Honouring a singular Slovak voice: The Bloody Sonnets by Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav

Before it came to an end one hundred years ago this November, The Great War, that rapidly escalating clash of empires—the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian—would not only reshape the map of Europe and impact the distribution of power on a global scale, but fuel a new sense of national purpose and identity among the citizens of the countries pulled into the conflict either directly or by virtue of pre-existing alliances and obligations. It also unleashed, in very short order, the potential for destruction and violence on a scale previously unknown. With Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia on July 28, 1914, nations started to line up with their allies and declare war against one another. By the end of August, Germany, Russia, Britain, France and Japan were drawn in to a battle that was immediate, bloody and exhausting. And, as everyone soon realized, it was only just beginning.

It is easy to look back with hindsight, knowing the costs of this war and the ones that have followed, but in the opening moments of, and well into, what would become known as the First World War, the fervor of patriotism and passion to fight for God and country ran high. And this was well reflected within a realm one wants to imagine associated with “higher” ideals:

Despite its unparalleled horrors, the war had already produced something of immense value to humanity: namely, unforgettable poetry. This, at least, was one rather amoral commonplace from the early months of war. If poets had all too often been shut in their ivory towers, they were now quick to see that they could and must speak with the voice of the people. As Europe’s nations rediscovered their souls, they also rediscovered poetry. [1]

With few, cautiously voiced exceptions, the poets who responded to the unfolding drama of war, many of whom were themselves conscripted, were aroused with a new sense of purpose. Much has, of course, been written about this literary movement. Many collections and anthologies have been published over the years. However, one prominent, remarkably prescient poetic voice was raised against the prevailing sentiment, and his name is curiously absent from most of the annals and assessments of World War I poetry, such as the relatively recent text quoted above. In August and September of 1914, Slovak poet Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav composed a sequence of thirty-two poems, The Bloody Sonnets, expressing his passionate response to the growing hostilities into which his native country, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was bound. It has been largely overlooked. Now, a handsomely presented volume, published by the Centre for Information on Literature in Bratislava, seeks to bring renewed attention to this important collection of anti-war poetry as the centenary of Armistice approaches.

Born in 1849, Hviezdoslav  (a pseudonym appended to his birth name) worked as a lawyer and banker in Dolný Kubín in northern Slovakia before leaving his administrative career behind to devote himself entirely to poetry and translating. Writing in his native, endangered language, he was formally and thematically ambitious, exploring questions of Slovak society and culture, while weaving neologisms and elements of dialect into his work. At the outbreak of the First World War, he was sixty-five years old. While the poets and artists of Europe turned their attentions to creations charged with nationalistic rhetoric, his reaction was decidedly different. As one who aspired to a feeling of shared kinship between Slavic nations, the notion that Slovak and Czech soldiers would be called into action against Russia was deeply upsetting. With The Bloody Sonnets he set out first to decry the mounting bloodshed, and then to venture beyond that to imagine how the conflict might end.

In his introduction to this special edition, translator John Minahane marvels at the acuity of Hviezdoslav’s vision and his willingness to engage in a polemic against the prevailing poetic climate:

Hviezdoslav has such a powerful sense of the war’s scale and destructiveness that at first I found it difficult to believe that the Bloody Sonnets could have been written in August and September 1914. Surely, in their final version at least, they must be from 1916 or even 1917, when the full horrors had unfolded? Today when we read that “the human slaughterhouse is [everywhere: / on earth, upon the ocean,] in the air”, we are bound to think of how World War I introduced the most appalling form of modern warfare, aerial bombing. Already by 1916 there were signs of its potential: at least twice airmen killed almost one hundred people in single missions. But the aerial campaigns, though long-prepared, got underway only in 1915.

In reading The Bloody Sonnets, one is continually impressed by the vivid images painted, at this early juncture, of the blood-drenched reality of warfare. The first seventeen sonnets resound with an angry, at times despairing, evocation of the brutality, agony and immorality of this escalating tragedy—one so fundamentally at odds with the Christian values its perpetrators and champions are claiming to profess. The poet’s contempt is palpable, heightened by his adherence to a formal structure. The sonnets follow course, each one building on the intensity of the one before. His view is strikingly, terrifyingly universal. Take, for example, “Sonnet 13” where Hviezdoslav asks:

What caused this wreck, this brutal and ignoble
collapse of morals? What provoked the breach?
What led mankind, in spirit grand and noble,
to plunge in the mud? What vampire? Oh, what leech,

sucking the sap of life out of the breast,
constantly thirsting bloody parasite?
Ah, selfishness! — and to destroy this pest
today we have no troops, no heroes to fight.

