The entrance hall of one of Slovakia’s many theatres on a Saturday evening. Quite a lot people have gathered to hear interviews with the finalists and the jurors of a short story contest, organized by the incomparable, ideosyncratic publisher, Kali Bagala.
We hear several finalists, all of them strong-willed women. The winner is a man, but all the others are women.
The future of this country are the women. The old ways are masculine, but the future ways will be more and more feminine, as more women find their voice, and men become more and more lost in a modern society that doesn’t have such clear cut roles for them as before.
The stories were rates entirely anonymously, so this is not a case of positive discrimination. It’s just a fact that women are outpacing their male counterparts when it comes to education, and this shows on many different levels, also in the arts.
My personal favorite is Katarina Varsikova, pictured above with Slovak artist Zuzana Pistova.
She’s opinionated, thinks things through, tirelessly improves her stories, is nuanced, self-critical and tries to understand society with compassion and hope for the future. When she looks around today she sees a lot of young men who are looking for a direction in life, but the young women she knows go on to get degrees, launch projects and want to influence society for the better. There are of course young men who do the same, but it does seem men are struggling more than women with addictions and distractions, for example.
An other trend you can note is how closely intertwined Slovak and Czech culture still are. Several finalists say they’d rather read in Czech than in Slovak. One even prefers to read in Spanish. For some reason Slovaks do not really value their own literature. The closeness between the Czech and Slovak language is not always a bad thing. It adds a great deal of richness to both languages, although Slovaks are more prone to use and appreciate both languages than the Czech people.
The winning story is a great example of this sort of de facto cultural Czechoslovak union, it features dialogue between a young Slovak guy and a young Czech girl. The story is in Slovak, but the words spoken by the Czech woman are left untranslated in Czech. This is entirely possible, because Slovaks have absolutely no problem reading Czech. Each can speak his or her own language, but the two will understand each other anyway. Whenever I talk to somebody from the Czech Republic I don’t have the feeling of talking to a truly separate nationality. There’s nothing that is truly alien to a Czech that will be truly familiar to a Slovak. There are far more similarities than there are differences. That’s one of the beauties of this region. Two closely related neighbours that are a positive influence on each other and still offer a certain exotic flavor.
It’s often suggested that Slovaks are not as culture-minded as other Slavic nations, but a relatively unknown literary contest still draws a large crowd even on a Saturday evening in Bratislava. You have to take into account that many Slovaks leave Bratislava during the weekend. So this is quite a success for the organizers, they were clearly expecting less people, since initially there are not enough chairs.
A huge symbol of Slovak culture is of course Kali Bagala, a man that will die promoting Slovak literature. He’s fought tooth and nail to keep his publishing house afloat and to his own amazement he was happy to organize the 21st edition of this contest. The contest is as old as his son, so it’s fair to say that Kali has dedicated his entire adult life to Slovak literature. You can see him in this picture:
For a very specific and carefully selected collection of modern Slovak literature, you can check his website.