Mellow, full of traces of contrasting aromas. As though after the fall of communism Czech prose never quite recovered from the shock of losing its dominant role, a position it had occupied since the national revival in the early 19th century, when it had been used as a tool for building a national community, forming national collective values and role models, and later functioning as the “conscience of the nation”. It lost some great names which had created an established international brand (Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Arnošt Lustig and Ivan Klíma). And it also operates differently at home: after years in which authors also performed the role of celebrities, in the 1990s their position changed to one in which – apart from a few bestselling authors – the attribute “writer” has to be added to the author’s name when he is speaking on TV; in which contemporary Czech novels no longer have print runs of 20,000 copies, but 400 copies, which makes even the author himself start to question the value of the hundreds of hours invested in a piece of work. This is serious literature, which does not fit into a world which has decided to amuse itself to death. With some exceptions (Chaim Cigan, Václav Kahuda, Ludvík Němec and Jan Němec), this literature doesn’t know how to play; it still wants to try to solve the world’s problems or at least analytically break them down.
Light, smooth, sweet at first and then bitter, elusive. It is not good at talking about the present, as this entails an endless rehashing of the past; it is as though communism had never ended and the border zones had never disappeared. It contains few characters whose behaviour cannot be explained through their roots in the past, be they personal, familial or national (Jiří Hájiček, Radka Denemarková, Jakuba Katalpa). Leaving one’s native soil immediately smacks of the exotic (Petra Hůlová, Martin Ryšavý, Jana Šrámková, Matěj Hořava). This kind of trip (or even a postcard) across the border has to be justified to the reader; it has to be related in terms of values to what is at home. In this literature, “ours” and “foreign” is still one of the fundamental oppositions in the construction of the world. It is a quiet literature, settled, calm; it does not want to make a scene, it avoids daring exploits and it doesn’t like uncontrolled experiments. It is a humble Scheherazade who prefers to patiently tell her tale over and over again (Michal Viewegh, Petr Šabach, Emil Hakl, Miloš Urban and Kateřina Tučková).
It could export stories from the pub, but they are not easily transferable when they leave the setting of Czech beer culture. It lives off its Central European heritage of anecdotes, absurdity and fragmentation. It likes characters/pieces which are moved around the chessboard of history by the hands of giants sitting behind the board (Jiří Kratochvil, Irena Dousková, Tomáš Zmeškal). It can work with detail and analyse characters’ inner feelings in times of crisis (Zuzana Brabcová, Tereza Boučková, Jan Balabán, Marek Šindelka). It is able to depict the world around us in an interesting way only if a conceptual filter/concept is placed in front of it, creating an image that is more animated than played out (Jáchym Topol, Patrik Ouředník, Michal Ajvaz, Daniela Hodrová, Vladimír Binar, Sylva Fischerová).
For Czechs, the short story was always seen in relation to the novel as scrap or as preparatory work, a rough drawing or sketch. The obsession with writing the great social novel evidently persists to this day. So it is perhaps a paradox that contemporary Czech short stories, seen from afar, appear to be far more substantial than the majority of contemporary Czech novels.
Hard, bitter and short. Bestsellers are created by (all)capable advertising campaigns, clever timing and the forceful promotion of the text, not by respecting the characteristic anatomy of the bestseller. The response from reviewers lies hidden in the pages of specialist literary journals, seldom seeing the light of day in the mass media. That is why the author’s strategy has to focus on the possibility of future endorsement through film adaptations or writing for the foreign market. Therefore, he is consciously creating a work that will survive the journey undamaged, which in the case of a small society and culture (as the Czech one unquestionably is) involves not only a linguistic but also a cultural transfer. Contemporary Czech prose does not appear to be offering any notably great works.
Each year the output is filtered though dozens of literary awards, but even from a national perspective, the differences in these works are much more marked than their similarities. Rather than there being a few outstanding works which could be served up as a main course, something like tapas or a buffet is on offer. Several small morsels which can be combined in an interesting way according to one’s individual tastes to create a mosaic of flavours. As with a visitor to a whisky bar who cannot decide what to drink, there is always the agreeable option of tasting more and more samples, depending on how much you can tolerate, in small doses, but over a long period of time.
Prof. PhDr. Petr A. Bílek, CSc. teaches theory and history of modern Czech literature and culture at the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts of Charles University and the University of South Bohemia. He is the author of six books and almost fifty studies, which have also been published in English, French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Croatian and Japanese. His other areas of interest are popular culture and the semantics of media.