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History of the Slovak Centre

By Slovak Centre 

Activities from the first three years of the Global PEN Library’s history.

I. First anniversary

On the occasion of the first anniversary of the Global PEN Library, on 22 February 2002, we were proud to receive donations from Austrian PEN, the Bulgarian Cultural Centre, Hungarian PEN, the Vietnam PEN Centre in Exile, the Embassy of Romania, the Embassy of Spain, AOSS and the Revue svetovej literatúry journal. For the first time, this especially important celebration for Slovak PEN was supported in person by delegations from the Hungarian and Austrian PEN Centres.

During our first year of existence, we succeeded in organising several readings and visits by foreign guests. The response from the media and readers proved that this was the best way of promoting authors, their books and the Global PEN Library project itself. Our first guest was Takeaki Hori from Japanese PEN, on 11 July, who explained to the Slovak PEN Board the role of his Centre in the region, and his visions for improving PEN International’s activities. On 10 September, Professor Robert M Davis from Oklahoma, USA, visited the Library and read his poetry from books he had donated in Apponyi Café, in the centre of Bratislava. 

Thanks to all these activities, the Global PEN Library has strengthened its importance as a bridge between the Slovak and world literary communities.

We have some especially close friends and colleagues in the Slovak-Czech Club in Prague. Naďa Vokušová and Vladimír Skalský visited us on 10 November 2001 with a donation of books they had published. Professor Andrew Wachtel is a specialist in Slavic literature at North-western University in Chicago, and his visit on 2–4 December 2001 was therefore a great support to us. Our last visitor in 2001 was Professor Ronald Schleifer, on 5–10 December. During his stay, he lectured not only for PEN members, but also for students of the Academy of Arts in Bratislava, Constantin the Philosopher University in Nitra and the University of Žilina.

Thanks to all these activities, the Global PEN Library has strengthened its importance as a bridge between the Slovak and world literary communities. It has also fulfilled the wishes set out for this project and its organisers by Terry Carlbom, International Secretary of PEN International, at the opening ceremony in the previous year:

International PEN has, for 80 years, been associated with promoting literature and defending freedom to write. Many of our 129 member Centres have initiated various community projects, aimed at enhancing the appreciation of literature. I have, though, not heard of an initiative quite like this. It is imaginative, it has global ambitions and it aims to form a network reflecting all kinds of creative endeavours. This must truly be in the universalistic spirit of Ján Amos Komenský. I am fully aware that our support might well be but a symbolic fragment of a contribution, within our humble abilities, but it is still an attempt to make a contribution to the ‘college of light’ of which Komenský dreamt.

I am sure many will recall the dreams of Komenský (Comenius) today. His peripatetic contributions to European culture are now part of our common humanist heritage. They are mirrored in many of our contemporary ambitions in the promotions of education, literacy and protection of the written word. These are built on the conviction that to flourish, human imagination must be free. It thrives through being cultivated – but by dialogue, and not by decree. International PEN is proud to be associated with this inspiring project within the Comenius University. Our thanks go to our friends at the Slovak PEN Centre, and our colleagues at this famous university. On behalf of our members all over the word, I wish it every success.”

II. Second anniversary

On 21 February 2003, we celebrated the second anniversary of the Global PEN Library with a donation of books, with the Japanese Embassy and Japan Association in Slovakia being the main donors. Bulgarian PEN, the Russian Centre of Science and Culture, the Polish Institute, Swiss-German PEN, the US Embassy and Slovart Publishing House also contributed. The highlight of this project was a donation of books personally signed by the president of the Slovak Republic, Rudolf Schuster. Our guests were members of Bulgarian PEN, led by its president Gueorgui Konstantinov. The day before, they had read from their books for the Global PEN Library at the Writers Club.

The main donation of books from Japan is an excellent example of our cooperation with the Embassy of Japan and the Japanese Association in Slovakia. It is based on the idea that foreign citizens who have lived in Slovakia for years, would also like to share their private books, but need some kind of professional intermediary in order to do so. And the Global PEN Library is just that: it enables a particular national community to donate books by its members, which they can then continue to use for their own reading. That way, foreign citizens do not lose contact with the contemporary – or the classic – literature of their country.

