All photographs copyright Alex MacNaughton
June 2010 saw the London Review Bookshop’s second annual World Literature Weekend, themed around exile and displacement: both linguistic and geographical, voluntary and forced. In the words of Alain Mabanckou, the festival brought together writers able ‘to create something within the local that is open to the world,’ and The Literateur didn’t miss a thing.
The Railway: Hamid Ismailov and Robert Chandler, Friday 18th June, 4pm
On 16th June, two days before the Kyrgyz-born Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov spoke at the World Literature Weekend, Kyrgyzstan declared three days of national mourning in response to the country’s recent violence and political unrest. The conflict in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan following the 7th April uprising make this a highly charged time for Ismailov to reflect on his upbringing in the region.
The Soviet Uzbekistan in which Ismailov grew up was a multilingual, multicultural ‘mixed world of everything’. He recalls how, as a boy, he would celebrate Easter with Greek families, Ramadan with Muslim families, speak Tajik with neighbours and Russian at school, and then spend evenings reading the Thousand and One Nights and the poetry of Hafez to his grandmother – about which lengthy readings, he remembers, he was far from excited as a boy.
Throughout Ismailov’s discussion with Robert Chandler, the English translator of his best-known novel The Railway, the immense importance of names to his life and work is clear. As Chandler sees it, the Soviets wanted to change the world and human nature. This proving impossible, they began instead to rename everything – the easiest route to change.
Stalin’s belief in the power of names over reality, traced intriguingly by Chandler to the ideas of the French Symbolist poets, contrasts with the flexibility of names in the eyes of the Central Asian people. Stalin’s redrawing of the region’s borders deliberately avoided divisions along coherent ethnic lines, with many Uzbeks residing in what became Kyrgyzstan and vice versa. ‘Renaming yourself is very easy there,’ Ismailov says – and an important part of survival. ‘Call me whatever, but don’t kill me,’ is how he characterises the world in which he lived.
The Railway’s style is characterised by dense repetition, and both Chandler and Ismailov speak feelingly of the importance of this. It seems that in this repetition the two different characteristics of language in Ismailov’s life combine: the experience of the changeability of names and the Soviets’ belief in their primacy over reality.
According to Chandler, ‘repeating a word is like holding it up to the light,’ watching how it changes as rays catch it from different angles. Yet repetition is a pursuit of permanence as well as of change. One key repetitive passage describes a character’s arrest and imminent execution. With each repeated word, Ismailov says, he is trying to keep possession of the passing moments. Through making language stand still, he is trying to keep hold of his life.
Even before he began The Railway, the very choice of which language to write in placed Ismailov firmly within the multilingual world of renamings the novel portrays. He began writing in Uzbek, before being advised to change to Russian by a friend who declared that no-one would read it otherwise – and indeed, the fact that his works are currently banned in Uzbekistan seems to bear this out.
Ismailov explains why, far from a betrayal of his Uzbek identity, he considers Russian an apt choice of language for the novel. The Railway has been able, he says, to become almost the only Soviet novel: the Russian language is the glue of its ‘mixed world of everything’ Central Asian setting, and it is fitting that it should also glue together a novel tracing a century of its history.
Yet towards the end of the discussion, Ismailov adds that The Railway would have been a ‘totally different’ novel had it originally been written in Uzbek – and this concluding reminder of the linguistic might-have-beens surrounding and permeating his work provides just the right context in which to read it.
Elias Khoury with Jeremy Harding, Friday 18th June, 7pm
Elias Khoury’s not the kind of writer who writes about himself. His stories are other people’s, and the first thing he says is to excuse himself as no more than the signature on his books. But here’s a little about him: one of the most distinguished intellectuals of the Arab world, he’s a novelist, journalist, acclaimed critic, playwright, teacher, and currently literary editor of the newspaper Al-Nahar. Born in Beirut in 1948, in the late 60s he became active in the Palestinian cause and later took part in the Lebanese civil war that began in 1975. This war is the medium in which his novels take place. But in spite of the brutality of this context, his writing has, as Jeremy Harding says (his interviewer this evening, contributing editor at the LRB), a lightness to it. Accordingly, the first question asks, why is he so playful?
