Abel and Cain by Gregor von Rezzori, introduction by Joshua Cohen, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, Joachim Neugroschel, and Marshall Yarbrough, New York Review Books, 2019
Gregor von Rezzori published Der Tod meines Bruders Abel in 1976, and the book was translated by Joachim Neugroschel into English in 1985. What the back of the book describes as a “prequel” (the term doesn’t quite fit) was published posthumously in German in 2001 as Kain. Das Letzte Manuskript and appears for the first time in English in this edition. The book is structured by four folders that lie in front of the narrator after he enjoys an evening with a prostitute: “Pneuma,” “A,” “B,” and “C.” The contents of the first three folders compose the first book (“Abel”), while “Cain” unveils the last folder (“C”).
In December 2015, my new play, The Silent Whip, premiered on the small stage of the National Theatre in Bratislava. It was written as a warning about what might happen if my country, Slovakia, fails to come to terms with its wartime past, but in light of the recent general election there, which has swept a neo-Nazi party into parliament, it turned out to be a grim prediction.
My country’s history is marked by a recurrent loss of memory, mostly imposed from above. As someone who spent nearly half of my life under state socialism, with history lessons filled with blank pages and distortions, I have found history to be a never-ending fount of fascination and explored it through my writing, much of which is based on real figures from our more distant and recent history.
One such figure is the protagonist of The Silent Whip, the acclaimed 20th century Slovak writer Milo Urban. The best of his fiction, written before World War II, particularly the novel The Living Whip, still forms part of our literary canon. Yet he is also one of many Slovak writers who have sullied their reputation by getting entangled with one ideology or another. In the four decades from 1948 until 1989 many authors genuinely believed in the idea of communism, or at least pretended to believe in it in order to be allowed to publish. During the much shorter existence of the wartime Slovak Republic (1939-1945), a satellite of Nazi Germany, quite a few distinguished writers embraced the national socialist ideology. Many of them were condemned after the war and some, for instance Jozef Cíger Hronský, emigrated to South America.