Almost Bananas presents…(drumroll)…21 books in English set in Slovakia, including 10 books to giveaway (giveaway over, look out for next year’s)!
I’m so excited to finally tell you about this project I’ve been working on.
It started with me wondering if there was a book in English that I could give friends and family so that they could understand Slovakia a little more. There isn’t much in English about Slovakia, but after some digging I found these 21 books. If anybody knows of more, let me know and I’ll include them in a future list.
I had a few criteria. I wanted stories, real or fiction, thus excluding travel books, textbook type history, and poetry. And I wanted them to be set in Slovakia or the Slovak side of Czechoslovakia (with one exception).
If you want to understand more about Slovakia, give a gift, or just like to read, then this list is for you. (psst…Christmas is quickly approaching) Make sure to scroll down to the bottom in order to enter the giveaway!
Even though I have already lived here for over a decade, I learned so so much, both about Slovakia’s history and people. I admit that I’m not a history buff – reading dry history text puts me to sleep (literally, this was my trick in college if I had insomnia. Worked every time). But in the context of a story or a person’s experience, a country’s character and history come alive even if the actual storyline is fictional.
The following books are divided into the following genres:
Youth – WWII (Slovak Jews) – Memoirs – Fiction – Slovak Literature
Many thanks to publishers and authors who sent me their books for review purposes!
Some of the following links are affiliate links, meaning that if you buy a product I earn a commission at no extra cost to you.
The Book Depository is helpful for those countries outside of the Amazon empire, as shipping costs are included in the price. Shipping is a bit slower, however, and they usually don’t have an e-version.
by Bryce Moore
As a young boy, Tomas and his family moved to America from Slovakia after he was left with a scarred arm in a mysterious event that Tomas can’t remember. As a teen, his family moves back and Tomas discovers a world that only he can see – the world of Slovak folklore brought to life. In the medieval setting of Trenčín, he and his cousin Katka race to save Katka’s life, both helped and hindered by a vodnik (a water man creature thing), an old woman, a fire fairy, and Morena, death herself. Complicating matters are the family dynamics and secrets of Tomas’ own family, racists who react to Tomas’ partial Roma heritage, and cultural misunderstandings.
One of the aspects I really enjoyed about the book were the cultural differences that Tomas experiences, like the awe at just how old stuff is (hello, real castles!), buying products at small stores (what’s the word for that thing behind the counter?), and the frustration of finding your way around a hospital (thank the hospital receptionist next time you see one). The book really gets you to experience Slovakia from the eyes of an American.
And it was refreshing to be exposed to creatures I know little about from another culture, like the vodník, a water man who steals souls and keeps them in unbreakable teacups, or Morena, the woman of death.
Vodník also explores the Roma question, i.e. the racism of some Slovaks and the behaviour of some Roma. With darker colourings, Tomas is exposed to harsh treatment from a trio of bullies. Would a 1/4 Roma of decent appearance be subjected to racism in real life Slovakia? I don’t know, but it is a troubling theme in the country in general.
The plot is interesting with a few twists and turns, the writing is on the good side of typical YA, and the characters relatable. A refreshing book to introduce Slovakia to a young or young at heart reader.
by Rita Malie
Goodbye America is the extraordinary true tale of a small girl, as told by her as a grandmother to her grandchildren. Born in America to Slovak immigrants, after Anna’s father dies in the flu epidemic of 1918, her mother and three siblings move back to Slovakia. Life there is harder after WWI than Anna’s mother realized, and so she returns to America to work…leaving the two younger children behind, to join her at a later date. It took five years.
Goodbye America would be a heartbreaking story, if it were not shown that Anna experienced a life of love after her difficult childhood. Her mother blames Anna for the father’s death because Anna was ill as well, and wishes that Anna had died instead. Anna is, fortunately, very close to her older sister (and is devastated at being parted from her) and, despite Slovakia being a culture shock, her relatives are kind to her as well.
