The central European novel of , the epic of postcommunism, had already been produced when the search for it had only just begun. From the first pages, Topol makes it clear what he is aiming at. He wants to describe the volcanic eruption of autumn ; the landscapes and their radioactive and ideologically contaminated residues; a dark present with no way out.
The very language generates an apocalyptic flood of images and sets the tone. What distinguishes him from the majority of his contemporaries who began their careers as serious writers during the system change is the exhilaration and sheer pleasure he felt in his newfound freedom, and his forceful articulation of this experience.
Yuri Andrukhovych also felt liberated from the chaos of his country of origin when in January he came to the West for the first time.
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Like Topol, it took him just three months to complete. His hero, the western Ukrainian student of literature Otto von F. Around him, the poetic hopes of the new young national literatures are flourishing: Estonian and Usbek Akhmatovas, Buryat Pushkins, Czech Khlebnikovs. A shopping trip to the department store Detsky Mir, right next to the Lubyanka, ends in a nightmare: Otto von F. In the end he manages to escape by catching the train to Kiev, while behind him Moscow sinks into a sewer. These two writers had both been eye-witnesses of the collapsing communist system: Topol in Czechoslovakia, Andrukhovych in the Ukraine.
For him, ended with the independence of Ukraine in August , after the failed putsch against Gorbachev in Moscow. Moscoviada , which first appeared in the Kiev periodical Suchasnist in , was not published by Suhrkamp until Books have their hour, and historical clocks do not run synchronically — especially when they tick in two hemispheres that until very recently were quite separate. Media interest in books that appeared in eastern Europe after was strongly influenced by matters of public concern: German reunification; war in the former Yugoslavia; the turmoil in the Russia of the s; the debates on memory surrounding the expulsion of Germans from former German territories; the crimes of the communist rulers; the yearning for the idyllic central Europe of the imagination.
Literature from the nations of eastern Europe was received as a documentary account. While some attention was paid to the style of the writing, the interest of the public was mainly documentary. People wanted to understand the conflicts and tragedies, the psychological and spiritual situation, the omnipresent pressure under which people in these closed societies had suffered and which was finally being eased.
This was the burden of history — a history that could only now be told, after the nations had freed themselves from party dictatorships. Expectations of what literature could achieve were high. As the fog lifted, two giants emerged, authors who told German readers once again about the most terrible chapter of their own history — and told in a way that they had never known before.
Their appearance in translation, much later than the original editions, must be rated as one of the great publishing events in Germany of the s. Many people read the book in their summer holidays, as the first images of people lying dead in flowering southern gardens flickered across television screens.
The novel tells the story of the Nazi invasion of Novi Sad, where hitherto Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Germans and Jews had co-existed peacefully in the small town. Whether perpetrators or victims, they are unable to avoid each other. But it is impossible to explain it entirely by this.
We are seeing the same type of person as we saw in World War II, the same passions, the same thoughtlessness, the same madness.
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It was a strange situation. An author of world rank, who had lived his entire creative life unknown in Novi Sad, came on to the German scene at a time when his work was finished. He had said what he had to say.
The story ends with the liberation of Buchenwald where he had been transferred , his return to Budapest and his scandalous nostalgia for the concentration camp. It is doubtful whether the all-pervasive presence of the Nazi concentration camp, and the way its logical laws were learned, has ever been so radically expounded. Unlike Tisma he chooses to wear stylistic masks — the tone of Thomas Bernhard in Kaddish for an Unborn Child original published in ; German translation in , English trans.
Tim Wilkinson , the mask of Kafka in Fiasko original published in ; German trans. The shockingly new approach of this book was keenly felt, coming as it did after a year in which readers, far from being wearied by the profusion of new eye-witness accounts, memoirs and studies, had acquired a new sensitivity and curiosity. Making up for lost time, writers tried to explore their own past and come to terms with it by telling the story of the catastrophes of the twentieth century as they affected eastern Europe — catastrophes Germany was responsible for triggering off — thus making them accessible to imagination and empathy.
This literature compelled the whole of Europe to examine its conscience anew. The shocks from the past continued to reverberate. There seemed to be not one square metre of ground in eastern Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine or Russia that was not steeped in it. These narratives continue. They have become part of the grand narrative into which the generation of writers born later have woven their own statements. Since the end of communism, Czech and Polish writers have even been bold enough to write about the expulsion of the Germans — hitherto a taboo subject.
Dreckskerl , about a violent father, a scholar destroyed by communism, who as a child had lived under the same roof as Germans. It is only a small step from the objects that Stefan Chwin examines in order to tease out their history to the derelict districts of a small Galician town where Juri Andrukhovych sets out to explore his family history. The eastern landscape is full of ruins that testify to the downfall of great empires: Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Soviet.
