Post 1989 prose

A number of factors make the typology of Slovak prose after November 1989 more intricate. They include mainly the plurality of individual authors’ poetics and the absence of generational groupings, with the exception of the so-called ‘Barbarian generation’. Of the latter we need to mention particularly Ján Litvák, who stirred immediate interest with his debut Samoreč (Talking to Oneself, 1992), and equally with his hybrid books in terms of genre and class Pijem vodu z Dunaja (I Drink Water from the Danube, 2006) and Bratislavské upanišády (The Bratislava Upanishads, 2007). Ivan Kolenič’s prose debut Mlčať (Keeping Silent, 1992) is equally shocking in terms of both its subject matter and its lexicon, getting closer to Litvák’s Samoreč with its motifs of language dominance, the potential problem of stylisation of utmost despair and the eratic solitariness of the protagonist. An interesting experiment from an evolutionary point of view is the mischievously-created and graphically striking debut of Kamil Zbruž, the folding picture book Spitý imidž (Inebriated Image, Magazine for Lower 10.000 Income Bracket, 1993), that forebodes different lines of desemantised writing in Slovak prose (from the attempts of Koloman Kocúr to Macsovszky’s ‘steriles’).
Numerous texts written earlier, in the 1970s and 1980s (for example, works by Pavol Hrúz, Ivan Kadlečík, Pavel Vilikovský and others) were also published after 1989, therefore they do not necessarily give the impression of being ‘breakthrough’ literature in the changed social situation. One exception is the prose work of P Vilikovský, Večne je zelený… (The Eternally Green…), written in the 1970s but published as late as 1989 along with Vilikovský’s prose collections Eskalácia citu, The Escalation of Sentiment and Kôň na poschodí, slepec vo Vrábľoch, The Horse Upstairs and the Blind Man in Vráble. The prose of Vilikovský formally reminds one of a history textbook, which relates to the thematisation of man in history, but at the same time, links the discourses of different provenance. Vilikovský’s text makes intertextual references to the reportage of E E Kisch, but also makes use of the elements of adventure discourse, professional literature or ideological language. Postmodernist techniques may also be found in the mystifying and intertextual novel of Dušan Mitana, Hľadanie strateného autora (Searching for the Lost Author, 1991). Apart from postmodernist works by authors, literary science also discusses the poetics of coolness (Rassloff, 1999) and the so-called text generation (Šrank, 2000). These are however different terminological denotations of the works, mostly by the same authors, which are related to the poetics (parodic, demystification, intertextual) of authors Peter Pišťanek, Dušan Taragel, Igor Otčenáš, Tomáš Horváth, Peter Macsovszký, Balla, Marek Vadas, Eman Erdély, Martin Kasarda, Viliam Klimáček, Karol D Horváth, Silvester Lavrík and others.
Foreign texts of different provenance are often in prose, as in the case of Balla’s Tekuté poviedky (Fluid Short Stories) from the prose collection Unglik (2003), in which he ‘rewrites’ the prose works of F M Dostoyevsky, W S Burroughs, Charles Bukowsky, the Bible etc. Equally, references are made to the manuscript of Tomáš Horváth only with the vulgarisms and theorems, systematically used in his palimpsest-persiflage text, as is well evidenced in his book with the apt title Antikvariát (Second Hand Bookstore, 2004). In it T Horváth parodically draws on various texts from different periods (from the classical detective story to the naturalist prose), adapting the style and language of his prose. Intertextuality and intratextuality also relates to the depersonalisation of characters in the literature of the past two decades, their anonymisation, metonymisation and metaphorisation and the potentially different transformations and configurations of characters (making references also to the book of T Horváth, Niekoľko náhlych konfigurácií (Several Sudden Configurations, 1997). The functions of characters are often arbitrarily modified the detective in Horváth’s Pokazená hra (Spoiled Play, from the book Vražda marionet, The Murder of the Marionettes, 1999) can become the murderer, the potential victim turns into a special agent. Also transformed are the reading codes – for example the detective story is quickly, without any motivation, turned into its own parody or into some other sub-genre. Barthes’ ‘diversity of diction’ shows in the narration (the dominant voice of the narrator is often lost in prose) and in the lexicon (blending of different languages). In these bearings, T Žilka contemplates a cultural ‘hybridisation’, the so-called bastard culture (compare Žilka, 2004, p 12). Many contemporary prose writers find insufficient, not only the standard vocabulary of the language but also the Slovak language as a whole. In their texts they use various other international, even lesser-known national languages (for example Czech). Hybridisation also concerns genres and styles. For example the debut of Inga Hrubaničová, Láska ide cez žalúdok (Love Goes Through the Stomach, 2007) is made up of dramatic, epic and lyrical parts. Jana Bodnárová transforms video scripts into short stories (2 cesty, Two Ways, 1999), subjectively interprets fine art models (bleskosvetlo/bleskotma/, ‘lightninglight/lightningdark’, 1996), uses jump cuts or a diary style, and in some texts captures the world through the eye of a photographer. Peter Krištúfek, and on a different level also Karol D Horváth, exploit film compression. Silvester Lavrík, Laco Kerata and Peter Pavlac are in part inspired by theatre art.
