A Cosmopolitan and a European: A conversation with Slovak novelist Jozef Banáš

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Interviewer: Josette Baer

JOSETTE BAER: Every book you have published since 2008 has topped Slovakia’s bestseller list. Your novel about Alexander Dubček made you the bestselling Slovak author in the Czech Republic. What’s the secret of your success?

JOZEF BANÁŠ:In spite of the fact that I have been a member of the Communist Party – how this happened is described in my novel Zona nadšenia (Zone of Jubilation) – people trust me. The idea that every communist is evil and every democrat good is at odds with reality. Willy Brandt once told me: “You can recognise anybody’s past by the way this person behaves today.” This is absolutely true. Those who stole under socialism remained criminals under democracy, and those who were decent under socialism are still decent today. I have always searched for the truth and didn’t care who I criticised as a communist or democratic fraud in my books and plays.

What is the motivation that drives you to write?

I have written five books since 2007 which all became bestsellers; this means that each title sells around 30,000 copies, which in Great Britain, for example, would equate to an edition of half a million. My books have been translated or are being translated into Czech, Polish, German, Ukrainian and Hindi. I am writing because people are reading me. I travel all over Slovakia, and also abroad, giving readings from my books, with people telling me that the events I describe are authentic and believable. A writer should be a searcher for truth because we are only truly free when we recognise the truth. The Slovak mentality was characterised by a strongly hypocritical Catholicism and communism, which are ideologies that lead people to irresponsibility, to hiding themselves in the collective. With my books, I am trying to instil people with self-confidence. My novel, Code 9 (Kód 9), in which I criticise the higher echelons of the Catholic Church, triggered a stormy discussion in Slovakia, and which makes me truly happy.

How would you describe yourself: artist, writer, political figure, or Slovak patriot?

First and foremost, I am a cosmopolitan and a European, then a Slovak patriot, then a Bratislavčan – a Pressburger. Bratislava is one of the few cities in the world that is not only located on the borders of three states, but also three cultures: the German (Austrian), Hungarian and Slovak cultures that created and are creating the city’s cosmopolitan atmosphere. I understand German and Hungarian, which is typical for my generation of Bratislavčanov. My political activities were just an episode, and certainly, they taught me a lot, but enough was enough. I can also consider myself a writer since I have a wide readership. I believe that my books, which have captured the interest of German, Polish and Czech readers, will also interest readers in English-speaking countries. I know that establishing oneself in the United States or Great Britain is an immensely difficult task for a Slovak author, but I do hope that, one day, my Brownovka (a book written in the style of Dan Brown – interviewer’s note), as critics referred to Code 9, will also be read by Dan Brown or Ken Follet in their native English – two authors I regard as literary role models.

What were your reasons for joining the Communist Party in 1976?

When I joined the Communist Party, I was 28 years old – which is quite a telling sign that I didn’t do it out of true belief. I was working in a company in a small Slovak town, and only went there because the authorities promised me a flat. My wife was four months pregnant when they asked us both to join the Communist Party. My wife managed to talk her way out of it, but I joined. I cannot imagine anyone who had a baby on the way and no place to live (we were living in a small worker’s room, without the usual facilities) would refuse to join the party in this situation. My wife also worked in the same state company as I did, so we were dependent on it. As a member of the KSČ (the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia), I always behaved as I saw fit, which led to disagreements with the company’s leading party member and thus to my ultimate resignation.

Between 1983 and 1988, you served as a press attaché at the embassy of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in East Berlin. What was life like for a diplomat stationed in East Berlin?

I would be a hypocrite if I were to assert today that I suffered at the Czechoslovak Embassy in East Berlin. We lived a life similar to the East Germans and I met many friends there; friendships which have lasted to this day. Unlike them, however, I could travel to West Berlin once a month for a little shopping, visit an exhibition or buy books that were forbidden in my country. I bought books, most of all, because nobody checked us at the border. In addition to my diplomat’s salary, paid in East German marks, I received 80 West German marks, with which I wanted to “buy up” half of West Berlin. The most depressing memory of my life originates from that five-year stay in divided Berlin. From my office window, I could look out every day at the Berlin Wall. One day, putting caution aside, I paid a visit to the Museum of the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie and was completely shattered when I saw the terrible pictures of people shot while trying to flee to the West. At the embassy, I openly defended the course of Mikhail Gorbachev against the party apparatus, which got me into trouble. The ambassador advised me to return to Prague, but a kindred spirit in the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Prague defended me. I have described a day in the life of a Czechoslovak diplomat in East Berlin in detail in my novel Jubelzone (Zona nadšenia, Zone of Jubilation).

