Michael Tate: bringing us the best of Central European writing

Michael Tate, photo: David Vaughan

Publishers that focus on contemporary writing from Central Europe are few and far between, but they play an important role in bringing Czech poetry and prose to an international audience. One of the newest players is Jantar Publishing, based in London. In just a few years it has established a strong reputation with its beautifully produced translations, several of which we have already talked about here on Radio Prague. As David Vaughan finds out in this week’s Czech Books, Jantar is going from strength to strength with ambitious plans for the future.

Michael Tate,  photo: David Vaughan
This week saw the launch in London of Jantar’s latest translation, Burying the Season, by the writer and journalist, Antonín Bajaja. The novel evokes vividly the atmosphere of the town of Zlín on the eastern edge of the Czech Republic, telling the story of the writer’s own family over a period of eighty years. When it was published in Czech six years ago the book was awarded the Czech State Prize for Literature. I caught up with the founder of Jantar, Michael Tate, to find out more about this and other Jantar projects and plans.

“We’re now in our sixth year and the aim of the organization is to produce very good English translations of literary fiction written in the languages of Central Europe.”

And how many books have you published so far?

“So far it’s been tiny and the book that we’re just bringing out is our eighth. Next year, suddenly, by an act of magic, we will publish ten.”

That’s a big expansion…

“It’s a huge expansion, but it’s something that’s taken rather a long time to achieve.”

Let’s come to your latest publication, because it’s fresh from the presses. It’s a book by Antonín Bajaja, called in translation Burying the Season.

“Antonín Bajaja is a gentleman in his seventies. He won the Czech State Prize for Fiction in 2010. He’s relatively well-known as a radio journalist, as a magazine journalist and latterly as an author of fiction. His book Burying the Season was published in 2008/2009 and with a completely different title in Czech, Na krásné modré Dřevnici, which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue even in Czech…”

… and is virtually untranslatable.

Photo: Jantar Publishing
“That’s just the point. Na krásné modré Dřevnici is quite a nice phrase, but the long and the short of it is that a notional English reader is not going to know what that is. Jantar publishing wants to sell books, it wants a catchy title. We ran a competition and Burying the Season was a head and shoulders above all the other suggestions. I really like it.”

It’s a lovely way to choose the title of a translation, by having a competition.

“The whole thing was odd, but rather life-affirming. In total 103 people entered. We had suggestions from the US, Canada, Britain, Poland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia and of course the Czech Republic, but the ultimate winner was the wonderful Gabriela Oaklandová who just thought of it as the title for one of the sections of the book. It doesn’t really describe the whole book, but it’s very catchy.”

So tell us a bit about the book.

“It’s not a simple book, but I don’t want to give anyone the impression that it’s hard to read.”

It’s not your classic linear narrative…

“It’s not your classic linear narrative in any shape or form. We describe it in the blurb as an affectionate multi-layered account of small-town life in Central Europe, beginning in the early 1930s and ending in the 21st century, in 2008. That’s the linear bit, but in between there are verbatim scenes from Fellini’s film Amacord and hilarious anecdotes of former residents, family members, visitors, going on trips inside and beyond Zlín. It’s just a lovely account of one family’s engagement with the town and how the world interacted with that town. So you’re looking at what was going on in the late 1930s, then there was the small matter of the Second World War and the interregnum between 1945 and 1948 and then there were the things that happened after 1948, going up to 2006. So it’s a bit of an epic in its ambition, but it’s interspersed with lots of funny little vignettes. I love it.”

Antonín Bajaja in 2005,  photo: Pavel Kotrla,  CC BY-SA 3.0
It combines “big” history – European history over the best part of a century – with very local detail about the town of Zlín. It is a place that some of our listeners won’t even have heard of, best known as the heart of the Baťa empire – the Czech shoe-making industry. With all that very specific local colour it must be very hard to find a way of translating the story into English that is accessible to English-speaking readers. How have you and the translator David Short gone about that?

“Actually, if you think in terms of the structure of the book, it’s an epic family novel. There are plenty of examples of those. But there is also another framing, which is Fellini’s Amacord, and that actually acts as a kind of benchmark of local Moravian history against better-known Italian history, which features alongside events that happened to all of us or our parents in Europe from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. There’s nothing difficult about the structure of the story or even the anecdotes. What’s different about it is that it’s a very post-modern take on that. The framework of the story consists of letters from the author to his sister, which are actually genuine. The whole conceit of the book is true. And then he’s adding extra bits to the letters as he’s writing the book. It’s just a very sweet conceit.”