The dissimilarity of writing in the early 1990s is evidenced in P Pišťanek, who, as one of the first authors, in his debut novel Rivers of Babylon (1991), not only reflected the post-November social climate by modelling his characters on those from the social periphery or the Bratislava gangland (prostitutes, underhand moneychangers, traffickers, gypsies and parking lot guards, using as locations public toilets, boiler rooms, hotels, buffets etc.), but also had both his characters and the narrator speaking a radically different language, reflected at both a syntactic and a lexical level (simple, snippy sentences, sub-standard expressions, neologisms, etc.). P Pišťanek and his co-author D Taragel (in the prose collection Sekerou & nožom, With Axe & Knife, 1999) polemically oppose the tradition of lyric, imaginative prose and different forms of realism (Pištanek’s second book Mladý Dônč, Young Dônč, of 1993 convincingly parodies not only the poetics of Timrava’s Ťapákovci, The Tapak Family, but also that of Slovak inter-war naturalist and naturist prose). P Pišťanek pushes further the boundaries of the reader’s ‘good taste’ (Krčméryová, 2008, p 109), giving grounds for the functional use of the techniques of popular fiction in subsequent parts of Pišťanek’s trilogy, Rivers of Babylon 2 or Drevená dedina (The Wooden Village, 1994), Rivers of Babylon 3 and Fredyho koniec (Freddie’s End, 1999). This also involves the issue of popular fiction crossover that is visible in the work of some contemporary writers, such as Viliam Klimáček, Pavol Rankov, Karol D Horváth and Tomáš Horváth. To the parodic texts of P Pišťanek and D Taragel we may also a I Otčenáš’s prose debut Kristove šoky (Christ’s Shocks, 1991), a work which has not thus far received due critical appreciation, in which the author similarly strives to demythologise the Slovak countryside and the era of so-called real socialism. Similarly, we can find an ironic and frustrating portrayal of post-November reality in the texts of Marek Vadas and Eman Erdély. Univerzita (University, 1996) demythologises the academic environment, while the prose collection Diabol pod čapicou (‘The Devil Under the Cap’, 2002) removes the taboo from the subjects of crime and sex associated with police characters. While in Univerzita the authors parodically imitate the lectures of university teachers promptly adapting to the transforming school system, Diabol pod čapicou also makes use of the techniques of popular fiction, action films and jokes. The values of Vadas’ prose collections Prečo sa smrtka smeje (Why is Death Laughing, 2003) and Liečiteľ (The Healer, 2006, an Anasoft Litery Award winner) stand unchallenged, the author’s sense of the absurd, the irony, the grotesque, the irrational dreaminess and the often shocking punch lines are reaffirmed. The frolic line, with similar black humour, a grotesque attitude to the changed (partially virtual) world and expressive means is further explored by Karol D Horváth, Silvester Lavrík and Agda Bavi Pain.
Márius Kopcsay draws on the ironic, demythologising line in Slovak prose in another way. He belongs to the post-November authors with the most characteristic handwriting. In his prose works Kritický deň (The Critical Day, 1998), Stratené roky (The Lost Years, 2004), Domov (Home, 2005) and Zbytočný život (Worthless Life, 2006), Kopcsay records, often in a journalistic manner, the negativity and absurdity of being that is epitomised by a type of worthless, physically and often mentally distorted (obese, allergic, depressive, hypochondriac, etc.) character. Unlike Balla, however, Kopcsay thematises the living, often anomalous ordinariness that he describes virtually realistically despite his use of hyperbole and irony.