Set in a country much impoverished after WWI, Goodbye America manages to capture what life would be like in a rural village under the Tatras. It shares what daily life was like – the chores of a small girl, the hard work of the farmers and the amazing food prepared by her grandmother. It also shares some of the political frustrations of Slovakia – it had been under Hungarian rule, who had created more demands on Slovakia in the last hundred years, but was now part of the new Czechoslovakia, with the larger Czech area playing a more prominent role.
The language is simple but never simplistic and an little glossary in the back helps for English learners. My only complaint is that the book is too short – I would have loved to have read more details about the five years before she returned to her family.
The Bear Hunt
by Jeremy Taylor
Canadian Brad Forest is being dragged to another country and another school as a result of his mother’s work. What’s going to be different about Slovakia? Well, as it turn out, Slovakia holds much more excitement than Brad had anticipated – a cute girl, a bully, and a mystery.
Meant for those learning English, Bear Hunt is a short but engaging story of a teenage boy. The author is known for joke books for learning languages and his sense of humour comes out in this book, especially the end. I actually did laugh out loud. There is one small factual error about bears, not essential to the story, but not everybody reading it grew up in bear country and worked as a naturalist giving talks on bears, like myself.
A great book especially for teenagers learning English, as the language is simple to understand but geared for youth rather than little kids.
by Kristina Roy
Palko was found wandering in the forest as a young child and now lives with an old man he calls his grandfather. In search of the elusive country where the sun never sets, Palko stumbles across a cave containing the New Testament, with an inscription recommending the reader to read every line in order to find the Sunshine Country. Palko endeavours to find the way and, with his child-like faith, inspires those around him in new or renewed relationship with God. Along the journey, he finds out that he is not an orphan after all.
Kristina Royova was a prolific Slovak writer whose work spans from 1882-1935. The daughter of prominent Lutherans, Royova and her sister founded Blue Cross, a group dedicated to spurning the vices of the flesh (like alcohol and smoking) and Bible studies. According to Wikipedia, she is considered the Slovak author most translated into other languages (36)
Based on true events, Sunshine Country is set in a Slovakia before the disruption of the two world wars. The characters are simple mountain folk living in huts during the summer to make their living from the forest, as well as a priest who is renewed by Palko’s faith.
As Slovakia is a country of hearty drinkers and Royova was opposed to such drinking, the story features the unfortunate and sometimes tragic actions alcohol can lead a person to do. Roy uses Scripture to reiterate that salvation is obtained through faith, not works, and that we need only directly ask Jesus to forgive our sins.
Easy to read and understand for children, Sunshine country is for those who enjoy a rustic life setting and enthusiasm for the Gospel.
by Kristina Roy
Martinko (diminutive for Martin) is left to fate when his mother dies on the road in a small unknown village. While the mayor’s wife gave him food to eat and a place to stay, she did not care for him as her own, for example, he didn’t go to church or school. He went to help the old ailing shepherd, who took the animals from villagers out to pasture, and became the shepherd himself when the old man died. Martinko began to wonder about God, by whom others swore, and terribly wanted to learn to read, so as to find out more. He took another orphan boy under his wing who taught Martinko how to read, so that he could read the Bible. Although the villagers were occasionally kind, they did not appreciate their shepherd boy who sacrificed himself to save a sheep, until it was too late.
Martinko is much like Roy’s Sunshine Country – a book of faith for children. Martinko is an example to emulate, diligent in his work, in kindness, and in desire to know more about God.
At the publishers, Bible Truth Publishers, Martinko and Sunshine Country are part of a set of three books by Kristina Roy.