Another novelty in the second year of the library’s existence was a summer campaign that led to a donation of more than 140 books, thanks to the Swiss Embassy and the Pro-Helvetia Fund. A ceremonial donation made on 17 June was enlarged by books obtained from the embassies of the Czech Republic, Romania and the USA, the Centre for Information on Literature in Bratislava, and Slovart Publishing House.

And the Global PEN Library is just that: it enables a particular national community to donate books by its members, which they can then continue to use for their own reading.

This novelty was followed by our first autumn campaign, which was crowned by an international conference at the Visegrad Literary Forum from 8–10 November in Budmerice Castle. For the first time in the history of Slovak PEN, we were hosting our colleagues from all of the Visegrad countries, as well as Austria. An official part of this extraordinary meeting was a discussion about achieving equal conditions for creative work in a unifying Europe. This led to an open letter to Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, which he acknowledged. To demonstrate the capacity of the creative work of our guests, we were able to organise a unique literary event on the same day, 8 November, when all PEN delegations held a reading in their cultural institutes. Writers and poets gathered with their Slovak colleagues in the Austrian Forum (H Niederle, H Milletich, M Hatala and M Richter), the Hungarian Cultural Institute (I Kristó Nagy and J Benyhe, and A Baláž and A Hykisch), and the Polish Institute (K Boruń-Jagodzińska and K Dorosz, presented by G Murín). Czech and Slovak writers also read together at the F7 Gallery (A Koenigsmark, J Pekárková and J Verner, and I Baláž and G Murín).

After all these activities, we were pleased to hear these words from Homero Aridjis, the current president of PEN International, to the Slovak PEN organisers and guests at the ceremony held for the Global PEN Library’s second anniversary:

In this age of galloping globalisation, what better response from writers than a global library, and what better place than the Comenius University in Bratislava? It’s a pity that Jorge Luis Borges is dead, because he would have been the ideal librarian for this polyglot library. I hope that the Global PEN Library, which today celebrates its anniversary, can serve as an inspiration to other PEN Centres elsewhere in the world by begetting similar libraries in many countries, and I ask my fellow PEN members to join me in enriching its collection. My books are on their way to you. Congratulations to Slovak PEN for undertaking this marvellous enterprise.”

III. Third anniversary

The third anniversary of the Global PEN Library was significantly marked by a project that was financially supported by the International Visegrad Fund, the Slovak Republic’s Ministry of Culture, UNESCO, and other sponsors and donors. This project started in May 2003 and lasted until April 2004, with two main campaigns in autumn 2003 and spring 2004. During the autumn campaign, Slovak PEN organised three public readings and three international conferences. The main idea was to give participants at these events an opportunity to present books they wished to donate to the Global PEN Library, and to the public. The biggest reading of the 2003 autumn campaign therefore had the symbolical title ‘I am bringing my book to you.’

The first visitors to the library in this campaign were the American poet Kerry S Keys and Lithuanian poet Sonata Palyulite. On 4 September, they held a reading in the Black Crow Club in the old city of Bratislava, and the next day donated books to the library. Particularly notable is that Keys donated his book of poetry translated into Czech and published in Votobia Publishing House, Olomouc.

The first of three planned international conferences in the 2003 autumn campaign was organised in Bratislava and the nearby Budmerice Castle from 30 October to 2 November, under the title ‘Young Writers and Poets for equalisation of the creative environment throughout Europe’, and sponsored mainly by UNESCO. Participants were from Belgium (Nicolas Ancion), Bulgaria (Boiko Lambovski and Violeta Christova), the Czech Republic (Pavel Verner), the Netherlands (Robert Dorsman), Lithuania (Julius Keleras and Vaida Keleriene), Hungary (Anna Szabó and György Dragomán), Malta (Immanuel Mifsud), Germany (Claudia Anthony), Serbia (Aleksandar Gatalica), Slovakia (Marián Grupač, Anton Baláž, Anton Hykisch, Peter Kerlik, František Palonder and Gustáv Murín) and Slovenia (Branko Senegačnik and Polona Glavan). These young writers and poets discussed important issues of young literature in a unifying Europe. They visited the Global PEN Library, donated their books and held a reading in the F7 Gallery in the old city of Bratislava. The reading was connected to the opening of an exhibition of photos by Vaida Keleriene with title ‘Vilnius: A City Without Make-up.’

