Where is My Country?

The British writer William Boyd has recently praised Daniela Kapitáňová’’s novel Samko Tále’’s Cemetery Book in the Guardian.  I was delighted and rather proud to learn that this was the book he chose out of the plethora of publications on the British market.

Translations of our fiction are quite rare, and that is why the work done by the translator, Julia Sherwood, the daughter of Agneša and Ján Kalina, famous émigrés and natives of Prešov [in eastern Slovakia], deserves to be spotlighted. What made my joy even greater was the fact that I have recently enjoyed reading Boyd’s thriller Restless. I am well aware how difficult it is to attract media response abroad, particularly from renowned personalities, and hope, for both Daniela’s and Julia’’s sake, that the translation will do well.

Extended stays abroad have helped me understand where I come from and what it all means. I lost my country, Czechoslovakia, at the age of sixteen. It took me quite a while to get used to my new, pruned-back country, whose first political leadership was alien to me. I now think that the split, and the plumbing of the depths that followed, has ultimately done us good. In the past ten years Slovakia has changed more rapidly than ever before in its history. The Slovaks have never had it as good as today. What a shame we don’’t seem to be aware of it.

The borders of one’’s homeland are not defined in purely geographical terms – I also carry them in my head. My home also includes bryndzové halušky [gnocchi with sheep’’s cheese] that I prepare for my friends in Berlin; hiking in the Lower Tatras; drinking wine grown in the Lesser Carpathians; a night out at Subclub; a couple of days at the Pohoda festival; a concert by the Slovak Philharmonic or graffiti on the estates in [the Bratislava suburb of] Petržalka.

Having been inclined to avoid Slovak books as a teenager, I tend these days to buy more and more of them, both new and old.  I have criss-crossed the country and have found something inspiring in every corner. And each time I am surprised at how far we have managed to defile this beautiful country.

What made me feel particularly strongly about Slovakia are our arts. However, I suspect that good news of the successes of our literature abroad will continue to be rare. The funds allocated to the arts for 2011 have been cut by almost 10 per cent compared with this year.

This also means fewer grants for translators, most of whom have in any case given up on Slovak and switched to Czech or other Slavic languages, where their work has been more appreciated.  People working in the arts in Slovakia take home an average of 571 euro per month, which is 150 euro less than the average wage. Paradoxically, the arts received more support in this country fifteen years ago than they do now.

Our deputy Prime Minister Ivan Mikloš believes Slovakia that is about to reach the end of an arduous and dangerous road. I believe Slovakia is continuing on the very arduous and dangerous road of ignoring and under-appreciating its own culture and its creative artists.



This column appeared in the daily SME.