Czech mates

Caught for centuries between warring empires, the cluster of nations at the centre of Europe has lef

I can put it like this. On the one hand, I'm not sure that central European literature exists. How could it? Central Europe is just an accident of politics: the variously tentacled octopi of the Austro-Hungarian empire; the Nazi invasions; the Soviet empire; glasnost, perestroika; the European Union . . . Whereas literature is a sequence of singularities - oblivious to such minor things as nations, or states, or empires.

On the other hand, could the following sentence have been written anywhere else?

In itself, every idea is neutral, or should be; but man animates ideas, projects his flames and flaws into them; impure, transformed into beliefs, ideas take their place in time, take shape as events: the trajectory is complete, from logic to epilepsy . . . whence the birth of ideologies, doctrines, deadly games.

That sentence - with its savage disregard for the grand ideas that other people take so seriously, all the 20th century's ideologies - is a pure product of central Europe. Its author - the great essayist E M Cioran - was born in 1911 in Transylvania, in a village called Rˇa¸sinari. (And the accents on this name are important. They are the proof of central Europe, of an absolute geographical singularity.) In 1911, the village was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. After the First World War, it became part of Romania.

And yet, and yet . . . That ironic, unimpressed, sardonic sentence was written by Cioran in French and published in France, when Cioran was 38. He would never return to Romania.

But then, exile is part of central European history. In this demented area of small nations, ideas were subjected by literature to the greatest scepticism. That was only because, simul­taneously, politicians were subjecting culture to the absolute impress of ideology. Which is one reason why so much central European literature is written in exile, in French, English or American - why central European literature is not central European at all.

I want to pause on the biography of Cioran. He went to Berlin to study philosophy when he was 22. Three years later, in 1936, he returned to Romania for a year, then left once more to study in Paris. During the winter of 1940-41, he lived in Romania again. The Iron Guard - a nationalist, extremist, anti-Semitic party - was in power, and for a moment, aged 30, Cioran flirted in a literary manner with this fascist movement. Soon, he renounced this aspect of his life entirely. In 1941, he returned to France and, in 1949, published his first book in French, A Short History of Decay. Its first section was called "Genealogy of Fanaticism".

The discovery of Cioran's mature style, therefore, is marked by two aspects: the decision to write in French, rather than Romanian; and the decision to abandon the seemingly objective moves of philosophy and invent an aphoristic, essayistic form. In both cases, it is a rejection of conventional allegiances: to one's native language, and to the nobility of human wisdom. In both cases, it is a rejection of what another great central European, the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch, called kitsch.

With these historical and literary inflections, in exile, Cioran began his long examination of human frailty. Because yes, they should be neutral, those sad things we call ideas. But human beings never let them be. Human beings so long to be fanatical. And after all, Cioran - with his moment of fascist fanaticism - should know. The irony that marks so many of these writers - Bohumil Hrabal, Thomas Bernhard, Milan Kundera - is never an invention only of style: it has been forced on them by their own history. And so, in his history of ideology, Cioran can come up with this great excoriation of all those who think in groups:

It is enough for me to hear someone talk sincerely about ideals, about the future, about philosophy, to hear him say “we" with a certain inflection of assurance, to hear him invoke "others" and regard himself as their interpreter - for me to consider him my enemy.

So many of my favourite writers are from central Europe - the better-known ones, such as Kundera, or Hrabal, or Cioran, and the less well-known pleasures, such as the Czech poet and novelist Vítˇezslav Nezval, who wrote the dream-story Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, the Yugoslavian novelist Danilo Kiš, and the Polish novelist Kazimierz Brandys.

And yet I do not speak Serbo-Croat, Polish or Czech. I do, it is true, speak some French. Because Cioran and Kundera switched to writing in French, I can read some of their work in the original. But everyone else has to be read in translation. Sometimes, this still means French, because no English translations exist, or they are now out of print.

This problem of translation is endemic to the problem of central Europe's literature. There is always something improvised about its existence in translation. It persists sporadically. And so its existence in any form in English should be treasured. This month, Penguin reissued various translations in its Central European Classics series. These include works that were previously unavailable, such as the essays of Czesław Miłosz and Josef Škvorecký's great novel The Cowards. And Cioran's Short History of Decay. It is only ten books. I urge you to go and read them.

Meanwhile, I want to think about a book that is one of the ur-classics of central European modernism: Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk.
The first volume of Hašek's novel was published in 1921. Švejk is a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War. According to some readers, he is a robotic conformist; according to others, his slavish devotion to the Austro-Hungarian empire is so exaggerated that it must be a deliberate parody of patriotism - so Švejk is, in fact, a subversive. What makes this novel so avant-garde, therefore, is its economy, its reticent ambiguity.

But there is another aspect to this novel's originality: it is a collage of other people's styles. It delights in describing the constant mismatch between reality and the sentimental bric-a-brac that people use to occlude it. Hašek describes the detail of Cioran's fanatical world: on the one hand, obsolete objects; on the other hand, sentimental lyricism. And the form that this collage loves most is the digressive list.

Injured, Švejk on his sickbed is visited by Baroness von Botzenheim, who brings him gifts. And the list of gifts is a small masterpiece of comedy: as well as wine and cigarettes and chocolate, she comes with "a beautifully bound book, Stories from the Life of Our Monarch"; “a beautiful toothbrush with two rows of bristles and the inscription 'Viribus unitis', so that anyone who cleaned his teeth should remember Austria"; a manicure set that has on its case "a picture showing shrapnel bursting and a man in a steel helmet rushing for-ward with fixed bayonet. And underneath it was written in German: 'For God, Emperor and Fatherland!'"; and a "tin of biscuits without a picture on it, but with a verse in German instead, together with a Czech translation on the back":

Austria, thou noble house,
Thy banners wide unfurl!
Thy flags shall flutter proud on high.
Austria shall never die!

With this crazed, kitsch list, Hašek invents a form for everyday defeat: the world of junked manifestos, slogans and souvenirs.

Digression under the sign of defeat: this is the form I cherish - the novel as junk. It's an invention provoked, sure, by the crazed politics of central Europe, yet the individual style of Hašek or Cioran isn't formed by politics. They take the defeat that politics always makes of life and dissolve it in sprezzatura.

But then, I want to add, as a finale: this isn't really central European. This is universal. So that the person to read with Cioran is not just Škvorecký or Kundera, but also, say, Thomas Pynchon, and his pastiches of historical power. This is what these works can help invent: a true method for reading internationally, where the old ideas of form and content are replaced by messier concepts - junk, or kitsch, or defeat.

Think about it. Everyone, always, is living in central Europe.

Adam Thirlwell's most recent novel is “The Escape" (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope