Two Lines Spotlight: Emma Ramadan on “Contagion” by Balla

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This post comes to us from Emma Ramadan, whose translation of Anne Parian’s “Monospace” appeared in Issue 21 of Two Lines.

“One day, when I began to feel troubled by the furniture in the old house I inherited from my parents, I asked some people to help me clear out all the rooms, load the furniture onto a truck and drive it out to the outskirts of the city where we tossed all the trash into a ditch and covered it with big sheets of fabric.”

From the first sentence, “Contagion” (from Issue 20) has thrust you into a stranger’s nightmare. All the worst parts of this person are infecting his house, and the only solution is to shuck out all that has been contaminated. The furniture isn’t enough. Soon the rugs, the wallpaper, the walls themselves must go.

I read through the short story in a frenzied five minutes, straining to see what was going on, what end was in store. There are no answers. Balla has said in an interview that his stories do not offer the reader an escape, but rather force pain on the reader as he or she is forced to confront the misery lurking in his or her own lives. Indeed, the narrator of “Contagion” speaks in a way that nearly convinces us we’re not in a fictional place but rather in a corner of our own world where the nightmare of this stranger’s life might be lying in wait for us, too. When we snap out of the story with its last line, this lingering feeling is all the more alarming.

Balla has won Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize (the Anasoft litera) and has repeatedly been labeled as the “Slovak Kafka,” but there’s an urgency and a Hilda Hilst–like mania on the surface of his writing, in place of Kafka’s calculated slow builds. Every sentence is eerier than the last, launching us into the next line; there is no filler. But enough with the comparisons: Balla’s “Contagion” is unlike anything you’ve read before, which is reason enough to dive in.

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