A new “Czech Literature Guide” gives useful insights into the world of Czech books


If you’re looking for an overview of the current Czech literary scene in English – everything from surrealist poets to second-hand bookshops – the new “Czech Literature Guide” should be just the book for you. As it states in its introduction, the book’s aim is to present a “panorama of the contemporary life of Czech literature”. David Vaughan reports.

Viktor Debnár,  Jaroslav Balvín,  photo: David Vaughan
The “Czech Literature Guide” has been compiled by the editors of the Czech Literature Portal (www.czechlit.cz). As we’ve discussed in past editions of this programme, the portal, which is funded mainly by the Ministry of Culture, aims to provide a broad and up-to-date information service about Czech writing today, and the new book is very much part that service. Its editors are Viktor Debnár and Jaroslav Balvín. I asked them both to tell me more about the guide, starting with Jaroslav.

Jaroslav Balvín: “The Czech Literature Guide aims to mediate the current situation to foreigners who are interested in Czech literature.”

So the idea is to give a general overview of what is going on in Czech literature and publishing?

Jaroslav Balvín: “Yes – prose, poetry and publishing, including the problem of VAT…”

That’s a particularly current debate, because until recently VAT was very low, at just 5%. It has crept up and currently the government has plans to raise it eventually, I believe, to as much as 19%.

Jaroslav Balvín: “It’s because our prime minister is a chemist and the reforms are his chemical experiment!”

Who is the guide intended for and how are you going to distribute it?

Viktor Debnár: It’s intended for academic people, scholars, people dealing with Czech language and literature at universities abroad, as well as regular readers worldwide, or even people not speaking Czech and living in the Czech Republic, because the book gives them interesting information about all parts of literary life: for instance there’s a list of interesting second-hand bookshops or literary cafes, or, for example, different institutions or foundations that give grants or scholarships and so on.”

And it really is thoroughly researched. About two thirds of the book is made up lists of all kinds of things – magazines, bookshops, publishers, literary agencies – with contact details and summaries of what they do. It’s certainly a very useful book to have at hand. Is it on sale in bookshops or are you going to distribute it primarily through book fairs etc.? Can Radio Prague’s listeners order the book if they are interested?

Viktor Debnár: “Well, we intend to distribute the book, as you mentioned, through different book fairs, in Germany, England and other countries, as well as universities and libraries, and we want to reach foreign publishing houses that might be interested in publishing Czech authors. We also sell the book, but we think for a very reasonable price of a hundred crowns or four euros.”

At the beginning of the book there’s quite a long overview of the history of Czech literature in the 20th century, which readers might also find useful and interesting in terms of giving some background.

Viktor Debnár: “This is the introductory text to the book. We think it’s an important way for foreigners to get to know Czech literature because in the last century or the past fifty years, there were many good authors, who should be remembered or who people abroad might find interesting.”

Michal Ajvaz
There is also a section in the book about translation to and from Czech. It’s very interesting to look at some of the specifics of that process, for example, the way that some writers become popular in certain countries. A particular example that is mentioned in the book is the novelist Miloš Urban, whose gothic detective stories have found quite a sizable readership in the Spanish-speaking world.

Jaroslav Balvín: “This situation is quite bizarre because some authors who are famous in the Czech Republic as some kind of ‘high’ literature are considered in the USA or England as sci-fi, ‘lower’ literature. That’s the case with Michal Ajvaz. His two last novels in English translation won some prizes for sci-fi and fantasy.”

That’s intriguing, because most people here in the Czech Republic would think of Ajvaz as quite a difficult, post-modern author, dealing with all sorts of deconstructionist ideas, while in the English-speaking world he is more accessible…

Jaroslav Balvín: “Yes, it’s like that.”

Another example is Iva Procházková, who is very popular in Germany.

Jaroslav Balvín: “Yes. Iva Procházková’s novel ‘Nazí’ or ‘Naked’ was first published in Germany, where it won some top prize, and only then was the novel published in the Czech Republic. But that’s because she’s an author who has lived for quite a long time in Germany.”

And also, when it comes to translating into Czech there is a very interesting statistic that you give in the book – that over a third of all the books published in the last couple of years in the Czech Republic are translations from other languages. That means that there must be a huge translation industry, and it must make it very hard to oversee the quality of translations. Is this a major problem in the Czech Republic?

Jaroslav Balvín: “Well, maybe the Czech Republic does have a huge translation industry, but I’m not sure you can really call it an industry, because Czech translators, as well as translators in other Eastern European states are not very well paid. So this is a big problem and the translators have to translate very much, so sometimes the translations are not good.”

Another thing that the book does is to try to map the trends in writing and in the publishing business. There’s an interesting little chapter, for example, about the spread of e-books. A couple of years ago I interviewed a Czech publisher who was just beginning to produce e-books, and the business hadn’t really taken off yet. Has that changed since then?

Jaroslav Balvín: “Yes, it has changed, because there are newly established companies that distribute books digitally. The biggest player in the Czech distributing industry ‘Kosmas’, has made a section in its bookstore as an e-bookstore, so this is a big change and I think that the e-book industry will progress more and more.”

As many of our listeners will know, you also run the Czech Literature Portal, at www.czechlit.cz, which offers an excellent overview in Czech and English of Czech contemporary writing with extracts from Czech writers. Is the information in this book also available through your website?

Viktor Debnár: “Yes, because similar topics that are covered in the book are available on the website and at the end of this year we would like to post the book on the portal also, and we would like to have the guide also as an e-book.”

Illustrative photo: Štěpánka Budková
So you’re moving with the trends we have just been talking about… I would like to talk a bit more about the portal. I understand that you have plans at the moment to expand the portal in English and German.

Jaroslav Balvín: “Now we are searching for editors, so we hope that we find some good people, who will help us to make it better.”

So, if anyone hears this on Radio Prague or reads it on our website, and is interested – whom should they contact?

Jaroslav Balvín: “They should find the Czech Literature Portal and there is a contact to me and to my colleague Viktor Debnár. The deadline for applications is the end of March.”