Anton Baláž, The Camp of Fallen Women, trans. Jonathan Gresty (Ljubljana: Forum of Slavic Cultures, 2016).
So often in writing about books I’m inclined to give two reviews: one of what the book intended to be, and the second of what the book actually was. The Camp of Fallen Women is one of those books.
The premise is fantastic: the actual, historical effort of the new communist state in Czechoslovakia to “re-educate” a cohort of prostitutes from a notorious neighborhood in Bratislava by interning them in a concentration camp. Forced to wear underwear, earn a respectable living by learning to sew and embroider, and subjected to long lectures on proletariat ideology, these “fallen women” try to make sense of what has happened to them and figure out how to survive in the strange new world of communism.
As a political satire, the book is sharp, pointed, and often funny. It shows how ideology can seriously interfere with sex drive—but also how sex drive can seriously interfere with ideology. A particularly hilarious episode occurs when the entire camp is forced to participate in the “peace harvest” and the women try, in various ways, to arrange for some indulgence in their old ways with the men of the camp—only to be thwarted by sternly committed revolutionaries standing watch at all edges of the field.
There is also quite a lot of darkness in the novel: not only the obvious power plays of newborn communism, as individuals sniff the wind and try to figure out what will get them ahead and what will get them executed, but also the continual violence against the fallen women themselves. All too often submission is chosen by the women as the best alternative to violent rape, but it hardly qualifies as consensual. There is a disturbing juxtaposition between the women’s constant concern for their own bodies—often lovingly described—and the indifferent use to which they are put by the men around them. And yet the most upsetting scene of all is when a powerful man in the camp refuses to be seduced, preferring instead to beat the woman under his control.
But now for the second review: for all the irony, hilarity, and political commentary, as a story the novel is not well crafted. This seems to be the bugaboo of literary novels across all languages: a strange but devout resistance to the craft of storytelling. There are too many characters, and insufficent time with almost all of them to develop any sense of who they are or distinguish them. Too often characters go by their title for entire scenes rather than by their personal name, so it’s not clear they’re the same person (I think, anyway. Honestly, I’m still confused on this point—which itself is a sign of bad craftsmanship). The plot simply drifts through time without clear direction, and the ending is both vague and abrupt with no preparation or payoff. Even simple matters of explanation of what exactly is happening or where things and bodies are in space are not well handled, leaving the reader in a perpetual haze. I wanted to experience fully the satire that Baláž had to offer, but I spent far too much of the novel confused about the basic details. And unfortunately, it is fundamental failures in storytelling that prevents otherwise brilliant concepts from having a wide readership and profound impact.
But, for those eager to see more Slovak novels in English—and hopefully better crafted—there is good news. The Camp of Fallen Women is one of a projected dozen Slovak novels to be translated under the auspices of the Forum of Slavic Cultures, which has a project underway to get one hundred Slavic novels translated into other languages. You can see the full list here, alongside the anticipated novels from Montenegro, Croatia, Macedonia, Russia, Slovenia, and Serbia.