The main event of the 2003 autumn campaign was the 2nd Visegrad Literary Forum on 13–15 November. In the presence of Terry Carlbom, PEN International’s international secretary, participants visited the library and donated their books, which were presented to a large audience at the Bibliotéka international book fair in Bratislava. At this reading, which was co-organised with the Centre for Information on Literature, books were presented by: Jiří Stránský (president of Czech PEN), Alexandra Berková (Czech PEN), Zdenka Becker (Austrian PEN), Alex Koenigsmark (Czech PEN), Tomáš Janovic (Slovak PEN) and Rút Lichnerová (Slovak PEN). The reading was moderated by Gustáv Murín (Slovak PEN).

At the same time, Slovak PEN cooperated with the Slovak-Czech Club to organise the Central Europeans in Central Europe project, with the participation of writers and literary figures from the Visegrad countries in an international conference focused on the writing and life of Alexander Márai. Particularly important, therefore, was the active presence of János Benyhe (secretary of Hungarian PEN), István Vörösz and Professor Péter Medész (both from Hungary), who responded to our invitation. The opening of the event was attended by the Czech, Polish and Hungarian Consuls. On the second and final day of the conference, held on 14–15 November in the city of Košice (where Márai lived), Gustáv Murín, president of Slovak PEN, accepted a donation of books for the Global PEN Library.

The main event of the 2004 spring campaign was the four-day international conference on 22–25 March. The programme was based on two roundtables in Budmerice Castle (‘Writer and power’ and ‘The library as the last stronghold of literature?’); a meeting of delegates with the president of the Slovak Republic; a visit to the Bibiana International House of Arts for Children and an exhibition by Ivan Popovič (a member of Slovak PEN); a reception at the US Embassy with a speech by Professor Robert M Davis; and a ceremonial donation of books to the Global PEN Library in the presence of the Slovak Republic’s minister of culture, Rudolf Chmel, and minister of foreign affairs, Eduard Kukan. 

We have to go against becoming speechless. Our opinion has to be that words don’t become the nomenclature of silence, or the prophetic slogans of hate.

Thanks to the Hungarian Embassy in Bratislava, the Society of Hungarian Authors in Slovakia, and Hungarian publishing houses in Hungary and Slovakia, the main donation was made up of books of by Hungarian authors. A significant donation also came from the Japanese Embassy in cooperation with the Japanese Association in Slovakia and other donors, including: the Belgian and Indian Embassies; the Italian Cultural Institute; the Bulgarian Cultural and Information Centre; the Slovenian Embassy; and the Austrian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Cypriot, Czech, Finnish, Hungarian, Japanese, Macedonian, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovene, Swedish, and Swiss-Italian and Retro-Romansh PEN Centres, and other guests.

Thanks to financial support from the International Visegrad Fund during both campaigns (autumn 2003 and spring 2004), books by authors from the Visegrad countries become the core of the Global PEN Library. This was particularly reflected in the speech that Jiří Gruša, president of PEN International, gave for this occasion:

Dear colleagues and friends, 

International PEN is an organisation of writers who are ready to stand up for freedom of expression and against every kind of nationalism. The members gathered at PEN International pursue writing as an art and are ready to assume all the necessary risks. One of our important missions is to unite diverse languages, because they form the basis of our international standing.

I was elected president of this organisation in Mexico and my first words after the election were these: ‘The 21st century is more than a turning point in the calendar. The conditions of our existence have changed from the ground up. The spread of new technologies has made mankind richer and more uncertain at one and the same time. Heredity no longer guarantees the future. The past as description and literature is told in a different fashion, and has even begun to disappear. Salvage efforts are becoming risk-taking tests. The global web does not only connect, it creates holes in the net and new fears, both among individuals and the masses.’ 

I would like to mention the Global PEN Library project, which is important for the work of PEN. It has 2,000 books in their original languages, and many authors from more than 53 countries. This is a great sign!”

We have to go against becoming speechless. Our opinion has to be that words don’t become the nomenclature of silence, or the prophetic slogans of hate.

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