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Books: Words coming in from the cold: Timothy Garton-Ash on the new European classics

ONCE UPON a time, when there was still an iron curtain, we set out to discover the great works of literature hidden behind it. Were it not for the cold war, for 'Yalta', British readers could perhaps have found classic Polish, Hungarian or Czech novels in good paperback translations as readily as they could find French, German or Italian ones. After all, writers of the quality of Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky or Czeslaw Milosz did not come from nowhere. They were obviously part of a rich literary tradition, of which most people in the West knew nothing.

Years later, the first fruits of our quest have just appeared. Jan Neruda's Prague Tales and Deszo Kosztolanyi's Skylark, in new translations, with new introductions by contemporary Czech and Hungarian writers, inaugurate a series of Central European classics published by Chatto. 'Yet another series of classics?' you may well ask. Beside the Penguin Classics, Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, Oxford World Classics, Everyman's Library, Virago Classics, Virago Modern Classics, Wordsworth Classics . . .

Yet in all these admirable series of classics (generously defined), the literature of the peoples between Germany and Russia, Austria and Turkey, is woefully under-represented. In the Penguin Classics, for example, we have Bram Stoker's Dracula and nine volumes of Karl Marx, but not a single title from non-German Central Europe. In the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics we do have single titles by Tadeusz Borowski, Witold Gombrowicz and Jaroslav Hasek, but that is all. Pablo Neruda, by contrast, is represented by two titles.

Now the Chilean writer, whose real name was Nefteli Ricardo Reyes, actually adopted the pseudonym Pablo Neruda after being entranced by our 19th-century Jan Neruda's stories from Mala Strana, the 'little quarter' of Prague. But in the meantime the original Neruda, the Czech Dickens, has been forgotten - except by the Czechs. In the wider world, and the Penguin list, his name lives on only as the pseudonym of a Chilean communist poet. A very Central European fate.

I don't want to overstate the case. It is, no doubt, the fate of most national literatures to be unjustly neglected. No doubt there are also buried Portuguese, Spanish or Swedish masterpieces crying out for translation. Moreover, there were not a few disappointments on our long search. Many books highly prized in their own countries turn out on closer examination to be too much of their time, too introverted, obscure or allusive to be translatable into readable modern English. This is perhaps particulariy true of literature from Central Europe, where writers have so often been called upon to be moral and even political authorities, yet, by the same token, have often had to smuggle their message past the censors in oblique or allegorical forms.

Perhaps the worst thing that has happened to them is not sheer neglect but bad translation - literature's 'fate worse than death'. Thus one of the greatest 20th-century Polish novels, Witeld Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke, is available only in a translation which appears to have been made from the French, not the original Polish, and which starts by simply omitting several lines of the book's virtuoso opening.

Richard Aczel's vivid new translation of Dezso Kosztolanyi's Skylark is thus a double discovery: of a superb, deeply poignant short novel, but also of a gifted translator. Michael Henry Heim is already well known for his translations of Central European writers. (Some say his Kundera is better than the original.) His new translation of the Neruda stories rescues them from the cloying, saccharine sentimentality of earlier versions. Introductions by Ivan Klima, for Neruda, and Peter Esterhazy, for Kosztolanyi, explain why these books have a firm place as classics in their own countries.

Once again, I don't want to claim too much. The modifier 'Central European' is important, although itself raising problems of definition. There are some particular and, in the broadest sense, regional themes that distinguish and link these books: an often ironical alienation from the imperial power (Austrian, German, Russian or even Ottoman), the clash of nationalities and identities (Slav, Magyar, German, Jewish), a highly developed sense of the absurd, and, not least, a consciousness of the importance of language and literature itself in the process of nation-building.

Yet nor do I want to understate the claim. In fact, there are probably very few books that really deserve the title 'Twentieth Century' or 'Modern', let alone World classics - and certainly fewer than are sold under such labels. The status of most classics depends on some history being shared between writer and reader. The classic quality of some classic English authors can be mysterious even to the best informed and most sympathetic of foreign readers. John Bayley quotes the Polish-born Joseph Conrad writing to a friend: 'What is all this about Jane Austen?'

I believe that anyone can enjoy, say, Skylark as literature in English, even if they have no special knowledge of, or interest in, Hungary and the lost world of the Habsburg monarchy. This is partly because that culture is not so astronomically remote from our own - we are, after all, part of Europe - but also because Kosztolanyi's writing is good enough to transcend the cultural difference that does exist. (The more remote the culture, the greater the writing must be to bridge the gap.) And I am confident that the same will be true of the next two titles in our series: Zsigmond Moricz's Be Faithful Unto Death, in a new translation by Stephen Vizinczey, and Boleslaw Prus's The Doll, a great, panoramic novel of 19th-century Poland.

Of course, all this costs money. The 'we' in my first paragraph is not merely the royal we of a General Editor but refers also to the Central and East European Publishing Projects, a small Oxford-based charity, with a distinguished international board chaired by Ralf Dahrendorf.

It will finance the first six titles in the series. After that, the future of the series will depend on you, the reader.