Top 5 Reads from Central Eastern Europe Book Blast Presents


BookBlast’s Top 5 Reads from Central Eastern Europe for Independent Minds showcases contemporary literature in translation from Central & Eastern Europe which carries a stark warning against the consequences of ignorance and organized forgetting under autocratic rule.

The fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago marked a symbolic end to the ideological split between East and West, spreading across Europe and dividing the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, and their allies, during the Cold War.
Since 9 November 1989, European countries have built over 1,000 kilometres of walls along their borders, with the backing of new populist parties in Hungary, Austria and Italy, in a bid to tackle the continent’s biggest migrant and refugee crisis since the World War Two. By the end of the Cold War there were approximately fifteen walls and fences along borders around the world; today, there are at least seventy.

The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the issue of enforcing border checks, is a central issue in the Brexit negotiations. [Chatham House] Even if a border wall falls, it stays in the minds of people. A link between walls and a country’s mental-health problems has been made by psychiatrists. [The New Yorker

Banksy’s Elementary School Wall mural

Dark Days For Freedom

With the return of nationalism, racial tensions and despotic politicians such as Viktor Orbán and Janez Jansa to the Central European stage, it seems that the troublesome ghosts of the last two world wars are returning to haunt our present. Half-forgotten events and ethnic rivalries are stoked up by political rhetoric imbued with historical reckoning, revisionism and retribution creating discord and division. Where could it all end . . . ?

Reading fiction in translation helps foster empathy and to shape our understanding of the world around us. In the current climate, contemporary literature in translation from regions such as Central & Eastern Europe carries a stark warning against the consequences of ignorance and organised forgetting.

Magda Szabó trs. Len Rix

Born into a cultured middle-class family in 1917, Magda Szabó is the most translated Hungarian author. The Door, about the relationship between two women — a prominent Hungarian writer and her cryptic housekeeper — is her most successful novel, while Abigail is her most widely read novel in Hungary, published in English for the first time by MacLehose Press.

To belong or not to belong, that is the question . . .

With no explanation, Gina is sent to a Calvinist boarding school which is like a fortress, and her beloved governess, Marcelle, is sent back to France by her authoritarian father, the General. “‘You must tell absolutely no one,’ he said, not addressing her in his usual tones, but as to a soldier receiving orders. ‘I will take you to visit Auntie Mimó, but there will be good-byes to no one else – not your girlfriends, not your acquaintances, not even the domestic staff. You will never mention the fact that you are leaving Budapest. We’ll shake hands on that.’ Gina gave him her hand, but she could not bear to look him in the face . . .”

A spoiled, undisciplined teenager, she struggles to adapt to a sadistic regime. After having a tantrum during a covert “marriage game” and grassing up her classmates, Gina begs for the forgiveness, but nothing doing. She is faced by an implacable wall of icy rejection and feels as though she is invisible. Totally isolated, she panics. An opportunity presents itself and she escapes to the railway station, only to be returned to “the fortress” where she tries to get herself expelled. She fails yet again. Pitifully trapped and desperate, Gina ends up entrusting her misfortunes to Abigail, the miracle-working eighteenth century statue at the end of the vast school garden. According to Matulian tradition, Abigail helps all those who wish it, so long as she is not talked about to strangers.

When Gina’s father comes to see her as she recovers from being quarantined with fever, she finally understands his painful decision to secret her away in the so-called “fortress”.  A series of remarkable events follow. Gina has to grow up, and fast. As she does so, she comes to comprehend the meaning of honour, solidarity and friendship.

What appears initially to be an abuse of power is more akin to a power game.  With Hungary occupied by the Nazis, “the fortress” is the only safe place for the girls — and especially who are alleged to be members of the Reformed Protestant Church, but whose antecedents would in fact mean deportation. Are they truly safe?

The portrayal of schoolgirl sadism is superb. The spite of class five and the girls’ ringleader, Mari Kis, had me squirming in my seat. The atmosphere is similar to that of The Lord of the Flies about the (mis)adventures of a gang of British boys stranded on an uninhabited island.

Gina’s tumultuous journey into adulthood, her struggles with privilege, fantasy and belonging, and the unravelling of nefarious plots, makes Abigail a powerful read. It is a painfully enthralling alternative to novels about boarding schools in England.

BUY Abigail

BUY The Door

Mihail Sebastian trs. Gabi Reigh

Mihail Sebastian was born to a Jewish family in 1907. His diary published under the title Journal, 1935-1944: The Fascist Years shows the troubled relationship of many European countries with Nazism and, according to Philip Roth, “deserves to be on the same shelf as Anne Frank’s Diary and to find as huge a readership.” The majority of the intelligentsia of Sebastian’s homeland during the inter-war period was committed to the extreme right and the “Iron Guard” movement, including literary giants, E. M. Cioran and Mircea Eliade, who abandoned him. He was intermittently interned in forced labour camps. He died in 1945, after being knocked down accidentally by a Soviet truck.

