Vol 1, No 4, 19 July 1999
B O O K R E V I E W:
Traveller's Literary Companion:
Eastern and Central Europe
Traveller's Literary Companion: Eastern and Central Europe
The Traveller's Literary Companion to Eastern and Central Europe has been on the market for a couple of years now but neither the book nor the series to which it belongs are as well known as they should be. There are, in fact, a number of titles in the series, all with broadly the same format. For the record, there also exist Companions to France, Africa, South and Central America, The Indian Subcontinent, Japan and Southeast Asia.
This particular volume is broken down into eight chapters: Poland, The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Former Yugoslavia and Albania. Each chapter is written by an academic specialist in the literature of the area under discussion, but obviously great care has been taken to make all the chapters interesting and readable for the general reader; in other words, this is absolutely not an academic textbook on literature.
The individual chapters are further broken down into four sections. The first section of each chapter is both a brief history of the literature and something of a guide for the literary tourist, highlighting cities or areas of each country that are of literary interest. The writers of the chapter on Poland take a slightly different, more thematic approach, but the end result is broadly the same as the other chapters. The historical overviews of the various literary traditions are wide-ranging, informative and readable, avoiding the trap of being unnecessarily detailed for a book of this type.
The second section of each chapter gives a detailed bibliography of English translations of works from the literature under discussion. The chapter authors have evidently tried to be as thorough as possible, and thus, in my opinion these bibliographies are especially useful. I am not aware of any other book aimed at the non-specialist reader that provides such a comprehensive list of titles for people interested in broadening their knowledge of Central and Eastern European literature. The Czech bibliography, for instance, is some 10 pages long and contains entries ranging from translations of mediaeval prose published in rather obscure journals to the well-known large paperback editions of writers such as Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel.
It might be objected that some of the entries in these bibliographies are only going to be available to specialist readers with access to large academic libraries - I have my doubts whether it would be easy to find the one and only translation of Jozsef Eotvos's The Village Notary from 1850, for instance - but I don't think this is a very serious objection.
It is also nice to find entries for writers from outside the region in question who have interesting points of contact there. Edward Lear and Byron turn up in the Albania entry, Olivia Manning in Romania, George Eliot in the Czech Republic and Thomas Keneally in Poland. There is nothing unusual in this, but it is easy to overlook outside influences when thinking about a national literary heritage.
The third section of each chapter is made up of extracts taken from some of the works given in the bibliographies. On the whole, these extracts are taken from nineteenth- and twentieth-century writings, which may disappoint some people, but they do at least give a useful taste of works which are largely unfamiliar. The extracts are no more than a paragraph or two long, but then there may be 20 or more extracts to choose from in each chapter; there are over 120 extracts in the whole book.
The mix of authors in these sections is very broad: Opening the section on former Yugoslavia at random, I found relatively well-known authors such as Ivo Andric and Danilo Kis next to the Kosovan Albanian poet Azem Shkreli or the important nineteenth-century Prince-Bishop of Montenegro Petar Petrovic Njegos. Some extracts are not particularly interesting and others make you want to rush out and buy or borrow the book in question immediately.
Each chapter closes with a section containing short biographies of the authors discussed and a description of their most important works. These biographies vary in length and detail, but with the exception of Albania there are between 20 to 30 author biographies in each chapter. Even more than the extracts, these biographies provide good pointers to writers who might be of particular interest, and it is helpful for those who can read in the original languages that the biographies are not restricted just to those works available in English translation.
The only difficulty I have experienced with this book is occasionally getting a bit lost when trying to navigate my way through its chapters - the print is quite small and a lot of it is crammed onto each page. This layout gives some idea of the amount of information packed into the book: 440 pages of densely packed text (with some photos and maps, of course) in a book that is not exactly pocket sized but is small enough (A5 format) to carry around comfortably on one's travels around the region.
In conclusion, this is the best guide to the literatures of Central and Eastern Europe that I have come across, and I would say that it is more or less indispensable for anyone with more than a passing interest in the literatures of these countries. It is eminently suitable for the general reader but still has a good deal to offer to a more specialist audience. It serves as a general reference book but still comfortably lives up to its claim to be a "traveller's literary companion".
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