Original title: Pálenka. Prózy z Banátu
Magnesia Litera in the Newcomer of the Year category 2015, Czech Book Prize 2015
Bulgarian (ERGO, 2016), Polish (Książkowe Klimaty, 2017), Macedonian (Ars Lamina, 2018), Hungarian (Typotex, 2018), Croatian (Artikulacje, 2019), Romanian (Curtea Veche, 2021)
A young Czech teacher comes to teach local children to read and write. They teach him how to light a corn stove. Stray dogs, trampled, mulberries, goldenrod in bloom, the distant roar of the Danube. And gradually the memories come, as though things were happening all over again: years spent in a grammar school’s gym, treading the boards, studying in Germany, the solitude of different shores and journeys. People’s faces, fleeting moments of closeness.
Matěj Hořava has come up with a meditative work that is deeply autobiographical and stylistically distinctive. Its short, dense, linguistically colourful chapters are built around important events and seemingly fleeting feelings that for some reason are remembered for a lifetime: light at a certain angle of refraction, the sight of woman who will or will not be his, a howling wolf on a hillside. A special time of youth and a peculiar existence unfold before the reader’s eyes.
Although the book is composed of fragmentary texts, it is as though the motifs of closeness with women, journey and escape and settling accounts with childhood form a single entity, perhaps the author’s animus. These core themes are developed in spirals as the author adds memories and experiences gradually and his writing goes deeper. Hořava’s ability to find tiny knots where fibres meet in the fabric of time is rare indeed. - Jan Němec, writer
" [This author’s] prose debut is a true revelation. […] Matěj Hořava is a poet in prose who shows what literature can do without the need to be literary."
Ondřej Horák, Hospodářské noviny
"In Hořava Czech prose has found a new romantic. The book Distilled Spirit is a joy to read."
Zdeněk Mitáček, Podél trati [blog]
"Whatever the motives that set Matěj Hořava on his journey to the Banat, and whatever it was that opened the floodgates of his imagination, his reflections and visions have come together in a book of distinctive writing that is highly readable, uncomplicated, thought-provoking and, above all, worthy of our attention."
Milena M. Marešová, Český rozhlas Vltava
"All the inner and outer micro-stories form an amazing mosaic of a man’s search for the self. The carousel of the hero’s life has been moving too quickly and he has jumped off to catch his breath, take a look around, ask questions and look for answers. He puts his heart and soul into this, aided by his ability as a listener and an observer of all that occurs around him. On the jacket of the book the novelist Jan Němec praises Matěj Hořava for his “superb work with the rhythm of language”, an opinion one can only share. To this I would add the author’s ability to create an extremely sensitive, almost lyricized view of the day-to-day world which never turns its back on harsh realities."
Petr Hanuška, Olomoucký deník
"The leitmotif of burning and fire runs through this work: in the distilled spirit of the title, in a narrative style that is febrile in places, even in the author’s surname, which is loosely equivalent to the English ‘Burns’. In making these connections I have perhaps forced the issue, but the forty-plus short pieces of prose in the first book by Matěj Hořava (b. 1980) form an extremely cohesive whole […] Judging by this first encounter Hořava is a mature and distinctive stylist who promises a captivating read.
There is no doubt that Distilled Spirit is an exceptional literary debut. In my view the only recent prose debut that compares to it in terms of originality and intensity of reader experience is Milan Urza’s Wrath of Jeremiah (Trigon, 2014). Although Hořava’s book has a very particular mood, the enthusiastic response among readers indicates that there are plenty of us who would gladly drink țuică with the director, savour čorba and sarma at the Wojners’ or join the parish priest for a traditional funeral in the churchyard."
Petr Nagy, Iliteratura.cz
"In this outstanding debut Matěj Hořava restores the relationship between man and landscape.
I venture to say that a debut like thirty-five-year-old Matěj Hořava’s Distilled Spirit hasn’t come along in Czech literature for many years. It is a wonderfully concise, finely honed work in which every word has its place like a piece in a dry stone wall, making it reminiscent of the prose of Čep, Durych and Vaculík. The rhythm created by the laying down of individual words, and also by complete ‘diary entries’, enters the bloodstream to addictive effect.
[…] The narrator of Distilled Spirit presents a story – according to the cover notes, one with ‘autobiographical overtones’ – about a journey against the mainstream of today’s civilization. From a world whose communication networks urge us constantly to speak or write without allowing us time to consider our attitudes, he goes to places where he can be alone and so restore the sensibilities of one who simply observes and perceives – himself and the world around him. And his notes have the power of parable as well as fine diction.
[…] The remarkable, sometimes vast power of Hořava’s prose rests above all in the ability of his narrative to restore the relationship of man and landscape. Hořava is Václav Cílek (at the beginning of his writing career) or David Attenborough in a prose writer’s robes.
The prose drives not to the heart of the Banat but to the heart of the hero."
Petr A. Bílek, Respekt
"A successful debut, in which the vividness of the narrative eclipses the exoticism of the depicted reality."
Marek Lollok, Host
"The debut by Matěj Hořava, an unknown author, is a candidate for the literary event of the first months of this year."
Jan Bělíček, A2
"Short, powerful impressions of everyday life in the country determined by natural laws and the cycle of the seasons, written in language at once simple and archaic. The author’s use of elements of local dialect is never for cheap amusement; it is informed by a close connection between language and people’s thinking. The scenery is rugged, of course […] The author is no exhibitionist; he tries to understand the local situation and not to make hasty judgements. At the same time, however, he acknowledges that people in the West today are practically clueless when faced with honest straightforwardness.
Hořava is superior to many of his writer contemporaries because of the old-fashioned honesty of his presentation, not just by the richness of his language and ideas."
Jakub Grombíř, Kulturní noviny