Magnesia Litera awards and a Ladaesque Winter

In this week's Arts - a winter that's gone on so long, it's inspired one of the country's best known songwriters to composer a tune about it. And a look ahead to the Magnesia Litera awards for best works of literature.

Nominations for Magnesia Litera Awards

Friday saw the announcement of nominations for this year's Magnesia Litera book awards, among them Best Work of Fiction and Best Translation. The awards have only been going since 2002, and so when the head of the Magnesia Litera association, Pavel Mandys, came into the studio, I asked him first of all why it had taken so long to start an annual award for literature in the Czech Republic.

"It's a matter of money, and a matter of publicity, because we needed sponsors to start an event like this and to get sponsors, you need Czech TV."

And did something like Magnesia Litera exist during the Communist era?

"No, there was nothing before. There were some prizes, but not annual prizes, and with no categories, and with no nominations. There were just some prizes donated by the state or by the Party."

Tell me about the different categories.

"There are nine categories. Seven of them have three nominations. The main categories are for prose and poetry. Then there's a category for children's books, for non-fiction, for publishers, for translation, for book debut, and then two categories without nominations, the Litera for helping Czech literature at home or abroad, i.e. for the best translation from Czech into another language, or for editors or publishers, not for the writers. And then there's the greatest prize, the Magnesia Litera Book of the Year, which is chosen from those seven categories with nominations."

Are there any big surprises amongst this year's nominations?

"For me, one big surprise is the fact that Jachym Topol's new book hasn't been nominated."

Why not? He's one of the best known contemporary Czech authors isn't he?

"Yes, I don't know why he hasn't been nominated, the jury is of a different opinion to me. There are three other novels. One is from Vera Noskova, and she writes about her life in the 1950s and 1960s. There's Jiri Hajicek and "Selsky Baroko", a novel about a contemporary village in the Czech Republic, and the problems with restitution. Then there's another surprise, Martin Smaus and "Devcatko, rozdelej ohnicek", or "Girl, Light a Fire". It's a novel about a gypsy boy, also from the 60s to the present. It's a baladic novel, very good. It's the first novel by this writer, and he's not even a writer, he's an electrician from a small town in Northern Moravia."

Any favourites?

Martin Smaus
"Well, from the prose it could be Martin Smaus and "Girl, Light a Fire", but there are plenty of books in the other categories."

Do awards like Magnesia Litera make any difference to book sales?

"We hope so. That's the main reason why we did it. The main purpose is to promote the best books in the Czech Republic. Last year there was a book by Jan Novak called "So Far, So Good", about the Masin brothers. When I asked the publishers how the sales were going, they told me sales jumped as soon as it won the prize. So it depends on the publisher. When he works with the prizes, that's where it begins. "So Far, So Good" approached bestseller status in the Czech Republic, which is 10,000 copies."

10,000 - that's quite low, isn't it? Czechs are a nation of readers, but do they really buy books in great numbers?

"Well the problem is there's a great number of books being published in small amounts. The readers must orientate themselves among the 14,000 titles published each year. That's quite a lot. And the sales are going down."

The awards are called Magnesia Litera because Magnesia is the name of your chief sponsor - a popular mineral water. But they're not the only awards to bear the name of the sponsor - the Andel music awards are now called Allianz Andel, after a German insurance company. What do you think of a sponsor playing such a heavily visible role? We don't have the Vodafone Oscars, do we?

"But you do have the Orange Baftas, in Britain. And then there's the famous Booker Prize in Britain. After Booker stopped sponsoring it, the company Man started, and now the prize is called the Man Booker Prize."

But is this a good thing, when a sponsor plays such a visible role in a competition?

"When we started creating the Magnesia Litera awards, at first we didn't think it would be possible. But the sponsors were clear. There were such different amounts of money with the word "Magnesia" and without. It's necessary."

It's a sign of the times maybe.


A Ladaesque Winter

It might be March, but you wouldn't know it looking through the windows of the Radio Prague studios. There's still snow on the ground, the thermometer is still hovering around zero, and we're almost halfway through March. It's been one of the longest winters on record, and most people are thoroughly fed up with it. So much so that one of the country's best known singer-songwriters, Jaromir Nohavica, has even written a song about it.

The song's title - "Ladovska zima" or "A Lada Winter" - is a reference to the works of the Czech illustrator Josef Lada, known for his scenes of rosy-cheeked villagers going about their business in picturesque town squares, often set against a wintry landscape. Nohavica's song is a satirical, lyrical complaint at the never-ending winter we've been suffering here in the Czech Republic. Nohavica is proud to hail from the coalfields of North Moravia, and the song includes a few good-humoured digs at the inhabitants of the capital Prague.

"Ladovska zima", recorded live in Hranice na Morave in February, is available for free from Nohavica's website - and is rapidly becoming a smash hit amongst his legions of fans. So if you're also weary after months of winter, why not check it out for yourself...