BOOK

Review: Realism during communism

Western-born foreigners tend to believe that artistic growth in central and eastern Europe came to a standstill during four decades of communism. One imagines oppressively censored artists dully churning out 'popular' works, with a few brave dissidents being carted off to gulags and Siberian coal mines.
But The Ground Beneath Our Feet, a moving collection of twenty poems by Miroslav Válek (1927-1991) translated and published in English in 1996, shows that the cultural powers-that-were in Czechoslovakia were not so iron-fisted after all. Poet Válek not only worked under the confines of the erstwhile Culture Ministry - he was himself, in fact, the Culture Minister of the Slovak Republic from 1969 to the Velvet Revolution in 1989.


Communist Culture Minister Válek's prose is poignant and chilling.

The Ground Beneath Our Feet

Author: Miroslav Válek
Available at: The Art Forum
Price:135 crowns
Pages: 63
Rating: 7 out of 10

Western-born foreigners tend to believe that artistic growth in central and eastern Europe came to a standstill during four decades of communism. One imagines oppressively censored artists dully churning out 'popular' works, with a few brave dissidents being carted off to gulags and Siberian coal mines.

But The Ground Beneath Our Feet, a moving collection of twenty poems by Miroslav Válek (1927-1991) translated and published in English in 1996, shows that the cultural powers-that-were in Czechoslovakia were not so iron-fisted after all. Poet Válek not only worked under the confines of the erstwhile Culture Ministry - he was himself, in fact, the Culture Minister of the Slovak Republic from 1969 to the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Although the communist-appointed director of culture, Válek wrote poetry that was far from a celebration of life in the former Czechoslovakia. Instead, he focused on the abiding realities of life - death, mental anguish, the fleeting joys of relationships - with a dour accuracy that is both poignant and chilling.

Translated by Edward Osers, an 85 year-old Slovak emigré living in England, the collection's 20 free verse poems revolve mainly around events and situations. In Hearing, Válek describes a deaf man getting hit by a car; in The Apple, a couple breaking up avoids the topic by fidgeting with a piece of fruit.

Even when treating broader topics, Valek's themes remain rooted in their relationship to humanity. In Winter, he described the "winter of [a woman's] body" to demonstrate our intimate connection to the seasons. In Ode to Love, he uses night-time, stars, and a world on fire to show the power of love-making.

While none of the collection's short poems are spectacular, every page offers something that provokes thought, sometimes even a lament. For at the heart of Válek's insights into the human condition is a teary wistfulness, as if he were impotent and alone despite the power of what he saw.

"Everyone is afraid of me because I am ... so terribly alone..." he wrote in The Lynched One. Having assumed his top position in the ministry immediately following the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1969, Válek's loneliness likely had something to do with the bittersweet nature of his triumph - taking over as culture director at the same time that Soviet oppression intensified. "Válek had to not only bear his own misfortune, but also the collective misfortune of culture after the Soviet Occupation," wrote Miroslav Holub in the collection's frank introduction. "He did what he could."

Perhaps he did even more, for The Ground Beneath My Feet succeeds beautifully in reminding us that human curiosity and sorrow was as powerful during communism as it ever had been, despite official reports to the contrary.

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