Edgar de Bruin: An agent for Czech authors in Holland, on the hard sell of small markets

Dutchman Edgar de Bruin first came to Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s to play basketball. That high school excursion led to university studies in Prague and developed into a life-long interest in Czech culture - especially in the literature. Mr de Bruin, a translator of Czech works since the Velvet Revolution, is now a literary agent; his agency Pluh ("plough") - represents nearly a dozen Czech authors, selling their rights to Dutch and other mainly European publishers. I caught up with him in an Amsterdam café for a frank discussion about the book trade. I began by asking him about his student days.

"I went to Charles University, for nine months; well, officially we were studying there, but unofficially we were just sitting in the pubs, having fun with the girls, drinking beer. But of course, at that time I could speak already quite a lot of Czech, as I had studied it for three years. So we were more or less, pardon my language, just pissing around there - which was quite good because we met loads of people, and it made me interested in the country, in the people, in its culture."

"Already during that time we tended, of course, to look for people who were not from the mainstream, but more like dissidents. We had very many contacts with dissidents at that time, and we read a lot of samizdat stuff. It was all new for us. I met my [Czech] wife at that time as well. I finished my studies in '85. Altogether, I studied for about eight years, which is quite a long time, but was fine for me. I'm a bit slow, perhaps."

RP: What was your first 'love' in Czech literature from undiscovered or lesser-known works?

"Of course I read first [Milan] Kundera [Unbearable Lightness of Being] and [Josef] Skvorecky [The Cowards] in the Dutch versions and I did like them very much. But the revelation for me - and there are a combination of motives why - was the first time I could read a book in Czech through without a dictionary. It was, I think, an amazing book, Sen o mem otci, /A Dream about My Father, by Karol Sidon."

RP: Who was, until recently, the Chief Rabbi of Prague.

"Yes. My father in law - my future father in law - had this book, it was from the 60s, it in his library, and I quite liked the book, and that's why I became more interested in [Czech literature]. The mainstream you know already, but [you say to yourself] 'there must be more than Kundera, more than Skvorecky' - although Skvorecky, I must say, I very much like his books, which is why I have translated several of them with great joy."

RP: Czechs are known for having a dark sense of humour, a kind of inborn pessimism - and, of course, the events of the last fifty years are very much reflected in the literature. How difficult is it to translate the subtleties of these experiences, the works?

"I think one of the main differences between Czech and Dutch authors, is they have a very vivid history - they are still living in, living with history, while the Dutch... the last large event we had was the Second World War, and maybe the floods in the '50s. That's such a great difference and one reason why I like Czech literature; it's so much more sincere. There are many very good Dutch authors, but the worse ones have the tendency to look for a theme and in some kind of artificial way start to deal with this theme, and that makes the whole book artificial. When you read Milos Urban, Petra Hulova, or [Jachym] Topol - especially Topol - they write from their souls, I think, rather than thinking of a theme and building a book around it, which is boring."

RP: What was the first Czech book that you translated into Dutch?

"It was the Engineer of Human Souls by Skvorecky. That was under the supervision of my former teacher from university. I did that together with another student because it's such a large book. It was a real great experience -- and I'm still translating. Let's say, since '88 or '89 I've been translating freelance and I've done about twenty books up to now."

"Jachym Topol [City Sister Silver] - I'm not representing him, but he's actually our third 'partner' working at Pluh, I must say, because he's our advisor, our counsel. We don't pay him anything [laughs] but he helps me out a great deal with all kinds of contacts with new authors and he advises me which books are good and so on.... And a couple of years ago I began working as a literary agent, representing some Czech authors."

RP: How did that come to fruition?

Milos Urban
"First of all, I must say, representing authors, I agreed only on trying to sell their books, to sell their translation rights abroad. I'm not making tours for them across the Netherlands or Germany, or wherever. [But] it wasn't really that the idea came suddenly; I already knew when I was translating Michal Viewegh [Bringing Up girls in Bohemia] and other young authors, I knew how things functioned with publishers abroad. I also knew they were always complaining to me that when they sell their rights - their world rights to their books - to some foreign publisher, there were always problems about money, about what was agreed on. They were always complaining that these publishers didn't do anything to get their books sold to other countries. I was just translating at the time and had good contacts with Dutch publishers, so it didn't concern me much."

"But, it was actually at that time that Milos Urban, who had his book Sedmikosteli [The Seven Churches] sold to Germany, he sold the world rights to [a German group], and he was very, very annoyed at the way they were selling his book abroad, and he said he didn't want to sell them his second book. And he asked me - because [as a translator] you come to know all these authors after some time - 'Don't you want to represent me?' I was quite surprised, but I was already thinking that I should do something in that sphere. So I agreed."

"Milos Urban was the first and pretty soon after that I started to represent Petra Hulova [Memory for my grandmother], Tomas Kolsky [Ruthie and the Colours of Light], and Filip Topol [lead singer for the underground band Dog Soldiers, and brother of Jachym], and now Anna Zonova [Little Red Shoes], and Magdalena Platzova [Salt, Sheep and Stone], Patrik Ourednik [Europeana - A Brief History of the Twentieth Century].

RP: It's hard to find a Dutch person who doesn't speak English well. Do you also have to compete with the English versions of works by Czech authors?

"I wish it were true. But hardly any Czech books are translated into English. Mainly, it's only the older authors. [Bohumil] Hrabal [I Served the King of England], Skvorecky, of course, but then he's living in Canada, some works by [Arnost] Lustig [Lovely Green Eyes]. But as for the younger authors, it's very hard to persuade a publisher to buy the book. So, there is no real competition. My Dutch editors and publishers here, they always say, 'I wish this book would be published in English as well' because it would mean a boost for the Dutch sales. So, I wish it were true."

RP: In promoting the Czech authors, do you find that publishing houses or bookstores tend to lump them together as post-communist, eastern bloc authors, or have the Czechs carved out a niche for themselves?

"No, they haven't their own niche; the more ignorant publishers say, when I come with a Czech author, 'Well, two months ago we already published a Hungarian author.' It's also a great problem, I think, with every book coming from Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, etc, that publishers don't tend to make much publicity around it. You know, the book has to sell itself. They have to depend on a few reviews - and you can be very happy if there are any reviews, and they must be favourable - but they don't tend to invite authors very quickly to Holland for readings. This is a great pity, I think."