How much do you know about contemporary literature from Slovakia? Given that only a miniscule number of books published in English were originally written in another language, chances are that stories created in Bratislava, Košice and beyond are only known to dedicated fans. But with the thirtieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution coming up this November, a broad cultural programme in the UK aims to change this. One of the authors introduced to international readers as part of this programme is Uršuľa Kovalyk (*1969), whose book The Night Circus and Other Stories has just been published in English by Parthian (2019).
In a superb rendering by veteran translators Julia and Peter Sherwood, Kovalyk’s extraordinary approach to storytelling and the finesse with which she uses language retains its magic. Of the sixteen stories making the book, few are longer than four or five pages. They range from sexy to sweet, from painful to disturbing – and all contain a certain ‘factor of magic’ that lifts the everyday into the unusual, both based on storyline and a simple yet enticing use of language:
The air smells of melting plastic. The red of the traffic lights is shimmering in the sun. (‘Predator’, p.1)
She draws on the cigar once more before the draught sucks her through the open window, out into the street. (‘Sea Anemone’, p.98)
Everything in-between this first and final sentence maintains the same very readable, captivating and poetic style, which flows easily in short sentences. An economic use of language, Kovalyk’s stories show, hardly equals something dry or descriptive.
Each story recalls a fable, or some fairy-tale element, but each is also quintessentially rooted in everyday life. Simultaneously grounded and fantastic, Kovalyk’s stories offer a sense of escapism (say, from a dreary commute) that can be found into easily. She builds a character’s inner world and the challenges they have to face within the space of a few pages. Between the surreal and the real, each story leaves ample room for interpretation and offers parables on the drudgery of the everyday. None of the stories is only one thing – maintaining a complexity guided by the fascinating characters that populate them.
All the stories centre around women. Young, old, beautiful, ugly, sensual, angry, suicidal – on just under one hundred pages (ninety-eight, to be precise), Kovalyk transmits a whole range of feelings and appearances that focus on the female mind and body. With such varied characters, The Night Circus and Other Stories effortlessly surpasses many much longer books, which boast with complexity yet retort to convenient female ‘types’ when it comes to the representation of women. Given that this is seems to be a particular feature of internationally known literature from Central Europe (the name ‘Kundera’ shall suffice as a reference here), Kovalyk’s book makes a strong statement without the need to call out others. Her women move in the domestic sphere, go about their everyday and live in traditional relationships. They do so in all their idiosyncrasies and complexities, some on top of their game (‘Predator’) some at their lowest (‘Suicide’). Learning to break out from these environments, which always seem to place some visible or invisible restrictions on them – or plain boredom – is at the core of each story, even if their escape materialises only as a fantasy in the end.
With their struggles for free headspace and independence, and the letting go of what others have imposed on them, Kovalyk’s women are in constant exchange with their surroundings and learn to explore them anew. They re-emerge as new beings through some kind of transformation, evoked by a reliance on the wild and the natural – be it a jungle that mysteriously appears in a bathroom, a little dog chained to a huge fridge, or a gnome allergic to water. Each story builds a different universe, emancipated from what precedes and what follows it, yet still somehow connected. ‘Masterly storytelling that flows naturally’, is how Kovalyk’s explorations of a women’s worlds are perhaps described best. The Night Circus and Other Stories is an intimate book, because of our access to the innermost feelings and thoughts of its characters. It’s also entertaining, accessible, but not simplifying. Really – a collection extraordinaire!
Uršuľa Kovalyk. The Night Circus and Other Stories. Translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood. London: Parthian Books, 2019.
Slovak Literature online: http://www.slovakliterature.com