Strasbourg, France – Like nearly half of the world’s population, I’m now in quarantine, forced to stay at home and, of course, brushing up on all my favourite books. Although it’s undeniably the best way to stay safe and make one’s own little contribution to fighting the coronavirus spread, time can sometimes seem long.
Lockdown is the perfect opportunity to read the books you always wanted to read but never found time to begin – or simply to expand your literary horizons. To help you in that process, I’ve chosen five fascinating books from Central Europe to better understand the region, five books that made me fall in love with Central Europe and, most importantly, five delightful stories.
Quarantine books #1: It Happened on September the First (or whenever), by Pavol Rankov (Slovakia)
Being French, I first came across Pavol Rankov’s book right after the 2019 Paris Bookfair, where Bratislava and Slovakia were the guests of honour and which, as a result, gave way to a strong increase in translations of Slovak books. The first one that managed to make its way on the shelves of my city’s bookshops was It Happened on September the First, a book with two major qualities: it’s a real-page turner, and a perfect introduction to Slovakia itself.
In It Happened on September the First, Rankov covers thirty years of Czecho/Slovak (and, in some extent, international) history, from 1938 and the annexation of the Sudetenland to the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.
On September 1st, 1938, in the southern Slovak city of Levice, Gabriel, Honza and Peter, three thirteen-year-old friends (one Jewish, one Czech and one Hungarian) decide to organize a swimming competition. The winner will win the love of Mária, the Slovak girl they’re all head over heels in love with – although Mária herself doesn’t know she’s the coveted prize of this teenage competition. And what none of them is aware of is that they’re standing on the threshold of the most turbulent period in Slovakia’s modern history. The book follows these four characters throughout these tumultuous years, through the twists of History and their private destinies and, above all, through the four boys/men’s enduring love for the beautiful Mária.
Quarantine books #2: Katalin Street, by Magda Szabó (Hungary)
The second book, Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street, is also a travel through history, and does also include a longstanding friendship. Katalin Street was my first encounter with one of the most famous Hungarian writers, Magda Szabó. I mainly knew her through her celebrated book The Door, which had won one of the most important literary prizes some years before in France, and decided to begin with Katalin Street.
I don’t regret it: while The Door, that I read later on, is a wonderful reflection of the strange yet endearing relationship between a woman and her housemaid, Katalin Street is a marvelous travel through time, encompassing national and intimate history in a masterful fiction.
Four children from three families – Bálint, Irén, Blanka and Henriett – live on the same street, the Katalin Street, in the Buda part of the Hungarian capital. During the Second World War, Henriett’s death shatters their lives for ever. The novel intertwines two different periods in its narrative: recounting the events leading up to Henriett’s death, announced right at the start of the novel (so no spoiler, don’t worry), as well as what became of Irén, Blanka and Bálint and the rest of their families after the war.
But Henriett’s shadow will always loom and hover over their lives, both metaphorically and physically. In my opinion, Katalin Street is a splendid novel, anchored in extreme psychological precision and one of the most beautifully written stories in Hungarian literature.
Quarantine books #3: Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal (Czech Republic)
The third book I chose is Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, an absolute classic of Czech 20th century literature. Describing this 100-page book without spoiling its story proves to be a little more difficult than the previous ones.
“For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story”, declares Hanta, the main character and narrator of Too Loud a Solitude in the opening line of the novel. Hanta works as a paper crusher in Prague under communist rule. Thanks to his position, he’s able to save and read hundreds of books banned by the regime – or simply give them a beautiful and well-deserved final rest, compacting the paper cubes into works of art and artistically placing the different books and covers within them.
The apparent simplicity of the tone, the story and the seeming naivety of Hanta denote a typical Czech irony that’s one of the defining traits of Hrabal’s writing. With Hanta’s character, who reveals himself as a kind of a wise fool, Bohumil Hrabal creates a kind of modern Švejk, the famous Czech soldier of Jaroslav Hasek whose idiocy proves to be his best quality to overcome the challenge of time and history. Through this falsely simple story, Hrabal symbolizes the never-ending fight of mankind, culture, arts and poetry against the crushing rule of totalitarianism.
Quarantine books #4: Madame, by Antoni Libera (Poland)
With my fourth choice, Antoni Libera’s Madame, we remain under communist rule, but head slightly north to neighbouring Poland
Set in the early 1970s in Warsaw, Madame tells the story of an unnamed character, a young man in his late teens. He’s apparently extremely gifted: he creates a jazz group and becomes in a single evening the hero of his high school by playing Hit the road, Jack during a formal school event; he creates a drama group and immediately wins the approval of S., one of the most famous actors in Poland’s cultural landscape. All this only happens in this 600-hundred-page book’s first fifty pages.
But behind all these feats and achievements, our hero’s yearnings, hopes and aspirations are, in the end, very common. Like every boy in his high school, he has fallen in love with the mysterious and distant Madame, their beautiful French teacher. What’s most uncommon, however, is the energy and determination he musters to clear up the Madame mystery – the main quest of the novel.
Madame is the Bildungs-Roman of a young, intelligent and free-spirited mind who, through his incessant research and obsession with his French teacher’s secluded life, reaches maturity and adulthood – creating a life for himself in the dull setting of communist Warsaw.
Quarantine books #5: Metropole, by Ferenc Karinthy (Hungary)
The last novel I have chosen is arguably the most original of all. Antoni Libera, the writer of Madame, has been the translator of Samuel Beckett’s works into Polish. And the mind-boggling adventure of Budai, the main character of Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole, would probably have pleased Beckett, and is deeply immersed in the greatest Absurd, mixed with a very Kafkaesque loss of bearings and a bitter irony that reminds us of Frigyes Karinthy, the father of Metropole’s writer, a celebrated author as well.
Budai is a linguist invited to an international linguistics congress in Helsinki, and embarks on a plane heading to the Finnish capital. The only problem? The place where the plane ends up landing is definitely not Helsinki. In fact, it doesn’t look like anything he’s ever seen before. Problems accumulate for Budai, who has no idea where he is, is incapable of getting anyone to understand him – he, the celebrated linguist! – and is deprived of his passport upon his arrival at the hotel. The nightmare begins.
The only ally he will encounter over the course of the novel is Épépé, the lift operator of the hotel. But is her name really Épépé? Or is it her accent and pronunciation misleading him? In truth, her name could be Épépé, but also Tyétyé, Pépé, Étété… He doesn’t even know the name of the only person who could help him.
Although this novel doesn’t take place in Central Europe – who knows where it does take place? – it’s a nightmarish, poignant and fascinatingly eerie illustration of life under a totalitarian regime and a symbol of Hungarians’ very unique relation with their own language. Set between resilience and madness, Epépé is the wonderful story of a man’s struggle against a visible, and yet elusive, enemy: society as a whole.
By Louise Ostermann Twardowski
A French student of Polish descent, Louise studies languages (Polish, Hungarian, Russian), linguistics and literature in Strasbourg. Passionate about Central European history, culture and literature, she joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. Feel free to check out her other articles here!