The joys and sorrows of this year’s Magnesia Litera awards
Last month saw the Czech Republic’s glitziest annual literary event, the presentation of the Magnesia Litera awards. The awards covered nine different categories, including prose, poetry, children’s books and translations, as well as the coveted title of Book of the Year, and the ceremony was broadcast live on prime-time Czech TV. In Czech Books, David Vaughan looks at some of the winners and talks to the person who first thought up the awards.
All the glitz was not by chance. The founder and overall organizer of the awards, Pavel Mandys, has deliberately tried to court as much media attention as possible, and to give the event popular appeal.
“We took inspiration from foreign prizes, like the National Book Award in the USA or the Pullitzer Prizes, or the Whitbread Prize in Great Britain. The books should be of high value, chosen by people of high value.”
The books are first nominated by the publishers, or even the authors themselves or their friends. Each category has its own jury, appointed by representatives of various organizations, from the Academy of Sciences to the Czech PEN Club or the Writers’ Guild. Every Czech literary association has its say. There is also an award for the book most popular among readers, but the category that draws by far the most attention is the “Book of the Year”. Nearly three hundred people are approached every year – university teachers, journalists, booksellers and librarians. They read through a shortlist of eighteen, and then make their choice.
“It’s about the death of his father and what it does to the family. Jan Balabán is a writer who writes with some seriousness. He knows how hard life can be and he tries to write it in the books. Previously he was better known as a short-story writer, but now he has written a novel so moving that many people have become readers. Also journalists and literary critics like it.”
Here is a very brief extract from Jan Balabán’s “Zeptej se táty” in my own rough translation. It describes a feeling that is probably shared by anyone who has seen a close relative die in the anonymous environment of a hospital ward:
It’s so unspeakably awkward, painful, that we end up spending our last days in such a public place as this, where even the most important things have to be uttered in a whisper, where we have to suppress our tears and sobs, instead hiding ourselves away in the bathroom, standing over the basin to splash water over our faces as we pull ourselves together, forcing ourselves into the mould of a normal person in a situation that is anything but normal. Father is lying in intensive care. Surrounded by machines that monitor his life functions. He is not quite there. Sometimes he tries to tell Emil something, sometimes he just seems to be talking to himself, something about twilight, something about a train.
the strong thing to do would be to head out into the jungle, following the trail to the rapids, then on to the cold waterfalls, and there to shout out loud, instead she just lies and beseeches, lord have mercy. kyrie eleison. christ have mercy. jesus christ. calm down girl, fear is corrosive, before long it eats you up, so up you get. machete, hat, water. vamos.
Despite the rather serious tone of the awards this year, Magnesia Litera’s Pavel Mandys insists that there has also been plenty of humour in Czech writing over the last year or so. He points in particular to Martin Ryšavý, whose novel Vrač is certainly not lacking in humour, albeit of the blackest kind. The book is set in Russia, and its title is a Russian word, meaning both “doctor” and “someone who never stops telling stories”:
“It’s a huge monologue – of a man who was a theatre director, but now, in contemporary Russia, he works as a street-sweeper, which illustrates how things are going in Russia these days. He has many funny, and also tragic, stories about Russia in the 80s and 90s. One of them is about the father of one of the heroes, who worked in a factory where they made atom bombs. Because they were cold, the workers, they used some atomic components to make it warmer. They all died before they were 40. The one who survived was the most alcoholic drunkard, because the alcohol did something with the radiation. And there are many more of these stories which are tragic and funny at the same time.”
“In the 20th century there has been some kind of fear of Russia in this country and that’s why our writers are writing about Russia.”
And that is still the case. Other contemporary writers, like Petra Hůlová, Jáchym Topol and Jiří Štětina, continue to be fascinated by Russia and the former Soviet Union.
“Yes. It’s a kind of fear of Russians, but also it’s a fascination with such a huge country, so different from Central Europe and so big and diverse. Every part of Russia can be different from the others. That’s why Czech writers are seeking stories in Russia. Everything can happen in Russia.”Jan Velinger’s interview with her in “The Arts”. And what about next year’s Magnesia Litera? I’ll leave Pavel Mandys with the last word.
“The season is just beginning, so the first wave of new issues will be started at the Bookworld book fair in May, and then we will wait to see what will emerge.”