‘Slovakia and its Literary Landscape’ by Natalie Nera

man sitting on the mountain edge

‘Slovakia? Do you mean Slovenia? Aaah, Czechoslovakia!’

This statement reflects myriads of conversations I used to have during my time in Britain, whenever I mentioned that my sister-in-law was from Slovakia. No, it is not a country by the sea, and Czechoslovakia ceased to exist in 1993. And no, the Czech and Slovaks did not try to murder each other in the 90s – that was Yugoslavia. 

When it comes to literature, the situation is even worse. The Wikipedia entry on Slovak Literature ends with 1945, and the information you will find there is limited. Even an avid reader might struggle to name a single writer or poet. In short, Slovak literature is probably the most underrated literature in Central Europe – virtually unknown in the West, hiding in the mighty shadows cast by the Poles, and to some extent also its Czech neighbour.

And it is not just the proximity of its better-known neighbours. It is an image problem, which is not the fault of Slovakia or its authors. Historically, throughout the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the Slovak language was considered to be ‘a dialect’ of the Czech language by many. It emerged as one of the pseudoscientific constructs based on nationalistic theories during that era, and took a long time to go away. Nonetheless, the idea of the Czechoslovak nation with its unique language helped to establish Czechoslovakia in 1918. The problem with the grammar books on the Czechoslovak language and all these theories was that nobody actually spoke it.

Naturally, it is easy to criticise this approach from the prism of the 21st century; however, this was also a political necessity. For two small nations in Central Europe, it was important to convince the powerful politicians in Britain, France and the USA during WWI that there was a medium-sized nation in the heart of Europe with its own language and culture, which deserved its independence and had the right to self-determination. 

The other issue is that when editors in English-speaking countries look East, they have no reference point with Slovakia. They know the impressive canon of Polish Nobel Prize laureates, such as Henryk Sienkiewicz, Czeslaw Milosz or Olga Tokarczuk; then they look to its smaller neighbour, and they can probably name Jaroslav Hasek, Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, and Miroslav Holub and Jaroslav Seifert in poetry, before they even start searching for new names. Can you recall any of the Slovak literati? No? 

It is time to change the narrative. This spring season, we will be celebrating Slovak authors. Rich tradition and musicality penetrate every word, every line. There are no small literatures. There are only literatures that deserve to be discovered.