In praise of writers' bloc: How the tedium of life under Communism gave rise to a literature alive with surrealism and comedy

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The Independent Culture

One afternoon in August 1910, Gustav Mahler spent four hours discussing his problems with Sigmund Freud as they walked through the streets of Leiden. Freud later described the insight gained from this hurried consultation as "a single shaft through a mysterious building".

To choose 10 books from the treasure-house of Middle European literature might seem a similar project, and to mark the 20th anniversary of the first free elections in the region (Hungary in March, Romania in May and Czechoslovakia in June), Penguin last week launched its series of Central European Classics. Such a list must inevitably be partial, but this "single shaft" sheds remarkable light on the literature, culture and politics of the region.

The series was the brainchild of the Penguin editor Simon Winder, who had already published Karel Capek's War with the Newts, in M and R Weatherall's appropriately Wellsian 1930s translation. Capek was a key figure in the intellectual life of the first Czechoslovak republic: his play RUR gave us the word robot, while The Makropulos Affair was made into an opera by Janacek. In War with the Newts, a Czech sea captain discovers a colony of humanoid amphibians in Sumatra, which he trains to fish for pearls in return for harpoons with which they can defend themselves. But once armed, the newts cease to be the docile servants of mankind, and take over the world.

Capek's dystopian satire is joined in Penguin's series by nine other classics, including essays by the Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Czeslaw Milosz, an early novel by the celebrated Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, and an ebullient – if not entirely reliable – autobiography, My Happy Days in Hell, by the Hungarian poet Gyorgy Faludy. The series spans five countries and a variety of genres. The earliest, the marvellously quirky short stories in Gyula Krudy's Life is a Dream, were written in the 1920s, while Gregor von Rezzori's memoir The Snows of Yesteryear appeared in 1989, although its subject matter is the author's childhood in the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The series title – Central, not Eastern European, Classics – is significant. Prague is, after all, 80 miles west of Vienna, and Winder is keen that the work should not be seen primarily through the prism of the Cold War. "We need a new way of engaging with these books as literature," he says, "in contrast to the Kremlinology of the past, where we read for signs of what was going on behind the Iron Curtain." Determined to dispel the sombre atmosphere that clings to Central European literature, Penguin has banished the traditional moody black-and-white photographs in favour of bright, stylish, surrealistic covers by Jon Gray, known professionally as gray318, whose work can also be seen on Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and Jonathan Coe's The Closed Circle.

The inclusion of the Austrians Rezzori and Thomas Bernhard stresses the historical continuity with the Habsburg Empire, of which all these countries were once a part. Krudy's world of farms and forests, country inns and horse-drawn carriages, of tyrannical overseers and journeys by night, for instance, will be familiar to readers of last year's winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, the Romanian-born German author Herta Müller, a world preserved, bizarrely, into the 1980s by the dictatorship of Ceausescu.

The old empire was hidebound, snobbish, bureaucratic and oppressive, setting nationalities against one another, but in its latter days its very impotence made it seem relatively benign. Joseph Roth who, as a young journalist, inverted his name to become Red Joseph, was among the monarchy's fiercest critics, but later became the tenderest, most nostalgic chronicler of its Ruritanian pomp and archaic absurdities. What came after – the pseudo-religions of nationalism, fascism and communism – was incomparably worse.

To judge by its most celebrated literary expressions, the distinguishing characteristic of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was boredom – those long dusty afternoons that yawn through the pages of Roth and Robert Musil. "The man who knows nothing of ennui," wrote the Romanian philosopher EM Cioran in A Short History of Decay, "is still in the world's childhood." A former supporter of Romania's fascist Iron Guard, Cioran – with whom Samuel Beckett broke off a friendship because he thought his outlook too pessimistic – was utterly disillusioned with all ideologies, right or left, religious or secular: "It is enough for me to hear someone talk sincerely about ideals," he wrote, "for me to consider him my enemy. I see in him a tyrant manqué, an approximate executioner ..."

