African Literature in the Czech Republic
15.07.2004 / 11:07
AFRICAN LITERATURE IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC Traditions and today´s situationThe Czech Republic has a long-time cultural and historical ties with Africa, the former Czechoslovakia (of which the Czech Republic is its bigger part after the peaceful split of 1993) was traditionally a partner of African
AFRICAN LITERATURE IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC
Traditions and today´s situation
The Czech Republic has a long-time cultural and historical ties with Africa, the former Czechoslovakia (of which the Czech Republic is its bigger part after the peaceful split of 1993) was traditionally a partner of African countries. Although many Czech travellers and missionaries explored the depth of Africa from as early as the 17th century, it has never had a colonial experience and its relations with African countries used to be traditionally on mutual benefit base.
Arabic studies became the part of Prague´s Charles University curriculum in the second half of the 19th century and African studies emerged shortly after the Year of Africa. Former Czechoslovakia was one of the active supporters of newly emerged independent African countries and it was throughout the second half of the 20th century when hundreds of Africans studied in Czech universities. Development cooperation with many African nations became part of Czech support of Africa also, Angola, Zambia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana and Guinea being the longest beneficiaries of such a cooperation.
Arabic and African literatures in Czech culture
Although the very first translations of Arabic texts (firstly the Holy Qur´an) into the Czech language were prepared already at the turn of the 16th century and the very first original brief history of classical Arabic literature based on original texts has been written in 1840s (followed by the first translations of Arabic poetry and tales in the 1870s and 1880s), it was not until the mid-20th century when the modern literature from Africa and Maghreb has been studied more thoroughly. It was after the World War II, when the first stories by mainly Egyptian writers has been translated from Arabic into Czech. Up to today dozens of Egyptian writers has been presented to Czech reading public, including novels by the most prominent writers as Naguib Mahfouz, Taha Husayn, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Abd ash-Sharkawi, Andre Chedid, being often translated by Czech Arabists Jaroslav Oliverius and more recently František Ondráš.
Also francophone Algerian and Moroccan literatures has been widely translated and especially Mohammed Dib and Mouloud Mammeri were popular in the 1960s and the 1970s followed by younger generation such as Rachid Boudjedra and others. Svetozar Pantucek´s knowledge of Maghreb literatures gave birth to three books on literatures of Maghreb - Modern Algerian Literature (1969 - in French), Tunisian Literature (1969 - in Russian) and comprehensive Literatures of North Africa (1978 - in Czech) and later on allowed him also to edit three retrospective anthologies of Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan both French and Arabic short stories in the mid-1990s shortly before his untimely death.
In the early 20th century also the first African books has been published in Czech, the first were works by South African settler writers were translated into Czech, a.o. Rhodesian Gertrude Page, but it was not until 1947 when the first book by black African has been published in the Czech language - being a selection of Léopold Sedar Senghor poetry followed in 1948 with Peter Abrahams´ Mine Boy and The Path of Thunder (later in 1956). Following the Year of Africa and emergence of newly indpendent nations the interest in the Black Continent among the Czechs reached its first height and dozens of books devoted to Africa have been published, among them the first translations of Cyprian Ekwensi (People of the City in 1962), Chinua Achebe (No Longer at Ease in 1964) Ezekiel Mphalele (Down the Second Avenue in 1962) and - as everywhere in the world - translations of such African all-time bestsellers as Amos Tutuola´s The Palm-wine Drinkard (1966) and Laurens Van Der Post´s The Lost World of Kalahari (1967). Writers of Guinea and Cameroon were the first ones to present the francophone African fiction to the Czech public - Camara Laye´s Black Child (1967), Ferdinand Oyono´s Old Negro and the Medal, Mongo Beti´s Poor Christ of Bomba (1963) and Djibril Niane´s Sundiata (1964).
After a decade when the interest in African literature decreased, the 1980s saw Czech readers found new names from Africa. Translated had been most famous novels of Sembéne Ousmane, Meja Mwangi, Amadou Hampaté Ba, Nadine Gordimer and André Brink (with at least four novels translated into Czech), followed by dozens of short stories being also translated and published in magazines as Nový orient (New Orient) and Světová literatura (World Literature).
Czech scholars were also among the first ones worldwide who devoted their attention to critical study of African fiction, the most important of their early works being Literatures of Black Africa (1970 - in Czech, with subsequent revised edition in English, Russian and Polish) by Vladimír Klíma, Karel F. Růžička and Petr Zima and monographs on Cameroonian novels (1971 - in French) by Jarmila Ortová and Modern Nigerian Novels (1969 - in English) by Vladimír Klíma.
Africa and Czech reader today
Hunger for literature forbidden during the era of communism (which ended in then Czechoslovakia in the 1989) influenced the whole book market for a significant part of the 1990s. Publishing activities were on rise and aimed to provide the readers with all that forbidden and/or forgotten works during the past 40 years. Tens of thousands of titles of commercial, often American, literature have been published and more than 5,000 publishers competed on a relatively small 10-million strong market. Although majority of publishers produced a few titles only, there is a stable increase in a number of titles being published every year (while in 1995 a bit less than 9,000 titles has been published, Czech book production reached already more than 12,000 titles in 2002).
Since the late 1990s a group of new publishers whose aim is to promote not only "easy-reading" but a high quality literature started producing translations from all parts of the world. Translations of Ben Okri, Nadine Gordimer, André Brink and also collections of African short stories and fairy tales and a few new books showing Africa less grim than usually opened the door for more African fiction to enter the Czech market.
Organizers of Prague international book fair - BookWorld - were well aware of that and they were hoping that by announcing Africa as a main topic of the fair of 2003, would be such a promotion of African literature (and African continent as well) which will help new writers to present themselves to Czech public. The most complex Africa-related project has been launched by a leading Czech publisher BB Art - a Czech edition of 12 selected of " 100 Best African books" as announced in Cape Town in July 2002 (as of now books by Chinua Achebe, Mia Couto, Wole Soyinka and Mariama Ba have been published). Also two anthologies devoted to South African and Zimbabwean short fiction were prepared by Kontinenty in cooperation with Dharma Gaia and new novels by Ben Okri, Amadou Kourouma and Nadine Gordimer were published by Vyšehrad and Mladá fronta. Interesting project has been published by Labyrint publisher - an African literature reader - which contained two dozems stories from all parts of Africa, including translations from such languages as Wolof, Hausa, Amharic and Swahili. Also an anthology of Ethiopian fables and tales translated from original Amharic and poetry of Niyi Osundare, has been published during the fair, to mention at least the most interesting books.