This group of books had a deep impact on me, and in the next few days I plan to write a post that shares my thoughts on what I learned reading these books. Here’s the post: What I learned reading about Slovak Jews
Maria Gulovich: OSS Heroine of World War II
by Sonya N. Jason
During WWII, Slovak schoolteacher Maria Gulovichova agreed to hide two Jews; that agreement began a series of events that included being a courier for the resistance, enduring gangrene feet, a first love, and trekking through the Low Tatra mountains in the winter with precious little food, shelter, or warmth. Speaking five (then six) languages, Maria was indispensable to the survival of a group of Allied soldiers trying to reach the Red Army, as she was able to obtain food and information, and communicate with other trigger happy soldiers. In the end, only five survived. Maria was able to emigrate to the United States and was the first woman to be awarded a Bronze Star. Despite her heroic actions, Maria was never recognized in her home country.
The book Maria Gulovich highlights the length of suffering that people can endure, the pain of betrayal for personal gain and the selflessness of kindness when kindness can cost your life.
I found this story fascinating and exciting, caught up in the tension of the time. Jason obviously did a great amount of research. While she wanted to honour the service of others by using names instead of stripping the story down to a few main characters, at some points I found myself wondering who a name was. Was I already supposed to know them? An appendix of names would have been helpful.
Much more important, however, is the mindset and endurance of the heroine, as well as her companions. The book sheds light on a secret American and British intelligent foray into a little known but strategically important country during the war. Also of interest is that it is a story of a woman hero during WWII. Through personal interactions, the fragile and distrustful nature of the alliance between the Allied parties is portrayed. Jason makes clear that though the Russians liberated Czechoslovakia, their raping and pillaging hardly brought relief.
Her portrayal of Tiso, then President of Czechoslovakia, is much more sympathetic than that in, for example, the Jewish memoirs reviewed here. I cannot claim to know exactly what Tiso’s role was and how much events were due to his purposeful intention or if they spun out of his control. It is a controversial subject in Slovakia, and not one that I can personally judge yet.
An exciting read, which portrays what the war was like for ordinary Slovaks and, through history, brings the reader to a greater understanding of Slovakia.
I Was A Boy In Belsen
By Tomi Reichental
A farmer boy from a small village in Slovakia, the author describes the life of a small self-sufficient village – the prominent church, the one pub where everyone gathered (men going for a drink after church while women went home to cook lunch), and the one general store, in this case his grandfather’s. Tomi remembers a childhood full of cousins, visits, and fresh fruit from the garden. Despite being among the few Jews in their village, he played with the other children and attended school. But, with the advent of stronger Nazi influence over Slovakia, that all changed. I Was a Boy in Belsen recounts the efforts the family made to evade deportation until, at last, they were caught and sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Tomi also writes about life afterwards: what it was like to travel back to Slovakia, their family’s immigration to Israel, and his eventual settling in Ireland. Silent for over 50 years, a request by his grandson started Reichental on a journey to share his experience with others to ensure that history does not fade from memory, a journey that includes two tv documentaries.
Richard Dimblby, a war correspondent for BBC radio who covered the Normandy landings, said that entering the Bergen-Belsen camp was the most horrible day of his life. An estimated 500 people died per day there. And yet a small boy lived that nightmare for months and lived to tell about it.
One of the aspects of Reichental’s perpective that I appreciated was his ability to remember both the good and the bad of people and events. In their small village, for example, a few Slovaks actively helped the family even at risk to themselves. Others were more passive, not going out of their way but part of a warning system when trouble was coming. And yet others were actively belligerent, caught up in their own importance and greedy to take anything from the Jews.
In the camp, he both describes the unimaginable horrors, like playing around rotting corpses and the ‘dolls’ in the sewage trench, and the support and kindness that could be found even under such circumstances, such as when a woman saved her rations for days (i.e. didn’t eat at all) to make his brother a bread and margarine ‘cake’ for his 13th (Bar Mitzvah) birthday or a teen who made toys out of nothing to entertain the children.
Reichental also recounts life after liberation. History focuses on the horror of the war, but what happened afterwards? How did these people who had experienced the worst of human nature go back to living ‘every day’ life? And how could a man come to forgive a former SS officer at Belsen who still denies the treatment she meted out inmates of the camp?
