Neighbours Without Qualities

As someone born in 1976 I belong to the generation of Gustáv Husák’s [Communist Party Chief and later President of Czechoslovakia] children, of whom around a million were born within a single decade. It was hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between these baby boomers and the aging leadership. Vasiľ Biľak, one of the Communist hardliners who had invited in the Russian tanks in 1968, was born in 1917, President Husák in 1913. The Soviet Politburo was also extremely elderly and were the butt of jokes about which politician would be the first to die.

My long-term platonic love affair with Austria, Vienna in particular, began when I was still a boy. Every Friday many families in Bratislava would buy the Austrian daily Volksstimme. On this day the Austrian Communist Party’s official mouthpiece included the weekly programme of Austrian TV which was unavailable elsewhere in Czechoslovakia.

The Voice of the People, hardly read in its country of origin, enjoyed a cult status sixty kilometres to the northeast. I am quite sure that the weekend edition had more, and certainly more loyal, readers in Slovakia than in its homeland. The hard-to find copies would immediately disappear from newstands and were often sold under the counter. In blocks of flats each copy would travel from door to door and was cherished by German-speaking families like some sort of holy relic.

Who knows if the staff at Volksstimme’s modest little editorial office had any idea of this devoted following – if they had, they would surely have been spurred to work with greater enthusiasm and may even have extended the TV programmes.

Neither myself nor my parents had ever been to Vienna and we did not expect we would ever get there. For me Austrian television and radio epitomized the whole of Western civilization. I imagined their programmes being broadcast from an enormous distance, from a place enveloped in an undetermined, all-embracing tenderness. It was in the fascinating advertising spots that I first encountered kiwi and broccoli – on a 30 cm black-and-white TV screen that took a full 30 seconds to light up after being switched on.

Our regime had reduced our life to such a primitive level that only those who worked in the textile industry were well-dressed. The country, with a precipitously plunging currency, must have survived solely due to its own weakness as the people themselves were completely exhausted.

In March 1989 my cousin Christian emigrated to Austria. In the winter he crossed the snowy border in the Alps on foot from Yugoslavia, and eventually managed to escape at the third attempt, after being twice turned back by the border guards. Suddenly postcards started arriving, making the country next door seem real and making everything even more complicated.

My vocabulary was enriched by the terms „Traiskirchen“, a refugee camp, and „political asylum“. This was the year I saw my first real kiwi. A classmate’s father who worked for the secret police shopped in exclusive stores supplied directly from Vienna.

Ten months later, in January 1990, I found myself standing in front of the Hofburg, confused, as if I had just woken up and asking myself: Is it really all over? Am I really in Vienna? Is Václav Havel really president? Is it really possible? I had to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t just a dream.

A new world started to emerge in Czechoslovakia and there was a lot of talk about how we ought to get closer to Austria. In those days many people believed capitalism looked like the Mariahilferstrasse. I realized that I knew much more about former fraternal socialist countries such as Nicaragua and Vietnam than about the neighbouring metropolis. Until then I had never heard the phrase „Central Europe“, all I knew was the evil West and the good East, as the middle had disappeared from the map and from the mind.

I stopped staring at the box and listening to Ö3 and started to travel to the metropolis next door. In the early days after 1989 I used to bring my own packed lunch of Wienerschnitzel wrapped in foil which I would eat on a bench outside the Kunsthistorisches Museum, drinking my own Viennese coffee out of the plastic lid of a thermos flask. I learned the location of all the free toilets in the centre as I was not prepared to waste my meagre pocket money on paying for a toilet.

Nowadays when I go abroad, people often ask me why is it that two decades after the Velvet Revolution so many Viennese have still never been to Bratislava. I tell them I’m not at all surprised and am happy about the small percentage of people who have come once and even more about those who make regular visits to my city.

When my first book appeared in German translation even some major German and Austrian papers described me as a Czech or a Slovenian author because they had no idea that such a thing as a Slovak literature – let alone a Slovak language, distinct from Czech or Serbian – might exist.

Most of the leading lights of the Slovak [19th century] national revival had studied in Vienna and Slovakia, similarly to Slovenia, has had the weird privilege of having to cultivate its language and national culture without their own state. But even this subjugation was not able to destroy the identity of a small nation in the middle of the continent, one of those that Engels considered the „debris of history“, a quote that used to be censored in the communist block.

In the second half of the twentieth century my country disappeared from the Austrian media and has not yet really returned. It does not even feature in the weather forecasts of West European TV stations.

