and the negative effects on each of the three countries in focus (Poland, Hungary, Bohemia) after they tried to implement a certain kind of co-existing pluralist regime, and ended in claims of secession, cooperation with neighboring enemies or even in bloody struggles. Each of these countries lost territories but also faith in institutional capacity to solve identity issues. Each remained with unfinished answers to its identity questions. “Central Europe has its own vision on the world, a vision grounded on a profound lack of trust in the history. … History is …the history of conquerors. “You should never forget that only opposing the History as such we can resist in the present day history” (Witold Gombrowicz, cf. Kundera, 230).
    What I may add, after half of century, is that they regained trust in civil society, in themselves even against the institutions when the later become bureaucratized, rigid, selfish. This is a gain. Insofar as it will prove enough, I think it may be the engine to re-invent, re-discover, re-define Central Europe. We have the EU umbrella, at least and, others equal, a lack of military threat (as compared with former centuries). But also economic global crises and a fast moving/ changing geopolitical agenda. In brief, a new kind of battle, with better skilled actors on both sides. In a pure post-modern style, I would say that we are the possible authors of the real novel to be about post-communist Central Europe. Are we already inspired enough to handle such a task? Will Central Europe finally write its Novel, a realistic one – in order to convince the others – but in the same time, a fabulous one, in order to make us enjoy it? Novels have been written a lot, but The Novel is still waiting for its proper author! To paraphrase a well-known title: Lots of countries in a region searching for an author…

    Bibliography:

    1. Bibó, István, Democracy, Revolution, Self-Determination. Selected Writings, Atlantic Research and Publications, Columbia University Press, 1991;
    2. Kundera, Milan, The Tragedy of Central Europe, Romanian version, in “Central Europe: Neuroses, dilemmas, utopias”, ed. by Adriana Babeti, Cornel Ungureanu, Iasi, Ed. Polirom, 1997, pp. 221-235;
    3. Milosz, Czeslaw, The Native Europe, in Romanian version, Bucharest, Ed. Univers, 1999;
    4. Rider, Jacques Le, Central Europe – the Paradox of Fragility, Romanian, version, Iasi, Ed. Polirom, 2001;
    5. Szücs, Jenö, Three Historical Regions of Europe. An Outline, in John Keane, “Civil Society and the State”, Verso, London and New York, 1988, pp. 291-332.

  3. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being “ written by Milan Kundera is also my one of the favourite novels. It involves various subjects such as love, solitude, motives of existence, historical, or psychological subjects which make the book outstanding. Its historical background is a reason why I would like emphasize the significance of this book during this debate. As Zoryana mentions, the novel explores the artistic and intellectual life of Czech society during the Communist period, from the Prague Spring to the Soviet Union’s August 1968 invasion and its aftermath. Various types of human behaviours towards communist regime are well-presented. Some of characters act properly and don’t submit the communist regimes. One of the example is the personality of the main character, Tomas , who is able to lose all achievements of his life (he is a surgeon but due to the repression Tomas is degraded). In my view, the historical background is not the only part which makes “The Unbearable Lightness of Being “ a masterpiece. The most valuable features are the messages of this book and motives of existence. To illustrate it, I would like to quote the most famous message from this novel’’ “Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).”

  4. To be honest, I do not read too much contemporary Central European literature. Two novels, however, recently managed to grab my attention.

    The first one was written in 1992 by Romanian-born German writer Herta Müller and came under title Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger. It is set in Romania during last years of the regime under the communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. It tells the story of teacher Adina and other Romanians to depict their awe of all-seeing dictator and his minions, the downfall of morality and hopelessness of the everyday life. Their past is expressed through unique style of the novel , written in an ambiguous, laconic way.
    The subject of the past is also used by the Bosnian-Croat writer Miljenko Jergović Srda pjeva, u sumrak, na Duhove, published in 2009 . The novel is set in Zagreb in 2005 and takes on the mysterious murder of Srda Kapurova which links together five people of different social-ethnic descent. In fact, this Is just a pretext to retell stories of main protagonists which can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century.The crucial point is that all characters are somehow lost in recent times, living in fear due to decent, even in such matters as their regional accent.

    Both novels show that the past of CE is important to comprehend the region better. The past is both unforgettable and many times reflects the contemporary lives of the individuals.

