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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Samko Tále's Cemetery Book

Daniela Kapitáňová

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To purchase Samko Tále's Cemetery Book

Title: Samko Tále's Cemetery Book
Author: Daniela Kapitáňová
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 130 pages
Original in: Slovakian
Availability: Samko Tále's Cemetery Book - US
Samko Tále's Cemetery Book - UK
Samko Tále's Cemetery Book - Canada
Le livre du cimetière - France
Buch über den Friedhof - Deutschland
  • Slovakian title: Samko Tále: Kniha o cintoríne
  • Translated by Julia Sherwood

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Our Assessment:

B : clever, effective use of a distinctive voice and perspective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 24/11/2010 Ulrich M. Schmid
TLS . 21/1/2011 Rajendra A. Chitnis

  From the Reviews:
  • "Samko Táles Bericht wird nur durch Assoziationen lose zusammengehalten und spiegelt das infantile Bewusstsein des Erzählers. Dieses ausgefallene Kompositionsprinzip macht den Reiz von Kapitáňovas Text aus: Weil Samko Tále sehr beeinflussbar ist und die nationalistischen Parolen seiner Umgebung unkritisch wiederholt, stellt er nicht einfach einen pathologischen Einzelfall dar, sondern wird zum satirischen Zerrbild der slowakischen Gesellschaft. Gerade die groteske Überzeichnung des Ich-Erzählers macht ihn indes zu einer sympathischen Figur" - Ulrich M. Schmid, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Daniela Kapitáňová's satire epitomizes both the Central European fascination with the madness of conformism and the specifically Slovakian attempt not to explain it, but to capture its voice. (...) Sherwood's translation, like the original, makes for a swift, intense, thought-provoking novel, punctuated by laughs, gasps, and perhaps tears." - Rajendra A. Chitnis, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Samko Tále's Cemetery Book (Garnett Press) by the Slovak writer Daniela Kapitánová offers us, in a superb translation by Julia Sherwood, one of the strangest and most compelling voices I have come across in years." - William Boyd, The Guardian (27/11/2010)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Samko Tále's Cemetery Book is narrated by the eponymous Samko Tále, a forty-three year-old man-child with a kidney-disease that's had him on disability all his life (and stunted his growth and maturation: he has no facial hair, and he stands 152 cm -- a hair under five feet tall), and "another illness as well that has a proper name". He emphasizes he's not retarded -- and notes repeatedly: "I've got I.Q." -- but his mind is stuck at childhood-level. He also sees things from a child-like perspective, and with a child's logic. Nuance escapes him, and he bends the often at-odds facts of the world around him to the limited world-view he has built up for himself, making for tortured explanations that nevertheless seem obvious to him. Easily impressed by absolutes, Samko likes the clarity of rules and order; the man he admires most is a protector from his school-days, "Karol Gunár (PhD Social Sciences)", to whom he tattled about every piece of wrongdoing he heard about (in those still-Communist days), including the fact that his own father listened to Radio Free Europe.
       Samko has little understanding of ideology -- and with a grandfather who was a staunch Communist and a father who was anything but probably couldn't orient himself in any case -- but he does have a strong sense of right and wrong, and sees (and categorizes) everything in terms of black and white. As such, he's particularly susceptible to the absolutist claims of Communism and nationalism (deciding that it's okay to approve of something Czech if it has to do with the times when it was still Czechoslovakia, but now completely embracing the new Slovakian nationalism). As a consequence, for example, Hungarians and Gypsies, in particular, are treated with complete contempt by him.
       Samko Tále's Cemetery Book actually consists of two of his 'cemetery books', though the first is only half a page long. He comes to write the second because he had his fortune told, and it said: "Will write the Cemetery Book". Usually Samko keeps busy with his paper-recycling work, but the rear-view mirror on his handcart has been broken off, and so while it's at the workshop getting fixed he has a go at writing this second, longer 'Cemetery Book'. Unsure what exactly to write about, he just jots down what seems to be pretty much everything that pops into his head; he can't think of much to say about the cemetery proper -- but then (though Samko is certainly incapable of understanding this) the 'cemetery' of the title is certainly meant to be understood in a much larger sense (filled with both the living and the dead, as well as ideologies (some not entirely buried), etc.), and Samko does manage to describe all that very well.
       Samko rambles along, jumping from one event or person to the next in an account that slowly fills in background about him and the community of Komárno, and the changing circumstances as Slovakia made the transition from being part of a Communist state to becoming an independent one. Samko has trouble digesting much of this, seeing it from his naïve yet ultimately doctrinaire point of view. It makes for an effective exposé of Slovak character and the changing times, the man-child mindlessly revealing a great deal of the local dirty laundry along the way.
       There's some danger in using such a mentally feeble narrator, but Kapitáňová captures pretty much the right tone. More importantly, the story does eventually also reveal the full tragedy of the place and times, culminating in an episode involving Karol Gunár's daughter, Darinka, a classmate of Samko's. Much else along the way is (often near-tragically) comic, with Samko both almost buffoon-like and dead serious.
       A different kind of country-panorama, Samko Tále's Cemetery Book is a revealing introduction to small-town (and often small-minded -- and not just in Samko's way) Slovak life, all presented in that eerily convincing child-like way, with Samko's ignorant innocence -- representative, surely, for much more -- ultimately dreadfully haunting.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 December 2010

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Samko Tále's Cemetery Book: Reviews: Daniela Kapitáňová: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Slovakian author Daniela Kapitáňová was born in 1956.

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