Contemporary Central European Literature

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Contemporary Central European Literature

Writing from the Lands Between

Central European writers created some of the most distinctive prose and poetry of the 20th century. Kafka, Sienkowicz, Kundera, Andrić, Musil and others masterfully employed irony, gallows humor, and the anti-heroic “view from below” in their examinations of modern bureaucracy, ill-treatment by historical forces, and the weight of memory. This list provides suggestions for readings from their 21st-century literary heirs (loosely conceived) – writers born in a mutilated world that demands both praise and lament.

Selected and Last Poems, 1931-2004 by Czeslaw Milosz and Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wisława Szymborska

Miłosz and Szymborska both won the Nobel Prize for Literature for their extraordinary volumes of poetry, the former in 1980 and the latter in 2004. The verse in these two collections demonstrates their great intellectual ambitions and wry perspectives. Their elegant musings range from theological matters to European history to botany and everywhere in between, everywhere "unfathomable life" (Szymborska) is to be discovered.  

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich
Svetlana Alexievich, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, has published numerous volumes of oral history focusing on seminal events in the Soviet Union, such as the USSR’s 1979-1989 war in Afghanistan (Zinky Boys) and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station catastrophe (Voices from Chernobyl). In Secondhand Time, she turns to everyday life under the Soviet regime and the aftermath of its collapse. In their own words, former Soviet citizens remember events mundane, extraordinary, and terrible and in the process provide an intimate and multifaceted evocation of 20th- and 21st-century history. This is a brilliant historical document, compulsively readable – it was this reviewer’s favorite of the texts that appear on this list.

The Door by Magda Szabo
Ordinary urban existence belies persistent mystery, and the gradual accumulation of everyday incidents – told through elegant and measured prose – serves to heighten tensions in this closely observed novel of relationship and personality. Magda, a successful writer, has an idiosyncratic and reclusive housekeeper, Emerence, who never allows anyone into her house – acquaintances, friends and family alike. Why not? What is behind the ordinary door to Emerence’s ordinary house?

Death and the Penguin by Andrei Kurkov
In a slightly askew post-Soviet Kiev, the enigmatic Viktor, a failed belletrist and roommate of Misha the king penguin, is offered a lucrative position at a newspaper as a writer of obituaries. One problem, though: the Ukrainian mafia and its rivals are somehow involved behind the scenes and the pecuniary benefit of working for the mafia is offset by the possibility of ending up in a premature grave. Reading like a cross between a noir mystery and a black comedy, the novel takes the reader on a jaunt with the protagonist through a landscape of menace, absurdity, and cold, grey afternoons.

The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić
Tanja is an ethnic Serb, a former resident of Zagreb, a refugee in Amsterdam, and a lecturer in Serbo-Croatian literature at the city’s university, where the courses she teaches quickly become a gathering place for students from the former Yugoslavia. Everyone in the classroom, including Tanja, is burdened by memories of a shared homeland, desperate scrambles to escape from the conflict, displaced lives, and death. In each other they find both camaraderie and resentment as the things that identify them as Serbian or Croatian or Bosnian unite them and tear them asunder. To go forward, how much of the past must they leave behind?

Liquidation by Imre Kertesz
Set in Budapest in 1999, Liquidation is a profound examination of the post-communist experience and the weight of the horrors of the 20th century upon those who experienced them. The narrator, Kingbitter, acting as literary executor of his late friend (a renowned writer who committed suicide a decade before), compiles the posthumous texts for publication. In them, he discovers remarkable predictions of what would come to pass, both for him and his country, in the post-communist vacuum. As he reads the pages that have been left behind and searches for what he believes to be his friend's missing masterwork, he encounters revelations that shake him to his core.

The Taste of a Man by Slavenka Drakulić
This intense first-person narrative traces the course of a love affair (which begins in the New York City Public Library) between a Polish literature PhD candidate and a Brazilian researcher while the two are temporarily in New York City – all the way from first intense desire to all-consuming passion to grisly end. Impassioned, shocking and unforgettable.

The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller
In the closing days of the Second World War, an ethnic German from Romania is forced onto a transport bound for the east – to the Soviet Union to work as slave labor in a coke-processing plant. In dream-like prose, the narrator of this novel recollects the injustices, the hazards, and the fleeting beauty – the various aspects of daily life – with subtlety and close observation. There is always hunger, but above all there is the human need to survive and to preserve what makes us human.