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There is a central European fear: fear of the Germans and fear of the Russians. A central European death: in the camps, in prison — a collective, violent death. And finally, a central European journey: flight. The inevitability of writing about death in all its different manifestations is what continues to give the literature of this region its force. This Europe of ruins, which is in danger of disappearing in the process of the postcommunist transformation, is the subject and source of inspiration for the best-known Polish writer of the middle generation: Andrzej Stasiuk.
The brass plates on the gate of a renaissance house of the Lviv city market, the winch at a disused mine in Istria, the abandoned prefabricated blocks of flats at the edge of a Lithuanian industrial estate, the gravestones inscribed with Ruthenian characters in a forest near a meadow on which a Lemko Ukrainian minority —trans. All this points to a lost, and frequently violent history. He reads the names. He sees the mute memorials and the natural monuments, which speak of something long gone but that now fit into a new tableau, along with younger things — a stunted tree, a pheasant in a field.
He elevates all this above the level of factuality and into the sphere of birth and death, of finality and the metaphysical. Stasiuk has been attacked for glorifying the grim realities of the past and for a nostalgia that leads him to cling defiantly to a decaying way of life. Since the mids, and particularly in the years before the eastward enlargement of the European Union, these texts have not only gained in topicality but have also inspired numerous further explorations.
Map reading, the study of historical atlases and train travel 34 have helped the genre of literary travel reportage to achieve a level of productivity verging on excess. Thanks to the support of cultural foundations, there have been numerous international book projects and events that have dealt with historical and imaginative relationships between regions whose past is being lost in obscurity and ignorance and whose future is becoming endangered by EU enlargement. Connections have been cut as the borders shifted eastwards and southeastwards.
It is no accident, therefore, that two Polish publishing houses — Pogranicze in the northeast and Czarne in the southeast 36 — have become the outlet for the productive potential appearing at the margins. The topographical or geopoetic turn completes the move away from a literature that had concerned itself with the development of the individual and the tragedy of his destruction. They come from a timeless zone and remain there as extras as the traveller passes through.
Fog: A Novel of Desire and Reprisal
In the booming economic region of western Romania, they are a symbol of the hugely unequal speeds of modernization. At the same time, they embody the feeling formulated by the traveller Stephan Wackwitz, the one that wafts towards you as soon as you go east of Vienna: the indeterminacy of the expanse that in a sense extends all the way to the steppes. They are present wherever people have been the victims of misfortune and violence. These lachrymose troubadours pass through a world that extends from Poland to Transylvania, from Belgrade to Venice, from Vienna to Szeged.
Evoking human hopes, torments, injustices, indescribable cruelties and deeply moving gestures, the universe that this book traverses, in its hundreds of episodes, touches us in a unique way. In the spring of , after finishing his novel, Darvasi went back to the short story. The action of the book takes place in imaginary settings at the time of the Bosnian war and describes a state of anomie, total barbarity and lawlessness. It is the only book in which he reacts directly to the war, although war was a brooding presence in the earlier books.
Provinciality, superstition, fear and fathomless melancholy prevail. The obtuseness of the young man is that of a child in a world as vast as it is opaque. Perhaps their very ability to give expression to the turmoil of the postcommunist present and to steer clear of the glorification of central Europe counts against them.
He discovered Miljenko Jergovic, today the internationally best-known Bosnian-Croatian writer of his generation. Paradoxically, the accumulation of catastrophes enabled the most original and hitherto completely unknown voices from the former Yugoslavia to finally gain a hearing in the German-speaking countries. Here too the fog was lifting: the bloodthirsty tales of Miodrag Bulatovic were giving way to the critical and postmodern texts of Dubravka Ugresic, inspired by the Russian avant-garde and the epic narrative art of Dzevad Karahasan, recalling Ivo Andric.
Danilo Kis, who died in in Paris, continued to be published in new editions. There were European writers of distinction to be discovered. Committed intellectuals returned to the scene, and they came — mostly — from eastern Europe. No wonder, then, that it was at first the smaller houses, especially in Austria, that took on young writers from the nations of the former Yugoslavia. It was almost impossible to separate publishing and humanitarian concerns, or political and personal commitment.
First, a diversion leads through Belarus.
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More mass graves. Finally, having arrived in the north, a hurricane in the middle of the wilderness drives him to seek shelter in what turns out to be a World War II bunker; American names are carved into the walls, German ones too. Since then, the children of the age of transformation, the children of the Topol generation, have entered the scene. In Poland and the Ukraine in particular, authors are writing in an acerbic language packed with contemporary idiom and jargon, none of which existed twenty years ago.
Their communities are young, and the world they live in now is — in the words of Andrzej Stasiuk — no longer measured by the yardstick of the past. Learn more about Jeff Mann. Also by This Author.
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