The writing of I Was A Boy in Belsen is easy to follow and interesting. He focuses on his own experience as well as those of other survivors (family that hid, short snippets from other prisoners) with a little political/general history to give context.
A simple life
by Giora Amir
Giora Amir grew up in Presov, a city in eastern Slovakia, and begins his story with the arrival of Jews in Presov, and then that of his own family. Though he lived in the city, his grandparents lived in a village and he remembers he rustic lifestyle there with fondness. His father was able to get status as an “economically viable Jew”, a Jew who was needed to teach an “Aryan” how to run his own business that had been taken over. Giora and his brother hid in Hungary for some time, with false papers allowing Giora to apprentice as an electrician. When the situation for Jews disintegrated in Hungary, the boys returned, his brother even escaping from his jacket in the hands of an official. From there, the family fled to the part of Slovakia under partisan territory, hiding in bunkers until the day of liberation.
Amir draws on the politics and workings of the country and the war to provide context within which his personal story takes place. He also references future happenings, for example contrasting the feeling of hopelessness during the war with being able to come back and celebrate the synagogue in Presov, despite the much smaller Jewish community.
He also relates the enthusiasm with which Jewish youth joined Zionist movements after the war, for understandable reasons. School didn’t seem to have any value, and Amir doesn’t hesitate to laugh at his younger foolish self. He then also shares the beginning of life in Israel, his experience in the army, and eventual entrance into law.
Gazing at the Stars: Memories of a Child Survivor
by Eva Slonim
Eva Slonim was from a wealthy family in Bratislava, who loved dressing up and was close to both her nuclear and extended family. Her father was a — and together with his brother owned an apartment building across from the Presidential palace. As their circumstances became more reduced , Eva took on more responsibility as a ten year old girl, including caring for her ill grandparents. Eventually her siblings were parceled out into hiding so as to not attract attention as a large family. Eva and her sister were sent to live alone in an apartment in a strange city with only one kindly adult in the area. Betrayed by the person who was helping them, the two girls were sent to Auschwitz. Mistaken for twins, they were selected to be experimented on by Joseph Mengele and there experienced absolute horrors. After liberation, they made their way by walking and hitchhiking all the way from Auschwitz to Bratislava (over 500 kms the route they took) to avoid being sent to Russia and to find out if any of their family was left. Eventually, the family immigrated as far from Slovakia they could get – Australia.
Gazing at the Stars was, for me, the most evocative of the Slovak Jew books. While writing, a young man helped draw out her experiences in depth, and I think due to this she is able to transport the reader to her world. Slonim does not try to relate her story to political or general happenings but tells only of her experience. Though the content is a difficult theme, the writing is easy to read and a study guide exists to help teens understand the book.
What struck me especially about her book is how cruel racism can make people towards even children, like the time then prime minister Tuka kicked her in the stomach on the street for trying to hide her star patch, or when a crowd of adult neighbours pushed the sisters into the clutches of the Hlinka Guards (the Slovak SS) and didn’t let them escape, or when her former nanny stole the letters and little money from her parents to the children.
The other point that struck me was how responsible she had to be as a child. After her family had to move from their home, she cared for her ill grandparents, cooking meals (including plucking chickens) and waking with them in the night as a ten year old. At twelve, she had to live on her own with her younger sister, without the security of having an adult to make decisions or rally their spirits, and thus survived Auschwitz without the protective presence of an adult.
Gazing at the Stars is an engaging and evocative book that showed the horror of war and racism as well as displaying the resiliency of the human spirit.
My Nitra: A Family’s Struggle to Survive in Slovakia
By Hami Kedar-Kehat
Growing up in Nitra, the daughter of a doctor, Hami and her family were involved in an active Jewish community 6,000 strong. As restrictions on Jews increased, her family relocated to a small town for her father to provide medical services in order to get an exemption from being deported. At last, her family went into hiding, switching from house to house to keep ahead of detection. At one point, they were hiding in the room next to where a German soldier slept! With time and money running out, a family offered their attic to hide in and refused any compensation. Liberty was bittersweet, however, as the Jewish community of 6,000 was reduced to 600 – and anti-Semitic sentiments still lingered.