Looking back at Slovakia’s past, some people still admire Jozef Tiso (a Slovak Roman Catholic priest, politician of the Slovak People’s Party, and Nazi collaborator – editor’s note) and consider him a martyr. Why?

I don’t think the majority of Slovaks consider Jozef Tiso a martyr. The fact remains that the Slovak state, under the guidance of a catholic priest, was completely loyal to Hitler. The fact that approximately 60,000 Jews were transported to various concentration camps and that we paid Hitler 500 Reichsmark for the liquidation of each person is a dark spot in the history of Slovakia and the Catholic Church. The Slovak National Uprising in August 1944, however, was seminal to Slovakia’s post-war history.

In the end, Slovakia came out on the side of the Allies…

Yes, the Slovak National Uprising in August 1944 was seminal to Slovakia’s post-war history. Although the movement was badly planned and ultimately suppressed, it was the second largest uprising against Hitler in Central Europe, after the Yugoslav resistance. The majority of the citizens think of it as a courageous sign of resistance against the fascist occupation. Slovakia is a small nation of five million people. Throughout history, Tatars, Ottomans, Germans and Russians have all fought on our territory. We were part of the multi-ethnic Kingdom of Hungary for nearly a thousand years (approx. 997-1918), although unfortunately the Hungarians started to assimilate non-Magyar citizens in the early 19th century. This led to a situation where, in 1874, the last Slovak gymnasium (high school) was closed. Only after 1918, when the Czechoslovak republic was founded, could we breathe a little as a nation. We had never had our own state, and we regret the fact that our first chance only came during the Second World War, with Hitler controlling most of Europe. After the first Slovak Republic (1939-1945), which was governed by the Catholic clergy, with the constitution only granting legitimacy to the clerical-fascist party, we had a democracy for no more than three years, until the communists assumed power in 1948. During communist times, the constitution only acknowledged one party, thus the catholic and communist elites in Slovakia have nothing to reproach each other.

In your opinion, what has changed in the lives of Slovaks since the Velvet Revolution in 1989?

Most Slovaks embraced the Velvet Revolution with unreserved joy. But this soon fizzled out when the majority saw the step-by-step decline of the level of employment in Slovakia. Disillusion started to grow among the workers. A small group of people, on the other hand, became extremely rich. This would have been all right had many of them not come by their assets in a dishonest way; these people also ruined the reputation of those honest entrepreneurs who had created their wealth through hard work. Under socialism, we were not free, but we were granted social security. Many people were disappointed with the so-called “democracy” that ruled after November 1989. This system was far removed from democracy. It was a brutal “partokratia”, in which the political parties and their sponsors, under the pretence of privatisation, irresponsibly plundered Slovakia and took over power. Slovakia was a poor agrarian country when the communists took over, and during their 40 years rule, they provided the people with work, even in the most remote regions, and people were able to build themselves houses. But after the revolution many factories went bankrupt and the mobility of the workforce in the countryside was minimal. These people now remember the old times with nostalgia.

I remember the summer of 1992, when Czech Premier Václav Klaus and Slovak Premier Vladimír Mečiar decided to dissolve Czechoslovakia. Despite the fact that this was a violation of the Federal Constitution, Slovakia became a sovereign state. How did this Velvet Divorce affect Slovak citizens? What do Czechs and Slovaks think of each other today?

