In May 2005, in the main hall of Prague’s Industrial Palace, where the Prague Book Fair takes place every year, two Slovenian writers, Aleš Debeljak and Drago Jančar, were engaged in a debate with the Czech writer Michal Viewegh. Viewegh later captured this meeting in his diary, The Wonderful Year, emphasizing the futility of a debate against two Slovenes who only seemed interested in searching for answers to questions that Viewegh himself considered “stupid”.
I, however, remember being grabbed by the passion with which Debeljak and Jančar expounded on one thing or another, even if I didn’t know exactly what they were saying. I was so excited by the presence of a foreign poet that I took off my headphones and listened to the melody of his speech instead.
A short while ago, I received the sad news that Aleš Debeljak had died. It occurred to me that it’s always the best who leave early, as if Providence has mercilessly recalled them from this world. But it’s hard to persuade those of us left behind that Providence speaks through car accidents. Aleš Debeljak was only fifty-five.
Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of his translator František Benhart, Debeljak’s work appeared often in Czech publications. Following the publication of a short selection of poems called Katalog prachu (Catalog of Dust), a full-length collection, Město a dítě (The City and the Child) appeared in Czech translation. I remember buying this slim collection for a song in a large bookstore that no longer exists. But it was only later, in the exhibition hall at the book fair – or maybe it was at his reading at the Globe Bookstore? – that I finally approached him, the book trembling in my hand, and got it signed.
Even today, I can’t say I understand everything that’s happening in his poems. But just as in 2005 when I first read his unique sonnets — poems in which you feel the open Hungarian plains and the close echo of the war in Bosnia — his work resonates with me. The ends of the verses seem as if they are left to chance; here and there, rhymes erupt in the middle of a line. Before discovering Debeljak’s work, I had never before read poetry in which lines were allowed to overtake their forms, transforming stolid, unshakable patterns into wild textual fields. As one of his poems instructs us:
Recite what remains here simply: flocks of swallows that chatter
under the former towers and arches, the eternal wisdom of the French novel,
which we read in the shelters, silver fuzz on the earlobes
of newborns, that are rapidly disappearing, the drawn-out thunder from the plains of Pannonia.
I rank Aleš Debeljak among the world’s great poets. Not because he came to us from abroad, though I suppose that made him worldly by definition. And not because he lived in the US and wrote a number of essays. But because he was an inspiration, a landmark even, to readers outside the borders of his homeland.
Farewell, Aleš Debeljak.
Translated from Czech by Deborah Garfinkle
JONÁŠ HÁJEK is a Czech poet who has published three poetry collections: Suť (Debris – Fra 2007), Vlastivěda (Social Studies – Fra 2010), Básně 3 (Poems 3 – Triáda 2013). For his first collection, he was awarded the Jiří Orten Prize and nominated for the Magnesia Litera Award in category of Discovery of the Year. He is a contributor to the magazines Souvislosti and Host. In addition to being a poet, he is also a translator of German literature (Günter Eich, Mascha Kaléko). He lives in Prague and works as an editor for a music publisher.