It was a delight to return, in person, to European Literature Days (ELit) a three-day literary festival, held in Krems, lower Austria. This year the theme was ‘Comedy and Crisis’. As Walter Grond, the festival’s founder and artistic director suggests: “Black humour often prevails where sheer hopelessness prevails, it is a fundamental human approach.”
Ukrainian writer, translator and journalist, Natalka Sniadanko opened the festival with a stirring address. Her debut novel, Collection of Passions, was published in 2001, and in 2013, her novel Frau Muller isn’t Disposed to Pay More was shortlisted for the BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year award. Essays and stories of hers have appeared in English in publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Republic, Brooklyn Rail, and Two Lines, translated by Jennifer Croft.
The Berlin-based writer spoke about the future of Ukrainians, their ideological struggle against the “magical thinking” of citizens of other countries, and Ukrainian-Russian relations of the past and future. Natalka left Lviv early in 2022, and has been living in Germany with her children since March: “My husband is fighting at the real battle front. My children and I are fighting here at the ideological, cultural and information front . . . Mostly, we are fortunate to be dealing with like-minded people who aren’t indifferent to this war, who are willing to help, who have already helped and continue to do so. But we must also regularly deal with people who have a strained relationship to reality, and who are controlled by magical thinking. Magical thinking compels these people to often believe that it isn’t necessary to supply weapons to the Ukraine, because weapons mean war. If there are no weapons, peace will come.”
She observed that many people remain unaware of the Soviet repression of Ukrainian writers in the 1930s when Stalin embarked on the coercive Russification of Ukraine: “30,000 Ukrainian intellectuals fell victim . . . 259 Ukrainian authors were published in 1930, and only 36 authors in 1938. The remainder had been deported, shot or were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Many committed suicide . . . Others were arrested for the possession of “banned” literature, such as texts of Ukrainian folk songs with religious motifs. Another reason for their arrest was belonging to the Greek-Catholic Church.” She remarked unhappily that it is not yet known how many Ukrainian writers and intellectuals will be lost in the current war.
Going further back in history to 300 years ago, Peter I’s decree of 1720 banned printing in the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian church books were seized. “From this moment onwards, Ukrainian culture acted in secret, and it was fatal to be a part of it. And it still is so to this day. Especially in the occupied areas. Rich Russian culture has always been asserted with blood and violence in the Ukraine.” She concluded with her dream for the future: a Europe “in which the Ukrainian, Polish, Slovenian, Czech, Hungarian and all other so-called “minority” cultures have a place in the consciousness of the average European alongside the Russian culture.”
Slovenian philosopher and a social theorist Alenka Zupančič spoke about the subversive spirit of comedy. Her book On Comedy: the odd one in was published in English by MIT Press in 2008. Zupančič believes comedy can flourish in times of crisis, observing that it serves two functions: “To keep us alive as subjects” while “preventing us from being reduced to victims.” It is empowering to refuse victimhood and jokes provide relief. Comedy can help us deal with stress – not as an escape, but by providing a necessary distance internally. It can function as “collective resistance” and shed light on dark situations.
British-Armenian writer, Baret Magarian, whose short story collection, Melting Point, is published by Salt, was in conversation with Estonian writer Paavo Matsin (Gogol’s Disco) and chair Rosie Goldsmith about satirical prophecies and the invention of reality. His novel The Fabrications, published in the US by Pleasure Boat Studio, is described as “part satirical comedy; part meditation on synchronicity, sex and identity; and part love story”.
Other highlights were the award-winning Romanian writer, Mircea Cărtărescu reading from his work, Melancholia (yet to be translated into English). My review for eurolitnetwork, of Blindness, a mix of memoir and fiction – seamlessly translated by Sean Cotter – can be read HERE. Nostalgia, translated by Julian Semilian, published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2021, is described by Boyd Tonkin as being: “A Danubian Narnia . . . his writing delivers a rainbow-hued riot of fantasy, imagination and invention.”
Hervé le Tellier – the fourth president of the international literary group Oulipo founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais – read from his bestseller The Anomaly (L’Anomalie), winner of the 2020 Prix Goncourt, translated into English by Adriana Hunter and published by Michael Joseph earlier this year. Le Tellier imagines the chaos that ensues when an Air France flight from Paris to New York, duplicates itself three months apart; one plane becomes two with exactly the same people on board. His characters have to meet themselves, their doppelgangers, with different consequences and varying success. Meanwhile a writer, Victor Miesel, also on board, pens a cult novel called The Anomaly. The plot allows Tellier to play with form, intertwining reportage, interviews, letters and emails into his narrative.
Elit ended with the Austrian Book Trade’s Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action. This year it was presented to Milijenko Jergovic, a Bosnian/Herzegovinian and Croatian writer, poet and essayist. It was a fitting end to a small festival that repeatedly punches above its weight.
Once again, Elit offered many thought-provoking discussions, highlighted the work of some terrific European writers and reminded us of our shared humanity during these dark times.
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