Central European Press
ISBN: 963-9116-47-5
To call a book a “classic” is a weighty matter. We have more than one standard used to judge, but the main factor seems to be reputation. We call a book a “modern classic” when it sets the tone for a genre, or substantially shapes a generation. A “non-modern” classic is usually something we are familiar with from literature class—George Eliot, perhaps, or Dickens. You can usually judge by what Penguin reissues in inexpensive paperback.  
      The Central European University Press has taken it upon themselves to publish classics of Central European literature—that is to say, Czech, Polish, and Hungarian works, primarily unknown to the English speaking world. Like the classics we know, these books have solid reputations in their country of origin, but somehow they never made it outside. Unlike Madame Bovary or The Brothers Karamazov, the books in the “Central European Classics” series can be read with a fresh eye. Even if you have never read Dostoevsky, you almost certainly have preconceptions about him (whether they’re true or not probably depends on your literature professor). The books in the series can be compared to these titans of literature-in-translation. They, too, are staples of the educational system in their own countries, where their merit is considered unquestionable. A series like this does more than point out to us gaps in our literary globalism, however. There is a particular piquancy in reading a completely unknown “classic.” It hardly counts as a classic at all; it’s simply a book, and a book like this is truly a gift.  
      The Sorrowful Eyes of Hannah Karajich is actually a long novella, published here in a separate volume. The setting is Ruthenia, an area which deserves some explanation. In some ways Ruthenia is Central Europe encapsulated; part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until World War I, it was administered by the Hungarians until captured by Czechoslovakia. During World War II Hungary took it back, only to lose it to the Soviet Union in the post-war era.  
      This highly contested bone was a relatively undeveloped region, rural and isolated. The village of Polana, where the Hannah’s story begins and ends, is as simple as you could imagine, yet here international politics are part of everyday life at the end of WWI. Hannah’s father is a substantial member of the Hasidic community who loses the fortune left to him by his father simply because he doesn’t know from day to day in which country their village will be. The new Czech authorities offer to exchange Hungarian money for their own at a decent exchange rate. But the rumor is floating around that if the Hungarians come back they won’t offer the same deal. Hannah’s father is tormented by doubt; which gamble is the safest? He decides to hold on to his Hungarian money even as the exchange rate offered by the Czechs tumbles. Eventually his “fortune” is a local legend, worthless money stuffed into huge bags. His situation doesn’t improve, and by the time Hannah is a young woman there is nothing left for a dowry.  
      The soul of the book is the sorrow in the eyes of Hannah, the prettiest girl in the village, although her eyes are not sorrowful until close to the end of the story. She lives happily in the cohesive Hasidic community of the village. The outside world seems far away, as it takes a letter a long way to come to Polana, which is “further away from Prague than any other point in Europe. On the second or third day a letter from Prague will arrive at the railway station, on the fourth day a trap will come from the town to fetch it, on the fifth day a peasant trap will take it over the hills to the village on the other side, and on the sixth or the eighth day the Polana parish messenger will come for it; he only comes three times a week. There’s no hurry.” Into this undisturbed world comes a new theory: Zionism. This issue animates the community, and arguments occasionally descend into abuse or even broken windows. With all the young people, Hannah becomes enamored of the new craze, and stands for election in her village to the Zionist socialist community center in Ostrava. Hannah is not satisfied with life in the Ostrava center, however, with its self-criticism and the petty quarrels. But it is in Ostrava that she has the accidental meeting with Ivo Karajich that is the turning point in Hannah’s story.  
      Ivo Karajich is urbane, educated, cynical and speaks only Czech, no Yiddish. A stranger with an enormous nose, he accosts Hannah on the street one day. Soon she is out of the Zionist center and working for Ivo on his newspaper called, appropriately, The Free Thinker. In this new atmosphere Hannah starts to encounter the world. She is still the girl from Polana—but in love. The conversations between Ivo and Hannah are amusing—they are two worlds that collide quite happily—yet there is a foretaste of Hannah’s sorrow in these conversations. Although Ivo laughs at Hannah’s simple acceptance of the world she was born into, the author does not. Ivo’s modern ideas are a challenge to Hannah; she tries to understand, and is confused, but even in her confusion we can feel Mr. Olbracht’s respect for Hannah as she struggles to comprehend. “The world is a strange place, thought Hanele, people seem to be going mad. The Lord God forbids you to go to Palestine, the Lord God commands you to go to Palestine, there is no Lord God, there is no Palestine…Is it true, then, that God still exists at home in Polana and here in the west He does not? Was He never here, or did He use to be here and now is here no longer? One thing is sure: in Polana God exists!” The author and the reader feel sympathy for Hannah’s plight. Interestingly, her lover Ivo does not. Ivo, in fact, is less tolerant than the orthodox Hannah. His cynicism is a sort of creed. As Hannah finds out from Ivo’s mother, Ivo has repudiated his Jewish roots, even changed his name. Like many who cast themselves off into the unknown, “Izzie” feels that, as Ivo, he must be staunch and unrelenting in his modernity and secularism. It is from this, the meeting of Hannah’s tolerance and Ivo’s rigid secularism, that the seeds of tragedy in Polana spring.  
      The language in the novel has been praised for combining the language of the Hasidic Jews, the villages of Ruthenia, and the city talk of Ostrava. This sophisticated pastiche is also successful in the English translation, here by Iris Urwin Lewitova, although I suspect the Czech version was a great deal subtler. In general the tone of the book is quite simple, without heavy imagery or grandiose descriptions. This simple surface over a whirlpool of dialects is characteristic of the structure of the book as a whole, which uses the linear story of Hannah-meets-Ivo as the frame for the end of a world. The characters are equally heartfelt, in particular the quiet and holy Pinches Yakubovich, visited in his torn trousers by angels and foreknowledge.  
      The story of Hannah was originally the longest novella in a volume entitled Valley of Exile, a group of three stories about Ruthenia published by Ivan Olbracht in 1937 and ranked ninth on a list of “the century’s best Czech books” in a recent poll. The Central European University Press edition has an informative introduction by noted man of letters and science Miroslav Holub; in fact, it was one of the last things he wrote before his unexpected death. This edition also has useful endnotes, but I myself didn’t need to reference them while reading.  
      In its story of change, broken traditions and loss Mr. Olbracht’s tale prefigures the million-times more violent change of the Holocaust. The Jews of Polana are living in a world that has been seamless for generations, but the seams are straining and splitting. For Polana, Hannah has walked into death, but death has also walked into Polana. The clamorous prayer for the dead that Hannah braves at the end of the story is the sound of mourning as a world is destroyed. For expressing this Mr. Olbracht’s novella truly deserves the appellation “classic.”