At the time of its birth as an independent nation Slovakia represented a big nothing and a nowhere, something distant, alien, something that aroused fear rather than interest. Yet hardly anyone abroad knew that on 1 January 1993 the country was perceived in the same way by its own citizens, an overwhelming majority of whom were against Czechoslovakia splitting up. Many had taken refuge in nationalism and lavished exaggerated praise on what is least tangible – so-called national pride. On the other hand, they did not know how to deal with what is so typical of Bratislava – its eternal location between the East and the West, connecting these two entities without truly merging with either.

It always makes me happy when a Viennese discovers and acknowledges his or her roots in Košice, or whenever I hear of yet another marriage between a Slovak woman and an Austrian man. For many years Bratislava and Vienna have lived alongside each other rather than with each other. For half a century the relationship between the two cities was marked by constant unease, bitterness, suspicion and envy rather than truly creative cooperation.

These days you can get from Bratislava to Vienna by motorway, rail or the Danube in an hour, without visas and border controls. These are the first signs of a revival of the creative Central European milieu of the early twentieth century. If you happen to be in the strange position of often being the first person representing your culture abroad that the audience has encountered, you arm yourself with a lot of patience. In my book-wanderings around Germany and Austria I often find myself having to start by localizing my homeland and providing basic information, making me feel a bit like a mixture of Google Maps, Lonely Planet and Wikipedia.

And although I don’t agree that no real cultural exchange exists between us, it is a fact that before the Velvet Revolution more translations of Austrian literature used to be published than is the case today. Between the two wars Viennese theatres used to make regular guest appearances in Bratislava; now they hardly ever visit.

Instead of artistic discourse, the new area of encounters is the outlet in Parndorf, a perfect replica of America on a green meadow, a hyper consumerist parody of a „multi-culti“ Central Europe. It is a place where the nouveau riche in black jackets and thick gold chains around their neck do their shopping alongside a group of Romanians in salopettes, on their way from a skiing trip to the Zillertal. Synthethizer turbo-folk music thunders from the boot of a huge Ukrainian SUV. Czechs rubs shoulders with Austrians in pseudo Italian boutiques with booming Tyrolian folk music and rap. It is Musil’s Kakania for a new generation, the artificial fragrance of a revived monarchy, a Europe that no longer tries to catch up with anyone because it has got all caught up in itself.

It would be a shame to reduce the relations between Bratislava and Vienna to Slovak nuclear power stations and the post-war expulsion of the German-speaking minority. We, the citizens of Bratislava and Vienna, don’t need to ponder the question whether the borders of Central Europe are formed by the rivers Elbe, Bug or Oder because we are united by the Danube, by a long history, a related culture, similar legal systems and cuisine.

Slovak literature, which is virtually unknown in the German-speaking world, depends on translation. Similarly, most readers in Slovakia have to rely on translations of Austrian books into their language. When, as a teenager, I started to get acquainted with the canonical works of world fiction I found it hard to believe that a language as young and as minor as Slovak could provide such flexibility and richness; most of the classics I was after were available in libraries.

However, some titles are still missing, including Robert Musil’s vast novel The Man Without Qualities. Volume one has been translated already and is due to be published soon, thanks to the monumental effort of Alma Münzová who is sadly no longer with us although her creative achievements remain.

The name of this lady, perhaps the most significant translator from German (Nietzsche, Hegel, Jung, Zweig, Lorenz, Flusser) disappeared from libraries during the years of so-called normalization. Despite being under investigation by the State Security she continued to meet with banned writers, translating for the drawer and writing.

In spite of a life in isolation she managed to keep abreast of developments in Austrian culture through cracks in the iron curtain. In her flat in the Bratislava Old Town, filled with paintings by the modernist Imro Weiner-Kráľ, Mrs. Münzová played host to several generations of key figures in Slovak culture. This is where she translated The Man Without Qualities, a polyphonic dialogue novel unprecedented in German-speaking literature.

It was people like Alma Münzová who formed a link between the forgotten old Pressburg and a still to be discovered new Bratislava. It is thanks to this lady that in spite of decades of obstacles, for many generations including my own, Vienna has remained the closest capital in Europe, not only in a geographic but primarily in a human sense. To this day, as I get off the train at Vienna’s Südbahnhof, I sometimes catch myself wondering if this is just a dream.

Translation: Julia Sherwood, published in Salon.

Ein Gedanke zu “Neighbours Without Qualities

  1. Despite I am reading this five years later I have to say that it was really really interesting. Firstly because I am trying to write a story which takes place in Czechoslovakia during the years 1968-1989, but also because I got to know so much about Slovakia, a topic that is easily overlooked elsewhere.
    Greetings from Switzerland ;)

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