Of all the Jewish books, Kedar-Kehat had the most contact with non-Jew Slovaks as the family hid in various houses. She also records some of the anti-Semitic propaganda that was published in newspapers. What was it about their Slovak helpers, particularly two brothers, who stood apart from the majority of the population to help, even at the risk of their own lives? One brother was a gambler who lost several months worth of Kedar-Kehat’s family’s bribe money, and yet everyone knew that he organized hiding Jews as well as hosting them in his own house.
Kedar-Kehat remembers well her thoughts as a child during those turbulent times – of planning to float down the river on a piece of wood to escape if guards came, her astonishment that a Christian knew some of the same Bible stories, and the fear felt as she lay alone under hay bales out in the fields in the winter.
The beginning of the book is a little slower, as the author explains the history of the Jews in Nitra and of her family, but the rest is fast paced as the family struggles to stay one step ahead of capture.
Cry Little Girl: A Tale of the Survival of a Family in Slovakia
by Aliza Barak-Ressler
Aliza lived in an eastern Slovak town with a thriving Jewish community when the war started. Deportations reduced their community but her family managed to escape detection. For a while, she and her sisters went to Hungary to stay with relatives but came back, and they moved to Nitra. Stomach pains due to stress allowed her and her family to leave the centre where Jews waited for a transport, but meant that at 12 she underwent an unnecessary surgery to remove her appendix. Her father was a most optimistic man, and his determination to always try something kept them from roundups, sustained them in the forest, enabled escape from prison, to eventual survival by hiding in holes in the field, helped by kind villagers.
What impressed itself upon me reading Cry Little Girl were the number of times that Aliza was absolutely terrified but found the courage to continue on, whether undergoing surgery or resisting a would-be raper. While her mother was somewhat of a pessimist, her father always had the grit to try – even as simple as hiding in a woodshed during the major round up in Nitra.
Aliza also shares the positive influence of a first love. When her family meets and joins with three young men, she and one of the boys hit it off. Their ability to dream together and support each other reduced the oppression of hiding underground for so many months.
The Slovaks they met were of all kinds. Some refused to help outright. Some helped until the money ran out and then turned the family in, even taking their clothes in a seemingly kind gesture. And some helped without monetary compensation, even though they themselves had little. In the town where they had the kindest reception, the local priest openly preached that we cannot judge based on race for God made us all; sent to the small town because of his vocal opposition to sending away Jews, I wonder how much different history could have been if all spiritual leaders had been as Christian.
Last Folio: A Photographic Memory
by Yuri Dojc & Katya Krausova
Photographer Yuri Dojc and television producer Katya Krausova met at a reunion of those who left Slovakia in 1968, a brief period of relative freedom ending with the Warsaw Pact invasion (see review of So Many Heroes). Both of Jewish heritage, they embark on filming a documentary of Slovak Jewish survivors, during which they discover hidden treasures of memories and threads of history tying together with their own lives. From his forays into the Jewish history of Slovakia, Dojc has created a book of visual remembrance of what remains.
“Beauty, it seems to me, is that which touches us so profoundly and, simultaneously, so gently that it makes us sad,” writes Steven Uhly in an essay in this book. With that definition, Last Folio is a book of intense beauty, with large detailed colour photos.
Dojc captures details of remnants left behind a largely vanished population. Schools, books, synagogues, all in various states of decay. He freezes these details in time, details that will soon be nothing more than dust, as a remembrance of what was. One can imagine the dilapidated bathhouse full of bathers, the dusty school room full of students, the playground for goats full of worshippers at synagogue. These images are accompanied with a sadness for why they were interrupted as well as sorrow that they never will be again.