  5. If to speak about novels written by CE authors and showing the life and problems of those societies, countries in different time there is on novel of Czech writer that comes on my mind. This is Milan Kundera’s novel „The Unbearable Lightness of Being „. This novel was written in early 80’s and shows the events of Czech Spring in 1968 and the life of Czech society after it. There are four main heroes in that novel. Every one has it’s own story and is searching for the explanation of life, happiness and tries to find it’s way, and what is more important not to make a mistake, because we have only on chance, one life and what we decide can’t be repeated or remarked.
    We also can see the situation of Czech people after communists became the ruling party and Czech Republic was on of the states in Eastern block. The destiny of dissidents and those who escaped from Czech during the events of 1968. My favorite hero in this book is Sabine, a Czech painter who lived first in Zurich that in Paris ad later moved to US. She saw that people who doesn’t know anything about life in Eastern Europe feel sorry for those eastern Europeans, but at the same time that see the story of those people like a novel, it is so charming interesting and exciting for them, but they can’t realize it till the end, because they never have been there.
    For me this book was extremely smart and had a very deep background because it showed many thing from our life that we never pay attention on. It showed that sometimes even bad circumstances have a good meaning, sometimes our happiness is where we would never search it for. The author gives an example of US senator for whom the real meaning of happiness are playing children on the grass in the sunshine. As an argument why does he thinks so, he only says that he feel it. „When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. Hear Kundera comes to an essential statement :”The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a basis of kitsch.” Kundera is fascinated about kitsch in our life and comes to the meditation on this topic quite often.
    One of the main topics of the book is surely love. Hear Kundera tries to depict love form different sides and to show it as not a feeling with a single definition. He states that love as a feeling between people is not pure and not selfish. We always want somebody to love us as we do, and demand this mutuality form our partner. As an example of real pure love that doesn’t need any answer and acting’s is a love towards animals. We love our pets and we don’t reflect on the question if they also feel the same towards us. We only need them to be with us no matter is they do something bad. We take care about them and it makes us happy.
    In general the book touches a lot of difficult problems and shows the epoch of fear, intimidation and how people coped with the system that was putted to keep everyone under control.

  6. My favorite novel about CE, written after 1989 is “Sister”, written by a Czech writer Jachym Topol. The manner in which it is written can seem unintelligible, but after the first chapter it draws you in and becomes understandable. The author did something amazing, creating a world of it’s own, not only by the story of the novel, but also by its language and structure.
    In short, the book is about the changes in Czech Republic after 1989. Thousands of refugees from the GDR storm the West German Embassy in Prague. The Velvet Revolution is coming. Potok, the main character, finds out that even though the first euphoria after the end of communism has passed in his country, every end is a new beginning. A new order is beginning to grow in his country. In this new reality, tribal customs prevail. Money is more than pieces of metal he used to trade for alcohol. He starts an insane trip around Prague and beyond, around the country, haunted by phantoms of what has been and what is yet to come. Along the way he meets Black, who is from than on his sister, guardian and lover, a curse and a godsend.
    The novel teaches that in the post communist world money comes over love, family, relationships, politics and is a value itself. Moreover, it vividly describes the state of chaos that started after 1989 and hasn’t really ended, shows that Europe will have to face problems such as the pursuit of money, power and welfare which will become the most important things for a big number of post communist societies.
    Other books that I was considering are “Panna Nikt” by Tomasz Tryzna, because it shows how a girl changed as a metaphor of how the world changed and what has it become. Also, I thought about the “Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera (even though it was written after 1989), as it also touches the problems of people experiancing the changes and trying to find themselves in a new reality, not in words of history but a story of individuals.

  7. I think that the book which covers the problem from an interesting point of view is ‚The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism’ by Tina Rosenberg, who’s an American, so she doesn’t have an emotional approach towards the post-1989 changes in Europe and decommunisation. The book is basically about the problem of lustration, and dealing with the memory of communism. Rosenberg shows it through the eyes of single people who lived in that time in Czechoslovakia, Poland, GDR. Both victims and executioners.
    Another important issue in Poland after 1989 is how to face Holocaust, and how to judge Polish participation in it. Before 1989 talking about it was impossible because as victims of communism, Poles refused to see that not all of them were innocent. But the situation changed after Jan Gross published his book ‚Neighbors’ and later ‚Golden Harvest’. Whether somebody agrees with Gross or not, it has to be admitted that these books started a serious discussion in Poland. And for those, who find it necessary to deal with the past in order to move on into the future, reading those books and reflecting on them is a must.

  8. While there are certain works designed to highlight problems of our region, I believe that such positions are full of needless commentary and can only serve people who already are experts in this matter. Certain vision, inspired by the writer, can be fully perceived only subconsciously, as an impression – not as a discussed fact.

    Restricting choice to novels written after 1989 is greatly limiting, however, it becomes irrelevant as we focus on the mentioned impressions. Only things that matter is detailed and expressively described environment in which a plot takes place. As long as characters and stories remain credible, together with the mentioned background of events, a strong and remaining impression is created, which follows the reader further than the story itself.

    Novels creating such impressions are not numerous, but still, there is plenty of them – if only to name a few such as Polish Balzakiana by J. Dehnel, Snow White and Russian Red by D. Masłowska, or (poem, not a novel – which renders it useless for readers who do not speak Polish) Twelve Stations by T. Różycki. In these three examples, problems typical for Central Europe are presented in a relatively subtle way and each of them can actually influence and provoke foreign reader.

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