Slovak literature in English translation has been punching above its weight lately, due in no small part to husband-and-wife translator team Julia and Peter Sherwood, whose recent translations have included The Equestrienne and The Night Circus and other stories, both by Uršuľa Kovalyk, and Fleeting Snow by Pavel Vilikovsky. Having read and enjoyed these, I couldn’t possibly turn down the offer of a review copy of their latest effort, which is a translation of Bellevue by Ivana Dobrakovová, originally published in Slovak in 2010.
Dobrakovová, who this year won the European Union Prize for Literature, is principally a writer of short stories, with Bellevue being her first novel. She is also a translator of French and Italian literature into Slovak, best known for bringing Elena Ferrante into Slovak translation. Bellevue is her first work to appear in English translation, and judging by its quality, it won’t be her last. It’s the story of a young Slovak woman, Blanka, who chooses to spend her summer volunteering in Bellevue, a centre for the disabled in the south of France.
Initially, Blanka is a frustrating protagonist. She is self-absorbed, aloof, critical of the disabled people with whom she works, all of which make it difficult to empathise with her – both for the reader and for her fellow volunteers, who she rubs up the wrong way almost from the beginning. But in the claustrophobic setting of the Bellevue centre, it quickly becomes clear that something more is going on – in fact, Blanka has a history of mental illness, and a terror of becoming like the people who live there permanently. Her rapid descent into mental illness and eventual loss of her grip on reality is a troubling read and yet one which is incredibly compelling. What makes it so terrifying is the ease with which she falls – leaving you with the feeling that it’s something that could happen to anyone.
Claustrophobic was the word which came to mind the most when I was attempting to describe this novel – much of it taking place within the centre itself, which is clearly not a healthy place to be for a young woman with depression. There are obvious parallels to be drawn with the work of Ferrante, particularly The Days of Abandonment, and Latin American writers such as Samanta Schweblin and Maríana Enriquez who blend literary fiction with horror to create stories which are deeply uncomfortable to read and yet difficult to put down. However, Dobrakovová puts her own twist on the theme, drawing on her own experience as an ‘expat writer’ to add intercultural differences to the mix, a factor which arguably exacerbates Blanka’s feeling of isolation.
There are distractions – for example, as Blanka loses her grip on reality, so too does she seemingly lose her grip on punctuation, and her persistent ableism, although attributable to her mental illness and her fear of becoming like them, is no easier to read as a result. But although these issues distract momentarily, they ultimately can’t take away from what is a very taut and well-written novel(la), easy to read in a single, breath-taking sitting – but perhaps not straight before bed!
Bellevue by Ivana Dobrakovová (translated from the Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood) will be published by Jantar Publishing on the 22nd October.