Yes, it will twist and tear and rend, and fall,
a tyrant, on the weak and innocent;
although the world is wide enough for all,
it would have sole control of earth’s extent
and even possess the universe, no less,
pitching the other into emptiness —

Leading into “Sonnet 14”, his imagery, and his scorn, is unambiguous:

This puffed-up arrogance that’s dressed in iron
and, armed with lethal weapons, lurks in wait;
that bulks like stormy clouds on the horizon,
each move a threat, with wide eyes full of hate;

that hangs above the earth like punishment
and keeps peace powerless: it coarsely swears
that it fears God alone! — But this is meant
contemptuously: in truth it does not care…

Then, midway through the sequence the tone and energy shifts as Hviezdoslav turns his attention to the possibility of peace and the role that his own people, the Slavs, and most specifically his disadvantaged Slovaks, might have, in days to come, as a voice for justice. “Sonnet 17” marks the transition, as the poet wonders aloud if there is anyone who will stand up and call for ceasefire:

Whether your wisdom comes of silver years
or you’re a man in bloom, cry to them all,

“Enough!” — and you’ll be a champion of the world.
Offer your enemy a brother’s hand,
a white flag over red ruin unfurled!
Or… must the violence constantly be fanned

till it burns out?

It is not a question easily resolved, in real life or in verse. From this point onward, Hviezdoslav directs his queries to the Lord, looking to God for answers and guidance. These poems are filled with a Biblical humility that stands in direct contrast to the self-righteousness he challenges in the first half of The Bloody Sonnets. Cautiously he ventures to question whether lessons may be learned from this legacy of conflict and carnage. Yet, however sceptical he is about the salvation progress and civilization might offer, he wants to believe that God has higher plans:

— forever save the Slavs (Lord, hear my prayer!)
from being nothing but a heap of dung
on foreign fields, where the thin native layer,
craving fertility would have them flung. (“Sonnet 27”)

The fate of Slavdom, and of Slovaks in particular, is of abiding concern. He belonged to a tradition that had, during long years of cultural suffocation under Austro-Hungarian occupation, looked to Russia as their hope for liberation. But, because Russia had never committed itself to justice, he feared that smaller Slavic populations would be absorbed and lost within the larger entity. Ideally Hviezdoslav wants to see a Slavic Europe emerge in which each of the nations is allowed to maintain its uniqueness while benefiting from the association afforded by their shared kinship—a future in which the Slavic streams are allowed to follow their own courses without, as Pushkin envisioned, necessarily being merged into the Russian sea.

This powerful sequence comes to an emotional climax as, in “Sonnet 32”, as the poet bids his own bloody cycle of songs good-bye with the wish that that they may be “read by many a tearful eye”. As much a patriot as his fellow poets who were at this time still trumpeting the glories of war, his own desire is simple:

I too have had my inward battleground,
I too am wounded, and my heart’s pierced through;
just once to see my people and feel proud:
redress for all their injuries long due

As an opponent of the war, Hviezdoslav was at risk of being branded as pro-Russian and, thus treasonous. Consequently, The Bloody Sonnets existed only in limited manuscript and presented as performance pieces during wartime. It was not until 1919, two years before his death, that the sequence was finally made available in print. However, in the decades that followed, his work fell out of fashion and was forgotten. It is only in more recent years that Hviezdoslav’s rightful position of respect has been restored in his homeland.

This English edition of The Bloody Sonnets will hopefully go a long way to ensuring this important Slovak poet is finally recognized for his contribution to anti-war poetry more than one hundred years after he poured his heart into this cycle—his last great poetic project.  Translator John Minahane has taken on a formidable challenge here. Hviezdoslav, working within the constraints of the Petrarchan sonnet, was trying to express the intense emotions welling up inside. Rhymes are never easy to accommodate across linguistic borders but the results sing with overwhelming power, energy, and passion.