Khoury’s reply turns us to the tradition of the Thousand and One Nights, and, relatedly, the oral tradition of story-telling that he grew up with. In these traditions stories mirror each other; one might be a metaphor for another, which is a metaphor for a third. The telling of them is not linear – things emerge, mingle, open then close, and reopen. Characters appear, disappear, reappear. It’s this fluidity that’s playful, as well as the absence or rejection of absolutes, the refusal to accept a simple, fixed truth. Literature’s a combination of memory and imagination, neither of which are reliable, says Khoury, and so it can’t be there to tell us facts, but rather to question, to explore. He cites Gilgamesh, the first great epic: it’s a travel story, an adventure story.
Halfway through the evening Jeremy asks about Yalo, a book he found very hard to read. Yalo’s subject is a young Syriac militiaman who becomes a rapist and is arrested and tortured, not for the rapes, but under suspicion of involvement with Israeli terrorists. It is a nice story, says Khoury, and adds that he ended by becoming friends with the boy. Describing the brutalities Yalo suffered after his arrest, among those that really do take place across the Arab world, Khoury made one up: a psychological punishment whereby Yalo is made to write his life story seven times. Each time he is told he is lying, and tortured for it. It seems unlikely that this technique will be taken up in real interrogation rooms, since both the act of self-definition itself, whether accepted or not, and the possibility of different, even contradictory, versions of a person’s story co-existing are affirmative and strengthening things, not destructive.
Such re-versioning is expressive of the idea that people’s identities are many-layered, which counters the ‘stupid idea of the état-nation‘, in Khoury’s words, ‘that was invented in Europe’. His own identities are multiple: Christian, Muslim, atheist, leftist, Lebanese, Palestinian. Of these last, Khoury says, ‘I have two countries: the country where I was born and the country of my choice. Neither country exists!’ But he insists on his self-identification as a Palestinian, as an identification with the victim, and as such an expression of common humanity. Khoury quotes the psychologist Jacques Hassoun, who made a distinction between ‘identity’ and ‘identification’. It’s this last that matters, while the former is simple, reductive, externally imposed. Yalo’s torture, then, is not the repeated writing of his story, but the subsequent denial of his identifications, and the process of forcing him into the limits of a ‘pure’ identity – this, Khoury says, is fascism. His books aren’t laden with a political ‘message’, and he says that novels can’t change anything – though perhaps their readers might. But what he does as a novelist is important exactly in affirming the multiple identities and complexities of all the individuals who populate the stories he tells us. With Khoury around, history won’t only be written by the victors.
Alain Mabanckou with Helen Stevenson, Friday 18th June, 2pm
Traduction en Direct: Alain Mabanckou, Sarah Ardizzone, Frank Wynne; chaired by Daniel Hahn, Saturday 19th June, 12pm
When asked to produce a translation which would then be discussed and defended ‘live’ at the LRB’s World Literature Weekend, Sarah Ardizzone and Frank Wynne responded in identical fashion: ‘That sounds terrifying, but I’ll do it.’ Why would two experienced and decorated professionals (she has won the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation twice, he the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) feel quite so nervous about discussing their craft, something that authors do all the time? Perhaps because we, as readers, couldn’t treat translators and authors more differently. Whilst successful authors are interviewed and adored, the translator is but a ghostly presence who will always be too visible for some, an embarrassing necessity allowing us to access works from around the world but simultaneously barring, through the inconvenient markers of personality or style, our access to the work of what Andrew Stilwell, introducing, called ‘the more glamorous personalities’.
Tightrope walkers, ventriloquists and fraudsters are some of the epithets translators use for themselves, offered to us by Daniel Hahn (Chair of the Translators Association and of Saturday’s event). No doubt because they spend so much time in metaphor and figure, but also because the presence of a translator, always partial or mediating, invites such deviation. The World Literature Weekend thus seeks not only to promote writers from across the globe, but to bring the translators of those works back into view, to argue for the merits of that process so despised in many literature departments, and to acknowledge both that, yes, the work that is created is a new one, distinct from the original, but that this opens the text up to an enormous variety of readers who would be otherwise unable to access it. Alain Mabanckou, the author whose work provides the material for this event, is, after all, himself a reader of world literature, and appeared in conversation with his translator, Helen Stevenson, on the Friday afternoon. It was whilst studying a law degree (‘to satisfy my mother’) that he encountered the works of García Márquez, cited as an influence, along with Russian writers such as Dostoyevsky and Gogol whom he discovered after a move to Europe. Alain cannot speak Russian, but, as he is keen to emphasise, authors don’t only write for their own people. If Dostoyevsky wrote exclusively for Russians, ‘I wouldn’t understand,’ he says. In fact, he felt transported to Russia, felt that it was his country. This is what a really good translation will achieve – perhaps even more effectively than the experience of reading the original which, even with an exceptional grasp of the language, may always feel exaggeratedly exotic.
