Comparative Literature Studies 40.2 (2003) 173-192
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Czechs, Sex, Spies and Torture:
Slovak Identity as Translation in Vilikovsky's Ever Green is . . .
In 1963, the editors of the Prague publishing house Czechoslovak Writer launched a new series of short prose pieces called "Zivot kolem nás" ("Life Around Us"). The series began with an auspicious choice: a slim volume entitled Laughable Loves, the first work of fiction by the well-known Communist poet Milan Kundera. The series grew steadily over the next several years, and eventually included works by such Czech writers as Josef Skvorecky, Bohumil Hrabal and Ivan Klíma, as well as by a considerable number of Slovak writers. During the eventful "Prague Spring" of 1968, as Czechoslovakia was undergoing widespread reforms, the series published the short-story collection Citova vychova v breznu(Sentimental Education in March), by the Slovak writer Pavel Vilikovsky. The work was praised by a Czech critic for displaying qualities "which we in Bohemia have often valued in Slovak prose—a strong and vital sense of the epic." 1 After the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, most of the leading writers in Prague were driven out of the official cultural scene, and like so much of the 1960s literary scene, the series "Life Around Us" soon came to an end. During the years of Soviet occupation, officially known in Czechoslovakia as "normalization," Vilikovsky was only permitted to publish one book—a detective novel—in Slovakia over the next twenty years. He remained active in the Slovak literary scene as an editor of the literary journal Romboid, and as a translator of some of the most innovative English and American writers, including Woolf and Faulkner, but he withheld his own unorthodox fiction from publication, aware that it would never pass the censors.
In 1989, only months before the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia, three of Pavel Vilikovsky's books were published almost simultaneously. The most widely acclaimed of them was the novel Vecne je zeleny . . . (Ever [End Page 173] Green is . . .) which British critic Robert B. Pynsent describes as "a sidesplitting satire on totalitarianism, 'spy mania', Slovaks and nationalism." 2 This novel (originally written in the early 1970s) shows the same "epic" quality that characterized Vilikovsky's earlier work, but its seemingly frivolous subversion of cultural identities relentlessly challenges the assumptions of both Slovak and Czech readers. Tibor Zilka has referred to Vilikovsky as "the most prominent representative of Slovak postmodernism." 3 However, as Timothy Beasley-Murray argues, Ever Green is . . . "makes use of a radical postmodernism of resistance, rather than the reactionary postmodernism we are accustomed to in the West." 4 Even as it parodies the longstanding Slovak obsession with identity through the nationally, linguistically, and sexually ambiguous narrator, an aging and forgetful but still cunning spy, Ever Green is . . . establishes a uniquely Slovak perspective on modern European history by affirming Slovakia's marginality as its greatest historical advantage. Through a rich mix of languages, Vilikovsky recreates the multiethnic "Babel" of early twentieth-century Central Europe, repositioning the usually marginalized Slovak language at its center.
Prompted by Western interest in and sympathy for the fate of Czechoslovakia, dozens of Czech literary works were translated into English in the 1970s and 1980s, but little attention was paid to the smaller half of the republic. Like the other Slovak writers whose work had been introduced to Czech readers by the series "Life Around Us," Vilikovsky remained little-known in Prague, and completely unknown abroad. The near invisibility of Slovak literature in the West was also strongly influenced by political concerns within Czechoslovakia. As Martin Simecka has explained: "The regime had no interest in Slovak writers being famous in the corrupted West, and the monopolistic literary agency LITA, which represented every legal writer in Slovakia, worked as a barricade against potentially interested European publishers." 5 The government was not necessarily much more interested in promoting Czech writers, but while most of the Czech literature published in translation came from independent exile or dissident writers, the underground literary movement...