What have writers from the old Soviet bloc ever done for us?
In the late 20th century writers from the old Soviet bloc travelled at warp speed from communism into capitalism. What creativity comes out of that? I want to know.
Orwell found Zamyatin’s We in 1945, more than 20 years after its appearance in Russian. He read the French translation, and We immediately fired his imagination to produce 1984. That buried work from the East, discovered decades later in translation, triggered an English classic and the genre of dystopia that floods the young adult market even now.
The first UK translation of We didn’t come out till 1970. I didn’t want to wait decades for the next new venture in fiction to filter through to me. I started a small house, Barbican Press, precisely to make books happen that I want to see happen. I knew the Czech writer Hana Sklenkova. Hana was in her teens in Czechoslovakia when the Soviet world collapsed. She came to Plymouth to study creative writing in English. I taught her when she moved on to the MA course. She came away with a distinction. Her writing is fabulous. What modern Czech book-with-a-difference would thrill me? What might she like to translate?
She came back with two: Peklo Benes by Josef Nesvatba, an alternative history in which the Czech president prevents the 1938 Munich Agreement and so Czechoslovakia becomes a neutral state; and Martin Vopenka’s Pátý rozmer. ‘The story follows a Czech millionaire who’s lost all his money,’ Hana wrote. ‘To get his wealth back, he signs up for an experiment run by a secret American corporation. As part of the experiment, the protagonist has to spend a year in barren mountains of Argentina. After some time, the seemingly dead landscape begins to reveal its hidden powers (i.e. the fifth dimension – the book’s title) … the protagonist bears witness to a groundbreaking physics theory that can change the course of human history.’
Martin Vopenka is the son of a renowned Jewish Czech mathematician. He knew he was a writer, but the Communist regime steered him into studying mathematics and physics. Years later, many books to his credit and head of the Czech publishers’ association, that early student life suddenly made sense. The bankrupt millionaire in the novel he was writing got to take one book into the Andes with him. He chose Kip Thorne’s Black Holes & Time Warps. Kip Thorne’s ideas have entered the mainstream by fuelling Chris Nolan’s film Interstellar. The Fifth Dimension engages in a dialogue with the early Thorne book in a way I have never encountered in fiction.
There’s much more in this book that I have not encountered in fiction. A translating norm is that you translate into your mother tongue. That ignores what a Conrad or a Nabokov can do for English. I wanted a translator who had adventured into English but lived through the same place and epoch as the author. Hana sent me the work chapter by chapter, and I acted as the mother-tongue ear. The Fifth Dimension came at me with the excitement of a serial adventure story.
Vopenka has been favourably compared to Kafka and Kundera. Kafka and Kundera opened up a realm of possibilities for me as writer. They unzip the imagination from its normal bounds. I’ll never read Czech, but translation opens worlds that are otherwise closed. The act of translation reveals a book, word by word. It’s a journey deep into another creative mind. The Fifth Dimension is now unlocked for an international readership. I look forward to the curious thrill of having another Czech treasure unpeeled for me, ready for sharing.