Address by Michal Hvorecký

 

I am very honored to be the only person from Slovakia who will speak here on this great day, which is of such an importance for my small Central European country. I deeply appreciate the courage of your executive board for taking its decision to work exactly in that location. In the recent years, especially after Slovakia accessing to the European Union, people tend to move the other way round, from east towards west. At the same time, I am not surprised as I know your final destination - the beautiful castle of Béla. There will be much on your agenda in preserving and developing the legacy of our united European continent.

As a fiction writer I strongly believe in literature as an authentic mode of viewing the world via a unique perception that our imagination can only create. So let me quote from probably the most famous literary description of Slovaks, which can be found in the classic horror novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. Stoker thought Slovaks live in Transylvania and he described them as follows:

"The strangest figures we saw were the Slovaks, who were more barbarian than the rest, with their big cow-boy hats, great baggy dirty-white trousers, white linen shirts, and enormous heavy leather belts. They wore high boots, with their trousers tucked into them, and had long black hair and heavy black moustaches. They are very picturesque... they look like some harmless old Oriental band of bandits."

Slovakia really is a lesser-known European state. Slovaks have got a long tradition to reflect their own identity with a self-irony. It probably helped them to survive despite of being besieged by bigger nations like Ukrainian, Polish, Hungarian and Austrian. In times of Czechoslovakia - which I still consider to be my home country - very few foreigners knew that it is a federation with two official languages. Just another example from my field of work: international book market knows and sells Czech, Polish or Hungarian novels, authors such as Kundera, Hrabal, Stasiuk, Tokarczuk or Nádas, Szabó and Eszterhazy, but I question how many people in this room are able to name a Slovak writer (besides of me, of course :-).

No other country of Europe is so often mistaken for some other one as Slovakia. Six years ago, during his election campaign, American president George W. Bush expressed himself to be very happy to learn so much about Slovakia - during his long talk with the members of the Slovenian Government. In December 2003 the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi felt excited to meet his partner from Slovakia who was in reality Anton Rop, the Prime Minister of Slovenia. During the last year, our Post Office had to send 830 kilograms of letters to their true addressees in Slovenia.

But let me put the things right, ladies and gentlemen. Without the Slovaks the civilization would be very different from how we know it nowadays. Many major technical improvements were done by the best men of this nation, which didn't have its own language codified until 1843. My countrymen invented a motor-driven helicopter, a parachute and wireless telegraphy. You can now imagine how boring James Bond's movies would be, if no Slovaks would live on the planet Earth.

I think Slovakia is a very inspiring place to live in, especially when you prefer all the advantages the freedom of speech can offer you: ironic sense of humor, a love of the absurd in the turbulent period of fast economical development, as well as the everyday life in the environment, where borders between fantasy and reality blur constantly.

But it was not always like this. Just twelve years ago Slovak newspapers resembled classic catastrophic novels in the best tradition of Franz Kafka or Karel Čapek. Press agencies delivered horrible visions of modern totalitarian world, fueled by intense disillusionment with our post-communist transformation. Slovakia was then temporarily dismissed from the first group of EU candidates. For too long the country stayed in its transition phase, delaying its democratic consolidation, reaching the edge of economic crisis and right-wing nationalism. After Czecho-Slovak separation, the eternal „younger brother" nearly failed, ending up almost as an outsider of the continent with tendency to become a Belarus of the region.

Only in the last four years, after radical and successful wide-ranging reforms, the eastern part of former Czechoslovakia caught up with its neighbors and actually became one of the leading forces of the booming Central European markets. Times have changed rapidly and Slovakia has become an industrial region with its vision and promises of plentiful jobs with growing wages.

We have to acknowledge to many external factors, mainly the role the EU and NATO. They have helped Slovaks to institutionalize their democracy, to stabilize its currency and economical structure. In particular, I want to recognize the contribution of Western non-governmental organizations working on various aspects of institutional development. They help to establish free elections, independent media, and civic advocacy groups. They cooperate in reducing ethnic tensions, especially with the big Roma minority in the eastern part of Slovakia. NGOs promote human rights and equality. They encourage members of different communities to create something almost unknown in our part of Europe - a genuine civic society of free-minded people. They commenced their activities during the era of NGO-unfriendly government and won. Unfortunately, since our last elections a year ago we are virtually returning back.

Since Slovak Republic joined the European Union in May 2004, most of the foreign NGOs left for less developed countries in which similar activities were more needed. Democracy in my country is not as stabilized as it may seem from the outside. Slovakia has become a positive media example of the neo-liberal reforms and its fast economic development is praised on conferences worldwide. On the other hand, two out of three parties composing our government belonged to the coalition which brought Slovakia close to its collapse a decade ago.

This is why I am so happy that BELA Foundation is starting its international activities exactly now - with its headquarters in Slovakia. There are others on this stage to explain you the challenges your new institution will face. I am looking forward to watch your work in the supporting future young leaders and creating new connections between gifted Europeans from old and new EU countries.

When thinking about Europe as about an entity, I always highlight our united approach to storytelling. In telling stories, there is suddenly no east or west, no north or south, there is just our passion for a narrative. We Europeans are storytellers when we try to define ourselves, challenge ourselves, to laugh on our sometimes strange conventions and rituals. The most important achievement of European culture is its right and ability to speak our stories to each other freely.

All totalitarian leaders have storytelling ambitions: Josif Stalin, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein. All these writing maniacs with their absolute power loved to write for their submissively listening audience wearing handcuffs. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is not only considering himself to be a greatest Korean novelist, but even a greatest Korean film director. Chairman Mao Zedung thought of himself as of the best poet of all times. I don't know if anyone of you tried to read Saddam Hussein's novel Zabibah and the King. I did. I tried hard. I barely survived.

In all dictatorships, boredom is a tool of repression. To entertain is not part of the ruler's despotic work. To keep people bored is a sign of significance and power. Lots of this boredom unfortunately still survives in many Slovak cultural institutions.

I wish the story of the BELA Foundation to be a successful one in my country. I will be happy to help or give advice, if needed. Do not hesitate to contact me whenever you feel that I might be the competent authority to deal with. I hope your executive board on its way there will not end up in Slovenia. I also believe my mail will not travel to Béla via Ljubljana.

I am grateful that you invited me to this event regardless of my attachment to an old Oriental band of harmless bandits.

 

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