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Into the Spotlight: New Writing from Slovakia. Ed. and Trans. Magdalena Mullek and Julia Sherwood. Bloomington: Three String Books, 2017. xiii, 185 pp. Illustrations. Photographs. $24.95, paper.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 October 2018

Rajendra Chitnis*
University of Bristol
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Book Reviews
Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies 2018 

The 2010s have seen an exponential rise in the number of works of Slovak literature translated into English. In Czechoslovakia, Slovak literature had been internationally eclipsed by Czech literature and the expectations it aroused, most regrettably from the 1960s, when the variety of themes, perspectives, and styles that Magdalena Mullek celebrates in her introduction to this anthology was born. In a May 2015 Literature Across Frontiers report on the quantity of translated literature published in the British Isles between 1990 and 2012, Alexandra Büchler and Gloria Trentacosti consider Slovak literature one of the most seriously under-represented, a perception also reflected by the Three Per Cent database at the University of Rochester. Mullek and her co-editor, Julia Sherwood, have been leading figures in its emergence; Mullek also contributed translations to the conceptually very different 2015 Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature, edited by Peter Karpinský, while Sherwood's translations of novels (with Peter Sherwood) have helped transform the availability of contemporary Slovak fiction to English-speaking readers. At the time of writing (January 2018), one cannot yet speak of a breakthrough work or author, but the scene is being set.

Into the Spotlight contains nineteen mostly very short stories or extracts by sixteen living Slovak authors, taken with one exception from the twenty-first century, and designed to whet the reader's appetite. Though it resembles a “taster menu” for a target audience of time-poor publishers, the clever choice of texts and skill of the translators make the whole volume a genuine twenty-first-century reading experience, fast and marked by repeated bursts of intensity, disorientation, sustained anxiety, and fleeting joy. The criteria for selection allow the editors to showcase writers whose roots lie in every decade from the 1960s to the 2010s, but the shifts of style are smooth, reflecting the continuities of the period and careful ordering to emphasize the affinities.

All the pieces instantly embed the reader in a particular character's perspective, and frequently fluctuate between thought, experience, and the processing of that experience. Most constitute variations on twenty-first-century loneliness, in which external homogeneity (middle-aged male or female, adolescent, mother, or father) masks internal complexity and individuated longing, yet the pieces are rarely sentimental and never depressing, and the typically warm emotional tones shift quickly between quiet despair and melancholy and wonder, irony, and comedy. For some writers, this subjectivity permits destabilizing, Surrealist or metafictional excursions, for others a perhaps ephemeral clarification of identity or a relationship. Most often, however, this internal mapping of reality, uncertainty, and desire also precedes an erotic encounter or other memorable physical experience (Uršuľa Kovalyk's Eleonora wanders into a circus and finds herself falling from a trapeze), so that the absence of such an incident (notably for Zuzana Cigánová’s unattractive young mother) acquires the same intensity.

No piece depends on knowledge of Slovakia, and only two engage overtly with regional history or politics: Michal Hvorecký’s satire on the arrival of a globalized hypermarket in central Europe and Pavol Rankov's fictionalized memoir of a Slovak mother and baby in the gulag. Even here, however, the emphasis (unsurprising from translator-editors) is on the capacity of literature not just to serve as a window through which an Other's experience is vicariously observed and superficially understood, but to engender empathy, to bring the reader inside the perspective and experience of another being.

The volume confronts the enduring problem of gender imbalance in translated literature. Mullek notes that the inclusion of seven female to nine male authors mirrors the current ratio among leading writers in Slovakia. The editors dedicate the volume to their mothers, and the western privileging of white heterosexual male perspectives is leavened by the recurring themes of motherhood and sexual attraction between women. No Slovak Roma writer fitted the editors’ criteria, so they are represented with an extract by Víťo Staviarsky that strikingly deviates from the individuated images of contemporary isolation to show a communal, polyphonic existence, the portrayal of which once dominated Slovak writing.

Thanks to the quality and diversity of contemporary Slovak fiction and their own wise choices, Mullek and Sherwood demonstrate that an anthology may be more than a catalogue, that it can provide a cumulative reading experience and leave a lasting impression, and that through its construction it can engage with not only the politics of translation, but also the broader politics and preoccupations of the world it enters.