Estabilshed as the Matica Slovenska in 1863 only to be closed 12 years later as the occupying Kingdom of Hungary moved to impose Magyarisation, and full cultural assimilation, upon the Slovak nation, the building which now houses the museum occupies a significant role in the cultural history of Slovakia . Bratislava may be the capital, but Martin is decreed to be the centre of national Slovak culture and the Literary Museum is integral to the preservation and continuation of this cultural and social awareness.
Before arriving here, I knew very little about Slovak literary history
My university library held a small section of works grouped under ‘Slavic Literature’, but I had not read any of the great Slovak writers, mainly as very few English translations were available. However, following my experience of working in the museum, I have now gained an insight into the literature of Slovakia, and through this the cultural and political history of the nation and the lives of the Slovak people.
The literature and language of Slovakia is deeply ingrained in the very fabric of national identity
When the Byzantine Saints Constantine and Methodius arrived in Great Moravia in the 9th Century, they brought with them a bible translated into a language accessible to the Slavonic populous, Staroslovencina , and with it the gift of the Glagolitic alphabet. This was the genesis of Slovak literary culture and the formative steps in forging a cultural sense of self. For the first time the people of Slovakia had a literature and a written language of their own, indeed for the first time they were a “people”; unified and connected by a shared tongue, and by a text that was theirs as a nation. In many ways, this literary genesis is the birth of Slovak national identity and it is where the permanent exposition of the Literary Museum begins.
The exposition takes visitors through a chronological history of Slovak literary culture. From the 9th century beginnings, through occupation, coercion, attempted elimination, revolution, restoration and celebration, there is no better record of the links between the Slovak people and their cultural history than through studying the works of the authors who experienced and expressed life in these times. Slovak literature, both reflective and influential, provides an incisive view of the many changing states of the country throughout its dynamic existence, and it is the connectivity between the literary culture and the social and political history of the Slovaks that makes this collection so fascinating.
Examples to illustrate these connections can be found in the literature of the Age of Enlightenment, which documents the beginnings of the national awakening and a resistance to imperial power. Also the succeeding age of Classicism, where literature gave voice to the concerns of the Slovak National revival as authors employed literary works to reflect and influence the fight for equality, for the rights of their people and to reassert the significance of Slovak culture. A determined protest against cultural oppression is embodied within this contemporary language and literature.
The SNK LM exhibits Slovak literature not just as a reflective or reactive artistic oeuvre, but as a political force interlaced with the social, cultural and personal lives of the Slovak people. The most poignant example of this can be found in the romanticism of the 19th Century, the generation of Ludovit Stur, a poet, teacher, scientist, essayist and translator who transcended the synthesis between literary and ideological action and took his struggles into the political sphere. Stur codified the Slovak language, reuniting the Slovak people through reasserting a unified tongue and as the figurehead of the national movement stood against the impending threat of Magyarisation. His enduring purpose was the fate of the Slovak nation and therefore his poetic and political works coalesce completely; "My country is my being, and every hour of my life shall be devoted to it". Stur is now remembered as a Slovak national hero whose inspirational work influenced the state of the nation, and here more than ever society, culture and literature are realised as one.
Later, in an effort to quash growing feelings of nationalism and resistance amongst the Slovak people, the ruling Austro-Hungarian government took brutal action as the three Slovak language schools and the Matica Slovenska were closed by force in 1875. The movement of realist literature formed a response to this aggressive Magyrisation and the ensuing threat to Slovak culture and this generation gave to the world the most famous and revered of all Slovak writers, Pavol Orgaszh Hviezdoslav who continued the fight for Slovak identity and also gifted to the Slovak language translations of Goethe, Shakespeare and Pushkin. Hviezdolslav embodies the continued fight for identity through the preservation of language and the legacy of literature. To abolish language is to take away the voice of a people and therefore drastically corrode identity, but with their literary voices the Slovak writers fought to preserve and protect the independence of their society and reflect the experience of their people; a movement that both reflects the tragedy of the age and also offers a proud and defiant cultural voice.
Through documenting national literary history, the exposition at the SNK LM examines the fate of written Slovak language. Throughout history, the tension between Slovak tongue and the biblical language of the Czechs, the Latin of classical works and the coercive implementation of the Magyar language upon the Slovak people has threatened to strangle the voice of Slovakia. The surviving literary history is the flame that kept the Slovak culture alive; throughout the ages these written works, in the aforementioned languages and in the native tongue formed a literature that is both reflective and influential, ensuring the continuation of the Slovak culture and drawing together all elements of human experience. Again, this conveys the relationship between linguistics, literature and identity; if the Slovak language and its voice had been completely subjugated, the fight for the Slovak culture would have been lost. But it endured thanks to the work of those who struggled to preserve the language and culture of their people through creation of resonant seminal literary texts.
Added to the permanent exhibits, the SNK LM also commands an impressive exhibition in situ; the atmospheric and imposing National Cemetery. Here the connectivity between literary, political and social history becomes all the more evident; buried here are notable figures from all areas of artistic and political significance and a visit to the cemetery brings their stories further to life. Here you can find the tombs of Anna Hurbanova, the first female actor in Slovakia and emblem of Slavic feminism, and Karel Plicka pioneering photographer and director and the founder of Slovak film education. The National Cemetery is less a graveyard, more of a physical encyclopaedia of key personalities in the cultural development of Slovakia, and is an essential component of the SNK LM.
Literature runs like a bloodline through the dynamic socio-political history of Slovakia
It is intertwined with cultural identity, national awareness, freedom, democracy and hope. The vivid connections to Slovak heritage act as a cultural map; reflecting and influencing the differing aspects of identity throughout history. Because of this, the SNK Literary Museum is essential for the continued education of Slovakia and the awareness and appreciation of a literary culture that is entirely their own. Now more than ever, as a young country in its 20th year, the Slovak people face a challenge in maintaining the connection to the resonant voices of their dynamic past. The Literary Museum allows native visitors to connect with their artistic, social and political heritage and to use their cultural history as inspiration in looking to the future. For a visitor from abroad, such as myself, to gain an insight into the social, political and historical life of the Slovak people you need only to access this dramatic and tempestuous literary tradition on display here at the SNK Literary Museum. Universally, the reality of existence and the expression of art are intrinsically connected; but the unique tradition of Slovak letters is not just a study into literature, it is an eye-opening and un-ignorable insight into the life of a culture, a nation and its people.
Autor: Jamie Leatherbarrow © Autorské práva sú vyhradené