Last Folio is not a book for a quick flip. Such a look will result in, “Oh, another picture of a book.” This book is for those who love visual beauty, who search to see the story and meaning in the play of light, texture, placement and detail. Also in German.
So Many Heroes
by Alan Levy
Alan Levy, an American journalist, moved to Prague in the winter of 1967, on the cusp of the Prague Spring as Czechoslovakia sought to install “socialism with a human face.” In the months that followed, he chronicled the events of hope for freedom that turned to resignation of suppression when the Warsaw Pact invaded seemingly overnight. Friends with influential people as well as the ordinary person, he had unique access as a foreigner into the workings of a nation. He includes his own observations and experiences as well as historical and political facts to present a narrative that is both emotional (without being melodramatic) and eye-opening.
I thoroughly enjoyed So Many Heroes. This event is, I admit, one that has held a certain fascination for me. What is it like to wake up one morning with tanks of other ‘friendly’ countries in the streets?
The text was an example of learning factual history in a personal setting, which made it interesting and memorable. Political figures, instead of being cold names relegated to textbooks, are people the author met who have humour (or lack thereof), emotions, and weaknesses. The book unfolds the pathos of dashed hopes in a way that dashes the reader’s own hopes, while recounting the heroic and subversive ways the Czechoslovak people resisted the army.
One of the most poignant moments in the book, for me, was when the author was speaking to a friend, 19 year old Václav who had laboured most arduously with other students against the invading troops and is symbolic of the country as a whole. On the anniversary of the invasion there was a protest, and he meets Václav crying:
“Tear gas got you?” I asked.
“Yes and no,” Václav replied. “The gas gets it going, but do you know what keeps me crying? Some of my friends were drafted…”
“As punishment?” I asked.
“No, in the normal course of conscription. And I just met two of them. The same two who were throwing Molotov cocktails into Russian tanks a year ago were throwing tear-gas bombs at their own people today.”
And Václav began to bawl.
Banana Peels on the Tracks: coming of age in post-Communist Slovakia
by Jason Lockwood
The year is 1992, still relatively soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Bored in his humdrum job in America, Jason decides to go to Slovakia to teach English. Circumstances are changing there at a fast rate, and he decides to get into the action. Thus starts an adventure and Jason shares his memories, impressions, and experiences in an engaging memoir.
Bananas Peels on the Tracks is a compelling read. Particularly interesting for me was seeing how much Slovakia has changed in a short 24 years – and seeing what hasn’t.
An interesting thread was the exchange of ideas and cultural differences, especially in mindset, between Lockwood and his students or other Slovaks. Issues like “The Gypsy Question”, cheating, individualism vs. community, and sharing personal dreams (or even having them) leave both sides realizing that the American mentality is completely different from that of Slovakia in 1992. Sometimes people are mystified, sometimes even frustrated. And Lockwood certainly considers the American one right.
Another strong point of the book is how vividly Lockwood can paint a character – their mannerisms, habits of speech, and personality. He brings forward the people he meets so well that the reader meets them too.
Lockwood doesn’t sugar coat anything but calls it as he sees it. Sometimes I wonder, however, if homesickness didn’t colour his experience more grey. When I look back after my first year in Slovakia, however, I think I felt much of the same negativity that he did and became more endeared the longer I have stayed.
Banana Peels on the Tracks is an engaging insight into the physiological difficulty of transiting from communist socialism to democracy.
Luba’s Travels: Travels of the Heart
by Luba Ruzicka
Growing up under a socialist government, Lubica Ruzicka was the daughter of a renowned cardiologist who refused to bend to The Party. She fell in love and married Fano, of similar principles and who longed to escape the oppressive regime. They came to the United States in 1968 on a visa for her husband to further study medicine, and decided to stay when recalled back to Czechoslovakia. Separated by the Iron Curtain from her family, Luba risked imprisonment many times to visit them, even writing coded letters. Luba recounts her life from Bratislava girl to poor immigrant to thriving family and travel business to losing her husband.
One of the benefits of self-publishing is that ‘ordinary’ people, if there is such a thing, can tell their extraordinary stories to the world. History textbooks will not remember most of us, but many of us have fascinating stories to tell. Luba’s Travels is one such example.
I really enjoyed especially the first two parts of the book, about life under socialism in Slovakia and then as a new immigrant to America. I often wonder what everyday life was like for normal Slovaks and Luba tells us. For example, as a girl at a mandatory parade in the November, she and a few friends marched around a statue of Stalin to keep warm. She was reprimanded for her disrespect at school that showed contempt for Stalin personally, and the report was recorded in a file that followed her to all schools and working places.
As an immigrant, she remembers well the mistakes one makes because you simply have no idea ( a clothes dryer? a check?) as well as the struggle to get by and save on very little money. Luba also shares her homesickness, something that any immigrant can identify with, grappling with the knowledge that you chose to leave your home and family and yet miss them so much. Yet, in the end, home is where you make it and her children’s home is America.
I also appreciated Luba’s honesty. She opens up and doesn’t hold back the bad, mistakes, or silliness, like losing money on a timeshare or sending a photo home in front of a fancy hotel to make it look like they were better off then they were.
Luba’s Travels tells the extraordinary story of an ordinary person, one of heart and grit.
by Kim Session
Ivy is a wedding officiant in Texas who, despite being ‘a good girl,’ ignores obvious warning signs and falls in love with Jeff. Five years later she bears his child, at which point he walks out. In the ensuing custody battle, a mysterious Maruska from Slovakia shows up from his past. Then one day two men are found dead, Jeff shot, and Maruska and the baby gone – a parent’s worse nightmare. Frustrated by the polices’ ineffectiveness, Ivy hires a private detective who traces the child to Slovakia. Ivy insists on accompanying him there, and in that country she is plunged into a nest of vipers, full of deceit, murder, and human trafficking.
When I first finished Hitched, I likened it to an action movie – characters that are horrifically bad, sexual tension, and not much substance. But then an article on human trafficking caught my eye and I changed my mind.
Human trafficking is on the rise. Statistics vary, but children make up a significant portion, as well as women and girls for sexual exploitation. And anyone who can willingly participate in human trafficking is beyond my understanding. Maybe there really are unbelievably bad guys like in the movies, or this case book. And we need to be reminded of them and their victims.
Although the author is acquainted with Bratislava, the setting of Slovakia is more about being a mysterious place, unknown to most readers, then about revealing what Slovakia is really like.
The Luck of the Weissensteiners
by Christoph Fischer
The Luck of the Weissensteiners covers the plight of Jews during WWII, beginning in Bratislava with an assimilated and non-religious Jew whose daughter marries into a Catholic family. Deception and betrayal break relationships as each person fends for themselves in the fight to survive the war, but forgiveness and love win out in the end.
Fischer sets his novel in a historically significant time, certainly a time rife with opportunity for dramatic story lines. While the book has many raving Amazon ratings (so the following may just be me) I found both the prose and dialogue rather stilted. The story takes an omniscient view of characters which comes across as simplistic and the characters themselves seem flat.
However, the novel deals with a sore spot in Slovak history, one that is not actually closed. Fischer manages to weave in true historical happenings with the story to give the reader more understanding of the history of Slovakia as well as the situation of its citizens.
All the books have been translated from Slovak to English. For readers who care, they are also all X-rated.
by Ursula Kovalyk
The Equestrienne is a look back on a specific time of a woman’s life, when she was a teen in the 1980s communist Czechoslovakia. She was close to her fiery swearing grandmother, not so close to her promiscuous chain-smoking mother. Rebellious, Karolina disliked school and refused to conform. A lonely life, until she discovers a riding school and befriends a physically handicapped girl, Romana. Together they learn trick riding, an activity she finally enjoys, and found a successful team…until the fall of communism, when the rule of the proletariat is replaced by the rule of money.
