Slovakian author Jozef Banas’s best-selling novel Jubilation Zone draws on the author’s own life experiences as a diplomat and politician, and a friendship with a West German volleyball player that was abruptly cut off when his country’s borders were closed off.
The story begins in 1968 when a Slovak student Jozef meets a Ukrainian girl and they fall in love. In the same year he gets to know a German student called Thomas Angermann who is visiting the then Czechoslovakia.
“There’s something of a mystery behind the book. Imagine two days before the Soviet invasion, the 19th of August 1968, I met this West German volleyball player. I played volleyball at the time and we became friends. On the night of the 20th of August, when from the east the Soviet Panzers [tanks] came, the West German volleyball team left Czechoslovakia and went back to Germany. The border was closed after the invasion. Imagine, for more than 20 years my friendship with Thomas stopped,” Banas said, speaking ahead of his appearance at the 5th EU-China International Literary Festival.
After the borders finally reopened Banas tried to make contact with Thomas again, but he only knew his name, his age and roughly the area in West Germany where he came from. In 2004, Banas’s daughter moved to Munich and he asked her to see if she could try to locate him on the internet somehow.
“Then one day, two days before Christmas, I got a parcel from Germany. I opened the parcel and there were photos of a guy who looked familiar. And also, in there were emails between my daughter and Thomas!”
Banas called his daughter immediately to find out how she had made contact with his long-lost friend.
“Father, it’s unbelievable. I got a list of all the Thomas Angermanns in German, there were thousands and thousands of them. And I said to myself, there is no hope, I can’t find a guy like this this way. But then I said to myself, OK, I will call one of them. And the one I called turned out to be our Thomas Angermann! Unbelievable!”
Thomas then came to Bratislava and helped Banas write the book.
“We launched the book together in a big theatre in Bratislava. And when we stood on the stage we both cried. It was so impressive. I said to myself – this is a novel which was written from my heart.”
The story resonated very well with readers and became the most translated Slovak novel of all time, appearing in about a dozen languages worldwide.
Banas got letters of congratulations on the book from a wide range of high-profile people, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the President of the German Bundestag, who wrote in a letter: “Mr Banas, it’s unbelievable. Now I’m more informed about the former life in the former German Democratic Republic than I ever was before.”
THE CODE TRILOGY
In his Code trilogy of novels, Banas adopts very different topics and styles, with his protagonist taking on a search for Jesus in India in Code One.
“This is a provocative book. I’m searching for Jesus In India. It’s a big issue, a big topic, but you have a lot of evidence that he very probably was there, especially in Kashmir. So, I can imagine that especially for the Catholic Church, for the Vatican, this is a provocative topic.”
Code 7 is a story from Bhutan, “a story about the most happy country in the world. You know, Bhutan is the only country where they don’t have Gross National Product but rather they use Gross National Happiness, and this is Bhutan.”
And the third code book, Code 9, describes a fictional journey from China to India to the Vatican in Rome, “a novel that shows us that the most important journey each of us needs to undertake is a journey of knowing one´s own inner world.”
“This is a book where I am very critical of the Catholic church. You know Slovakia is a very Catholic country … I’m really critical,” Banas said. “But on the other hand, this is the most published book in Slovakia. In a country with 5.3 million people there were almost 60,000 copies of this book sold.”
Another of Banas’s books which draws on his own life experiences and has been extremely popular is Stop Dubček! The Story of a Man who Defied Power. The book, a work of historical fiction, tells the story of Alexandra Dubček (1921-1992), leader of the Prague Spring movement in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Banas went to university in Slovakia with one of Dubček’s sons and knew Dubček personally, so he felt he had to tell his story through the prism of a documentary-style novel.
“There is, it seems to me, a lack of positive examples of great personalities, especially in politics, it seems to me that nowadays in the world there are not many politicians that are very attractive to people,” he said. “Dubcek was someone who brought I would say great hope. Not only for Czechs and Slovaks but generally for Europe.”
The time was one of great turbulence all across Europe, Banas recalls.
“We had the joy of life, and then suddenly this invasion. Everything was changed from one night to the next day. It came. A new way of life. The borders were closed, and so on. And Dubcek lived among us.”
Banas’s publisher was not very optimistic about the sales prospects for a book on Dubcek, because he thought people were generally not very interested in reading about politicians.
“But Dubcek is a very positive example. He was the leader of the Prague Spring, with the human face of socialism. And surprisingly, I have to say that the book was a tremendous success. I got a prize from the Slovak Pen Club for the novel, and by the way I have to say as I’m very proud of it, the novel will be published in New York next year on the 99th anniversary of Dubcek’s birth.”
Jozef Banas will join Chinese author Chen Xiwo for a discussion on “Local Stories, Global Writers” on Friday December 4 at 7.30pm (Beijing time). In conversation with Rianka Mohan.