Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Literary updates from our editors on the ground in Albania and Slovakia.

As central Europe heats up this month, so does the literary scene! In Albania, an unprecedented $10,000 prize was awarded, while in Slovakia, readings are taking place everywhere: in gardens, on trams, and at an old mill! Read on for details.

Barbara Halla, Assistant Editor, reporting from Albania

Although it is only in its fifth year, the Kadare Prize is one of the most important prizes in Albanian literature at the moment. Readers might be forgiven for thinking that I use this label because the prize bears Kadare’s name, but I think its importance relies more on a few other elements, the first of which is not strictly literary. First of all, the Kadare Prize proclaims to award its winners the sum of $10,000 (though there has been gossip floating around that the awarding body has not been forthcoming with the cash) that includes financial help to get the book published in the first place. A not insignificant amount of money to consider, especially as in the Albanian publishing world, literary agents don’t exist and new authors have to pay publishing houses to get published in the first place.

This year, the prize was awarded to Loer Kume for his collection of dark and semi-experimental short stories, “Amygdala Mandala.” In addition to its monetary award, the Kadare Prize has been known for promoting the work of young writers who break with the traditions that constrain Albanian literature. It is perhaps for this same reason that Kume’s collection was awarded this year’s prize. In late June, Kume was in conversation with Anna Shkreli, the curator of the recently opened Ismail Kadare Museum in Tirana. During this conversation, Kume emphasized the conscious effort he had made to depart from the limitations offered by contemporary Albanian literature that remains focused (or perhaps stuck) in the memories and struggles of the Communist and “transitionary” post-Communist periods. With “Amygdala Mandala,” he had tried to escape specificity in the search of something less local and more universal.

Albanian literature desperately needs new blood, though there is no reason not to tackle the country’s recent past in literature: few have done so well. Because while Kume’s intentions are understandable, his stories feel somewhat derivative rather than universal: a hint of Kafka, Borges and even Kundera, with very little that is truly Kume’s own. Perhaps something about the Albanian experience more specifically would have made the text more memorable.

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Slovakia

With the spring/summer festival season in full swing, Slovak readers across the country have been spoilt for choice, not just in terms of literary genres but also unusual venues.  An old mill, a pottery museum, and a garden served as venues at the Feliber Poetry Festival. From May 24 to 25 in Modra and Pezinok, in the wine-growing region close to the capital, Bratislava, homegrown poets Ján Gavura, Peter Repka, Ivan Štrpka, Erik Ondrejička, and Ján Štrasser were joined by Gábor Lanczkor of Hungary, and Wanda Heinrichová and Olga Stehlíková of the Czech Republic.

The Art Café as well as the main town square of the picturesque old mining town of Banská Štiavnica served as venues for SLOvo aleBO huDbA (“Word or Music,” with the capitalised letters spelling “Sloboda,” meaning “freedom”) from May 31 to June 2. This was much appreciated by guests of this small festival, who, back in the 1970s, when freedom was in short supply, had to meet and perform in secret, often in people’s homes. They included Jana Soukupová and Jarmila Johnová, two of the brave women featured in the recent Czech publication Bytová revolta. Jak ženy dělaly disent (Revolution Begins at Home. The Women of Czech Dissent); legendary singer-songwriter Vladimír Merta; and Slovak émigré poet and enfant terrible Gabriel Ariel Levický.

Tabačka, a former tobacco factory and now a vibrant cultural centre in the eastern Slovak metropolis of Košice, hosted Punktík, a children’s literature festival, on June 8. And in Bratislava, the independent book festival and book fair BRaK relocated to Nová Cvernovka, a repurposed former technical college that is fast gaining recognition as the city’s premier alternative cultural venue. This year’s theme was melancholy in Central Europe, and the guests included two Asymptote contributors: award-winning Czech novelist and translator Radka Denemarková and Polish writer and Czech specialist Aleksander Kaczorowski. Young Hungarian author Ferenc Czinki presented the Slovak translation of his novel A pozsonyi metró (The Bratislava Metro). The book, conceived during the author’s residency in Bratislava, was inspired by stories of the metro, whose construction has been rumoured to begin for decades. On July 3, on the other hand, a reading by young Slovak poet Viliam Nádaskay and his Czech counterpart Pavel Novotný, author of the collection Tramvestie (Tramvesty), took place on a real tram, line no. 3.

Slovakia’s literary community is mourning the passing of Dušan Mitana (1942–2019), a nonconformist author whose career began in the 1960s and who managed to stay true to himself in spite of every adversity. But, to end on a happier note, novelist and translator Ivana Dobrakovová has won this year’s European Union Prize for Literature for her latest collection of novellas, the myth-busting Matky a kamionisti (Mothers and Truckers).


Read more dispatches from the Asymptote blog: