Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

On Terezín, censorship in Iran, thrilling new Uzbek titles, and the long-awaited Nobel Prize for Literature announcement.

This week is an exciting one in the world of literature, and our editors are bringing you dispatches from the ground. Xiao Yue Shan discusses the winners of the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature. Julia Sherwood reports on a march from Prague to Terezín, a concentration camp established by the Nazis during their occupation of the Czech Republic. Poupeh Missaghi gives an account of literary podcasts in Iran, as well as the government’s role in quality control and censorship. Filip Noubel brings us an introduction of several new titles from the established authors of Uzbekistan. 

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting on the Nobel Prize for Literature

The long-awaited Nobel Prize in Literature announcement of 2019 was prefaced by the usual barrage of news and predictionssome cynical, some vaguely hopeful, and most of which hedged their bets on women writers and/or authors who did not write predominantly in English. After the controversy of last year’s award (or the lack thereof), it followed a natural trajectory that our current politics lead us to search for brilliant literary representation that breaches the limits of our accepted canon of well-celebrated white men, and the Swedish Academy had seemed eager to prove themselves to be advocates for social progress, as they once again took on the role of alighting the flames of literary luminaries that will forever be enshrined as embodiments of success in the world of letters.

In a case of half-fulfillment, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature went to Asymptote contributor Olga Tokarczuk, and the 2019 Prize was awarded to the prolific Austrian writer Peter Handke. The latter aroused quite the maelstrom of negative responses, even with most still acknowledging his significant contributions and his fearlessly bold oeuvre, while the former is being hailed as a well-deserving, original, feminist voice, standing in the exact spot of where the spotlight should be shone.

Despite one’s feelings about the Nobel Prize, its politics, or its role, it remains undeniable that the Academy continues to play a huge role in directing literary dialogues, having a substantial effect on both the publishing industry and the authors working today, for better or for worse. Even in our contemporary environment of countless platforms by which one may rate, critique, discuss, or create, the best of the literary landscape is eager to equalize, yet the bulk continues to rely on entrenched hierarchies. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained, and fun to be hadthat is, in the aftermath of awards such like these, in which we may all participate in this global conversation of what literary excellence really means.

Find an excerpt of the Tokarczuk’s Man Booker International Award-winning Flights from our Winter 2016 edition as well as Croft’s account of Tokarczuk receiving death threats for speaking truth to power in our inaugural newsletter back in October 2015. You can also learn more about Tokarczuk’s work by reading this review of her most recent novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, included in our What’s New in Translation column. You can also read a review on Handke’s The Moravian Night on the Asymptote blog as well.

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, reporting from Czech Republic

It was a bitterly cold morning on September 20 in Prague, when around a dozen people in hiking gear huddled together on a corner of Veletržní and Dukelských hrdinů Street before embarking on a march to Terezín (Theresienstadt), the small fortress town some sixty-three kilometers north of the Czech capital. The group of hikers assembled by a plaque commemorating the forty-five thousand Czech Jews who had been brought here by the Nazis to be stripped of their house keys, money, and other valuables before being sent on a journey to hell from the nearby Bubny railway station. The Prague Shoah Memorial has begun to transform this site into the Memorial of Silence, a centre for discussing the legacy of the past; this project was launched in 2015 by the unveiling of The Gate of Infinity”, a memorial by sculptor Aleš Veselý, a kind of Jacob’s ladder pointing heavenward made of old railway sleepers, stunning in its starkness, simplicity, and symbolic power. This was also the starting point of this year’s march dedicated to the memory of Petr Ginz (1928-1944), one of over one hundred and fifty-five thousand Jews deported to Terezín. Over two days, the marchers retraced his journey through the bucolic Czech countryside on foot and partly by train, stopping on the way to read extracts from Petr’s diaries and other books relating to Terezín.

Turned by the Nazis into a “model ghetto” and touted by the German propaganda machine as “Hitler’s gift to the Jews”, Terezín was in fact a massive concentration camp where European Jews—mostly Czech, German, Austrian, and Dutch but also some from Slovakia, Hungary, and even Denmark—had been transported between 1941 and 1945. Almost a quarter of those held there died of exhaustion, starvation, and ill health, while over eighty-seven thousand were sent on to death camps, mostly Auschwitz, where all but thirty-six hundred perished, the sixteen-year-old Petr Ginz among them. The third day of the commemorative march was spent in and around Terezín, visiting the town’s prison, known as the “small fortress”, as well as a clandestine prayer room that was only discovered and opened to the public a few years ago. The group also visited two impressive museums where permanent exhibitions recreate everyday life in the ghetto, bearing witness to the huge number of artists and their desperate attempts to hold on to a semblance of normal life through writing, drawing, and painting, as well as performing music and staging theatre shows, including the children’s opera, Brundibár, composed and written by Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister and staged in Terezín. The artistic community included a number of Czech and German writers, some well-known, such as Karel Poláček, Norbert Frýd, Otto Brod, and Camill Hoffman, as well as others who were just making their name, including Ilse Weber, Petr Klein, or the poet Gertrud Groag. Since Terezín was a family ghetto, there were also many children, including writers who would be acclaimed in the future, of the likes of Arnošt Lustig and Ivan Klíma, as well as J. R. Pick and his sister, Zuzana Justman, who has recently reflected on her Terezín diary in a fascinating piece for the New Yorker. Among the most poignant exhibits are the poems, diaries, and literary journals produced by children and teenagers in Terezín, like Petr Ginz, whose promise was to remain forever unfulfilled. With all this information in our heads, it was sickening to watch the Nazi pseudo-documentary The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City presenting the ghetto as a “paradise” for inmates while in fact, even before the film was first screened, many of those featured in it had been sent to the gas chambers.

The ghetto had been desperately overcrowded at times, but, walking through the streets of Terezín today, it was hard to imagine this small town teeming with people (over fifty-eight thousand at its peak). Unlike the former concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which attracts huge tourist crowds, Terezín is eerily deserted, and while some buildings have been restored, many others are in a state of total dilapidation—for example, the roof of one of the four original barracks, the Saxon Barracks, has collapsed, leaving a gaping hole. Actually, the place still looks uncannily similar to how it was captured by W. G. Sebald in this haunting description I reread before the trip: “From the first, I felt that the most striking aspect of the place was its emptiness, said Austerlitz, something which to this day I still find incomprehensible. [. . .] Although the sense of abandonment in this fortified town, laid out like Campanella’s ideal sun state to a strictly geometrical grid, was extraordinarily oppressive, yet more so was the forbidding aspect of the silent façades.”

Surprisingly, few of the marchers were familiar with Austerlitz, but this will have changed at least for visitors to this year’s TABOOK, the small publishers book fair festival held in the southern Czech city of Tábor from October 3 to 5, where W.G. Sebald’s work was presented by his Czech translator Radovan Charvát. The festival also featured US printer Amos Kennedy, activist writer Peter Gelderloos, and French poet Tom Buron, as well as acclaimed Czech writers Sylvie Richterová, Karol Sidon, Jáchym Topol, and Petr Borkovec. Jan Němec, Adéla Knapová, and Veronika Bendová introduced their latest work, and the packed programme included a session on Roma horror writing, an event showcasing several contemporary writers from Slovakia, and a marathon reading of Varlam Shalamov’s shattering testimony of the GULAG, the Kolyma Tales.

In Prague, the film version of another shattering account of atrocities, The Painted Bird by Polish writer Jerzy Kosiński, a bleak depiction of World War II horrors, opened on September 12 at the Palace of Congress before an audience of two thousand. Czech critical opinion remains divided about the artistic merits of producer-director Václav Marhoul’s ten-year quest to turn his dream project into reality. Reports of film critics running for the exits at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals have made people wonder if they could stomach the film. While I share these apprehensions, I am tempted to risk it for its highly praised black-and-white cinematography and, especially, out of curiosity about “neo-Slavic”, a kind of Slavonic Esperanto that is used in the film’s few spoken sequences.