And then there are the illustrations. Artist Dušan Kállay’s black and white drawings practically burst with violence and depictions of evil. They speak to the senseless destruction of war without uttering a word—a perfect complement to a cycle of poems unjustly silenced for so long.

This title can be obtained through the Martinus online bookstore in Slovakia. The site is in Slovak but they are able to communicate in English and ship anywhere.

[1] Geert Buelens. (2015) Everything to Nothing: The Poetry of the Great War, Revolution and the Transformation of Europe. (Trans, David McKay) London: Verso Books

Once in motion, an avalanche can’t be stopped: Fleeting Snow by Pavel Vilikovský

Here’s the thing: the avalanche has begun to roll. It can’t yet be seen, it is still a long way off, but I can hear the first mass of snow pushing its way down the slope, rumbling quietly.

It is fair to say that Fleeting Snow, by Pavel Vilikovský, the first Slovak translation to be released by Istros Books, begins on an unusual note. The narrator promptly informs us that his original name has lost meaning for him, rather he prefers his self-declared name, Čimborazka. However, it is clear that he also seems to have affected some alienation from his own identity. His appearance in the mirror is vaguely familiar, but he questions whether he is really himself or his own step-twin. Mail arrives addressed to a name he no longer chooses to recognize and yet he has informed no one of his selected appellation. And he refuses to have a character—or a reliable, consistent way of being—and that, in itself should be our first clue. He has adopted some kind of metaphorical armour. But why? And against what?

What follows, or rather plays out,  is an orchestrated discourse that meanders down assorted pathways, broken into in a series of short, fragmented chapters, each conveniently denoted with a number and letter according to theme or motive, echoing a musical score. Čimborazka, we quickly learn, is given to wide ranging philosophical musings about the relationship between the body and the soul, the nature of God, the meaning of love and the limitations of the Slovak language. His digressions are, at least initially, light-hearted and good humoured. His friend Štefan Kováč, who may or may not be a separate person or an alternate self, plays the logical, scientifically grounded foil to Čimborazka’s esoteric ramblings. He is a linguist, a specialist in an extinct native American language, who challenges his friend’s flights of fancy.

And then, there is the avalanche, a recurring image rolling through the narrative.

If the unconventional ordering of the chapters or fragments is disorienting, one soon falls into the flow. The various themes which, at the outset appear quite disparate, increasingly echo one another. Key to the narrative central to Fleeting Snow is Čimborazka’s notion of the soul and its relation to the body. Although he spends much time wondering about the nature of God, his is not a specifically religious inquiry. He seems curiously agnostic. The soul is a useful concept—it can mean anything one wants it to mean—and for our narrator, it is that essence, produced by the body, that makes a person or a being, who they are. The soul, gives the body meaning.

The soul can’t be seen because it is hidden inside the body. Strangely enough, we can’t see even our own soul, we just know it’s in there somewhere. What’s even more strange is that all of it fits into our body even though we sense that it’s somehow much bigger. That it transcends the body in every way.

Likewise, another prominent theme, that revolving around language—the demise of indigenous languages, the corruption and loss of traditional dialects in Central European languages—represents an analogous relationship. Language is the soul of a culture. In both cases, when the soul starts to change, when critical features begin to disappear, what happens to the person or the peoples left behind?

Playing the various motives in a fluctuating manner moving back and forth between themes, allows Čimborazka to work his way into the tale at the heart of the novel—the one that is most difficult for him to tell—with caution, in a roundabout way. He reflects on ID cards, asking: What do they, and the name thereon, signify, the soul or the body? The next segment opens with an explanation of the names he used to call his wife whose formal name, Magdalena, seemed too awkward. He opted for Duška as a pet name, and more commonly Lienka. But now he admits, he is at a loss as to what to call her. They had been, at one time, so intuitively suited to one another, or so he thought. He had loved her wholly, and yet, suddenly, he began to notice a curious change:

But at some point, not long ago, her face suddenly seemed to become more beautiful. The lines around her mouth and eyes vanished, the skin on her forehead and cheeks became tauter, had I not known her I would have thought she’d had a facelift. It happened gradually, not from one day to the next, and I also became aware of it only little by little – one day I felt that her smile lost its sarcastic edge and suddenly started to spill over like a puddle because there was nothing to hold it back; on another occasion I missed the contemplative furrows on her brow, but thought it was just a one-off rather than an ongoing process.

