European Literature Days, one of my favourite literary festivals, was held this year in Krems, lower Austria, and posed the question “What defines a good life?” Austrian heavyweight, Robert Menasse (whose satirical novel, The Capital, is translated by Jamie Bulloch and published by MacLehose Press) gave the opening talk and we were introduced to an array of international writers, all with some deep connection to Europe.
Norwegian writer Ida Hagazi Hayer (her novel Trost – Solace – is yet to be published in English) was paired with Annelies Verbeke, a Flemish writer whose acclaimed Thirty Days (translated by Liz Waters) is published by World Editions. They both write about identity, love, the human need to connect and distrust of the “other”.
Trost is comprised of three stories about a woman travelling through Europe. In each city – Lisbon, Berlin and Brussels – the woman has an affair with a stranger. In her quest for a sense of belonging, sex becomes a substitute for love. In Thirty Days, Verbeke’s focus is Alphonse, a Senegalese man living and working as a painter-decorator in the Flemish countryside. He’s a good man and initially is welcomed into the community. Gradually, however, mistrust of the outsider raises its ugly head. Both sound like quintessentially European books.
Another fascinating combination was that of Priya Basil, A British-Indian writer whose book Be My Guest, about the nature of hospitality and its limits, was recently published by Canongate, and Ghayath Almadhoun, a Palestinian poet born in Damascus in 1979 who emigrated to Sweden in 2008. His poetry collection Adrenalin is translated into English by Catherine Cobham and published by Action Books.
Almadhoun’s prose poems are powerfully mesmerising. In How I Became he writes:
“Her grief fell from the balcony and broke into pieces, so she needed a new grief. When I went with her to the market the prices were unreal, so I advised her to buy a used grief. We found one in excellent condition although it was a bit big. As the vendor told us, it belonged to a young poet who had killed himself the previous summer. She liked this grief so we decided to take it.“
Almadhoun ends by describing the genesis of a poet: Human beings became more precious to me than nations and I began to feel a general ennui, but what I noticed most was that I had become a poet.
In Massacre he damns political inertia:
“Massacre is a dead metaphor that is eating my friends, eating them without salt. They were poets and have become Reporters With Borders; they were already tired and now they’re even more tired. “They cross the bridge at daybreak fleet of foot” and die with no phone coverage. I see them through night vision goggles and follow the heat of their bodies in the darkness; there they are, fleeing from it even as they run towards it, surrendering to this huge massage. Massacre is their true mother, while genocide is no more than a classical poem written by intellectual pensioned-off generals.”
Both writers reminded us that our lives are determined by the lottery of where and when we are born. Basil observed that she has the privilege of being able to move freely because of her European passport. Almadhoun, on the other hand, has to rely on being granted fellowships – he is currently living in Berlin. He spoke poignantly about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers who have lost their homes, only to find themselves in a situation where they have no political rights, no human rights, no papers; they can’t work and can’t travel.
Basil’s heritage is Indian, she was born in Kenya, grew up in England and lives in Berlin so is well placed to write about hospitality and cultural difference. In Be My Guest, Basil describes the act of breaking bread as a means of connecting:
“Eating is the one universal, daily activity that underpins human life. However much or little we think about it, food is a force – and when shared its power may be amplified . . . In sharing a meal everyone communicated through the vocabulary of victuals. They discovered bits of each other through the dictionary of dishes. They learned a new lexicon of largesse and loss, longing and laughter that could pave the way for the exchange of the future.”
Rory Maclean also talked about cultural exchange, migration, the rise of nationalism and the treatment of refugees. In his latest book, Pravda Ha Ha (Bloomsbury), Maclean retraces the journey he made in Stalin’s Nose, just after the fall of the wall in 1989. This time he travels backwards, from Moscow to London, through countries confronting old fears and fresh challenge divided again by chauvinism and xenophobia. As his title suggests, Maclean is interested in the collapse of truth in the modern era, which, he claims, took root at the start of this century:
“Many Russians – and then many Westerners – lost their appetite for the truth. They chose not to ask questions, preferring the easy choice of falsehood, of being fed simplistic solutions to complicated problems, of championing leaders who had – who have – the power to reshape reality in line with their stories.”
Maclean spoke movingly about how nostalgia has been manipulated by those wanting to gain power, how they peddle half-truths and lies to consolidate their positions and retain their wealth. Today, many believe that there was a golden age that can be reclaimed. Consequently, lies have become the glue that binds people together.
Maclean is passionate and knowledgeable about the countries he visited. He helped a Nigerian refugee stranded in Russia, met a cyber hacker and shared a sliver of Putin’s pecker with a chicken tsar. You’ll have to read his book to find out more.
Once again, European Literature Days proved to be thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measure. The festival always introduces me to new and exciting writers, facilitates a wide range of debate and promotes some much-needed cultural exchange among neighbours.
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