Interview with Czech recipients of the European Literature Prize:
Tomáš Zmeškal (2011), Jan Němec (2014), Bianca Bellova (2017)

As an umbrella term, European literature represents literature composed of a multitude of languages ​​and dialects of individual European nations linked together by a common geographical starting point and similar cultural predispositions. Nevertheless, there are also major differences between these literatures. Naturally each national literature enriches cultural diversity of the common ‘European family’ of literatures, but quite often literatures of smaller nations are in a visibly unequal position in relation to those that emerge within dominant and prominent world languages, such as English, French, Spanish or German. That is why projects such as the European Prize for Literature, which primarily aim at strengthening intercultural dialogue, increasing the interest in translated literature and highlighting the diversity and creativity of wider European literature, prove to be of paramount importance. With its system of annual rotation among the participating countries in the Creative Europe project, through book suggestions of national juries, it performs an important task of moving national and linguistic boundaries on the map of Europe. It also equally highlights the authors of larger and smaller national literatures, which, without proper promotion and translation for the European reader, could remain a mystery, an opinion shared by all three previous Czech winners - Tomáš Zmeškal, Jan Němec and Bianca Bellova.

Translations and crossing of linguistic boundaries

Tomáš Zmeškal

For all above mentioned authors, the award, with translations, enabled access to a wider European readership, while at the same time, as an ‘umbrella award of Europe’, their recognition was furthered even more. In the case of Tomáš Zmeškal, this meant primarily a breakthrough to the English-speaking space, as well as having his work translated into more than 13 world languages, with the latest translation of his award-winning Love Letter and Cunieform Script (2008) published in Arabic. Similarly, after receiving the prize for her novel The Lake (2016), Bianca Bellova says that ‘The world is now my oyster, with millions of potential readers’. Translation rights for her works were so far sold into 15 languages. But, as she says,

Bianca Bellova

‘On the other hand, this is associated with a lot of commitments, including travels and book presentations’. The prize also brings additional obligations that can prevent the author from finding time to write.

Jan Němec

All authors, including the third Czech recipient of the prize, Jan Němec, have also received various national awards for their works (for example, Magnesia Litera, Josef Škvorecky award …) and the latter believes ‘it is always a little bit better to get an award than not to get it, although it does not add anything to the text and the text is the only thing that matters when it comes to novels’. At the same time he admits that if his award-winning novel ‘…A History of Light did not get…the EU prize for Literature, we would not be discussing it here…’, as the prizes provide an even more intense promotion and open the way to translations which widen readers' horizons.

Little Slavic Literature’ in a large family of European literatures

The European Literary Prize is intended for prose. This pairs well with the fact that a novel is considered the ‘most European’ literary genre, reflecting the intellectual background of the ‘European or Western mentality’, which is also highlighted by the Czech born author Milan Kundera. As far as Czech novel writing and its relation to broader European prose production is concerned, all three awardees point out that there are no major differences between the latter and Czech literature, or rather that there are no typical motives and techniques in contemporary Czech prose production in which we could recognize as ‘a typical Czech novel’. As Zmeškal says, ‘at the moment there is quite a good number of novelists who write in different styles covering different topics and I cannot even phantom a generation divide’. In view of how heterogeneous the space is, Němec agrees that ‘contemporary Czech literature is quite segmented’. This is a positive notion for the Czech reader, who has a variety of voices and themes to choose from. Despite this diversity and the absence of common denominators, Zmeškal nevertheless recognizes a characteristic scepticism towards the world and history in Czech creativity, which Bellova agrees with: ‘It is true, though, that the Czech novel often draws inspiration from the past, especially the communist heritage and our relationship with former German minority’. She adds that the phenomenon of younger writers not turning back to the past and reflecting current social situation is a fairly recent occurrence in the Czech literary circles. As far as their own writing techniques are concerned, they all point out that they do not have a dominant style of writing. ‘I have written three books with different techniques. I somehow feel that every story will tell you in which way it should be narrated’. Zmeškal claims. Similarly, Bellova also says that she has no methods or techniques she would be aware of: ‘People who know what they are talking about tell me I use a double perspective, short fragments of text and that I express my thoughts economically’. Němec, who began his literary path with ​​poetry and moved to prose, also does not use established procedures or themes: ‘I believe in the way someone sees the world and I believe in form that absorbs this sensibility. In other words, for me it is not so important what it is about, I am curious about how it is written. You can have an outstanding short story about having a bath and you can have – in fact you really have – boring and disgusting novels dealing with holocaust. So I am more interested in seeing and seers than in what is seen’.