Soon he realized that the change was permanent, as if she was showing another face or, as he would begin to see in time, another soul. Strange behavioural shifts that signaled a loss of cognitive function, forgetfulness, disorientation, and anxiety became more frequent. But Čimborazka is reluctant to acknowledge the significance. He describes himself as self-focused person  and confesses that in the past there had been so much about her that he had not cared to appreciate. As she starts to slip away, he feels shame. And shame is a complicated emotion, eliciting a mix of guilt and defiance.

At first he is in denial. He tests her, more for his own comfort than her benefit, but it make her annoyed and proves nothing more than a steady decline. The avalanche is already burying her. As her illness progresses he is forced into a caregiving role. He tends to her body, washing her now as if she was a small child, but her soul is increasingly hidden as she retreats into a present and a past in which he no longer has a place. He struggles to redefine love against the pain of loss, trying to love what remains of her, but it is not easy:

The word love is so popular because anyone is free to make it mean whatever they like – some might see it as a fusion of bodies, others as a fusion of souls. It is the latter who usually end up disappointed… But there are moments when two souls, even if travelling in opposite directions, pass each other and exchange a friendly wave, like tram drivers who work the same route. Now I realise that all one can expect of love are these precious, fleeting moments of intimacy.

But what if one of the drivers is suddenly assigned a different route?

The avalanche, that unstoppable force of nature that he fears throughout is, of course, a metaphor for the loss of memory—individual or collective. In concert with the account of his wife’s illness, it becomes the metaphorical windmill against which our hero tilts. As he starts to fear the avalanche’s inevitable approach  he seeks a spiritual answers, wants to understand the nature of being, even tries yoga. His friend Štefan, of course, tries to provide the practical, scientific angle, yet he remains determined to find a way to buffer his own soul against the vagaries of time. Spiritual exercise, he hopes, will help him build resistance against “the disease called life.”

Pavel Vilikovský is recognized as one of the most prominent authors of post-Communist Central Europe. In this creatively structured short novel, he presents, in Čimborazka, a digressive, eccentric narrator, reminiscent of Bohumil Hrabal’s loquacious protagonists. The lighthearted tone at the opening belies the depth. The humour, the philosophical questing, the digressions about love and language, the pragmatic counterpoint offered by Štefan, and the metaphorical avalanche nest a complex of painful and difficult emotions that the loss of memory engenders. The result is a multi-layered story that raises many questions—the kinds without easy answers.

Fleeting Snow by Pavel Vilikovský is translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood, and published by Istros Books. An excerpt can be found at B O D Y.

Nothing less than the big questions: A reflection on Signs & Symptoms by Róbert Gál

“He who seeks, shall be found out.

What is not worth speaking about, is not even worth keeping silent about.

Consciousness is a disease of the spirit.

If life were bearable, there would be no death.”

This is not a review in the formal sense, but an attempt to formulate an answer to the question: So what do you think of Signs & Symptoms?

symptomsSimple, yes? Well, yes and no. It cannot be answered in this forum without an overview of the book in question so it will look suspiciously like a review. So be it. A few weeks back I read and reviewed a book entitled On Wing by poetic Slovak philosopher Róbert Gál, a recent release from Dalkey Archive Press. Signs & Symptoms was an earlier work translated into English and published by Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press in 2003. My copy and the question above, are courtesy of the author.

First of all, the book itself is beautiful to look at and to hold. Textured covers, French flaps, thick paper and an ethereal series of black and white photographs created specifically to accompany this work. But more about those later.

The text consists of three separate pieces unified by recurring themes. The first section “Epigraffiti”, is a collection of single-line aphorisms composed between 1995 and 2000. There is a distinctly pessimistic tone here in these simple observations about life, death, God, truth and the measure of possibility against faith, hope and the experience of time:

“Where possibility ends, there the past begins.

Reality is a long-forgotten possibility now being fulfilled.

The future never happened.”

A reflective neurotic, sometimes bitter, despondency prevails. Although this is the simplest section to read, I emerged feeling a slight heaviness in my chest. If this work begins, as the author’s note suggests from a “bottom”, a low place, this earliest segment sets the stage.