His coming-of-age novel The Town with Acacia Trees is against the backdrop of Central Europe on the eve of the war, a vanished world is brought to life.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

Mrs Dunea’s fifteen-year-old daughter Adriana is blossoming into a beautiful young woman when her twenty-three-year-old second cousin Paul comes to stay on family business. They are seen walking around town and when he leaves she is disconsolate, but she soon brightens when a piano teacher from Paris arrives to give lessons to Elisabeta, the daughter of the chief magistrate, and her four frivolous, coquettish girlfriends.

“Sometimes Mr or Mrs Dunea would mention, in passing, a girl from the town, ‘She’s getting married!’ It would be a casual remark amongst many others, but for Adriana it took on a greater significance.” Adriana Cecilia, Victor and Gelu — whose “presence in the inner circle at the magistrate’s house gave him a mark of respect” — form an elegant and privileged quartet. The day comes when Gelu kisses Adriana. However she leaves to spend two months in Bucharest where she increasingly spends time with the successful pianist, Cello Viorin, who had once been just a lowly clerk in the town hall of her birthplace. “Viorin told her one day, without warning, that he loved her.”

The narrative has an elegant fin-de-siècle quality and a fragility of feeling. Its hazy sweetness is underpinned by a sudden sharpness like the beauty of a hawthorn in flower concealing hidden dagger-sharp thorns. 

“At first, Buta searched for a consoling answer. He too felt bitterness at being left behind by his friends, all those now gone to different places, towards new lives, while he remained there, an ageing student, twenty years old. He wanted to talk to Adriana in the same way that she had talked to him: simply, honestly, allowing himself to be vanquished by sadness. But a quiver of shame confused him, and altered the course of his words, just like a diversion on the tracks changes the direction of a train completely.”

The influence of French novelists such as Marcel Proust and Jules Renard on Sebastian’s writing as he conveys a mood of pre-war insouciance and the thoughtless treachery of his characters is subtly ever-present. 

BUY The Town with Acacia Trees

Dino Bauk trs. Timothy Pogačar

Dino Bauk, a Slovenian lawyer and writer, achieved literary prominence with his debut novel The End. And Again which was longlisted for the Kresnik Award for best novel of the year.

Meet Denis: “Young Denis’s two different lives, fuck it, there’s a real story for you. The first life: Ljubljana, the North Side, a concrete playground, balls, bunker, guitar, band, high school, concerts, friends, Mary, the loss of Mary, war, end of the war, start at the university, paperwork, the end. The second life: paperwork – the start, police station, court of inquiry, police van, border, arrival at his parents’ village, gravel, the war, uniform, rifle, marches, empty villages, empty town, ‘convertible library’, ellipsis, the end yet unknown, although it can be guessed. Is he afraid of it? The end? Afraid of the sniper waiting for his target?”

. . . & Mary: “She closed the door and was left alone. A month before she had turned forty. There was a totally failed attempt to celebrate, which was the final, plain-as-day sign of their sinking relationship. Today was evidently the first day of her life’s second half. She pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her handbag, but a touch told her it was empty.”

. . . & Peter: “A forty-year-old, middle rank, office worker in the Ministry of Culture. On the way back from work – he went on foot now – he stopped in a bar where everyone knew him, drank two beers, ate a hot sandwich, then on the way home smoked three ultralight Wests and at the building entrance exchanged some pleasantries with a neighbour from the sixth floor who happened to be walking her Highland Terrier. She got in a conversation with him only to find out whether his divorce was final.”

. . . & Goran: “Jože Stepinšek had been the director of the insulation materials company for more than twenty years. During that time, he had risen, by means of some clever moves, from ordinary socialist director of a state-owned enterprise all the way to majority owner. He hired Goran as an intern [. . .] and immediately took a liking to Goran because he was young and acted by the book, and soon Goran became his main confidant.”

BUY The End. And Again

The End. And Again offers an imaginative reworking of the history of the independence of Slovenia and the break-up of Yugoslavia through the eyes of its four main characters: Denis, Mary, Peter and Goran. Their memories of the years when their interests revolved more around music and love than around the political upheaval that derailed their lives intersect with those of Denis, the only one of them to be enlisted and sent into battle. A lack of any meaningful resolution to their mutual story haunts them all and makes them search for a different end(ing). (And) Again.

Dušan Šarotar trs. Rawley Grau

Dušan Šarotar, a Slovenian writer, essayist, literary critic and editor, is best known for his novel Billiards at the Hotel Dobray about the persecution of Jews in Murska Sobota at the end of the Second World War, told from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor returning from a concentration camp.