Mečiar and Klaus promised a referendum on the separation, but this never happened. My family is, in the truest sense of the word, Czecho-Slovak: our elder daughter lives in Prague, my brother-in-law in Moravia – which is why the separation was a painful occurrence. The pessimists who predicted that Slovakia would not be capable of self-government have been proved wrong, and today, we are a sovereign republic that has, contrary to all beliefs and prognoses, achieved something remarkable: a political and bureaucratic elite that evolved without any prior experience of how to govern a state. Before the separation, everything concerning Slovakia was decided in Prague. The relations between Czechs and Slovaks are now exemplary. They are two independent nation states that are close to each other and completely European. Only an idiot would fail to recognise the positive things that Czech culture and thought have brought to Slovakia during the time of our common state.

On March 10th 2012, Robert Fico (Smer) was elected prime minister by the citizens of Slovakia, replacing Iveta Radičová (SDKÚ-DS). Radičová’s centre-right coalition government had only been in power since 2010. What mistakes did she make?

I know the former prime minister, Iveta Radičová, quite well from when we used to be involved in the theatre. She is an extraordinary, well-educated and experienced lady, whose life is guided by principles. In politics, however, it is difficult to be guided by principles. As Ronald Reagan once said: “Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realise it bears a very close resemblance to the first.” Radičová was a lonely general without an army because not even her own party SDKÚ-DS (the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union – Democratic Party), led by Mikuláš Dzurinda, supported her. Her government coalition was also founded by parties that, in terms of ideological orientation, literally excluded each other. The Slovak Christian Democrats (KDH) always knew how to compromise more with the communists than with the liberals (SaS – Freedom and Solidarity). Additionally, the government coalition, which I was a delegate of between 2002 to 2006, failed because of ideological struggles between the catholic fundamentalists of KDH (the Christian Democratic Movement) and the liberals of the Alliance of the New Citizen (ANO). Robert Fico united the Slovak left with long-term, attractive politics and created a leftist colossus that split the estranged and disunited right. I have a feeling that Slovakia’s left is not only going to govern during this current election period but far beyond.

How do you see Slovakia’s political future in these times of global financial crisis?

We are a small country and do not have a lot of room for manoeuvre. The key relations with two countries, Russia and Germany, have always been of crucial importance to Slovakia. And although we are members of NATO and the European Union, this still holds. Personally, I am a passionate fan of the EU, but at the same time, I am also a passionate opponent of European cheats. In my opinion, the European Financial Stability Facility is a bad institution because it gives political legitimacy to politicians guilty of maladministration and the banks that lent to them. First and foremost, it was incompetent, corrupt politicians and greedy banks that caused the financial crisis. Of course, we alone cannot protect ourselves against this on the level of our state, but Slovak nature is such that we have always known what to do. Like many Slovaks, I have a garden where I grow fruit and vegetables. I simply don’t eat the rubber-like tomatoes or artificially ripened kiwis imported from abroad.

Coming back to you, do you already have a specific topic that you want to write about for your next book?

I am a Christian, but did not become one because they splashed me with a little water as a baby, but because I think and search. As a good Christian, I am also a good Buddhist and Muslim. After all, all religions originate in similar moral principles, yet the powerful of those religions took sides with the powerful in politics, abusing the wonderful ideas of Buddha, Mohammed and Christ. I am writing a sequel to the successful Code 9, which I am going to call Code 1. It takes place in Kashmir, Israel, the Vatican and Slovakia. The main hero is searching for traces of Jews, Christians and Jesus in India, trying to unite all these religions. This is, certainly, not a new theme, but under the conditions of the hypocritical Catholicism prevalent in Slovakia, it will act as a provocation. Dan Brown doesn’t have a problem with this in the liberal United States, but in Slovakia, an author addressing this issue has a problem. I am expecting an outcry and opposition from the “possessors of truth”, who will attack me under the cloak of anonymity. I am used to this.

Jozef Banáš was born on September 27th 1948 in Bratislava, Slovakia. He has worked as a journalist, diplomat, and politician both in Communist Czechoslovakia and in the Post-Communist Slovakia. In 2002, Banáš was appointed head of the Slovak delegation to the NATO parliamentary assembly. Since 2006, he has focussed on writing. He is a member of the Slovak Writers’ Association and vice-president of the Slovak PEN Club.

Josette Baer, born 1966, is senior lecturer at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and has published widely about Czech and Slovak intellectual history.

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