If that sense of belonging is to be conveyed to us, however, whilst keeping the local specificity of the text, the ‘voice’ must be absolutely right. The real difficulty, Sarah tells us the next day, does not come from a text with awkward syntax or complex ideas, but a text with a strong voice, such as that of Alain’s narrator: knowing, teasing, clever but not formal. And this text is an unusually easy one from Alain’s corpus; on Friday, Helen had described the difficulty of dealing with a novel such as Broken Glass, which incorporates passages from other authors (‘like creases in a sheet,’ Helen called them) ranging from French translations of Steinbeck to African authors unknown in Europe. Without the author’s help, one might find oneself to have embarrassingly translated Hemingway back into a form of English that bears little relation to the original. Frank emphasises just how collaborative each project usually is, for reasons such as these; he will generally present a book length work to the author and editor with 2000-3000 footnotes, all containing queries or alternatives, for discussion.
This does not, however, tend to push a text towards any single, ‘neutral’ interpretation. Although these translations were only rough, we are informed that only one sentence out of however many had been translated identically, and this was ‘Really?’(‘Vraiment?’) The translator’s own manner of speaking will have an influence, and in a discussion like this, one’s individual quirks of language come under attack. When Frank states quite reasonably that he hasn’t “been to a disco since the 1980s,” Sarah has to defend her choice of this slightly embarrassing word for the opening sentence – and she does not altogether succeed in laying responsibility at the feet of the character!
Then there are other words which garner agreement simply by virtue of their troublesome nature. They stumble over cochonneries as euphemism; Frank assigns it a ‘slightly Mary Whitehouse prudishness’, the kind of thing one’s mother would accuse one of, and so went for ‘smutty things’, which Sarah greatly preferred to her ‘a dirty act’. Neither was entirely happy, however, with anything they could come up with at the time.
They discuss at length the cultural aspect of metaphor, which may be one that few of us have properly considered. Frank considered ‘made doe-eyes at’ for ‘convoitait de loin’ (literally ‘coveted from afar’, but lower register), before remembering that the Congo, where the story is set, is devoid of deer. The other side of this attempt to be geographically faithful in metaphor is the desire not to exoticise or, worse, primitivise the text by sticking too closely to metaphors with which the British or American reader is unfamiliar. An unscrupulous salesman ‘n’était pas né de la dernière pluie’ – literally, wasn’t born with the last rains, which is an evocative idiom, but perhaps too much so of wide African savannahs and not enough so of the urban setting where it is being used. Here the usefulness of a grasp of several cultures is once again emphasised: Frank’s Hiberno-English offered up the very close ‘had not come down with the last shower’, whilst Sarah had to go with the far more banal ‘wasn’t born yesterday.’
Despite many differences, much of the discussion between the two translators took the form of mutual praise, usually evolving into another way of phrasing a particular passage which both preferred. When asked about the possibility of two translators working together on the same text, however, both pointed towards the problems of maintaining unity of voice, which Sarah called ‘the signature’ of a work. Frank cited a Penguin translation of Proust, which used more than one translator for obvious reasons, but in which the pet name for Albertine and attitude to the subjunctive varied wildly from one book to the next. Although all present had flirted with group translation, all insisted on the necessity of a very good editor in such a situation. All agreed that the best path is to allow a single translator to ‘sign’ a work, to stamp it with their own personality whilst doing what the author did in the first place: creating an appropriate narratorial voice. In the introduction, translators were described as ‘the mediating angels in Babel’. High praise, but still spectral, still mysterious. Alain, whose precise use of figure so delighted and befuddled his translators across the two events, came up with something characteristically apt as we drew to a close: ‘I gave them a guitar and they’re playing their own rhythm.’
