Raising the Velvet Curtain is a festival of literature introducing a new generation of writers from Slovakia to British audiences (22 October – 28 November). Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová are currently on tour, visiting Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge and London. The grand finale at Rich Mix in London’s Bethnal Green looks unmissable! Info & tickets HERE. Meantime, Lucy Popescu gives BookBlast’s armchair readers an exclusive flavour of what’s on offer in her three-novel roundup.
Big Love by Balla | Trs. Julia and Peter Sherwood | Jantar Publishing | Buy here
The Night Circus by Uršul’a Kovalyk | Trs. Julia and Peter Sherwood | Parthian Books | Buy here
Bellevue by Ivana Dobrakovová | Trs. Julia and Peter Sherwood | Jantar Publishing | Buy here
It is thirty years since the Velvet Revolution, so fitting that there is a surge of interest in literature from the region. The efforts of a two-translator team stand out. Julia and Peter Sherwood have worked tirelessly to find Slovak fiction a loyal English readership. They have been rewarded with the recent launch of three acclaimed books in their translation.
Balla has published several collections of short stories and is the worthy recipient of Slovakia’s prestigious literary prize, Anasoft Litera, for In the Name of the Father. His novella, Big Love, focuses on Andric, an addled, world-weary writer and his relationship with Laura, a likeable, long suffering, but ultimately nondescript woman who is looking for a father for her child. Balla’s semi-autobiographical storytelling, comprised of reflections and anecdotes, is deliberately disjointed; real emotions are tantalisingly elusive.
It is no surprise that Andric’s relationship with Laura flounders — he is self-absorbed, often ends up drinking himself insensible and his friend Panza, a shabby, obsessive work colleague, pops up on many of their dates. Panza, an inspired creation, finds Slovakia’s communist past hard to shake off. As Balla slyly suggests:
“An experienced bureaucrat won’t let himself be deprived of totalitarianism so easily and carried it with him wherever he goes, never stating anything openly and with no opinions of his own . . .”
Balla’s characters have little positive to say about contemporary life in Slovakia. One memorable bar scene includes a speech by an ardent nationalist who claims:
“Everyone is like us or, if they’re not, they are at least scared of us. Nobody dares say a word, they all back away when we march down the streets and have a go at them. It’s quite a mystical experience. Makes you feel you’re growing taller.”
Balla is deliberately provocative, mocking of state bureaucracy and also very funny.
Uršuľa Kovalyk’s fiction and plays have been translated into nine languages. Several stories in her imaginative collection, The Night Circus, feel like fairy tales for grownups with a distinctly feminist slant. In Rainy Day Joe, the narrator takes in a tiny man named Joe. Subverting all notions of masculinity, she dresses him in a ballerina costume and plays with him like a doll before they make love. Things come to a head when her ex-boyfriend, Eduard, turns up on her doorstep, befriends Joe and starts teaching him how to behave like a man.
Many of Kovalyk’s characters are women desperate to escape their banal lives or yearning to feel something truly extraordinary. In the titular story, Eleonoro stumbles across a circus while out walking. At night the spectator becomes the spectacle. She is tamed like a lion, forced to jump through hoops of fire and dangled on the end of a wire. Against all expectations, Eleonoro enjoys the experience; the sense of freefall makes her feel alive:
“Eleonoro is somewhere else. She’s forgotten herself; she’s melting in the sound of the drums and in her own flying, pulsating body.”
Kovalyk’s vision is startlingly original. She interweaves elements of magic realism and the supernatural into her fables with terrific effect.
Ivana Dobrakovová is a talented translator of French and Italian literature — she lives in Turin and brought Elena Ferrante to Slovakia. She won the 2018 European Union Prize for Literature for her fourth book Mothers and Truck Drivers. Dobrakovová is regarded as an “expat writer” because her stories often explore the experience of living abroad and Bellevue, her first work to be translated into English, is no exception.
Dobrakovová charts the breakdown of a young Slovak woman staying in the south of France. Nineteen-year-old Blanka decides to spend her university holiday in Marseille volunteering in a care home for the disabled. She joins a lively group of fellow Europeans and, despite her initial feelings of awkwardness, appears to fit in. Gradually, however, Blanka begins to unravel. She deliberately cuts herself and, without her medication, paranoia swiftly takes over. Her sexualised friendship with Drago, a young Slovene, confuses her further. Blanka’s delusional state is related in increasingly demented prose, her falling apart is reflected in the breakdown of language:
“Out in the corridor I take deep breaths, everything keeps going black, here it comes again, the nausea, I hope I won’t faint now, that wouldn’t help at all, I throw the toilet door open, shove my head under a tap, let cold water run, afterwards I straighten up, look at myself in the mirror, I’m very pale, bags under my eyes, hollow cheeks, my heart still pounding, calm down . . .”
The three authors play with postmodern tropes including unreliable narrators, fragmented prose, pastiche, intertextuality and metafiction. Echoes of Slovakia’s bleak past infiltrate their work. Kovalyk’s female characters are often wary or downtrodden, while Balla and Dobrakovová’s narrators experience various shades of despair from paranoia and delusion to physical breakdown. Themes of love and alienation are shot through with dark humour. Balla, Dobrakovová and Kovalyk shine a light into their country’s darkest corners but this is deftly done. They entertain and illuminate in equal measure and the unexpected twists and turns in their characters’ lives keep the reader guessing as to their various fates.
Read our exclusive interview with Ivana Dobrakovová HERE
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