The Equestiriene is not a “nice” book that leaves you in a glow of rainbows and happy endings. No. It makes you wonder, consider, ponder – which is something given that it is only 80 pages long.
Ursula Kovalyk has a distinctive writing style consisting of short sentances with which she describes the dictatorship of both communism and capitalism. How those who fought communism succumbed to capitalism. There is also a strong theme of relationships, between family, between friends, and between those who were once close but fall apart.
The House of the Deaf Man
by Peter Kristufek
The House of the Dead Man follows Adam as he returns to his childhood home to clean it out, and thus goes through his memories, particularly of his father. The book simultaneously sees his father both from the innocent view of a boy and the knowledgeable view of an adult who has discovered his father’s secrets. The book looks back from today over the turbulent modern history of Slovakia, from just before the WWII through socialism to today. A time of shifting loyalties, of means deemed necessary for survival, of relationships through time, and of fathers and sons.
Through the power of fiction, Kristufek captures the changing nature of Slovakia over the last century and the forgetfulness of people both in their own lifetime and in ensuing generations. As the half-Jewish Adam learns more about his father’s past, he must come to realize that the father he knew is not the same as the man who existed. And yet, he remains faithful to caring for his father in his old age, holding on to the house with all its memories and connections to the past until it is destroyed.
“The statues gracing Brezany’s main square kept changing, although the material of which they were made remained the same. National hero Milan Rastislav Stefanik’s bronze statue was fashioned by a gentleman with an insufficiently Aryan-sounding name so in due course he had to be replaced by Hlinka, who, in turn, was replaced by Gottwald, to be briefly replaced by Hlinka again who, in turn, was again replaced by Stefanik. The game of musical chairs came to an end when the statue was sent for restoration, and a huge wide billboard was erected in the middle of the square, its red and white letters proclaiming TESCO, 1.2 km.”
A powerful statement on how Slovakia’s history has shaped the character of the Slovak people today.
Rivers of Babylon
by Peter Pistanek
Sent to Bratislava from the village to earn his fortune by a prospective father-in-law, Racz takes the job of a stoker for water boilers still fuelled by coal. After being fined, he shuts the pipes down in a rage; in the resulting cold, gifts (from cash to cigarettes to sex) are proffered to encourage Racz to fix the pipes. With a peasant’s street smarts, Racz realizes the potential and, with greed, violence, and brutality, works his way up to be rich enough to enter politics.
Set in the hayday after Communism fell, Pistanek wrote a satirical commentary on the use of power in Slovakia. Ironically, it’s the proletariat who now has power when capitalism is the name of the game. While no longer as volatile as the 1990s, Slovakia is still dealing with effects of the mix of mafia, money, and politics.
Pistanek reveals the dark life of the underground, including the trafficking of Slovak prostitutes to Austria, underhand dealings that have all the legal paperwork, and the laundering of a ruthless gang leader into a person of prestige and influence. While fiction, it could be a true story.
The Camp of Fallen Women
by Anton Balaz
After WWII, the Communist Party took control and began to implement Stalinist and socialist policies in Slovakia. In this novel, a group of prostitutes are gathered up and sent to a re-education camp, the camp at Novaky that used to hold Jews. The story follows the women’s education – or inefficiency thereof – to become model workers contributing to the good of the country with enthusiasm for that esteemed leader, Stalin.
The Camp of Fallen Women is a satire, poking fun at the prudishness and ineffectiveness of socialist policies. Socialist men and women will not be interested in what a woman looks like but in her work ethic and intelligence, the communists claim, but sex is the overarching driving force of the all the women in particular and other camp inmates in general.
The book also highlights the double faced nature of the times – grand statements and celebrations of communism which were believed by few but ‘celebrated’ by all. And as disobedience and subversive resistance reigns in the camp, the commander of the camp prefers to exercise selective vision, so that the goal of the camp is steadily being achieved in theory while he himself helps some of those targeted by the vicious supervisor – strife among the ranks who engage in comradely cooperation.
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