The joys and sorrows of this year’s Magnesia Litera awards

Pavel Mandys, photo: David Vaughan

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.

Magnesia Litera 2011
With a ceremony that had more in common with show business than the subdued hum of the public library, the organizers went out of their way to make this year’s Magnesia Litera awards a big event. The ceremony was presented by the hugely popular Czech actress Aňa Geislerová, and there was song and dance aplenty.

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.

This year, the Book of the Year winner came as no surprise. It was the novel “Zeptej se táty” (Ask Dad) by Jan Balabán, who died last April at just 49. He was featured in this programme a few weeks ago, when we spoke to his brother. Ironically, the book itself has death as its theme. Pavel Mandys:

“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 serious vein in this year’s Magnesia Litera was also reflected in the award given to the most popular book among readers, which went to another of the middle generation of Czech writers, Hana Andronikova. Regular listeners to this programme might remember her successful first novel, “The Sound of the Sundial”. Her winning book this year, “Nebe nemá dno” (Bottomless Heaven), is a very intimate account of the author’s own battle with cancer. When she hears her diagnosis, the narrator heads off to the undisturbed world of the Peruvian jungle, where people live according to rules of an all-embracing natural world, but eventually she decides to return for treatment in Europe. She puts her trust in the exact science of European medicine, but is strengthened and changed by her experience of the rain forest. Here are a few lines from the book, again in my own rough translation:

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.

Jan Balabán
The death of Jan Balabán was not the only shadow over this year’s Magnesia Litera. Another of the winners, Eva Slámová, died on Christmas Eve. For the last sixteen years she helped to bring the work of contemporary writers from the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia to Czech readers, with a hugely popular series for the publishers Argo. The writers she published include Jeanette Winterson, Nick Cave and Woody Allen. The jury was particularly impressed by the consistent quality of the translations and also the high standard of graphic design.

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.”

Pavel Mandys,  photo: David Vaughan
The fact that Martin Ryšavý’s novel is set in Russia is nothing unusual or new in Czech literature. We only have to look back to prewar writers like Jiří Weil, who was intrigued and horrified by Stalinist Russia, or even Jaroslav Hašek – of Good Soldier Švejk fame – who wrote about Russia at the time of the revolution. Pavel Mandys again:

“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.”

In other categories: the award for poetry went to 79-year-old Josef Hrubý, a poet from Plzeň, who has never received the attention he has deserved, the award for best children’s book went to the illustrator Alžběta Skálová, who, in her book “Pampe a Šinka”, manages to tell the story with a minimum of text, and the award for the literary discovery of the year, goes to Markéta Baňková. You can hear 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.”