View into the german literary scene

Eastern European literatures seen from a German perspective

Jörg Plath
Jörg Plath,
literary critic
Ex oriente lux? No, that used to be the case, more than 100 years ago when exhausted Western Europeans were hoping that Western thinking might be healed by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. In post-Utopian times, expectations of Eastern European literature are more modest.

The demise of the Soviet empire in 1989 saw the re-emergence of half a continent, the sphere homogenised by calling it the “Eastern bloc“. But the Eastern European literatures that were throwing off the yoke of Russian hegemony were confronted with an overcrowded German book market. Meanwhile, the Eastern Europeans have found their niche. Nowadays, it is less enlightenment that emanates from the East than (major historical and more minor contemporary) crimes. That is to say, surviving twentieth century dictatorships and muddling through the opaque circumstances that followed them, with some metaphysics thrown in now and again.

The dominance of violence is not the only problem. If one takes a closer look, one sees that Europe’s literary eastern enlargement has been piecemeal. Although German, Austrian and Swiss publishers of fiction translate a great deal (3,623 out of 14,780 titles in 2008), Eastern Europe’s share is relatively small. Unfortunately, the only available statistics concerning the source languages of translations into German relate to all subjects, i.e. fiction and scientific books and books for children and young people. Their message is clear, however. Two-thirds of translations are of original works in English (4,908) and one-tenth are of original works in French (847). The rest, just under a quarter of the total number, are left for the rest of the world. Russian is in seventh place, with 131 translations (including many technical books), followed by Polish, with considerably fewer works (44 translations), Hungarian (29) and Croat (28 – probably a one-off figure because the country presented itself at the Leipzig Book Fair in 2008; cf. Books and the Book Trade in Figures 2009, published by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association).

Some Eastern European countries are practically not represented at all in the German-language book market – Latvia, for example, and Serbia. As far as Russian is concerned, the younger voices are missing, those of writers born after 1960, after Vladimir Sorokin and Viktor Pelevin. One of the few successful Eastern European crime writers, at least, Polina Dashkova, comes from Russia.

There are many reasons why Eastern European literatures are marginal. The most important one is that, with the exception of Nobel Prize-Winner Imre Kertész, they are hard to sell. They often deal with problems of identity and subjectivity in the context of decade-long experiences of violence - that is true of the translated works, at least. That is not easily digestible, and when younger authors disengage themselves from these subjects, they tend not infrequently towards fast-paced grotesque or to farce. That, too, is not something that is to everyone’s taste.

But why is it that some countries, such as little Hungary, are better represented than others? Perhaps thanks to memories of the imperial and royal double monarchy, and certainly because of the large number of great writers, such as Imre Kertész, Péter Esterházy, Péter Nádas and László Krasznahorkai. And not least, because these writers speak excellent German.

The charming Ukrainian Yuri Andrukhovych, who always successfully promotes his country’s writers (and artists), also speaks German. Likewise, the polyglot poet Aleš Steger speaks up for his Slovenian colleagues. Such ambassadors are important in a personalised book market. If the Romanian Mircea Cartarescu, the Czech Jáchym Topol, the Bulgarian Georgi Gospodinov or the Lithuanian Tomas Venclova, all famous in their own countries and highly esteemed in Europe, do not aspire to this mediating role – not least because they do not speak German – their national literatures have a hard time of it.

Sometimes current events come to their rescue. The Orange Revolution suddenly made faraway Ukraine and Yuri Andrukhovych, who was demonstrating in Kiev at the time, known in the West. The wars in disintegrating Yugoslavia made readers pick up books by Dubravka Ugrešić, Bora Ćosić, Dževad Karahasan, David Albahari and Aleksandar Tišma. Their novels and stories were possibly read as documents, and more often probably as privileged access to the background to the events leading up to the conflicts and tragedies. Literature as a store of historical experience, fateful and with a fairly high level of truth – Spanish or French literature never had to live up to such extensive expectations as there was no wall to prevent readers from gaining their own first-hand impression.

Because Eastern European literatures are credited most notably with competence regarding historical experiences, anthologies of literary reports, all of which had to be financed by foundations, take on the task of discovering the present (Last & Lost, Der Andere nebenan (The Other Next Door), Sarmatische Landschaften (Sarmatic Landscapes) and Odessa Transfer). Eastern Europe’s translated literature uses mainly grotesques and farce to recount the problems of surviving in transformation societies. The Romanian Dan Lungu and the Bulgarian Alek Popov portray masters of muddling through in opaque, nepotic or mafia situations. The Polish metaphysician Andrzej Stasiuk, who warns resolutely against the EU’s eastern enlargement, is alone in lovingly describing dilapidated, backward Eastern Europe as a landscape of ultimate things, a landscape of the soul.

Political events that are eminently important for literary reception need not always be contemporary. After 1989, the general public, particularly in Germany but also in Austria, once again occupied themselves with the Nazi and Stalinist breach of civilisation, with the two dictatorships, the expulsion of the Germans and the myth of Central Europe. Books from Eastern Europe enable Germans to take an outside look at their own history. In his epochal novel Fatelessness, the Hungarian Imre Kertész tells of the deportation of a boy to Auschwitz and in his Kolyma Tales, the Russian Varlam Shalamov tells of surviving in the gulag.

Younger writers engage in a politico-literary study of provincial history and geography. The Pole Olga Tokarczuk discovers the past of her house in Silesia, and her compatriots Stefan Chwin and Pawel Huelle address the issue of the expulsion of the Germans from Danzig, while the Czech writer Radka Denemarková addresses their expulsion from Czechoslovakia. Whatever caused them, ruins are viewed for the sake of the future. Thus, the middle generation, born after 1960, departs from the horizons of Eastern European literatures that revolve around loss, hardship and mortal danger. In The Devil’s Workshop, Czech writer Jáchym Topol throws together the division of the continent, the gulag and Auschwitz with the Western culture of remembrance, and Ukrainian Serhij Zhadan has his young heroes pick their way between Depeche Mode and ostracised anarcho-communists, between Michel Foucault and Soviet debris. Western Europeans will have to revise some fond certainties about the twentieth century, reached in decades of discussions.

At present, the good old family saga, the very genre that ensured continuity, is causing confusion. Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen in Purge, and Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabushko in Museum of Forgotten Secrets tell stories of the rape of their respective countries by the Soviet occupiers. Zabushko does not shy away from rehabilitating the partisans, who were allied with the Nazis for a time during the forties, as pioneers of an independent Ukraine. This work on resistance as a national myth of the young states distorts history. We can look forward to seeing where and when the much-cited but hitherto invisible common European memory will emerge.

Jörg Plath
is a former bookseller. He completed a doctorate on the flaneur Franz Hessel and is now a literary critic in Berlin. He writes for the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, the “Frankfurter Rundschau” and “Deutschlandradio Kultur”.