What to Read from Central and Eastern Europe: Part I

by Ken Bruce

In the first of a three-part series, Ken Bruce takes a look at nine translated books from Central and Eastern Europe.

Case Closed, Patrik Ouředník, tr. Alex Zucker

In Case Closed, Ouředník presents his readers with a wonderfully surreal murder mystery, case closedor, well, a mystery of some sort or another.  Narrative ambiguity is to be expected here given that the author himself has translated the triumvirate of ‘pataphysical mischief-makers, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau, and Boris Vian, from French into Czech.  And so as entirely regular Czech citizens indulge in all kinds of undoubtedly noir-ish behavior slip in and out of the narrative, you find yourself asking, are they relevant to the story?  One just has to keep reading to find out, but if you’re feeling at all unsure of your abilities to connect the dots, the author steps in about halfway through the book with this helpful disclaimer:

You ask, How will it all end?  But that, dear readers, we cannot reveal.  We began this story with no clear aim or preconceived idea.  How it will turn out, we do not know; whether it will turn out, we haven’t a clue.  We’re in the same boat as you, or almost, since at this moment, as you read our book, our work is done; the book is out, you bought it, invested part of your earnings in the hope that it would pay off in the form of spiritual dividends.  We don’t mean to be impolite, we have no intention of committing cheap provocations, and yet, and yet, and yet: what do we care:  We’ve assumed the majority of responsibility; now it’s up to you to patiently bear your share.

Aside from such formal hijinks, I can only imagine the difficulties that must have faced translator Alex Zucker as he made his way through a text so heavily saturated with wordplay and pun-making as this one.  Luckily, the reader can at least feel confident of being guided by someone up to the task, as Zucker appears to make sport out of “difficult” Czech literature.  And in the end, the admittedly silly formal trickery of Ouředník’s novella belies a scathing commentary against post-Communist Czech Republic society.  When our protagonist Vilém Lebeda is purchasing vegetables and observes, “The rotten tomatoes were carefully tucked away underneath the good ones, an effect of the last revolution; under the old regime they didn’t bother with such formalities,” you get the feeling Ouředník’s real target is likely something other than produce.


You Do Understand, Andrej Blatnik, tr. Tamara M. Soban

you do understandIn a 1995 interview for the Dominion Review, Anrej Blatnik says that after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the “‘great stories,’ of ruling ideologies which are to be fought against, are over, and the so-called Eastern European literature, strangely enough, seems to find itself in an empty, vast space.”  Well, Blatnik himself has chosen to fill this perceived vast, empty space with very many tiny stories, ones populated by a large cast of nameless characters, all trying to navigate a vague, barely defined world.  One story, “Separation,” begins with a man who wakes up in an unfamiliar apartment, next to a woman he met the previous night.  He listens carefully to hear if she is still breathing and expresses relief when, yes, she is still alive, “It would be awful if she wasn’t,” he reflects, “Who would you call?  How would you explain?”  And this is the situation that Blatnik’s characters find themselves in, placed in the ostensibly calm but always precarious morass of the banal, waiting for any catastrophe to happen.  Least of all of these characters the unnamed professor from the story “Learning,” excerpted here in full:

I used to be a university professor, now I live on the street.  Could you spare some change so I could have a square meal and do my laundry?

He had been practicing the two sentences in his mind of a long time.  His lectures, though, continued.  True, no students attended, and hadn’t for a long time, but nobody appeared to notice, and the doorman still nodded to him every time he saw him struggling to insert his key in the lecture-room door.  I have to learn, he thought, someday, someday it’ll come in handy.  I have to learn.

Or alternatively, as is the case of the woman from “Thirty Years” who has been married comfortably for three decades but finds a knife in her hand apparently (and quite unremarkably) about to stab her husband, the moment of catastrophe has come but the complacency, the sheer sameness of reality persists.  Gone are the grand narratives of Soviet-era samizdat, true, but it’s not difficult to imagine Blatnik’s humorous stories being secretly passed around among office workers, a quiet rebellion against a much different kind of ruling ideology.


Dreams and Stones, Magdalena Tulli, tr. Bill Johnston

[I]n any kiosk one can buy a street map of the city, folded into sixteen or thirty-two and marked ondreamsandstones the surface by a special configuration that is like a gateway bristling with the black shafts of the letters W and A, like a great entrance guarding the teeming street names within. These names, printed in the tiniest lettering beneath closed eyes, evoke images of Sunday mornings, autumnal clouds racing across the rooftops, people in overcoats, cracked flagstones in the sidewalk, a music store with cellos in the window, an Alsatian dog with a newspaper in its mouth and a hundred thousand other things. All this breaks off suddenly at the thin line beyond which the white margin begins.

This is the paragraph Angela Woodward excerpts from Dreams and Stones in her overview of Tulli’s complete ouvre for the Los Angeles Review of Books, prefacing it with, “Dreams and Stones especially […] is so amply rewarding sentence after sentence, that it would be achievement enough if it were only a pretty contraption. Opening Dreams and Stones almost at random produces tiny masterpieces of paragraphs.”  Indeed, this is a truly magnificent little book that unfolds like a mystical, (maybe) living puzzle box made from some unstable and many-colored material.  There are no real characters or plot to speak of, just the unrelentingly beautiful transformations undergone by Tulli’s fictional world.  It’s a treat for the mind, but as the world disintegrates from a tree, a machine or a city into a map, a train station or a wasteland, the text continually challenges you to evaluate exactly what it is you’ve gotten your hands on.  Even Tulli and her translator, the fantastic Bill Johnston, disagree as to what this book actually is, Tulli claims it’s a novel, Johnston claims it’s a prose-poem.

And this is perfectly fitting considering what lies at the heart of this work is just how uncertain of a thing language so often turns out to be, making it just the thing to pick up if one wishes to meditate upon translated literature in general.  One can see in the fragility of Tulli’s prose, its moments of uncertainty and leaps of faith that transform the world of Dreams and Stones, echoes of the delicate process of translation, the hazards of carrying over a work from one world to another to create something belonging to but also somewhat removed from both.  Fortunately, Johnston’s translation is also a testament to the kind of powerful, beautiful reading experience that can be won as a result of putting our faith into such a perilous endeavor as that of literary translation.


Ken Bruce lives in Cincinnati, Ohio where he studiesken bruce philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, writes short fiction, and enjoys reading and learning about translated literature from all parts of the world.

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