Compared to the non-communicative, mostly intertextual prose of, say, T Horváth, Balla or Macsovszký, Taragel´s Rozprávky pre neposlušné deti a ich starostlivých rodičov (Fairy Tales for Naughty Children and Their Caring Parents, 1997), P Pišťanek’s Rivers of Babylon trilogy and Kniha o cintoríne (The Cemetery Book, 2000) by Samko Tále (D Kapitáňová) were not only innovative texts but also the ones that made it as bestsellers. The efforts to achieve book marketability is openly manifested in the ‘brand’ form devised by Michal Hvorecký, who partially reduces the book to a commodity designed for a target group of readers. In a world abounding with brand names, Hvorecký created his own logo, which for his second prose work Lovci & zberači (Hunters and Collectors, 2001) was accompanied by a corresponding advertising campaign and graphic design elements which included an illustrated bar code on the packaging. Although Hvorecký (like Peter Šulej) attracted the critics’ attention with his debut work Silný pocit čistoty (A Strong Feeling of Purity, 1998), particularly with his so-called poetics of coolness, elements of cyberpunk and science fiction and generational message presented via a language influenced by electronic media, his novels were designated not only for the target group of (young) readers but, first and foremost, for the so-called ‘naive recipient’. Indeed, their characteristic features include the thrilling action story, information satiety, visualisation of characters and settings, thematisation of topical issues of the time (globalisation, hypermarkets, situation comedy dependence, internet pornography, homosexuality, paedophilia, etc.) and simple language. It is possible to view in a similar way the works of V Haratík, who made his debut with the so-called action novel Vojna psov (The War Dogs, 1997), Peter Bilý, Maxim M Matkin, Eva Urbaníková and to some extent also Denisa Fulmeková and Juraj Rayman. These ‘trendy’ authors (a term used by V Barborík) ostentatiously show their own erudition, their prose works are full of references to literature or philosophy, displaying a typical ironic distance and social criticism, their protagonist is commonly a rebel against the entire world, the plot dominates, the character stratification is unequivocal, the subjects are attractive – in other words, they offer ‘entertainment and art in one’ (Barborík, 2007, p 15).
The genre of the novel is currently productively fragmented and innovated particularly by representatives of the older generation such as Pavel Vilikovský (with for example Posledný kôň Pompejí, Last Horse of Pompeii, 2001) and Stanislav Rakús (with his loose trilogy Temporálne poznámky, Temporal Notes, 1993, Nenapísaný román, The Unwritten Novel, 2004, and Excentrická univerzita, The Eccentric Universe, 2008). The texts of Rakús show evidence of his capacity to create pure expression, conditioned by the dioecism of the author – a literary theoretician – and contain an intellectually challenging and simultaneously witty narration. Still, the dominance of shorter genres in literature after 1989 is not indicative of a literary crisis, but rather of the fading social order, and the growing autonomy and intimateness of contemporary literature.
Besides intertextual and frolic texts, ‘trendy’ prose works or ‘recreational’ genres, there are works in post-November 1989 literature that more or less incline to magic realism. Elements of magic realism are found particularly in the texts of Václav Pankovčín, who made his debut, in 1992 with the prose collection for adults Asi som neprišiel len tak (I May Not Have Come Just Like That) and the children’s book Mamut v chladničke (The Mammoth in the Fridge). While the other authors of the 1990s demythologised literary and non-literary reality, V Pankovčín in his prose creates not only magic stories but also a myth of a single region in the form of the fictitious Rantaprapán or Marakéš. The partial mythologisation and the ‘magic quality’ of the East Slovakian region in the texts of V Pankovčín is related to the modelling of its inhabitants and the space: Vasil Gonduľak gets pregnant and gives birth to a 25-litre beer keg; subsequently the old woman Ovaňa discovers eggs in a cut up rooster; the concrete comes into blossom with yellow flowers; Janko Šalamaha is born with teeth and starts a conversation with the midwife and so on. The world of the living and the dead (spirits) is blended in the work of Pankovčín similarly as in the works of magic realism. Víťo Staviarsky explores narrative prose differently from Pankovčín. In his debut Kivader (2007) he thematises the issues of the Roma community without sentiment, exotica or moralisation.
The dreamy, unreal and also ‘textual’ worlds encountered in the prose works of Jozef Kollár, Pavol Rankov, Peter Karpinský and Jana Bodnárová are often in confrontation with reality. The excessive sensitivity of Bodnárová’s characters is often seen as an adequate reaction to the pragmatic, anaesthetic world that her heroines shun, seeking security in their own rooms, in the anonymity of the hotel room, where they communicate by virtual means, but above all are rescued by their creations, writing and painting.
The prose characters of Monika Kompaníková inhabit set aside, dark, closed-in, gloomy and often hygienically-inadequate spaces. Their otherness is frequently manifested through the motif of the ill-fitting clothes of the characters (small or large), nudity, premature ageing, etc. The attachment of the person to the home in Kompaníková’s work (Miesto pre samotu, A Place for Solitude, 2003, Biele miesta, White Spots, 2006) is so strong as to make the thing anthropomorphised. The failure to recall words and the alteration of language highlight the lack of communication skills of Kompaníková’s characters, frequently associated with the shaping of the motif of an incomplete family. In Kompaníková’s prose the internal or external intervention in space and the conscious and voluntary departures of characters is common, but the mobility of characters is to a large extent limited by space. No matter how unpleasant the symbiosis of the man and the environment is, it gets often disrupted by an alien element, which (by convention, in the context of women’s writing) is a man but without unequivocal negative attributes.