Creative plurality and the role of the writer in today's world

In view of creative plurality characteristic of most of today's European literature, despite it enriching the broader cultural and social space, Zmeškal paints a rather problematic picture of its role in the modern age: ‘Today the power of media is such, that sincerity in language is gone for good. It is getting emptier and emptier by the day. So, the way you write what you write is for me of paramount importance. Now even lovers declare their love to each other in language of shampoo adverts. One has to be suspicious of language it can´t be taken at face value’. Social changes and problematic, insecure times are also reflected in literature, which often doesn’t enjoy the reputation it used to. Writers in the role of humanists, observers and social commentators can push against that; all three Czech prize-winners strongly highlight the question of human destiny in their works. Zmeškal emphasizes that ‘literature can offer profound observations, but I don´t believe people are interested in reading about them’. He exemplifies this with the case of the journalist Robert Fisk and the Arab spring - the astonishment of the public regarding the political tensions of the revolutions, whilst many Arab writers were writing about it for almost a decade. He continues that there are also some writers in the Czech Republic that have reaccepted such tensions and problems, yet contradictory their books have not received much interest: ‘More and more I notice that people are not ready to think about views that challenge their ideas, their views, their opinion, they like to read more about what confirms their ideas or experience not about what challenges them. But one day things might get better. Perhaps’. In his creative process however, he does not blindly follow realism, and only partly uses social commentary, because he believes in personal creativity. In that, he is also joined by Němec, who says that art or literature are always deeply connected with reflexivity and expressiveness: ‘It somehow combines the inward and outward processes of the soul. This pulse is necessary, it provides basic health for Self and society as well’. However, in his view, art and literature do not act as reservoirs of solutions to social problems: ‘We as artists or writers are not specialists, our aim is rather to deepen the experience itself, so specialists can balance their perspective with some universal values’. Bellova similarly only accepts motives that she personally considers of high enough quality, without influence from current social situations. Regarding her position towards society she adds ‘I cannot make conclusions about our society which are better than those of any other well-read and informed individual’. If literature would have to solve some of the acute social problems, she would see that as a sign that something is not right in society, yet on the other hand she also believes that good literature is always about conflict, and a content society would give little inspiration to feed it, she concludes.

From creativity via social situation to European reality

Whether literature can have an impact on today's social problems remains uncertain. As all three Czech prize-winners conclude, this is not actually its primary task, but it can act as a welcoming space for free creativity and criticism which, at least for the time being, are still addressing the majority of the European population. Contrary to the mentioned plurality and the need for cultural exchange, Europe today faces an ever-growing transition back to traditionalism. In this aspect the rise of nationalism is particularly noticeable, preventing or working against the moving of national and linguistic boundaries, which is precisely what the European Literature Prize is trying to achieve. The mentioned award-winning authors, who with their creative work take part in a wider European and world context, live in the Czech Republic, which is of the most Euro-sceptic countries. Recently, the political atmosphere is leaning increasingly towards xenophobia and a strong opposition to integration and multiculturalism is being established, with its public displays of racism. In the midst of all this Němec sees himself, as well as writers in general, as a humanist and demonstrates his personal view on this issue: ‘So for me, that identity pyramid goes like this: living creature, human, European, Czech, Moravian, citizen of Brno and so on. A higher level is more important than the lower and each lower one gains its validity from its connections to the nearest one in both directions. Basically, I am for EU, I am for integration’. Regardless of frequently heard complaints, such as the failure of European bureaucracy, he believes that the main problem is not the European Union itself, but …various forms of nationalism that are blocking rational or value-oriented political process’. Also Zmeškal points out that the European Union is their last hope ‘…because if the neo-fascist get in the government they are going to take the Czech Republic out of the EU. They don´t make any secrets about it’. On the other hand, Bellova is painting an even more pessimistic, but also a quite likely situation ‘I would love to be proven wrong but I can definitely sense the EU as we know will disintegrate. There is a definite sentiment of disillusionment and crumbling dreams present in the former countries of the Soviet bloc, the realization that we will never be treated equally, we will always have limited access to labour markets and always be patronizingly perceived as immature, xenophobic etc. I fear that not before long, Europe will be divided to some extent’. The latter will undoubtedly have an impact on European culture. Prizes such as the European Prize for Literature, with their concept of integration and equivalent exchange, are seen as a good example of action, even if it remains largely in the field of literature and does not have an impactful influence on society – but if we keep in mind the bleakest scenario for Europe, literature just well may be the last refuge for an open minded and critical European reader.