Prizes and surprises - Magnesia Litera 2009

In less than three weeks time the results of the biggest literature prize in the Czech Republic, the Magnesia Litera, will be announced and excitement has been rising since the announcement of the nominated books last month. The prize is unusual in that it has nine different categories including, apart from fiction and poetry, books for young readers, non-fiction and best translation. As well as winners in each category an overall "best book" is also chosen. Given the vast number of books under consideration, judging the competition is a mammoth task. I visited Viktor Janiš, an editor and a translator of such writers as Iain Banks, Margaret Atwood and Louis de Bernieres, to talk about his involvement in finding the best work of translation and being one of the thirty-five judges who get to choose the overall winner. My first question was to ask him how much reading was demanded of a Magnesia judge.

“It’s quite a lot of books, 62 to be precise. For each book I can imagine the translator who is eagerly awaiting the result and obviously 59 of them are going to be disappointed because we didn’t pick their book. There are five of us on the jury, which means that theoretically we could read something like ten to fifteen books in three weeks, but in order to be fair we have to read something like thirty of them. That’s impossible to do so we ended up reading quite a lot of introductory chapters. Obviously we read what made our internal shortlist in more detail, and finally we met and discussed and three books were chosen.”

And this is the procedure for all of the different categories? Because this Magnesia prize is very unusual in its range of categories, which includes children’s books, non-fiction, and your speciality, translation - is the volume the same in all of the categories?

“No it isn’t, there is only one jury that had a more arduous task than we had and this is the jury for the Czech fiction prize, which had 68 nominees, but usually the number is something like twenty or thirty.”

And once the juries of five experts have chosen the three best books, in their opinion, for their categories, what’s the next stage? Because this competition really does have a ‘winner takes it all’ approach in terms of the final prize that’s awarded. The winner of the ‘best book’ of all wins 200,000 crowns, which is 10,000 dollars. And the others, what do they get?

Viktor Janiš
“They get a statuette; it’s a lovely statuette though. Yes, when we have finished our first task, that is selecting the shortlist, we get to vote on the shortlists of all the other categories, and our own of course. So we get to pick the winners of each category and also the overall winner. In this way it’s more democratic because even biologists vote on poetry, so the element of the ‘common reader’ is inserted somehow into the competition.”

So, in theory is it possible for the ‘book of the year’ not to have been voted the best book in its own category?

“It has already happened. It happened three years ago when Jan Novák in his book, Zatím dobrý, didn’t win his particular category but was voted overall winner.”

In terms of your choice of ‘best book in translation’, are you looking for the best quality of translation, or, what exactly are you looking for?

“It has to be stressed that this is no competition for the established Jungmann prize for the best translation of the year. Quality of translation must be a prerequisite for any book that is submitted. So we are looking for two things particularly. One, we are looking for books that are important in their own countries, but at the same time not known here so much; there has to be something of a discovery in the process. That’s why some critics might complain that they don’t even know our shortlist, but that’s precisely the point – we want to discover good literature which otherwise might not get the same amount of exposure.”

One of the three translations your jury judged to be outstanding is the translation of the diaries of the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai by Ester Sládková and Dana Gálová. This is an extract, from his later years in America, mainly about his wife.

* * *

... Following the examination, the doctor sadly declares: "Senility." That may well be, but equally there are periods during the day when her mind is lively, she recalls everything, can recite long poems, talk shrewdly and perceptively about people and events. She cannot see her food and is sometimes unable to distinguish the character of dishes. By day and in the evening, her ability to orient seems to fail. And she is just as beautiful at 87 as she was when young- differently so, but still "beautiful." I don't know how long my strength will hold out, but I would like to be with her to the last moment, helping and nursing her.

...I am not reading or writing, but I sometimes dream I am writing something. In the dream the lines move like a projected text. The lines make sense, what's more; the word choices are correct, the composition is vivid. None of this is being written by "me," it is all happening inside me. The return journey from life to death is dark; I am stumbling along from nothingness into nothingness, and on the way a word or concept sometimes shines like a glow-worm in a dark forest.

(Translation Tim Wilkinson)

* * *

What would you say to critics who maybe think that in choosing a book in translation as the best book that you’re really making some criticism of the Czech literary scene - that there hasn’t been a Czech author who’s been good enough to write the best book of the year?