The centrepiece of the book is the second section, “Signs & Symptoms” which is, in turn divided into four parts or “circles”. The first circle sets off with a series of short prose pieces which open with an anecdotal feel – fragmented stories and conversations that lead into speculative statements. The philosophical observations soon take over completely.

“Panic is the emotional tremor of a short circuit, a protracted slide into permanent irritation. Not daring to say YES is symptomatic of fearing an expected NO. The moment before is firmly decided on taking a risky leap beyond. Signs speak through expression.”

The second and third circles, still maintain the short fragmented format but engage in much more intense, condensed ontological arguments, frequently requiring careful reading and re-reading. Here we are bluntly confronted with statements about the nature of being, existence as measured in hope, pain and desire. The real meaty stuff. This is where a few reviewers I found fell off the map a little. Me, I grabbed my journal, finding in these sections fuel for honing some of the ontological truths I have encountered in my particular experience of being in the world. Observations that I hope to be able to articulate in a writing project of my own.

Finally, the “fourth circle” opens up the atmosphere again, relaxing the intensity with some very striking observations about the reality of human relationships to the self and others.

The book closes with a section entitled “Postludia”, a collection of single sentence aphorisms and fragmented prose pieces. Distant echoes of themes from the earlier sections resurface here but the atmosphere is quieter, wiser, more poetic. If the author’s intent, as he indicates, is to re-imagine Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, as avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn brought the music of Ornette Coleman “into the present” on his album Spy vs Spy, then it is in this final part of Signs & Symptoms that the contemporary feels especially close at hand and the work as a single experience reaches a sense of completion.

“‘Create a mask in your own image,’ runs the imperative of assimiliation.”

or

“Sympathy means that everyone is to blame for everything. And this excuses us, mitigating our guilt.

Nonethelss, such a purification takes entire lifetimes to carry out…”

Against this philosophical text which, taken as a whole, strikes me as On Wing did, with an inherent musicality (albeit discordant and experimental at times), the illustrations – a series of nude self portraits by Slovak photographer Lucia Nimcová – play against the text like a sort of dance. As illustrations they are intentionally metaphoric, but I found that the contrast of remote or removed images, frequently showing no head or face, against tight close ups, foster a separate and unique philosophical monologue that works well to complement or contradict the text, both being valid and desirable effects.

So, if it isn’t apparent, I would have to say that I found this to be an absorbing and challenging read. It is coming to me just at the right time for a number of reasons. But there is, of course, a fundamental universality to questions about the nature of existence or man would not have been pondering them for millennia. At this moment I am not looking for answers, I am rather focused on exploring and refining a way of posing questions to others.

There was a time, almost 30 years ago I shudder to think, when I completed a degree in Philosophy. It was not my first degree and I proved adept at synthesizing the most complex ideas and re-framing and defending them. I graduated summa cum laude. But I was neither fighting with ideas nor digesting them. On one of my last days I ran into a professor who asked after my plans. I told him I had taken the LSAT and applied to law school (I didn’t go but that’s another story). He nodded and said to me, “Your work is very strong, you can write very well, but you have no questions. A philosopher needs to have questions burning inside him.”

I agreed. He was right. Well, no, I did have questions but they were buried so deep and so close to my identity that I had no words to express them at the time. I did not know you could. As the years went by and those questions finally did break through and my life took paths I had never imagined, I often thought how desperately I would love to be able to go back and do a graduate degree in Philosophy. I had questions, by God! I still do. But by then I was in no position to return to school, I was a single parent and Philosophy is not exactly a fast track to a solid career. Neither is writing, the medium to which I am turning to explore my present questions, but at least I can do it on the cheap.

Signs & Symptoms is a text I suspect I will return to again as I go forward. The translation by Madelaine Hron handles the spirit and the complexity of the material smoothly. With my reading of On Wing, I marveled at the magic maintained in that translation. Here I realized that, of course, translation has long been an intrinsic element in the spread of philosophical ideas. In literary discussions some readers reject works in translation as necessarily less than the original insisting on engagement solely with texts in languages that one can read directly. How myopic to close one’s self off to the exchange of ideas! A book like Signs & Symptoms would have precious little impact knocking around in the borders of a small country like Slovakia where it was first published. Translation into English has set it free to engage a wide and diverse range of readers. A good thing indeed.

