It is the ninth time that the city of Wroclaw has hosted the Angelus awarding ceremony for Central European authors who touch upon the most burning contemporary subjects, motivate introspection, and show the diversity of other cultures. Ukrainian writers have received this prize twice: Yurii Andrukhovych in 2006 for his book 12 obruchiv (12 Hoops), and Oksana Zabuzhko in 2013, for Muzei pokynutykh sekretiv (Museum of Abandoned Secrets). This year, Ukrainian Oleksandr Irvanets was among the seven finalists with his book Khvoroba Libenkrafta (Liebenkraft’s Disease). However, Slovakian writer Pavol Rankov became a winner after impressing the jury with his novel It Happened on September the First, or Whenever. As it turned out, there was a second possible nominee for the award: during the jurors’ vote (and it had to be repeated three times due to the difficulty of the choice) Rankov won with a narrow margin of only one vote – five to four. Read in The Day’s exclusive article from Wroclaw about the intrigue of this year’s award and Rankov’s double victory.
Before talking about the winner, it is important to understand the rules of the game. A book by an author from Central Europe, which has been translated and published in Polish, can be nominated for the Angelus Award. Thus, writers from 21 European countries can participate in the contest: from Albania, Austria, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Germany, Poland, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Hungary. Respectively, a nominated book has to touch upon issues that relate to the Central European subject matter. The winner is determined by nine jurors: Stanislaw Beres, Piotr Kepinski, Ryszard Krynicki, Tomasz Lubienski, Krzysztof Maslon, Mykola Riabchuk, Justyna Sobolewska, Miroslaw Spychalski, and Andrzej Zawada. During all previous years the jury was headed by Russian poet, translator, dissident, and human rights activist Natalia Gorbanevskaya. She passed away in 2013, and now the jury is led by Ukrainian publicist, prose writer, and translator Mykola Riabchuk. The city of Wroclaw decided to commemorate the deceased dissident by founding an award of her name. This is an audience award, the choice of the winner is based on the vote on the Angelus official website. Curiously enough, this year the choice of the jury and the readers coincided, since Rankov received both prizes. It was a great surprise both for the city guests and for the author himself.
So, why him? As head of the jury Mykola Riabchuk told The Day, the book relates to Central European problems, which has played the key role in the jury’s decision. The characters of the book, three young men, a Czech, a Hungarian, and a Jew, have to face serious challenges: World War II, occupation, and two totalitarian regimes. According to Riabchuk, the book It Happened on September the First or Whenever is a “broad cross section of Europe’s life,” tormented, reshaped, and dramatic. It should be emphasized that it is the second prize Rankov has received for this work. In 2009, this novel was rewarded by the jury of the European Union Prize for Literature.
Writer, essayist, and teacher Pavol Rankov made his debut in literature in 1995 with a collection of stories S odstupom casu (Over the Distance of Time). Then there were My a oni (Us and Them, 2001), V tesnej blizkosti (Close Up, 2001). And in 2008 Rankov published his first, but very successful novel Stalo sa prveho septembra (alebo inokedy) (It Happened on September the First, or Whenever). Unfortunately, none of his works are available in Ukrainian, just as those by other finalists of the Angelus Award, with the exception of a few translations which, however, are not even compiled into a book, except Irvanets’. This gives a vexing feeling that we are missing out on something.
The events of Rankov’s prize-winning book start on September 1, 1938, a year before the war. As the author says, he began writing about the day that changed entire Europe. The writer describes the tense 30 years of Europe’s life (from 1939 to 1969). Everything starts in the town of Levice, where Rankov’s father was born. The author admits that despite the fact that almost the whole plot is fictional, the text contains numerous episodes which the father and a friend of his lived through. In fact, the book is dedicated to them. “They belonged to the generation who went through a lot during their life,” Rankov says. “The stories in the book that seem to be the most absurd and unreal, are real-life stories.” The town of Levice is also symbolic in the Central European context. “In 1938 Levice was part of Czechoslovakia’s territory, but a lot of Hungarians lived there. A year after that it became Hungarian, but after the end of the World War II it was Czechoslovakian again. Now the ethnic situation changed so much that Hungarians are only a minority,” Rankov said.
Besides the author, the prize of 20,000 zloty is automatically given to the translator of the winning book. Rankov’s book was translated from Slovakian into Polish by Tomasz Grabinski. He told The Day that it was quite hard to work on the text. “The book demands the knowledge of history. The main characters of this novel belong to different nationalities, which means there are a lot of words from other languages in the text, especially Hungarian, which are not explained in the Slovakian original text,” Grabinski noted. According to him, these Hungarian words had to be explained for Polish readers, so they do not feel lost. “That is why I asked all my friends who knew Hungarian to help me. Thanks to this novel, I know Hungarian a bit better now,” Rankov’s translator jokes.
In general, the procedure of winner selection is very complicated. First, jury members receive a long list of 50 books (a book can be nominated by a publishing house which has published the author in Polish). Then a half is short-listed, later the circle is narrowed to 14, and then to 7. The final seven books compete for the final prize. This year, except for Rankov, the finalists were represented by Elena Chizhova from Russia with The Time of Women, Ismail Kadare from Albania with The Accident, Polish writer Wieslaw Mysliwski with The Final Deal, two Czechs – Martin Smaus (Girl, Light a Fire), and Jachym Topol (The Devil’s Workshop), and also Ukrainian Oleksandr Irvanets with Liebenkraft’s Disease.
Head juror Mykola Riabchuk told The Day who Rankov’s main competitor was. As it turned out, it was Pole Wieslaw Mysliwski. “This is a legendary writer, one can even say, a classic of Polish literature,” believes Riabchuk. “Perhaps it was not his best novel that was nominated, but this is certainly a level.” According to Riabchuk, Rankov’s victory was assured by the readers’ vote. “First of all, this is a novel that is pleasant to read. Because Kadare and Mysliwski belong to extremely sophisticated literature. And Rankov’s work can be adapted into a film or series. Besides good readability, it has one more advantage – the writer covers a very wide panorama. He describes a whole era, not only in Slovakia, but in other countries of the region. This is a very broad context. The author shows a very large section of life,” Riabchuk says.
In Riabchuk’s view, Topol did not do well enough with the second part of his book. “The first part is just brilliant,” the jury head thinks. “And in the second one, he sent his character to Belarus for some reason, which he either does not know or does not understand well enough. He twisted the narrative into something strange, quaint, and Belarus is very grotesque in his work. However, he is definitely an interesting writer, I think we will see him in the final again.” For some reason, the Ukrainian nominee Irvanets always has bad luck. He has been nominated for the Angelus twice already, but both times were a year after the prize was won by another Ukrainian author. In 2007 – after Andrukhovych, and now in 2014 – after Zabuzhko. Respectively, it is hardly possible that the prize would be won by a Ukrainian writer twice in a row. Riabchuk gives a very positive assessment of the finalist from Ukraine: “I am fond of Oleksandr Irvanets and think it is wonderful that he reached the final. He is a very promising writer. However, it was obviously not simple to compete against Mysliwski or Kadare, who has been nominated for the Nobel Prize multiple times.” As it turned out, Ukraine missed another candidate, who was simply not nominated by a publishing house. It was Serhii Zhadan. “Voroshylovhrad was published in Poland last year, but for some reason it was not announced by publishers. It is a great pity,” noted Riabchuk.
The next year the Angelus will turn 10 years old, and in 2016 Wroclaw will have a double title – the European Capital of Culture and Literature. It is too early to predict which Ukrainian authors might get into the final next year, but is desirable that our literature should actively join the process again.