Short story collection Hell Returns written by Radovan Brenkus was published in Polish publishing house Abilion with an epilogue of literary critic Janusz Termer and it was translated by Marta Pelinko. Work Hell Returns contains a condensed characteristic of contemporary society. Even though it is depicted by means of destructive or grotesque pictures, the heroes of individual short stories can amaze the reader; stimulate his thinking, especially thinking about the state of collectivity or about ourselves. The author outlines ethical and existential issues in a magical-realistic manner, describes the helplessness, sometimes even the despair caused by progress of civilisation, by rejection, lack of adaptation or by taste to experience the meaning of existence more deeply. The short stories characters often run away to the imaginary world, become victims or executioners, sometimes they commit the self-destruction. This does not mean, however, that this prose does not offer space for catharsis. The author also does not forget about "white spots", but he leaves them to reader to fill with additional content. The complexity of message places the work of this author on a high literary level.
Existential issues, despair and rebellion
(epilogue to Polish edition)
Radovan Brenkus (born in 1974), Slovak poet and novelist, is already quite well-known in Poland thanks to translations of Marta Pelinko. His poetry and prose was published in several Polish magazines (Akant, Gazeta Kulturalna, Kozirynek, Wyspa etc.) and it was presented at the symposia on the cross-border literature "Rzeszów-Bieszczady" (name of locality in Poland where symposia took place) attended by authors from Slovakia, Ukraine and Poland. However, short stories from the collection Hell Returns you are holding in your hands, present the debut prose of this author in the translation to Polish language.
I am very curious to know how will the reader react to contact with world in these stories and to their heroes not always put to particular time and space, but more often – as in the fairy tale or fable – to timeless and universal dimension, how he will react to contact with this highly unconventional, original and sometimes even unusual author’s vision of the world (e.g. short story The Garden of Eden in Hell), vision of human, social and existential reality. This is also true for inner experiences and "adventures" of heroes in individual short stories "thrown" into reality in a way, which is not very stereotypical from the literary point of view. Characters are faced with complex and unexpected psychological situations; they absurdly go through constant play of fatal accidents, as well as the necessities of bio-social peripeties and personal experience. The author perceives the events and usual fatal coincidences affecting his heroes as a peculiar experimental field, as means for creation of metaphors and "examples" of human destiny, of life in this "best" of all worlds (Voltaire) in accordance with the old tradition of Enlightenment. And it seems that Radovan Brenkus addresses his challenge just to this philosophical belief, to this great literary tradition. He takes it seriously, though negatively, confronts it in the arena and is eager to see it leaving in a gloomy mood – he wants to do it in a very convincing way that moves the imagination of a sensitive reader, because it is outstanding and linguistically expressive!
In fact, when it comes to contestation, he is not first and certainly not the last in the contemporary European and world literature, especially in its important and extensive "movement" of protest against traditional cognitive and artistic concepts. This movement is actually a great and rich asset since the beginning of 20th century and has many artistic affinities. This "movement" is called differently: "black" literature, prose of laic and existential absurdity, as well as literature of resistance to itself, not entirely pessimistic, but highly critical of ancient humanistic, philosophical consolation (Boethius), literature against "beautiful" and romantic illusions and hopes... When reading the short stories from the collection Hell Returns, this appears to be a natural and philosophical background of Brenkus’ prose. His name could be added to the long list of writers, who belong to the literary "movement" called by various names, starting with – not to go too far – Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Death and the Fool or Tale of the 672nd Night), Maurice Maeterlinck (The Blind), Jean Giono (The Horseman on the Roof), Jean-Paul Sartre (Nausea), Albert Camus (Man in Revolt), Jean Genet (The Thief’s Journal), L. F. Céline (Journey to the End of the Night), Samuel Beckett (early short stories), Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano), Nathalie Sarraute (The Age of Suspicion), Kazimierz Truchanowski (Hell Does Not Know the Sleep), English "angry young men" or American writer John Barth, creator of term Literature of Exhaustion, up to several contemporary critics of society, culture and art of "new civilisation", prose writers like Jean-Marie Le Clézio (Desert) who is seriously shocking the "contemporary petite bourgeoisie" and arousing scandals or Michel Houellebecq (The Elementary Particles).
However, in order to be clear it is necessary to say that Radovan Brenkus as a prose writer does not want to follow anyone or to imitate his predecessors. If his stories contain the signs of reading or references to some of the above mentioned authors (and many others, also from distant periods, e.g. reference to Spanish poet Góngora with his peculiar language of baroque imagery or Arthur Rimbaud – e.g. short story The Garden of Eden in Hell), these are more or less just remote sources of artistic inspiration, its general substance, not a subject of some kind of unreflected worship and effort to multiply the results achieved by his predecessors. On the contrary, for this author it is mainly an additional challenge, additional initiative for imagination, creative impulse.
For many readers of Brenkus’ prose – and this should be emphasized – it may be difficult to accept his vision of the world and individual, i.e. vision full of existential absurdity, pain of everyday existence, anxiety, fear, touching awareness of death, despair and fierce rebellion against the "old myths" (including the myth about romantic love), which became commonplace in the ordinary consciousness, not only for general reasons, philosophical belief (disbelief in the existence of any superior "driving power", even disbelief in the meaning of human existence) expressed by heroes and storytellers, but because of a specific way of writing and creation of world in these stories. Because of application of author’s technique, so called "point of view", because of rich repertoire of various other means (internal monologues of characters, references and literary allusions). Means that are seemingly purely expressive and yet serious in its general semantic discourse. Serious like methods varying in each of ten short stories, methods of epic narration, most frequently fragmentary one, reduced to indispensable minimum as a score of musical composition, which always contains unanswered passages requiring from recipient to "fill" them on his own.
There is no need to say that for me, as a reader of Hell Returns, this is one of the main spheres of attractiveness and values of this prose, which provides a source material for multiple reflections about world, society, man and... literature. This in fact appears to be the most important thing. Therefore Brenkus writes as he writes, it means that he uses authorial means and refers to various irritating examples, drastic existential issues, deconstruction of human situation in the world "without values" and superior sanctions, because despite all he did not lose faith in the sense and role of literary production. Otherwise he would give up already at the beginning! The author has not abandoned the faith in cathartic sense of literature (and art in general), which in his opinion has a lot of responsibilities, although different from those in older literature (and this will be true also in the future), especially the responsibility to talk about the most important issues for our human situation. This is why the author puts the background of short stories into the slightly simulated historical period (e.g. Faustian Deal with the Devil) or into recognizable and just indicated "decorations" of the present (Curse from the Afterlife or war in We Will Meet in the Paradise). For him the most important are issues raised with regard to fundamental and final (eschatological) things of human life. Without solving them, we undoubtedly look like "blind ants", shadows in Plato’s cave or drunken kids in the fog (like some of the heroes in these stories). According to Brenkus, literature is actually intended to pull the man out of the embryonic stage of unconsciousness in order to disrupt the peace of existential state of half-death (City of the Half-Dead), of passive and idle consumers of culture’s fruits and civilisation progress, in order to force man – in the past as well as today – to think rationally about agonizing existential issues and anxieties, in order to pull him out of despair and incite to purgative rebellion.
Warsaw, August 2012