How long have you been working with Svět knihy and the Ministry of Culture as a moderator of Czech authors’ readings and discussions at the Leipzig Book Fair?
I think this is the thirteenth year that we’ve been working together. It began in 2000 or 2001, so actually for as long as the presentation of Czech literature in Leipzig has been managed by Svět knihy with the financial support of the ministry. It’s not only in Leipzig that we work together. I moderate the majority of readings and discussions at presentations in German-speaking countries; for example, the ministry has twice had an exhibition at the Austrian fair Buch Wien, where we presented the likes of Irena Dousková and Stanislav Komárek. However, it became apparent that it is perhaps too much of a regional event and that in general it doesn’t pay to participate in so many book fairs, obviously with regard to how much the Czech Ministry of Culture is limited by a lack of financial resources. We tried doing something at the Frankfurt book fair - Miloš Urban and Michal Ajvaz did readings there, but it is more a place for doing business, it is really a giant international trade fair with a broad purpose. Nevertheless, Czech literature is at least represented there every year by the České centrum in Berlin.
At this year’s Leipzig Book Fair you oragnized the participation of Eugen Brikcius, who read his own text in German, and also the likes of Marek Šindelka and Bianka Bellová, with you interpreting and doing most of the reading yourself. What do you think is more beneficial for audience members who might be completely unfamiliar with contemporary Czech literature?
Eugen Brikcius has lived in Vienna for a very long time, or shuttled between Prague and Vienna, he can speak the language, he is rooted in the German environment and he also writes in German, so it is natural for him to read his own texts and I don’t have to interfere in it at all. I always regret that I can’t give so much space to authors who don’t speak German, that I am the intermediary, the moderator, so I partly speak for them and, de facto, speak the most. It is a shame, but on the other hand I know how to get the attention of the German audience. In the exhibition hall there is incessant noise; if someone apologetically reels off some German text with a poor accent or pronunciation, it might possibly come across as endearing, it might work as a short segment in an enclosed room, but in the exhibition hall no-one is able to follow it, it’s hard to concentrate there. I arrange with authors in advance that I will read excerpts from the German translation of some text of theirs – these are also prepared and paid for by the ministry, I often translate them myself and there are other uses for them afterwards, I send them to publishers and they are also posted, for example, on the Portál české literatury along with the authors’ profiles – but the authors always read at least a short piece in Czech so that their voice can be heard. Then we also talk about their book a bit and I interpret.
Which of the authors with whom you have worked during these thirteen years has “caught on” in the German-language world?
At trade fairs we mostly present authors who have the potential to make a name for themselves but do not yet figure at all on the local book market. One vivid memory I have is the success with Markéta Pilátová; the representative of Austria’s Residenz Verlag liked the excerpt, Markéta’s performance, the way people reacted to her, and in the publishing firm they said, “fine, we’ll publish this book.” Incidentally, last week I was touring northern Germany with Markéta Pilátová (and Tomáš Zmeškal) during the presentation of a new anthology of contemporary Czech literature.
You’re talking about a new issue of the magazine for literature, art and criticism die horen, which is entirely dedicated to Czech literature. Whose initiative was it?
Many different people and institutions. Work on the project began two years ago in Prague at a meeting between Czech authors and editors, and readers from German publishing houses and translators into German, and that meeting took the form of a workshop within the Svět knihy book fair and was given strong backing by the Prague House of Literature for German-language authors. They were looking for a partner who would publish an anthology of the texts which came out of the workshop, and it clicked with the magazine die horen, which has special issues based around themes or indeed specific language areas. The project was then given support by the Network of Houses of Literature in German-speaking countries. They thought up LITERAToUR.cz, which is a tour or series of readings by Czech authors from the younger and youngest generations. The project was also supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation, and in the end there were a lot of speakers and it was difficult to coordinate. It was a long and complicated process, but I think that the result was worth it.
Let’s go back to Marek Šindelka and Bianka Bellová. What is their potential for success with the German audience?
Undoubtedly great - for that matter the rights to Bianka Bellová’s book have already been sold and it is going to be brought out by Braumüller Verlag. Marek Šindelka also has the potential to be published in German; each new book of his has been highly praised by Czech reviewers, they are excellent texts and this is a young author from whom we can still expect just about anything. There is a small problem in the nature of his most recently published book Zůstaňte s námi, which is that German publishers usually launch an author’s career by publishing a novel, they don’t want short stories, they say that they don’t sell well, let alone those by an unestablished Czech author. So either something can be done with Šindelka’s previous book Chyba; it has undoubtedly already been sent to publishers, because Marek Šindelka is represented by a very active literary agent, Edgar de Bruin. Or else we will wait for his next novel.
Is the announced publication of Bianka Bellová’s Mrtvý mužyour work?
No. A long-term collaborator with Braumüller is Christa Rothmeierová, an outstanding translator from Austria, who has been involved in Czech literature all her life, translating, promoting and fighting for the advancement of Czech authors on the German-language book market. When the book came to my attention, it had all been arranged already. But I have translated other works for them, such as O rodičích a dětech by Emil Hakl and Černý domeček by Stanislav Komárek.
At present the best received Czech author on the German market is probably Jaroslav Rudiš…
Yes, and he has just had two books published in German at the same time. Rudiš knows how to promote himself in the media, he has an energetic manner and interesting themes, and his texts move along quickly… Perhaps also Jáchym Topol, even if he is more of a classic. But what does it mean to “be well known” in Germany? Czech literature is still a peripheral phenomenon on the German market, so a Czech author can only really be “relatively well known”, it always has to be qualified.
Interview prepared by Jaroslav Balvín
In the photograph Mirko Kraetsch is in the middle, between Bianka Bellová and Marek Šindelka. More about Mirko Kraetsch can be found on the website of his agency Worte und Orte.