“Poets are the antennae of the race,” declared the American poet Ezra Pound more than 50 years ago, a statement that optimists – and poets – still hold to be true. But the Internet age has caused a massive influx of largely low-quality publishing, making it more difficult than ever for readers to find the best contemporary writers. It seems that, in the 21st century, the antennae need antennae.
Thankfully for readers in the Czech Republic, there is the Czech Literature Portal, a Web site providing – in English and Czech – up-to-date information about all genres of contemporary Czech writing, including author profiles, text excerpts and information about literary events around Prague. Started by the Culture Ministry in 2005, the site was recently handed over to the Arts and Theatre Institute (Institut umění-Divadelní ústav) and two young institute experts, Viktor Debnár and Jaroslav Balvín, who were responsible for translating and launching an English-language version of the site in recent weeks.
Balvín spoke with The Prague Post about his aims for the updated site, which he hopes will foster more active links between the Czech and expatriate literary communities in Prague.
“The mission of the portal first of all lies in the promotion of Czech literature abroad. In this respect, our aim is to reach scholars, students, translators, editors, literary centers, organizers of literary events, journalists, compatriots and, last but not least, the general public interested in Czech literature,” he said.
The portal reads as a virtual survey of Czech literature, with an illustrated database of literary links and bibliographies. Perhaps more importantly, however, the site offers English-language readers an introduction to many contemporary Czech writers, whose work might otherwise be lost in translation. A lack of this type of cultural and linguistic cross-pollination is one of the largest shortcomings of the relatively diverse literary scene in Prague, where translators of Czech literature into English are still relatively rare, Balvín said.
“The English- and Czech-language literary communities coexist in parallel worlds. Ties occur when naturalized foreigners in the Czech Republic take a professional interest in Czech literature, and Czech writers cooperate in translations of their work, but these translators, such as Bernie Higgins and Justin Quinn, are probably still isolated phenomena,” he added.
Those looking to read and research more famous Czech authors of the 20th century, such as Nobel Prize-winning poet Jaroslav Seifert, or his famous (and famously reticent) contemporary Vladimír Holan, will be disappointed by the Czech Literary Portal, however. The focus of the Web site is decidedly contemporary, with only a few exceptions for authors who are too famous to be ignored, according to Balvín.
“To a large extent, we try to present living writers and very young writers, but we cannot ignore established writers such as Kundera, Kafka or Hrabal because, thanks to them, Czech literature is known throughout the world,” he said.
It has often been noted that Czech literature – and especially prose – suffered under communism because of censors who put extreme limits on the language. Ironically, however, those Czech writers who lived to see the end of communism lost one of their most inspiring adversaries. The Czech Literature Portal is therefore interesting from both a literary and sociological standpoint, documenting a culture and a literature on the mend. The direction that Czech writers take in the 21st century is anyone’s guess, but Balvín and Debnár will be sure to promote it.
“Because of communist repression, authors had far more time to form their work, and the lack of freedom was a very strong source of inspiration. But the range of literary influences and publishing opportunities greatly expanded after 1989,” Balvín said. “The effect of the Velvet Revolution on Czech literature is a question that will take another 20 or 40 years to answer.”
Czech Literature Portal
Number of books: 5,190
Number of authors: 250
Web site: www.czechlit.cz