Book Review: On Jana Beňová's SEEING PEOPLE OFF

When a city is haunted and largely defined by its past, how does it affect its youngest generations? The answer to this question is teased through a maze of surreal detail and sophisticated prose in Seeing People Off, the English debut of Slovakian author Jana Beňová and winner of the European Union Prize for Literature. It was a great opportunity to review this thought-provoking novel for Southern Humanities Review

Thank you to Aaron Alford at Southern Humanities Review for his editorial guidance and support. 


Translated by Janet Livingstone, the novel is a snapshot of post-socialist life and ennui in Slovakia’s capital city of Bratislava, telescoping into the borough of Petržalka (“the belly of Stalin”) and the intertwined lives of four artists who call themselves The Quartet. Elza, the main character and primary narrator, lives with her longtime partner, Ian. Elza’s close friend Rebeka (“my Carl Solomon”) and her husband, Lukas, round out their circle.

There isn’t a lot that happens in the book, which makes one wonder if that’s not the author’s intent. Readers are forced to move through the city’s downtrodden streets at a wandering pace with the characters, back and forth in time, inside and outside of Elza’s head. Elza and her group of friends frequently gather at their favorite cafe, The Hyena; this hangout is aptly named as it reflects the artists’ view that they are scavengers in their own city, their need for economic survival as a pack. Each friend takes a turn working a random job in order to support the other three with a regular stipend, thus allowing them to pursue their art. Meanwhile, Elza has an affair with an actor named Kalisto Tanzi, which becomes her tenuous, vicarious attachment to what success must feel like. Other small events—a childhood remembered, a mental breakdown, run-ins with apartment neighbors—swell and fall like ocean waves, but they don’t necessarily serve as subplots and often go unresolved.