You’re going to read us an extract from the book. Can you tell us something about the context?

“This is right at the beginning of the book. It’s on page three and it’s a kind of addendum to one of the letters that Antonín wrote to his sister. There’s a fantastic anecdote when Jana and Antonín go up exploring a hill called Navrátilka just outside Zlín. There’s an ellipsis followed by:

And we two scallywags are running up the hill called Navrátilka after the family on whose land it was, and then down into the dip below the Pivoda place, where the Svitáks’ nanny-goat is grazing. Barbie’s waiting for us. We listen with some interest as she tells us how, just before we got there, she’d done a completely green poo. That surprises us quite a bit, because Comrade Sviták is a Communist. But Barbie loves her father, and so do we, because he keeps coypus so there’ll be enough furs for all working-class women, and he makes salamis, which are delicious. She calls him Daddikins. She calls her mum Mummikins, but she isn’t a Communist. She’s very ill, sits around at the kitchen table and sleeps a lot. One time we caught her just as she’d woken up and she told us she’d had a dream. She said the streets were full of jolly people, girls dancing in flimsy American skirts and everybody was chewing gum. We were very surprised, but no matter, let’s go on.

It’s a mixture of being very evocative and very immediate, but also slightly surreal.

“Absolutely. And the notion of the colour of nanny-goat poo reappears later in the text, along with how the ex-king of Bulgaria went bird-shooting. All sorts of things like that. It’s just wonderful.”

Photo: Host publishing
This is part of a rich tradition of storytelling in the Czech Republic, of people like Ludvík Vaculík and Bohumil Hrabal, with their wonderful combination of complex, often difficult, but very rich language, and the earthiness of being firmly rooted in the country.

“We can draw a similarity between Vaculík and Bajaja really quite closely – not so much with Hrabal who lived in Prague. Vaculík and Bajaja were friends for fifty or sixty years, swapping stories, showing each other drafts of work that they had done, working together in publishing in their underground days and right the way through to when Havel became president and they found themselves in the position of literary authors drafting legislation [in the early 1990s they helped to draft some of Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist environmental legislation].”

You mentioned that you’ll be expanding considerably in the coming months. What are you planning to publish over the next twelve months?

“The first book that we’re bringing out next year is a lovely translation from Slovak, by a writer called Vladimír Balla. His book, called In the Name of the Father [translated by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood], is a pseudo-gothic horror about building a house on one level, but on another level it’s about what the Slovak state looked like five years after it was created. We’re bringing out our first Polish novels as well. I’m particularly excited about a book by Agnieszka Taborska, who wrote a novel called The Unfinished Life of Phoebe Hicks [translated by Ursula Phillips]. It’s about the author looking at a picture of a woman from the American Mid-West in the 1870s and just imagining what her life was like based on her clothing and the posture. It’s a lovely novella that were going to bring out in June next year along with an anthology of Czech contemporary poetry from the 1980s and 1990s. We also have a very exciting young Polish author called Aleksandra Rychlicka. It’s an amazing book about a literary journey of the son of an unnamed literary author, tracing the steps his father took in pre-Second World War Europe [translated by Ursula Phillips]. But we’re not forgetting other Czech authors. We’re very excited to be publishing a third book by Daniela Hodrová [translated by Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol, which is the second in her Prague City of Torment trilogy and we have our first novel in English by the wonderful Petra Hůlová – allegedly her most controversial book, but there are several contenders for that prize. It is called Umělohmotný třípokoj – three plastic rooms [translated by Alex Zucker].”

Photo: Torst
It’s a monologue by a prostitute…

“I just like the notion that it’s the monologue of a prostitute that she is delivering to her imaginary grandchild in the future. I really like the notion and the comedy involved in that conceit. We’ll also be bringing out some titles written in English, but by Polish writers living in London who have written their work in English. That includes Agnieszka Dale, whose profile has become quite high recently. She had her work broadcast by the BBC. And we have another novel written by her friend Asia Bakalar.”

It’s a nice reminder that the Central European diaspora in Britain is actually contributing – and in no small measure – to English literature.

“Agnieszka Dale in particular writes about being Polish and outside Poland, being a woman, being visible and invisible and how perceptions of her as a human being change throughout a period of time. So in one short story the same character can be perceived as foreign, local, white, not white, visible, invisible, important, unimportant. You can imagine that’s quite a lot to go through in two thousand words, and she does it really well.”