Middle European literature

- Fast-forward overdrive from political to economical censorship


Culture and Entertainment. Between these two terms we too often try to see a
huge chasm. As we all know, boundaries between art and entertainment industry
are blurred. The roots of what we nowadays call the popular literature can be
seen already in the Hellenic fiction works.

The totalitarian regimes tend to understand the culture as a
useful tool of media propaganda and a mechanism of entertainment for the masses.
In the stated governed economy no real book market exists.
In communist
Czechoslovakia, in the time of the strongest censorship, even Isaac Asimov was
forbidden, and Philip K. Dick´s novel Scanner Darkly was only published in
Slovak by mistake as anti-drug literature. Within the doctrine of socialist
realism, that lasted for four decades, a strange, degenerate kind of
“real-socialist consumerism” developed, a mode of the motionless society.


The independent writers were isolated from the rest of the
nation by the secret police, herded into a dissident ghetto. Most of the society
stalked away blindly into a corner and basically lost contact with independent
intellectual discourse.


On the other hand it is amazing how many of the totalitarian
leaders have writing ambitions. Just some examples: Josif Stalin, Colonel
Muammar Gadafy of Libya, Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein, all graphomaniacs with
absolute power, who loved to write for the submissively listening audience with
handcuffs. Korean leader Kim Jong-il is not only considering himself to be a
greatest Korean novelist, but even a greatest Korean film director. The great
chairman Mao Ce Tung tought of himself as of the best poet of all times in the
whole world.
The strongest dictators have one more common feature: they do
not only dream about more and more power, they want to be celebrated as the
awesome novelists, thinkers and philosophers. Saddam Hussein is finishing his
latest work of fiction in the prison these days. When he was still governing,
his political fairy tales, where good Arabic kings fought against bad American
and Jewish conspirators, were printed in millions of copies. He let himself
praise as a literary genius.
I don´t know if you tried to read his novel
Zabibah and the King. I tried. I almost died.


In all dictatorships, boredom is a tool of repression. To
entertain is not part of the ruler´s despotic work. To bore is the sign of the
seriousness and power. Lots of this still survives in the Czech and Slovak
cultural institutions.
The approval of the works was forced, any sign of
condemnation immediately critised and for the reviewer this could have tragic
consequences. Calculated and violent spread of boredom is an aggressive attack,
a form of the mental tyranny created by this architects of the destiny of the
mankind, the ingeneers of the human souls.
Paper bears everything, but not
the people. The collected works of the writing dictators were the monstrous
societies they have developed in their own countries.


This is the reason why the really good popular literature
had to be forbidden, too, as was the case of the banned Czech writer and strip
cartoonist Jaroslav Foglar (1907-1999). He was the author of romantic novels for
pre-adolescent boys, which, in line with the boy scout ideals, extolled the
virtues of honest, civilised behaviour. These virtues were exemplified in the
model figures of five young friends, members of the adventure club The Swift
Arrows.


As a child, I could not read the works of Jaroslav Foglar. I
grew up with the unbearably boring novels of the socialist authors, whose names
were instantly forbidden when they were not anymore obligatory reading for every
pupil in Czechoslovakia. Maybe there are the roots of my opinion, that
literature should be first of all entertaining and after that also anything
else. For example preocuppied by “high ideals”, as is often the case in
Czechoslovak literary tradition, where at different times, different moral
approaches and discourses clashed within.


With the fall of communism, literature lost its elevated
status in middle Europe and was relegated to a minority interest. Booksellers
who understand literature largely disappeared, being replaced by profit oriented
international dealers and distributors. Lots of books that come out in small
printruns are of no interest to these new enterpreneurs. Many quality authors
encounter difficulties. The market is being deliberately manipulated by the new
economical censorship of the most successful media groups and moguls.
In the
present reality the customer is acustomed to new stereotype. To come, to select,
to pay and to leave – with false prospect of the maximal offer at the book
market. People are used to buy books in grand shopping malls that provide
illusion of the titles for everyone and good bargain.


The triumph of branding has come to every major city in the
world, but it is a uniquely complicated issue in middle Europe. Part of the
appeal of the cities is its over-the-top commercialism. Citizens make
pilgrimages to the palatial superstores.
It may have taken a while but even
Prague has been dwarfed by the superbrands. In the past two years, the towering
billboards and shopping malls have passed some invisible threshold to become the
overarching cultural and architectural infrastructure of the city. In between
time art and literature have shrunk to miniature size in comparison.


In the age of multinational publishing houses and global
bookstore chains the position of independent literature becomes very similar to
the current position of former dissidents in the political arena. Dissent and
its political values, as well as the values of independent literature, has been
pushed aside in the interest of pragmatism.
Long gone is the time before
1989, when families and friends were gathering in one apartment, five people
reading one xeroxed forbidden novel at the same time in one night, passing the
text around the table page by page.
As neighbourhoods are swallowed whole,
individual branded retail outlets have emerged as the new neighbourhoods of
Prague, Brno or Bratislava. With CD listening booths in K-Mart, Musicians and
DJs at Levi´s Store, and literary essays accompanying every product at Outdoor
Hardware Mall, each superstore is now its very own quasi subculture.


There are serious cultural problems in middle Europe, but
few of those artists who engage themselves in public politics take up these
concerns. There is little literary programming on broadcast or cable television
and radio. Knowledge of foreign languages and translation of works of foreign
literature is at a very low ebb. Elementary and high school systems neglect
literary programs and can not afford the purchase of the books for
libraries.

At the same time, many publishers in middle
Europe are still taking risk and bringing out original works. Numerous young
writers are willing to subject themselves to great discipline and sacrifice for
their art. The current era has ominous portent, and signs of great hope. Which
result ensues depends on what we make of these opportunities.

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