For me, Eastern Europe is a continent of ruins, a relic of a fallen empire.
I can feel the tension here. I love the dilapidated factories on the city peripheries, the roads to them washed away by rain, the bizarre objects along the way like in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the overgrown country paths leading nowhere, the monuments to those dead so long nobody even bothers to respect or hate them anymore.
And to exaggerate a bit, the wildness of our dual reality—the vile, brutal one that’s gone away, and the dreamed-of, free, and wealthy one that was supposed to come but never did—is still intoxicating to me, even if there are times when all the vulgarity makes me sick to my stomach: the fancy houses and cars of the newly rich in villages that otherwise feel like they are still in the fifties; the billboards slapped on trees along the roadside; a brothel in a former school, a brothel in a trailer home. It’s all part of my territory, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
It’s only when I get out of Prague that I encounter the label “Eastern European” or “Western European” writer.
In the Czech lands, nobody uses those terms. In the Czech lands, no one would ever think of themselves as Eastern European. Eastern Europe is always just a little bit farther east: for Czechs, it’s the Slovaks; for Slovaks, the Poles; for Poles, the Ukrainians . . . the search for the true Eastern Europe reminds me of those expeditions to the Amazonian rain forests in search of cannibals. The cannibals are that tribe just down the river, not us . . . until of course we eat you, ha ha ha ha!
It may be appealing if someone is French or Hungarian—in Prague we can instinctively sense what part of Europe somebody’s from—but to say to someone out loud, “Hi, you must be Eastern European!” would sound either absurd or very, very insulting.
To this day, I’m amused by the vagueness of the term, given my own bastard status. Even I myself don’t know exactly what I am.
When I do a reading in Ulaanbaatar or Kiev, I’m seen as a Westerner. If I’m in Paris or Munich, I’m an echt-Eastern European, the type who might have better teeth and shoes than he did ten or fifteen years ago, but there’s still something clumsy and bearlike about him. Being an “Eastern European writer” is kind of like being punk.
I was raised on the myth of a new “Central Europe,” advocated by such distinguished authors as Hrabal, Havel, Miłosz, Konrád, Kundera, and my other “fathers” in an attempt to liberate themselves from, define themselves as outside of, the Soviet empire. But naturally I worshiped Russians like Bunin, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Babel . . . whose influence on me in my early youth coincided with the literature of the Beats, Kerouac and Ginsberg, even if it was more the underground lifestyle that mattered than the wild, sweeping gestures of the authors’ work itself.
But, personally, the most important “underground” for me was the Czech group known as Group 42—the number referring to the year it was founded.
The artists, photographers, and writers of Group 42 were, truly, the most Central European of artists. With their roots firmly planted in prewar, democratic Czechoslovakia, under the Nazi occupation they formed an artistic underground, for which some members paid with their lives. Yet they weren’t allowed to publish under the Communists either. Some ended up in prison or were forced to emigrate.
Apart from Bohumil Hrabal, the writers of Group 42 who inspired me the most were Jiří Kolář, Jan Hanč, and Ivan Blatný, names unknown outside of Czech borders, but firmly embedded in me.
Yet the terms “Central Europe” and “Central European writer” never caught on. My “fathers” didn’t succeed. The Soviet occupation flushed us all down the same drainpipe.
So, Central European, or Eastern European? I really don’t care either way.
If I had to name a contemporary author important to me who in the West is considered an Eastern European, it would be Andrzej Stasiuk, who shares with me an acute interest in wreckage and ruins—which, even after twenty years of post-communism, are more visible here than in tidy Western Europe.
There’s no getting around it: The East is poorer and more broken, the horrors of history have taken a bigger bite out of it.
Still, this secondhand Europe is my home, my territory. I like it here. It may not be the easiest place to live, but it’s a good place to write about.
Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker
Jáchym Topol, author of novels, poetry, stories, dramas, screenplays, reportage, and song lyrics, is recognized as the leading Czech writer of his generation. All of his book-length prose is available in English translation: A Trip to the Train Station, City Sister Silver, Angel Station, Nightwork, Gargling with Tar, and The Devil’s Workshop. He is the winner of the Vilenica International Literary Prize, and in 2017 he received the Czech Republic’s State Prize for Literature for his novel Citlivý člověk and his body of work as a whole.
Alex Zucker has translated novels by J. R. Pick, Petra Hůlová, Jáchym Topol, Magdaléna Platzová, Tomáš Zmeškal, Josef Jedlička, Heda Margolius Kovály, Patrik Ouředník, and Miloslava Holubová. He is currently working on a translation of Topol’s latest novel, Citlivý člověk (tentatively, A Sensitive Person), to be published by Margellos World Republic of Letters at Yale University Press.
Banner image: “Barrack discoteque II,” by Zoltán Bánfalvy, reproduced under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.