It is late March 1945 and the Soviet Union’s Red Army will soon arrive to liberate Sóbota. “All that could be heard from the cellar bars and illicit taprooms was an incomprehensible mix of half-drunken tongues struggling to keep up with the tuneless wail of violins and cracked drums. Now the only things in tune, playing with manful resolution, were the army bugles, which were summoning soldiers to the final march.”

The casino on the first floor of the Hotel Dobray is a ruin. Human destinies collide like balls on the billiard table. József Sárdy, secretary of the Office of the Special Military Tribunal, the ruthless leader of a small Hungarian occupying military unit stationed at the hotel is preparing for his final battle. His debauched soldiers are “all staring at the telephone and drinking. They hadn’t slept the night before or, indeed, for several nights in a row. Their women had been lying alone all this time in unmade, sweat-stained beds.”

Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar bookblast diaryLocal industrialist Josip Benko hopes the end of the war will mean large profits for his factory as he does what he can to save his dying world. Linna, a former singer who works as a prostitute in Hotel Dobray secretly gives shelter in the cellar rooms of the hotel to fugitives and illegals (partisans) smuggled over the border. Hunchback Miha, the chief OZNA political agent and liquidator, plays billiards and rides around town on his motorbike. And Franz Schwartz, former shopkeeper and camp prisoner, is returning home; and heading for the house on the crossroads opposite the hotel belonging to Šamuel Ascher, “who was lying somewhere on the Count’s land in Rakičan Park.

The last part of the book is a flashback to the moment before Hitler’s army came back to occupy the town for a second time in April 1944, and packed the Jews on to trains. Dušan Šarotar’s Billiards at the Hotel Dobray was the first novel about the fate of the Jews in Slovenia during the Holocaust. The impressionistic, poetic prose has a dreamlike surreal quality. It is a disturbing and mesmerizing work.

BUY Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by

Imre Kertész trs. Thomas Cooper

The Hungarian writer Imre Kertész was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, then on to Buchenwald and Zeitz, at the age of fourteen. He was liberated in 1945, and returned to Budapest, where he became a Communist, then a dissident journalist and a novelist, essayist, and translator. In 2002, he was awarded Nobel Prize in Literature. Before his death in 2016, Kertész expressed alarm at political reactions in the West to the waves of migrants and walls going up, to wavering values and the signs of fascism becoming increasingly visible and tolerated by the mainstream. His writing is an indispensable and essential read. That 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis and their allies on an industrial scale must not — cannot — be forgotten.

“A good autobiography is like a document: a mirror of the age on which people can ‘depend’. In a novel, by contrast, it’s not the facts that matter, but precisely what you add to the facts.” Imre Kertész, The New Yorker

The Unvanquished

The Holocaust as Culture by Imre Kertész bookblast diaryThe title, The Holocaust as Culture — a startling juxtaposition of words — is taken from a talk Kertesz gave in Vienna for a symposium on the life and works of Jean Amery which is included in this volume, reflecting Amery’s fear that history would forget the fates of the victims of the concentration camps. From 1933 to 1945 there were 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe. [The New York Times]

BUY The Holocaust as Culture

Kertesz recalls his childhood in Buchenwald and Auschwitz and as a writer living under the so-called soft dictatorship of communist Hungary. Reflecting on his experiences of the Holocaust and the Soviet occupation of Hungary, he likens the ideological machinery of National Socialism to the oppressive routines of life under communism. He also discusses the complex publication history of Fatelessness, his acclaimed novel about the experiences of a Hungarian child deported to Auschwitz, and the lack of interest with which it was initially met in Hungary due to its failure to conform to the communist government’s simplistic history of the relationship between Nazi occupiers and communist liberators.

The Prague Declaration

On 3 June, 2008, a group of politicians and intellectuals, including Václav Havel and Joachim Gauck, signed the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism. They proclaimed that the “millions of victims of Communism and their families are entitled to enjoy justice, sympathy, understanding and recognition for their sufferings in the same way as the victims of Nazism have been morally and politically recognized” and that there should be “an all-European understanding . . . that many crimes committed in the name of Communism should be assessed as crimes against humanity . . . in the same way Nazi crimes were assessed by the Nuremberg Tribunal.” The signatories addressed their demands to “all peoples of Europe, all European political institutions including national governments, parliaments, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Council of Europe and other relevant international bodies.”

As Banksy a.k.a. the satirical polemicist of our time put it: “A wall is a very big weapon. It’s one of the nastiest things you can hit someone with.” Tell that to the chimpanzees creating Brexit chaos and strife. 

Banksy’s painting of chimps in the House of Commons

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