However, I have no hesitation in recommending a marvellous exhibition at the DOX Gallery, featuring birds of a very different kind, to anyone planning a trip to Prague between now and January 2020. “On Flying and Other Dreams” presents a glimpse of the universe of the Czech-born but New York-based painter and illustrator Peter Sís, featuring five of his books in which he links flying and dreaming with the themes of “inner” and “outer” freedom. The books include The Conference of the Birds, a beautiful poetic work inspired by the 12th century Sufi epic. And with the approach of November and the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, Sís’s autobiographical work, The Wall. Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, offers a distinctive and moving take on life under communism.

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Iran

Podcasts are a popular medium among Iranians curious about cultural, social, historical, and literary topics, both domestic and international. There is, for example, Channel B, which has focused on bringing translations of long essays written about real events and published in English-language media to Persian-language listeners for more than four years. Or, there is Reading Ferdowsi, which tells the story of the world-famous Persian epic poem Book of Kings, by Ferdowsi, to a general audience. Another example is Radio Marz [Radio Border], researched and directed by former journalist Marzieh Rasouli, which includes interviews with a wide range of respondents on controversial topics, such as suicide, the estrangement political prisoners feel from their families and friends after freedom, divorce, and mourning rituals, amongst many others. The newest addition to this fast-growing family is Pileh Podcast, put together by Iranian author and translator, Ehsan Norouzi. The new podcast responds to another growing interest among Iranian literary enthusiasts: that of creative nonfiction. In the first episode, Norouzi has chosen the theme of cemeteries, and spoke with artists and scholars who’ve dedicated part of their work to an exploration of graves, monuments for the dead, and our relationship to cemeteries.

On a different note, a few days ago, a Twitter user tweeted a picture of a section of a text in a children’s book in which the narrator is teaching a young character how to commit suicide by hanging. The wide public outrage on social media resulted in the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance immediately revoking the publisher’s license and ordering copies of the book to be collected from the market. The reaction also entailed conversations about the larger problem of quality control vs. monitoring and censorship: how is such an issue possible in a system where all books need to receive a pre-publication permit from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, a process that entails heavy monitoring and censorship? The topic was also at the center of another public debate when, in August, a copy of an official document of a large contract between the Ministry and a private company was leaked. It revealed that the Ministry was outsourcing its monitoring and censorship operations for, as the document phrased it, “analyses of books based on the rules and regulations of publication in the country.”

Filip Noubel, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Uzbekistan

This fall has produced a rare harvest of fine fiction translations coming from a region often perceived as a terra incognita in the anglophone world: Central Asia. On October 1, Slavica Publishers from Indiana University published A Life at Noon, by Kazakh author Talasbek Asemkulov in a remarkable translation by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. The novel takes the reader back to Soviet Kazakhstan at a time when music became one of the few repositories of national identity, being used to preserve traditions as well as keep family secrets. The author himself is a professional musician playing traditional Kazakh instruments, who tells his own story of growing up and rediscovering his own culture, as he listens to conversations of older men in the 1960s.

Two more Uzbek titles by leading Uzbek author Hamid Ismailov (previously interviewed on the Asymptote blog) and translated by the same translator are scheduled later in October. The first novel, Gaia, Queen of Ants, will be published by Syracuse University Press, and is a reflection on exile—a topic close to Ismailov who was born in Soviet Kyrgyzstan, studied in Uzbekistan, and how lives in exile in London, as he is still banned from Uzbekistan because of his uncompromising writing and journalism work.

The plot introduces several characters who all struggle to find a meaning to their lives as they drift across countries. The second work, Of Strangers and Bees, develops another favorite theme of Ismailov: Sufism, which is present in a number of his other books. To be published by Tilted Axis Press, it is a historical novel portraying Avicenna, the famous polymath, traveller and father of modern medicine, who was born at the end of the 9th century in Bukhara, of today’s Uzbekistan. As often in Ismailov’s novels, the narrative mixes different time zones and carries the reader across cultures and places. Ismailov, who won the EBRD Literature Prize in 2019, is indeed a prolific author who writes in both Uzbek and Russian. His most recently published novel is The Devils’ Dance, translated by Donald Rayfield, which portrays some of the most interesting literary and intellectual Soviet Uzbek figures of the 1920s and 30s. So, get a pialka (bowl) of green tea, and let October be the month of Kazakh-Uzbek reading!


Read more on the Asymptote blog: