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Bohemian (and Moravian) rhapsody: Why Czech literature in translation is back

Czech literature is having a moment right now, with weird and experimental works making a perfect antidote to dull US/UK minimalism.

Photo: IMAGO / CTK Photo

Some 50 years ago, literature from Czechoslovakia was booming. Thanks to the eager efforts of translators, publishers and prominent Prague-splainers like Philip Roth and Tom Stoppard – coupled with a deep literary heritage and no shortage of talent – this relatively small Central European nation punched way above its weight on the world stage, with figures like Václav Havel, Milan Kundera and Borumil Hrabal quickly becoming household names around the globe. Those glory days have come and gone. But Czechia – home to Berlin’s nearest world capital, just five hours’ train down the beautiful Elbtal – is back.

Czech literature has long tended towards the weird and experimental, making it a perfect antidote to the dull minimalism currently stinking up the US and UK fiction charts. The last year alone has seen three fantastically offbeat rediscoveries appear for the first time in English: a delightfully irreverent book of short stories by interwar satirist Jaroslav Hašek (The Man Without a Transit Pass, trans. Dustin Stalnaker); an engrossing novella by Jakub Arbes, arguably the first Czech work of science fiction (Newton’s Brain, trans. David Short); and a deeply erudite novel by post-Wall Wahlberlinerin Libuše Moníková (Transfigured Night, trans. Anne Posten).

More contemporary voices are also making their mark. Jáchym Topol’s boisterous postmodern A Sensitive Person dazzled in-the-know critics earlier this year, while two dystopian novels – Bianca Bellová’s The Lake and Petra Hůlová’s The Movement – gained their authors international attention and acclaim. (All three of these were rendered into English by the translator/tastemaker extraordinaire Alex Zucker). Poetry readers should check out Everything Indicates by the Moravian poet Petr Hruška, translated beautifully by Jonathan Bolton.

Hearteningly, the new Czech lit-in-translation boom seems to have a better gender balance than before – which was, truth be told, a bit of a klobása fest. A key mover in this development is London-based indie press Jantar Publishing. Jantar began in 2011 with Daniela Hodrová’s alternative city guide Prague, I See a City (trans. David Short), which was followed by her staggering masterwork City of Torment (trans. Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol); it has also published Hůlová and plans, next year, to release the great 1855 novella The Grandmother by Božena Němcová.

According to its British publisher, Michael Tate, the press has not intentionally set out to redress a long-standing gender imbalance – it is simply taking advantage of what’s been neglected so far. “Our mission is to publish outstanding books from Central Europe,” Tate explains. “That means outstanding female authors as well. And there’s a lot more of them out there.”

Is Czech literature gaining interest because it speaks to contemporary global concerns? Tate demurs. Czech authors are certainly taking on important themes, like sexual harassment or the war in Ukraine. “But you know what? What makes this literature really great is that it’s written from a different point of view – another history, another culture, another way of looking at the world. There is plenty that takes on what is happening now. But the most compelling reason to read Daniela Hodrová is that she is a European author – she writes about Prague, but she rolls in Dante and Shakespeare, she rolls in Czech authors and saints and crusading invaders and Bohemia’s Protestant reformation,” he says, laughing. “Who is going to write that kind of thing in English?”

The best news, perhaps, is saved for last: early next year, Jantar will be adding to its formidable Czech library with a book from Berlin – the award-winning (and side-splitting) novel Winterberg’s Last Journey, written by Kreuzberg’s own Jaroslav Rudiš and translated by fellow local Kris Best.