So that, Róbert, is what I think about this book. And thank you.

Unanswerable questions: On Wing by Róbert Gál

“That which we let come in and that which we never allow to enter. The flood of words. The word, like smoke. Always too late. Always already different. The word as a question, not to be posed, the word as an answer, not even given. The word as the only possible testimony, always unquestioned. The fracture, unable to be prepared, always ready to speak out. The fracture of the heart that, cut out of itself, still feels.”

Billed as fiction, On Wing by the Slovak poet-philosopher Róbert Gál eschews all the common precepts of narrative story telling. You might say that this slim volume delights in turning language and ideas inside out, offering a parade of aphorisms, queries, dreams and anecdotes. It might sound disorienting, and if you are looking to impose your preconceptions or to demand an objective truth, you may well be frustrated. Or worse. But I would argue that you don’t want to enter this work as a blank slate. You want to enter it with an openness, and a willingness to be engaged.

gal_on-wingConsider this. The avant-garde musician and composer John Zorn makes a cameo in a dream segment within the first few pages of the book. Gál revisits Zorn at the end. On Wing reads like an improvisation, an exploration of recurring motifs and themes: memory, pain, death, love, identity, faith and all the idiosyncrasies of living. Grounded through stories and recollections he rolls over ideas with an immediacy and recognizable humanity. The aphorisms, the rhetorical questions, and creative reconstructions of language weave in and out of the text; holding their own at times like extended jazz solos.

The attentive reader has to pay close attention. Marvel at the inventive word play:

“Nirvanization.
Sorting out the sporadic.
Undeception.
The transparency of sorrow.
Unexbirthed.”

Wonderful. I want those words.

But you might wonder, does this work? I will confess that I am intrigued by experimental writing, I am interested in exploring the ways that ideas can be entertained outside the traditional narrative. But for a fragmentary exercise such as this one to work, there needs to be an intrinsic continuity, even if, on the surface, there seems to be certain randomness. Humanity and restraint are important, the work must say something about life; raising questions, but not pretending to have the answers. I don’t want a writer, even in more conventional literature, to give me answers. Life doesn’t work that way.

“He: A living question mark, a question mark so full of life as a question can be. The question of who could draw no breath, the question with each suppressed tendency to breathe out. The question to an answer which yields no answer to a question. The question to a question that doesn’t answer, even when it does.

Being asked what he was doing, he answered that he had no time.

Spontaneous obligation.

For everything he is grasping for (as a drowning man) constitutes a breakthrough in his life.

Prior to that which was and after that which shall be.

Empathology.”

Reading On Wing is a singular experience. And unique, I would imagine, to every reader. One reviewer I read seemed to make much of an apparent preoccupation with suffering, anguish, pain. I did not read that book. I was especially drawn to the questions about questions, the musings about memory. Gál presents a humble, somewhat neurotic contemplation of those unanswerable questions of life creating an intimacy with the reader. I thought he was being a little lyrical about death and my marginalia bear me out. But then, less than two months ago I very nearly died. With distance I may feel different.

Somehow words seem to fall short when I try to capture the experience of reading this book. The blurb on the back describes a “restless, searching, ‘improvisational‘ prose whose techniques reflect those of Bernhard, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard”. But if that sounds heavy, fear not. This is a pocket sized book of 109 pages. 109 pages of of ideas, humour and wisdom.

Translated by Mark Kanak, I must make a comment about the translation. I don’t know anything about Slovak, but this is a work that frequently relies heavily on word play and tautological statements, not to mention the re-envisioned words that occur in the text. I could not help but wonder how much the process of translation may have altered the intent or effect of the original. One does not have the sense that this is a translated work, it flows so smoothly. Much of the subject matter is intended to strike a note of universality, presumably in the narrative pieces as well as in the more philosophical elements, and that may contribute to this effect. I don’t know. Maybe that is another one of those questions that is not meant to be answered.

Róbert Gál was born in Bratislava, Slovakia in 1968. He spent time in New York and Jerusalem before settling in Prague. On Wing is published by Dalkey Archive Press.