This mindset explains how inimical any doctrinaire ideology was to many in the former Habsburg realm. Fortunately, this gave rise not only to despair but to a rich vein of humour. In My Happy Days in Hell, Faludy recalls how a young Communist friend has been traumatised by the Nazi-Soviet pact: "My other mother was the communist party," he wails, "and now I have caught my mummy in bed with Hitler, wriggling her shameless, bare behind."

The wellspring of much of this comedy is undoubtedly Jaroslav Hasek's immensely popular 1924 novel The Good Soldier Svejk, in which the antihero is a First World War soldier who follows orders with such literal-minded, bungling enthusiasm that he constantly causes chaos. Svejk quickly became a symbol of the little man's passive resistance to authority, and though the novel is not included in this selection, his spirit hovers over many of these books. In the title tale of Mrozek's collection of wonderfully oblique short stories The Elephant, for example, a zoo-keeper, keen to curry favour with his superiors, decides to save money by exhibiting an inflatable rubber elephant instead of a real one. At the first breeze, it floats into the air, landing in the nearby botanic gardens where it is punctured by a cactus.

Svejk also gets a mention in Skvorecky's first novel The Cowards. The action takes place in a small Czech town over six days in May 1945. Hitler is dead but the Germans have not yet left. Revolution is in the air, but all the teenage Danny Smiricky and his friends care about is jazz and girls. When the novel appeared in Czechoslovakia, it was immediately banned by the Communist authorities on account of its focus on Western music and culture. Smiricky appears in the later novels The Republic of Whores (1971) and The Miracle Game (1972) as a grown man coping, with wry humour, with life under Communism.

Smiricky is characteristic of a recurrent theme in these books: people who just want to get on with their lives, if only history would leave them alone. In Ota Pavel's collection of short stories How I Came to Know Fish, idyllic depictions of learning to fish in the lakes and streams of Bohemia give way to the desperate matter of survival after the narrator's family is imprisoned in the camps.

Von Rezzori, who described himself as "a living anachronism... dreaming of a lost homeland", was born in 1914 in Czernowitz, in the Bukovina region, then an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Since then it has been part of Romania, the Soviet Union, and is now in the Ukraine. His memoir concludes with a return to Czernowitz, 50 years on: what was once a multinational city, albeit uneasily so, was now mono- ethnic and solidly Ukrainian. Milosz, too, went back, and described his return to Wilno as "a closing of the circle... I fell mute from an excess of emotion."

The Austrian playwright and novelist Bernhard (1931-1989) was dissident on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In his mordantly funny novel Old Masters, two grouchy old men meet at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna to talk about art and music. Gradually, however, the real subject emerges: Austria's suffocating denial of its Nazi past. "The whole of Austria," one of them observes, "is nothing other than a museum of art history." It was not a view that made him popular in his homeland: the Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek recalled how a government minister had suggested that Bernhard's brain be made a subject for medical science because "we oppose so many of the beautiful things that are happening here in Austria".

It would not be difficult to think of alternative lists of 10 Central European works that would provide an equally revealing, if different, view into the cultural landscape of Mitteleuropa. It would make an entertaining party game, best played over the embers of a dying fire in a remote Hungarian hunting lodge. Let's see: Musil's Young Torless; Witold Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke; Antal Szerb's Journey by Moonlight; Magda Szabo's The Door; Zdena Salivarova's Stalin's Shoe...

But the Penguin selection is a marvellous start, and anyone coming fresh to the field will be captivated by the richness, variety, humour and pathos of a classic literature that, through a shared historical experience, transcends national and linguistic boundaries.

The extract: 'The Elephant', By Slawomir Mrozek (Penguin £9.99)

'...When little Joe telephoned he was given the brusque answer: "There's no such thing as a giraffe."

"What? What do you mean, there is no such thing? ... Why do you say it doesn't exist?"

"Because it doesn't. Neither Marx nor Engels, nor any of the great thinkers who have continued their work say anything about giraffes. That means that the giraffe doesn't exist"'