22) Jan Balabán: Every life deserves to be told

Jan Balabán, photo: ČT24

Today’s edition of our series The Czech Books You Must Read marks 11 years since the death of the novelist and translator Jan Balabán, who is considered one of the best writers of the post-1989 period. His most highly acclaimed work, a collection of short stories called Maybe We’re Leaving from 2004, was named Book of the Decade in the Magnesia Litera competition. His last novel Ask Dad, finished shortly before his untimely death in 2010, won Book of the Year in the same competition.

Source: Glagoslav Publications

Jan Balabán’s work amounts to three novels and numerous short stories and so far, only two of his books have been translated into English. One of them is Maybe We’re leaving, released by Glagoslav Publications in 2018 in a translation by Charles S. Kraszewski. Last year, they also published his translation of Balabán’s novel Where Was the Angel Going?

Here is an excerpt from one of Jan Balabán’s short stories ‘Edita’. It focuses on a husband and wife in the last stage of divorce, who are estranged and barely talk to one another. The scene describes an unexpected and brief moment of closeness they experience after Edita turns to her husband Vladimír for comfort, following a fight with her new boyfriend.

In for a long haul, he said to himself. He sat down on the steps and lit a cigarette, like a husband who had been chucked out of his house. Walk back up to the door and slam your fist at it like you mean it. Ha. Don’t have the strength for that any more. So he remained in the unstable safety of his perch.

It turned out that fist slams weren’t needed anyway. After a little bit, the door opened, and Edita came out into the darkness like a shadow. She had her coat on, and a handbag in her hand.

Vladimír cruised about the streets, rather than heading straight home. They had time enough. That’s one thing they had. He drove out onto the beltway and circled the city in a wide arc many kilometres long. On purpose, he drew out the ride through the peripheral suburbs and the nearby villages, where not a single light was shining in any of the cottages. He wanted to remember this moment, driving about all night long, because in the morning, in the morning everything would be quite different.

Maybe We’re Leaving, Charles S. Kraszewski’s translation, 2018

Ostrava,  photo: Rob,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On the occasion of what would have been Jan Balabán’s 60th birthday, I discussed his work with Jan Zikmund from the Czech Literary Centre.  And I started by asking about Balabán’s home city of Ostrava, the main source of inspiration for his writing:

“The city of Ostrava was crucial for Jan Balabán and it appears in most of his works. But I would argue he wrote about Ostrava mainly because he lived there. I think if he lived in Prague, he would set his stories in Prague.

Urban landscape in Ostrava,  photo: Jan Krömer,  Flickr,  CC BY-ND 2.0

“He was interested in the lives of people that he knew and considering he spent of most of his life in Ostrava it was kind of logical for him to write about the city and set his stories in this particular region.

“Ostrava was an industrial city during the communist era. A lot of people moved there to work in the factories and culture was almost non-existent. But after the Velvet Revolution a lot of factories closed down and many of the people who moved there suddenly lost their jobs.

Jan Balabán,  photo: Ondřej Lipár,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 2.0

“I think Balabán often writes about these people from Ostrava in the 1990s, who are somehow uprooted, who cannot adapt to the new world and who are  struggling. So from that point of view, Ostrava was very important for him and I think there is almost no place like that in our country.”

He grew up in a Protestant family. Would you say there is a spiritual or even religious element present in his writing?

“Yes, I think there definitely is a religious element present in his writing, but very often critics tend to focus on the superficial signs. I think that the questions that he was asking in his books are universal, asking for instance about the meaning of life. These are questions that everyone is asking at some point of their life.

Jan Zikmund,  photo: Archive of the Czech Literary Centre

“He often portrays people in crisis, but he is mainly interested in their response to the particular trouble that they are facing. He believed that even a miserable life of a person living in the modern age deserves to be told. And I think this hopeful element that every life is important is something that is perhaps influenced by his Christian background.”

Balabán’s work amounts to three novels and numerous short stories. What are some of the common themes to his writing?

Photo: Czech TV

“As I already said in my previous response, I think Balabán for some reason tended to portray people in crisis. People dealing with marital problems, alcoholism or people who are coming to terms with the death of their loved one.

Source: Host publishing house

“It is often said that you find out most about yourself in a crisis and I think Balabán believed that. By describing his characters in some breaking point he was able to show something which he wouldn’t be able to show if he just wrote about their peaceful times.

“He is often accused of writing about uneducated people or wrecks, but I don’t thinks it’s true. I think we writes about people who have normal problems and who are not different from the majority. But it’s true that he focuses mostly on the difficult part of his characters’ lives.”

To what extent are they autobiographical?

Jan Balabán  (right) with his family,  photo: Post Bellum

“I think only Jan Balabán could really say to what extent his characters are autobiographical. What I would argue, though, is that he wrote about people he knew. I think he didn’t like to invent his stories. He preferred to rely on the reality that he knew and portray the reality as he saw it.

“So I would say that most of the characters are probably based on Balabán’s life and I think very often he also wrote about himself. But I obviously cannot prove it and these parallels will always remain a bit unclear.”

Photo: Czech TV

How would you describe his writing style?

“His writing style is definitely concise. At the same he is not afraid to be expressive, to use emphatic, strong language. He often uses slang words and even swearwords and excels in writing dialogues and internal monologues.

Source: Glagoslav Publications

“I think that where he is compact and concise is the length of his stories. He always focuses on a particular situation or a moment. He doesn’t waste time by introducing the characters; he just starts with the essential information. So we are never lost as readers. We know the characters and understand them, although he provides just the essential information.”

Balabán is highly respected among critics here in the Czech Republic. To what extent is he known abroad, especially in the English-speaking countries?

Photo: Czech TV

“I would argue that he is not very well known abroad. Three of his books are available in Polish and his books have also been published in Italy, Bulgaria, Netherland and Great Britain.

“But considering that his books were published only after he died, in the past ten years, he didn’t have a chance to promote himself. So I think that in most countries he is still completely unknown. That’s also exciting, in a way, because publishers and translators still have a lot to work with.”

Jan Balabán,  photo: David Konečný,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

“However, here in the Czech Republic he is very well known and very well regarded. When we speak about Great Britain and the English speaking countries, two of his books are available in English. They been published by a very small publisher, so I do not think many English-speaking people know them.

Illustrative photo: Laura Kapfer,  Unsplash / CC0

“If there is one country outside the Czech Republic where he is known to some extent, it is Poland. The Ostrava region almost borders with Poland, so there is this also this geographical proximity. But apart from that, only people who focus on Czech literature and Czech studies have heard about him. I find it a bit paradoxical. Because I think he is one of the best post 1990 Czech writers.”

Balabán’s writing is firmly rooted in his home town, the city of Ostrava is an inseparable part of his work. Do you think it can resonate with foreign readers?

Jan Balabán  (right),  photo: Post Bellum

“Yes, I think it can resonate. Even through his books are set in this particular region, foreign readers don’t have to be afraid that they need to know much about Ostrava to understand him.

“I think his stories and his books are very accessible. The themes that are crucial for are themes almost everybody can relate to. So even though he is not the easiest writer to translate, he is someone who can definitely resonate abroad. What he needs is a good promotion and good translators and then I am sure he will find his way to more readers abroad.”