With regard to the different phases of women’s writing we may also consider the diversity of the ‘feminist’ texts of Jana Juráňová or Uršula Kovalyk and the ‘women’s’ prose works of Monika Kompaníková, Jana Beňová, Irena Brežná, Jana Bodnárová, Svetlana Žuchováj and Inge Hrubaničová, and this despite similar motifs (of women’s alliances, troubled relations with a mother, desire for purity, discovery of one’s own body etc.). One of the differences is the stratification of the world, which in feminist texts is commonly unequivocal (men are aggressors, women are their victims, men are more active than women, by contrast, women are more sensitive than men etc.), and, particularly, the erosion of gender stereotypes. Women’s prose thematises gender-conditioned experience without protest against the men’s world. Feminist prose can also be perceived as an intertextual dialogue with the texts of male authors – in this sense Juráňová’s prose work Utrpenie starého kocúra (The Sorrows of an Old Tomcat, 2000) makes partial reference to Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774) but above all challenges Vilikovský’s work Eskalácia citu (The Escalation of Sentiment) through a different rendition of the motif of the disabled woman’s rape presented from the perspective of the victim. The texts of Zuzana Cigánová, Jana Beňová, Danka Závadová, Rút Lichnerová, Mária Bátorová and Svetlana Žuchová are difficult to categorise in women’s or feminist prose, let alone the ‘genderless’ prose of Daniela Kapitáňová / Samko Tále.
Exile in the post-November 1989 prose is linked mostly to the authenticity line, but compared with Czech literature, diary and memoir publications did not take a dominant position in Slovakia in the 1990s.
One exception was M Šimečka’s novel Záujem (The Interest, 1997), widely discussed and mostly accepted by critics. Some texts by older authors may also be placed within the authenticity line: Tatarka’s Písačky pre milovanú Lutéciu (Writings for Beloved Lutécia) (1999) and Navrávačky s Dominikom Tatarkom (Dominik Tatarka Interview Transcripts) from 2000 (prepared by E Štolbová), Memoáre Rudolfa Slobodu, Láska (Memoirs of Rudolf Sloboda, Love, 2002), Hana Ponická’s Lukavické zápisky (Lukavice Records, 1992), Jaroslava Blažková’s Happyendy (Happy Endings, 2005), Dežo Ursiny’s letters to Zdenka Krejčová Moja milá pani (My Dear Lady, 2007) and certain texts by Ivan Kadlečík and Pavol Strauss, etc. Slovak readers were also impressed by the work of Irena Brežná, a Slovak author living in Switzerland, particularly the blending of rational and emotional attitudes in her debut work Psoriáza, moja láska (Psoriasis, My Love, 1992), the fiction and journalistic techniques in her collection of artistic reports and journalistic short stories Tekutý fetiš (Liquid Fetish, 2004) and the depiction of childhood in the 1950s in her prose work Na slepačích krídlach (On Hen’s Wings, 2007). Fictitious autobiography was attempted by Jana Bodnárová in her last book to date, Takmer neviditeľná (Almost Invisible, 2008).
While spiritual prose is less represented in contemporary Slovak literature, issues of faith, church, or transcendence are implicitly or explicitly explored by a number of authors, including Róbert Bielik, Juraj Jordán Dovala, Ján Litvák, Edmund Hlatký, Peter Bilý and others. In this regard we must mention the work of E Hlatký in particular, who already, in his debut História vecí (The History of Things, 1988), anticipated the development of Slovak prose after 1989 through the ‘de-tabooing’ of the question of faith, and through the type of character presented – a man with a disturbingly anguished spirit. Hlatký’s História vecí intrigued the critics of the period, not only because of its remarkable exigency of presentation of the subject of faith, as opposed to rationalism, but also with its indirectly-created question of the collective manipulation of the individual’s consciousness with the complexity of the process of searching for one’s own inner self. The problematisation of the good and evil in both novellas of Hlatký’s debut makes indirect references to Dostoyevsky’s concept of guilt and punishment – the man remains powerless against violence, fatally helpless, often a tragic victim of complicated life situations. In his subsequent prose works Jesenný opar (Autumn Mist, 1999), Iní ľudia (Other People, 2000), Sláva a tajomstvo (The Glory and the Secret, 2001) and Abraka dabraka (Abracadabra, 2008), evil is (socially, physically and nationally) intangible and abstract, the man is threatened by his own anxieties (from within) rather than by concrete adversaries (from without).
We may note that the post-November 1989 prose with its plurality of poetics comes close to inter-war literature, with equally productive postmodernist and realistic tendencies, and ironic and authentic gestures by the authors.