“I have to emphasise – since we are a smallish country translation plays an enormous role in our life, in our literary life. And so it’s perhaps a bit just that once in a blue moon, or in a blue year, some translator gets official recognition; that what we do, we do well.”

One thing I’ve noticed is that this year, which is the eighth year of the competition, there seems to be a lot more glamour and razzmatazz; the venue is now grander, in the Estates Theatre, there’s a famous actress involved, and it seems to be getting a lot of television coverage.

“The theatre, the Stavovské theatre, has been chosen because the competition has grown and there are so many people who want to to attend the ceremony and couldn’t fit in the Municipal Library, so a different venue was chosen.“

In terms of the impact of this prize – do you think it is really an effective way of increasing book sales at a basic level and also of trying to introduce the Czech reading audience and wider public to literature that they might otherwise not have thought about?

“Certainly. It depends on the book. There are some books, like Cimpoesu’s translation, which won the overall prize two years ago, whose sales rocketted in terms of Romanian literature. Now, before the Magnesia Litera it sold only 96 copies, which is dire; afterwards, it it sold ten or eleven times more, which is pretty good. Last year’s winner went on to sell 6,000 copies, which is brilliant.”

Last year’s winner was Petr Nikl, and it was a book for children. And the Romanian author you just mentioned, Cimpoesu, that was obviously a book in translation – it seems that it’s not so often that the prize is given for the best Czech fiction of the year. Do people expect it to be more focussed on this, as with other literary prizes such as the Booker prize?

“Or the Polish NIKE prize. But this is the whole point of the Magnesia Litera; it’s not just about Czech fiction. If it were, then it would have to have a different name and a different concept. Now the nice thing about the Magnesia Litera is that any of those nominated twenty-four can win, it can boost their sales, and it can be very serious literature about the ‘Velvet Revolution’, it can be fiction about the Mašín brothers, or it can be a lovely children’s book like Záhádky by Mr Nikl.”

The three fiction nominees are Martin Ryšavý, who is also a prize-winning film maker, Michal Ajvaz, a very well-known and established author, and Tomáš Zmeškal for his very first novel. And this extract is from Martin Ryšavý’s Cesty na Sibiř, or Journeys to Siberia.

* * *

In the morning, I signed up on the ground floor of Yakutsk University as an official participant of the Folklore Conference. The organizers were truly generous in their preparation of what was, by local standards, an exceptional international event; for the obligatory enrolment fee of one hundred dollars, foreign guests were provided with accommodation in one of the finest Yakutsk hotels, including full-board. So I took my backpack and left my pharaohs for something better, a four-floor building near the Victory Square with a nice view of an Orthodox church. From the early morning, the corridors were full of ethnographers and people in regional dress. I passed groups of people discussing new books on shamanology in Italian, French, or English, and from different places I could hear guttural singing or drums. I was both terrified and excited since there was no doubt that over the course of the following days, my hotel would be full of ancient ghosts.

* * *

You’re still now spending a lot of your time considering all of the books and your final judgement. The six million dollar question, or maybe the two hundred thousand crown question, is - do you have any insider views as to who you think will win this year’s prize?

“Well, this is interesting because all the judges don’t meet, they don’t communicate with each other so even in the theatre when the prizes are to be announced we still don’t know, we might perhaps have a guess, but we still don’t know who is going to win it because there are thirty-five people deciding. I think that Mr. Ryšavý might be a pretty good contender for the whole prize.”

You emphasise this very unusual structure in the judging and this very democratic approach. Do you think democracy is such a good thing when it comes to judging literary quality?

“Well, it’s certainly better than a dictatorship, isn’t it?”

Point taken. But it is really quite unusual to have such a broad range of people involved in judging the best books. Does this ever lead to any fisticuffs – literary fisticuffs as opposed to actual - because people feel very strongly about judgements that have been made?

“Well there are certainly some repercussions afterwards, but they are only on the pages of literary magazines, and no-one really reads them anyway – at least in the opinion of our Ministry of Culture, which doesn’t want to subsidise them any more. (I’ve been a naughty boy, haven’t I?!)”

You’re referring to the impact of the very terrible budget cuts on the literary world here now. I’m sure there’ll be a lively discussion about this very interesting, varied, democratic prize and I look forward to hearing who the winners are. Thank you very much for taking time from your, I hope enjoyable as well as arduous, task and I’m sure you’re looking forward to a time when you’re not having to read quite so many books at once.

“Thank you.”

Magnesia Litera website -