The page of Kapitáňová, Daniela, English Reception
Samko Tále: The Book of the Cemetery
A cross between Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Hašek’s Švejk, Samko Tále, the simple-minded narrator of The Book of the Cemetery recycles old paper and stories of his town’s inhabitants on the Slovak-Hungarian border in the last years under communism and in the first years of Slovakia’s statehood and transition to democracy. What initially appears as a loose string of humorous vignettes featuring an eccentric cast of characters told in an idiosyncratic and comic voice gradually turns dark and grotesque as the narrator is revealed not just as a physically and mentally stunted individual but rather as a monstrous distorting mirror of the conformism, pettiness, homophobia, and the racial and ethnic intolerance of the society he lives in. A bestseller when first published in its homeland in 2000, The Book of the Cemetery continues to resonate amid rising ethnic tensions in Eastern Europe today.
About the author
Daniela Kapitáňová was born in Komárno on 30 July 1956. She studied theatre direction at the Film Academy of Dramatic Arts in Prague. She is married with one daughter and lives in Komárno and Bratislava.
She burst onto Slovakia’s literary scene on 1 April 2000 with the short novel „Samko Tále: Kniha o cintoríne“ (Samko Tále: The Book of the Cemetery) published by LCA Bratislava. It has gone into four editions in Slovakia (2000, 2001, 2002 and 2005) , and has been translated into Czech (2004, Host Brno), Swedish (Samko Tále: Boken om kyrkogården 2006, Skosnöret Stockholm), French (Le Livre du cimetière 2006, l’Engouletemps Paris) as well as Arabic (Dr. Ghias Mousli, Homs 2009). It is due to appear in Poland (Pogranicze Sejny), Austria (Wiener Press), Japan and Bangladesh.
Daniela Kapitáňová teaches creative writing at Nitra University and works for Slovak Radio. Her feuilletons are regularly published by the dailies SME and Pravda. She is also interested in the theory of the detective story genre. In 2003 Pravda serialized her series of parodies of famous detectives stories, Vražda v Slopnej (The Murder in Slopná, published in book form by Slovart in 2008) and in 2004 her classic detective story Zostane to v rodine (‚It Stays In the Family‘). The latter was published as a book by LCA in 2005 under the title „Nech to zostane v rodine!“, and in Czech translation in 2006 (Host Brno). Her short stories in translation appeared in anthologies and journals in Germany, Austria, Czech Republic and Slovenia. She is currently writing film scripts, one based on her detective novel and the other on The Book of the Cemetery.
From the reviews
The Book of the Cemetery is charmingly comical and you may read it only that way if you wish. You can revel in its wealth of psychological detail, perceptive and original observation and depictions of character, and in the colourful buzz of life in a provincial town. The stories Samko tells add up to a kind of Schweikian oral history of our times.
Pavel Vilikovský, Domino forum (Slovakia)
Although you can read through it in one longish evening, it repays re-reading: you will smile but with shivers down your spine.
Pavel Malovič, Playboy (Slovakia)
What contributes to a certain charming naiveté in the story is the introduction of a plethora of little people living on the margins of society. Thus the book also tells the story of the city of Komárno, of everyday failures, small pleasures and big troubles, of the ridiculousness of human endeavour...
Zuzana Belková, Kultúrny život (Slovakia)
The simpleton Samko Tále gives a unique testimony of our pre- and post- November 1989 society a la Komárno. A masterly tragi-comedy.
Lubomír Machala, Lidové noviny (Czech Republic)
Ultimately, however, the book as a whole is very brutal, not only because it lays bare with archaeological accuracy a (Czecho-) Slovak provincial town with all its aggression, racism, arse-licking and snitching. … Samko Tále is a nasty little piece of work who snitches even on his own relatives. He fondly remembers his Young Pioneers’ scarf and the good old days when everything was clear-cut and predictable.
Stanislav Škoda, Reflex (Czech Republic)
Dana Kapitáňová has not created some weird specimen or a lovable little literary character but rather has discovered a human voice that we can still hear around us, and invented a language into which our entire existence readily translates… I see Samko Tále as a character akin to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse 5 or Hašek’s Švejk.
Ján Balabán, Host (Czech Republic)
In Slovakia, Samko Tále has often been described as the Forrest Gump of Komárno (including on the book cover). However, this comparison has its shortcomings. While you could grow fond of Gump, Samko may make you sympathize or laugh at his stories, but the more you find out about him the less likeable he becomes. Although Samko is not capable of drawing a distinction between good and evil, he has an uncanny ability to identify everything that is compulsory and forbidden. He is a product of the social stereotypes of the 70s and 80s and his simple-mindedness seems to deprive him of any individual dimension or conscience. To his mind, it is the highest virtue to be hard-working, thrifty and respected by others; he licks the boots of communist authorities (by informing on members of his own family) and dislikes minorities, be they Hungarians or homosexuals. Samko’s world does not change in the 90s either: he keeps informing on others, taking his cart to the recycling centre and complaining about people no longer attending communist May Day parades, and -- above all -- he hates those who have “abolished the Communist Party”.
Petr Pýcha, Právo (Czech Republic)
“The Book of the Cemetery” (2000) is a literary debut and a daring experiment at the same time, as the real author Daniela Kapitáňová, chose an unusual literary device which, however, is not without its pitfalls. By adopting the point of view of her intellectually limited character she is able to point out certain evils. She uses her idiosyncratic character’s internal monologue to raise a number of serious and topical issues, such as the break- up of Czechoslovakia, the co-existence of various ethnic groups and the corruption of language by officialese.
Le Matricule des Anges (France)
Daniela Kapitáňová, i.e. Samko Tále, uses repetition as an effective device for presenting Samko and his world. Samko keeps going over and over things that are important to him or that he does not understand. Samko tries to conquer the world through the magic of repetition. And this is where the chasm between Samko and the reader opens up and where we begin to understand something Samko is unable to grasp. While his repetitions, despite all his efforts, lead him nowhere, he fails to reach a new understanding or a deeper awareness, going around in circles and coming back to the same point, for the reader the text is a kind of spiral that opens up the text on a number of levels. We get closer and closer to the core of what really happened all those years ago when his loyalty to the powers-that-be helped bring disaster to some and elevate others. He does not understand what he did, but the reader does. At the same time, our point of view is expanded and we see the world that had shaped Samko Tále, the world of blinkered nationalism, hard-line communism and some madness, but also a world of longing for liberty and creativity, a world of solidarity and, even, love.
Lennart Göth (writer, co-translator of the Swedish version), Sweden