BEYOND KUNDERA: AN INTRODUCTION
by Andrea Goldbergerova
If someone were to begin a conversation with you on the topic of literature, would your first instinct be to reference the titles of the books you've read and the genres you most enjoy? The answer seems quite simple (a resounding "yes" with a mumble of a "duh" is what I imagine). However, what about those books that are not currently on your nightstand, but rather the ones gathering dust, or even those stacked on a virtual shelf? Do you, like myself and thousands of others on lit-related social media, have lengthy to-read lists that seem to grow only more intimidating as time goes on? Are your books piled up high throughout your room, waiting for their moment?
Consider this: the number of books we actually CAN read is limited. As obvious as that sounds, time is not the only constraint, while certainly a considerable one. I cannot even begin to count how many times I or someone I know has used "retirement" as some mythical turning point when we'll finally have enough time to get some reading done. But there's one other thing I personally find even more disheartening: the language barrier. To what extent are we missing out on truly great literature published in a language other than our own, especially since few of us are the present-day version of nineteenth-century rich polyglots dabbling in all manners of lofty intellectual pursuits?
Perhaps the fact that we cannot read everything there is to be read is not so bad, after all. If you imagine a library containing rows upon rows of texts, not entirely dissimilar to the one in Jorge Luis Borges's short story "The Library of Babel", the task starts to seem more daunting than ever. Which ones would you choose, so as not to miss out on something else? In this sense, having fewer options is certainly easier, but even then, I cannot help but think we are all the poorer for it. Fortunately, there is a simple remedy for this ailment: translation.
I am far from a polyglot myself, although I do consider myself multilingual and have little trouble navigating the bookshelves in three languages. Where Czech and Slovak sometimes tend to fall short of meeting my needs, English fills in the blanks (and vice versa). At times, it might be easier to read foreign authors in my native language, but not everything is translated into Czech or Slovak. On the other hand, the publishing trade here is more limited and offers less variety than in a language with hundreds of millions of speakers. Each of these positions, each of these languages offers an advantage to the reader. I am able to delve into the depths of Central European literature beyond what is perhaps best known in the West (and even then only to an extent because I don't expect a factory worker or a suburban mom to care about Milan Kundera's writing).
What I find slightly more troubling is that people from this fairly tiny sliver of the world will often mention Western (typically anglophone) writers as their favorites, but it is incredibly rare to see this scenario in reverse. These regions occupy a marginal role when it comes to the Canon, which is a loaded term in and of itself. And mind you, I would have a hard time coming up with an answer as well—pondering this question, my mind has first run to Virginia Woolf. The search for a more worldly view of what's out there has its pitfalls: it takes effort. Remembering my childhood, I know that I've always had a lot to choose from. There were Czech books that even my parents had read, children's stories by Božena Němcová or Karel Čapek. But there was also a wealth to reading translations from all sorts of countries, whether I'm talking about Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, a series of books about a Spanish girl named Cecilia, or even The Wind in the Willows. There was always something universally true about them regardless of the country of origin. They also contained hints about the world around me, and its oddities and differences, like when you first come to a Mediterranean country and find out stores are closed in the early afternoon because of a post-lunch siesta.
With this in mind, I see ever-present attempts to transgress geographic and cultural boundaries, to learn and to discover. Isn't that one of the beauties of literature, beyond language itself? In a way, that's what I'm offering to you, for at least a while: a chance to learn about what's written in a country that you perhaps know very little about. Some of it might include books that you can read in English (at the very least) and others will be hopeful reviews of hypothetical future translations.
Admittedly, I am writing this column from an entirely subjective perspective with a very subjective goal. My main wish is to dig into what my locals have to write about, and see where we stand as a literary nation and what could perhaps be worthy of offering to you, the reader. I am by no means an arbiter of taste and I have no authority on what gets translated and published, but perhaps in time, we'll see the borders between us erased—at least in spirit.
I would like to offer this space as something where people can elaborate on the ideas presented, contradict them if necessary, and perhaps add with their own examples in their respective nation's literary tradition. Writing and literature are unique ways of transforming our world(s) into something much more vast—something we all belong to, in our own particular way. There is much to be said about what gets published and why, about what remains ignored; there's still a long way to go. But perhaps this is but one way of doing the work, of spreading the word. Please consider this a call to action. In the meantime, I will try to introduce you to what I find here, in my part of the world.