‘Une Belle Inconnue’: Slovak Literature in Paris

I spent four days at the stand, listening to the discussions and watching books being snatched from the counter.

As we reported in Asymptote’s weekly dispatch a few weeks ago, Slovak literature made waves at this year’s Salon du Livre in Paris, where thirty-seven books by Slovak authors, including twenty-five brand new translations, were presented. Also in attendance was writer and past Asymptote contributor Marek Vadas, on this occasion wearing his hat as staff member of LIC (Centre for Information on Literature), the agency responsible for promoting Slovak literature abroad. He has agreed to share his insider’s view of the book fair with us.

There are two kind of stands at international book fairs. The first attract attention because of their long-term reputation, literary stars and talent, thoughtful cultural policy and diplomacy or, simply, thanks to the money lavished on them. The second kind­—old-fashioned, lacking in invention or sophistication—rarely attract anyone apart from a narrow circle of specialists or the odd passerby. This year, all of a sudden, the Slovak stand found itself in the first category. What happened?

Bratislava’s stand, as the featured City of Honour presenting contemporary Slovak literature, was one of the most striking at the fair. With its modern, simple, and visually bold design it attracted attention with interactive displays, a photo exhibition, and animations. However, centre stage was a huge number of authors and their books in French translation and a programme that appealed to Parisian audiences. Books ranging from fiction, poetry, and essays, through investigative journalism and memoirs, to children’s books and comics were presented in panel discussions that also covered book design, theatre, the environment, urban planning, and political science. Alongside Slovak authors, the discussions featured such stars of the French literary firmament as Laurent Binet and Guy Goffette, as well as leading French academics.

I spent four days at the stand, listening to the discussions and watching books being snatched from the counter. Every now and then I managed to find a minute to take a stroll around the book fair and was amazed to see huge crowds so keen to get autographs of French authors for whom they didn’t mind queuing up for hours. We have quite a lot of catching up to do, I thought to myself, but that was before I ran across French-Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi, all by himself at his allocated chair, before wandering over to the Russian stand to find barely a dozen admirers listening to Vladimir Sorokin. The crowds were mostly after romantic and genre fiction—in Paris as elsewhere the more demanding literary fare appeals to a smaller group of readers. But to us what really mattered was the media response.

All the major dailies and literary journals covered the Slovak presence at the Paris Book Fair and the city of Bratislava, dubbed “une belle inconnue.” Livres Hebdo, Le Monde, Le Figaro, La Croix, The Conversation, and L’Humanité all carried articles about the Slovak capital and literature, spotlighting books by authors as diverse as Pavel Vilikovský (Un chien sur la route/A Dog on the Road), Pavol Rankov (C’est arrivé un premier septembre/It Happened on September 1), Uršuľa Kovalyk (L’écuyère/The Equestrienne) and Monika Kompaníková (Le Cinquième Bateau/Boat Number Five), which received numerous positive reviews, while a piece in the journal Lire was headlined “Slovakia – a literary Eldorado.” All this was quite unusual, exciting, and rewarding.

The seeds of the idea of featuring Slovak literature in Paris were first sown as long ago as 2011, at the celebration of the centenary of the publishers Gallimard. Miroslava Vallová, director of LIC, raised the idea with Antoine Gallimard, who encouraged her to go ahead. Years of talks with publishers followed, as well as protracted negotiations with the principal funder, the Slovak Ministry of Culture. When the project eventually received the green light from on high, French publishers responded swiftly, offering contracts to a record number of Slovak authors, and LIC helping to find and encourage translators. The publishers were particularly interested in works reflecting the present, focusing on authors whose works have received the European Union Prize for Literature, such as Svetlana Žuchová (Scènes de la vie de M/Scenes from the Life of M), Jana Beňová (Café Hyène/Seeing People Off), and Pavol Rankov; women’s voices, such as novelist and playwright Jana Juráňová (Ilona. Ma vie avec le poète/Ilona. My Life with the Bard), poet (and past Asymptote contributor) Mária Ferenčuhová (Immunité/Immunity), and Irena Brežná, a Slovak-born author writing in German (L’ingrate venue d’ailleurs/The Ungrateful Foreigner); maverick male voices such as Balla (Au nom du père/In the Name of the Father); or revered novelists like Pavel Vilikovský (Neige d’été/Fleeting Snow); and poets like Ivan Štrpka (Un Fragment de forêt (chevaleresque)/A Fragment of a Knight’s Forest). Once they had Slovak literature in their sights, the literary establishment realised that they were spoilt for choice and major French publishers started a bidding war for Slovak authors.

So Slovakia has made some promising inroads into the French book market, but this is just the beginning. Whether the success in Paris was just a flash in a pan or the foundation of a longer-term presence will depend on a change in overall cultural policy in Slovakia, if the powers-that-be realise that investment in the soft power that is literature can actually pay huge dividends.


Translated by Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s Slovakia editor-at-large.

Marek Vadas is a Slovak writer who combines African folk storytelling with darker existential stories that draw on the European cultural tradition. On his frequent visits to Cameroon he has gained an intimate knowledge of the local culture and was appointed an adviser to the king of the small kingdom of Nyenjei.  He has published several collections of short stories, of which Liečiteľ (The Healer, 2006) was awarded Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Anasoft Litera, as well as books for children. His latest book, Zlá štvrť (A Bad Neighbourhood), was published in 2018.


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