Today I’m translating. A lonely job, but you get to wear shorts to work. I’m plodding along, it’s a tricky job. In a couple of months the Dutch translation of the Slovak novel ‘Dom Hlucheho’ needs to be ready to hit the bookstores. More than 500 pages. In the picture you can see the co-founder of our publishing house Donkichod and me talking to the author, Peter Krištúfek. His book describes life in Slovakia in the turbulent 20th century and captures the paradoxes inherent in Slovak history. Slovakia has seen dictatorial regimes come and go, both nazism and communism. He told us how much he disliked these oppressive ideologies and was surprised and somewhat amused when we told him there was still an active communist party in Belgium that worships Lenin and Stalin. Its main ideologue, the late Ludo Martens, wrote a book on Stalin that is now known as the Holy Life of Stalin, since it absolves the red Czar of all his sins. It was translated to Czech and can still be found on the internet in its English translation, though the PVDA (The Belgian Stalinists) would like to pretend the book never saw the light of day. They tend to express their admiration for Stalin behind closed doors. We had fun comparing stalinists and trotskytes, both equally delusional, but with certain variations, and they hate each other more than they despise any capitalist.
There’s of course much to dislike about the socialist experiment (people around here don’t talk about communism, they describe the regime as ‘socialist’, a word which we in the west tend to assiociate with social democracy). From what people tell me it’s clear Slovaks couldn’t travel, their country becoming almost a prison with paranoid rulers suspecting their citizens to flee the country the first chance they got. People also often complain about the forced, institutionalized sycophancy. One had to suck up to the communist party, the only party at the time. When one of the communist big wigs died, you had to go and sign the book of condolence. If you didn’t you paid the price. Theoretically everbody got a chance to study and everybody had the right (or the duty) to work immediately upon graduation. Changing jobs was another matter. You could switch jobs, but if you changed three or four times you risked being labeled as a parasite. The best jobs went to the well-connected of course (isn’t the same true today though? Just a thought). If you wanted to continue in research at universities you were expected to be a party member. My parents in law were both passed over for interesting academic positions because they refused to become party members. Officially everyone was equal, but some were more equal than others. Underground parties, western luxuries and other privileges were only accessible to the happy few.
Yesterday I talked to a jurist and she was somewhat more positive. She also complained about the near impossibility to travel to other countries, but she liked the strong social security of the communist era. She said we have merely replaced the communist propaganda with the propaganda of the corporate media, with journalists who are the mouthpieces of the rich elite. Some things are better today, but some things are worse. Especially the rise of individualism, materialism and arrogance bother her. On the whole she was sort of torn about the changes this country has been through. When she described how young people can now board a train and travel to Paris or London or take a plane to the US her face lit up with a radiant smile.