Samko TáleÂs Cemetery Book
Trans. Julia Sherwood
(Video from the launch in London on 11.1.2011)
Samko Tále is a physically and mentally stunted, forty-three-year-old resident of the Slovak border town of Komárno, who supplements his disability pension by collecting cardboard, and is writing his Âbook about a cemeteryÂ because an alcoholic at the station pub predicted it. His eddying Âstream-of-consciousnessÂ takes in the period from his grandmotherÂs wartime acquisition of Jewish property (Âwhy would Jews need things like a piano in a concentration camp, right?Â), the Communist period and post-independence Slovakia. A bestseller in Slovakia since 2000, Daniela Kapitá?ováÂs satire epitomizes both the Central European fascination with the madness of conformism and the specifically Slovak attempt since 1989 not to explain it, but to capture its voice.
SamkoÂs voice is parodically uneducated, marked by amusing malapropisms, misused bureaucratic jargon and verbal tics. His apparently rambling, repetitive narration, imitating his circuits of the town, suggests another picaresque trawl through Central European history; critics frequently compare Samko to GÃ¼nter GrassÂs Âinsane dwarfÂ Oskar in The Tin Drum, though Bohumil HrabalÂs small, amoral storyteller in I Served the King of England is closer. In fact – as the translator Julia Sherwood suggests by rendering SamkoÂs vehicle as ÂhandcartÂ – the reader, with each experience of déjÃ vu, passes through the circles of hell. Observing people on his rounds, Samko notes behaviour that he considers to be against Âthe lawÂ and reports it to the ÂHigh-UpsÂ, as he has done since his schooldays under Communism. Kapitá?ováÂs subsequent novels have been crime fiction; here too the reader becomes a detective, reading between the lines each time a story is repeated, slowly uncovering what has actually happened and the role played, apparently unwittingly, by Samko.
Liberal Slovak readers in the early years of the twenty-first century undoubtedly saw Samko as a typical supporter of the post-independence, chauvinist nationalist government, which presented itself as the guardian of traditional Slovak norms and morality and appealed to those nostalgic for the clarity and order of the Communist period. But, though Kapitá?ová persuasively captures SamkoÂs unashamed racism, homophobia and love of the old regime, she also mocks the equally Âknee-jerkÂ politically correct reaction of a visiting American teacher to Slovak ÂRomaphobiaÂ. Her novel may therefore be read more generally as an attack on ignorance and wilful naivety and those who promote them. The ÂcemeteryÂ may be Komárno or Slovakia, or a Western civilization of Âdead soulsÂ, hollow shells of received opinion. SherwoodÂs translation, like the original, makes for a swift, intense, thought-provoking novel, punctuated by laughs, gasps and just possibly tears.