Confronting the Past: Contemporary Eastern European Writers

T he Eastern Europe with which most of us are familiar was born from the ashes of World War II. By the end of the 1940s, communist totalitarian regimes held power in all European states within the Soviet sphere of influence. By the 1950s, a forced split into West and East culminated in an "Iron Curtain"–a sophisticated and inhuman system of barbed wire, minefields, and secret police forces depriving people of their right to travel freely. In 1961, the Berlin Wall became the symbol of the division between the East and West in Europe.

Today, the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain have fallen, and the architectural work of revolution is complete: the old order has been replaced by various forms of free market economy and de jure democracy. But enormous rifts still divide ex-communist countries from the capitalist democracies, and many people are not willing to emerge from their old ways.

While the politics of this region may be complex and hard to understand, its literary heritages are ancient, rich, and clear. This series seeks to illuminate the cultures of Central and Eastern Europe through some of the very best literature in translation from the region.

Slavenka Drakulic's Cafe Europa (1996) is a brilliant work of political reportage filtered through the Croatian writer's own highly personal experience. One of Europe’s most acclaimed writers, Drakulic portrays a continent that is still divided, with the East separated–and ostracized–from the West by prejudice and intolerance.

Born on Yugoslavia's border with Hungary, Danilo Kis published The Hourglass in 1972 as the final volume of a trilogy recounting the story of his father's life, disappearance, and death in Auschwitz. In this remarkable novel–evoking the spirit of Franz Kafka–Kis continues the tradition of ironic pathos that is so much a part of Central European literature. His masterful account of the final months of one man's life before he is sent to a concentration camp is at once sidesplitting and heartbreaking, as well as an esthetic tour de force.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera raises the European "novel of ideas" to a new level of dreamlike lyricism and emotional intensity. Set first in communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, then in Switzerland, Kundera's story chronicles the adventures of a Czech surgeon forced to flee the Russian invasion of his country. It portrays a world where lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and by fortuitous events, where existence seems to lose it s substance, its “weight.” Hence, we feel "the unbearable lightness of being," not only as a consequence of our private acts, but also in the public sphere because the two are inextricably intertwined.

During the period of the Berlin Wall, the divided city of Berlin resembled an island in a sea of land. In 1982, West Berliner Peter Schneider wrote his novel The Wall Jumper about the people of East and West Berlin and their relationship with and vision of the wall and their city. Schneider's story is also a tale of people walking boundaries in the unreal reality of Central Europe during the Cold War. It is a novel as much about invisible walls as visible ones.

Bohumil Hrabal's tragicomic and charming look at the life of a young train conductor during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia was the basis for a 1966 Academy-Award-winning foreign film. Closely Watched Trains (1965) draws a sharp parallel between the loss of innocence of young Milos Hrma and the experience of the Czech people during World War II. Hrabal's technique of penetrating into the psyche of "the little person" who reflects a whole society has created a work in the best Central European tradition of ironic self-deprecation.

Czech playwright Vaclav Havel helped transform his country into a democracy during the turbulent decade of the 1990s. Disturbing the Peace, published in 1986, is a compilation of Havel's responses to a series of written interview questions smuggled to him while he was under surveillance by the Czechoslovakian authorities in the 1980s. The book is a contemplation of Czech history, the social and political roles of art, and the values underlying recent events in Eastern Europe by a man who ultimately became the president of his country.

Suggested Further Reading

For further exploration of Eastern European literature, look for these titles at your local library or bookseller. The Wyoming Council for the Humanities cannot provide these titles for addition or substitution in this series.

Jerzy Andrzejewski, Ashes and Diamonds
Vaclav Havel, Largo Desolato
Ivar Ivask, Baltic Elegies
Danilo Kis, The Encyclopedia of the Dead
Ivan Klima, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light
Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Czeslow Milosz, Collected Poetry
Gregor von Rezzori, The Snows of Yesteryear: Portraits for an Autobiography
Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles
Josef Skvorecky, The Engineer of Human Souls
Jiri Weil, Mendelssohn is on the Roof
Dubravka Ugresic, Fording the Stream of Consciousness
Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday

Retired Discussion Series

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