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 classGeorge 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
literaturethat 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
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 theyre 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; its 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 Hannahs 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. Hannahs father is a substantial
member of the Hasidic community who loses the fortune left to him
by his father simply because he doesnt 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 wont offer the same deal. Hannahs 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 doesnt
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. Theres 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 Hannahs 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 Polanabut
in love. The conversations between Ivo and Hannah are amusingthey
are two worlds that collide quite happilyyet there is a foretaste
of Hannahs sorrow in these conversations. Although Ivo laughs
at Hannahs simple acceptance of the world she was born into,
the author does not. Ivos modern ideas are a challenge to
Hannah; she tries to understand, and is confused, but even in her
confusion we can feel Mr. Olbrachts 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 Hannahs 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 Ivos 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 Hannahs tolerance and Ivos 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 centurys 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 didnt need to reference them while
In its story of change, broken traditions
and loss Mr. Olbrachts 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. Olbrachts
novella truly deserves the appellation classic.