Recently, I have coincidentally gotten hold of the book The Zone of Enthusiasm by Jozef Banáš and I have been impressed. From the first page on I was glued to the book, which should have become - and let us ask why it has not, a literary event of today. The novel The Zone of Enthusiasm is without exaggeration the book for which the whole Czechoslovak society was waiting for 20 years.
After all, how many books have been published which describe the past twenty years of the communist regime - and in several states at once: GDR, FRG, Czechoslovakia and the USSR. The Zone of Enthusiasm is literary a “Central European” book that knits the history of four states together. I daresay that such a book has not been published here yet. We, Czechs, can be ashamed that none of our Czech authors has found enough honor and courage to write it – a Slovak had to do it – and at the same time we can be glad, that it was him. Let us say something about Jozef Banáš now.
I noticed his name for the first time about half a year ago in connection with his famous daughter Adela Banášová, who was presenting the popular TV show Československo hledá Superstar (equivalent to the American Idol or British Pop Idol1). Adela Banášová was speaking about him in such a nice way that I searched for more information about him on the internet and read his interesting life story. This included a diplomatic and thereafter political career before and after November 1989 (Velvet Revolution - fall of the communist regime1). On his diplomatic missions he met wise men as well as those ideologically inculcated. As the book´s motto says – You know someone’s past by the way he or she acts today. This novel hides a treasure.
The plot is simple, maybe even hackneyed: A young Slovak man meets a young Ukrainian woman during a sports event in 1968; they fall in love with each other, she becomes pregnant and after the invasion of five allied armies an impenetrable barrier arises between them. She goes on with her life and he does as well. Likewise, a young West German man, who befriends the young Slovak, has to stay on the other side of the barrier, too. As time passes by, the young enthusiastic left oriented activist becomes an active part of public life of democratic West Germany. The rift among three people from one small continent seems to be insurmountable. As if in three different universes, smaller and larger dramas take place, which clearly and accurately illustrate the beauty and horror of those days.
Central Europe and the Soviet Union of the late 20th century resemble an aquarium – an inward-looking, cumbersome and corrupt system that does not have enough energy and resources to meet the basic needs of their populations. At the same time, Jozef Banáš destroys the idyllic image of West Germany by depicting it more like a puppet regime of the USA. Or at least that is the impression I got after reading his description of the situation then in FRG. All of this is the basis for several very strong personal stories, each of which would stand its ground in any setting. However, the setting of oppressed free souls and a nation divided by the Berlin wall adds another dimension to these stories.
Jozef Banáš is a professional diplomat and politician; this fact is strongly reflected in the novel. Parts of the novel are “reconstructions”, or to be more precise, fictional reconstructions of several events that shaped the historic framework of those times. Negotiations between the Soviet ambassador and the U.S. president, a description of the negotiations in the Kremlin and other passages add spice to the story without which, however, the book would boldly do. I think the reasons why Jozef Banáš kept those passages in the novel may be twofold: On one hand, it is attractive for readers to see the American president as a simple-minded fan of American football or Leonid Brezhnev hesitating about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Still, on the other hand, maybe Jozef Banáš wanted to present the main characters of the political world in an attractive way to younger readers. Although I could easily do without these passages, I do not think that they harm the novel. The book resembles a script for a movie; when leaving the gripping plot for a while in order to let the history speak, in which the story is set.
I encountered only one little problem while reading this extremely interesting book and none of the reviews I read had ever mentioned this problem (Slovak reviews including). The time frame of the novel dates from 1968 to 2008. In the last part the author deals with the post-revolution period, particularly in Slovak Republic. Although it is an interesting and controversial topic, which in a way gives the story an absurd end, it looks to me like a bloated add-on. Although the true story of John Winter, personified evil, and his character are revealed (which gives the whole novel its marvelous end), Jozef Banáš deals too much with post-revolutionary politics in Slovakia. In my opinion, this is a strong enough topic for a separate novel; in this book it appears rather flat and purposeful.
The topic of the novel is quite controversial, mainly because it narrates about people who still are active in Slovak public life thus, for example, facilitating speculations as to who John Winter really is.
In my opinion the novel The Zone of Enthusiasm is a book which every voter should read before casting his or her vote in the ballot box. I would recommend it to all children in primary school where the book could serve as a tool for teaching modern history. Jozef Banáš is an experienced writer, unfortunately, rather unknown among Czech readers.
In the beginning of this review, I wrote: Let us ask why the book has not become a literary event. I was searching for book reviews on the internet and Google found only one – in the magazine Tvar and then a short annotation on the web site Novinky.cz. Other sites like Respekt, Literarni noviny, Lidove noviny, iDnes did not mention anything about the book. No one talks, nor writes about it, as if it doesn’t exist. And that is how it works with almost everything worthwhile. Newspapers and magazines outrun each other in glorifying Dan Brown’s new book, which is about the same for the hundredth time – no change in style, language, or narrative structure. The Zone of Enthusiasm, which has become the Book of the Year 2008, is a Cinderella in Czech Republic; (almost) no one has noticed it.
The Zone of Enthusiasm will impress you and remind you of times when freedom was not taken for granted. Those are the main reasons why you should read this novel.
Tomáš Fojtík, Czech republic, Prague