Hisham Matar and Adhaf Souief, Saturday 19th June, 2pm
In a discussion of the work of Adhaf Souief and Hisham Matar, steering away from the notion of ‘ethnic’ writing might have become a cliché in itself; both writers, reflecting on their past books, audience questions and their works-in-progress, encouraged a view of literature that is transnational, with Matar stating that ‘these questions [of identity] aren’t ones you ever really think about until someone asks you’.
Testament to the thoughtfulness of both writers, though, was the presence of a vast ambivalence toward the notion of ‘ethnicity’ and ‘the universal’, in which both entertained the idea that writing itself was most succinctly represented by the dialogue between a local and a general: Matar argued that contemporary writing is concerned with ‘the place of the native in the globalisation project’, where Soueif, coming from the opposite angle but arriving at much the same destination, commented that good literature was about ‘expanding the discussion so it becomes a universal discussion’.
Native to Cairo, Soueif’s chosen subject was the marginalisation of Egyptian citizens by the state appointed authorities; Matar’s – whose father was kidnapped by the Libyan government – detailed a man’s thoughtful recollections of his childhood and father. Inherent in both readings was a sense of identity: in Soueif’s Cairo, police forbid an Egyptian entry to the national museum on account of its status as a “foreign only” space, and Matar’s protagonist tells his audience of the peculiar rituals of his father and mother. Interestingly, though, Matar’s recollections – necessarily, perhaps, written in the past tense – were sober and almost nostalgic, where Soueif chose humour as her tool, offsetting satire with the peculiar sense of tension that often arises from prose written in the present tense.
In both cases, though, what was clear is that identity, as well as being liberating, leaves a great many alienated. Matar’s narrator seems curiously detached from the world as he outlines his carefully selected memories, and Soueif’s characters are very literally denied the ability to identify with a chosen space.
Indeed, on the restricting nature of power, Mater and Soueif were in agreement: ‘one of the most terrible consequences of occupation is isolation’, said Soueif, and Matar was happy to concur.
On Exile and Language: Tahar Ben Jelloun, Atiq Rahimi, Elir Amir, chaired by Adam Shatz, Saturday 19th June, 4pm
Chair Adam Shatz framed this intense discussion on the notion of exile with a particularly pertinent quote from Edward Said: ‘Exile is terribly interesting to think about, but terrible to experience’.
It was interesting, then, that for an audience made up largely of English speakers, the talk represented something of a thought experiment: authors Tahar Ben Jelloun and Atiq Rahimi, exiled from Morocco and Afghanistan respectively, spoke entirely in French for the course of the debate. That both, in discussing the relationship between language and exile, required an interpreter, was both testament to the cultural power of language and an example of the alienating power of identifying meaning through language, as the audience saw itself in some way exiled from the discussion.
Tahar Ben Jelloun was the most vocal in forging a link between language and identity: ‘A writer is his language’, he commented. ‘I don’t think you can ignore your roots; you can go beyond them, but not cut them off.’ At several points in the discussion, he noted that an individual’s identity was defined by their language, defining Joyce as ‘Irish’ (which, of course, has its complications), and Beckett as ‘French and Irish’, and noted that ‘Proust just talked about himself’, but that in so doing, he represented the French society of the nineteenth century; as a nineteenth century French citizen who wrote in French, he was invariably unable to escape that identification.
Eli Amir, born in Iraq but settled in Israel, was less willing to draw such a parallel, noting that whilst his writing would always concern his place of birth, he found the notion of a writer being tied to his nation very limiting; describing with some contempt, and not a little humour, the shelves marked ‘Arabic Writers’ and ‘Oriental Writers’ at his school, he commented that he is ‘always struggling just to be in the centre’. Mediating this, Atiq Rahimi depoliticised the notion of the exile, equating the loneliness and isolation with the act of writing itself: ‘from the moment you’re writing you’re exiled’. In so doing, Rahimi seemed willing to concede that the argument was not polemical.
It was the charismatic Tahar Ben Jelloun who highlighted the inherent ambivalence in the discussion, though, with several contradictory statements. Concluding one round of questions with the statement ‘We are all ethnic writers’, he later reflected that he was ‘just a writer. I only write about Morocco and I’m not a Moroccan writer’. On such a complex issue, the final word should perhaps go to him also: ‘These are questions for the customs officer’, he joked.
Lee Valley Poems: Yang Lian, Iain Sinclair and Brian Holton, Saturday 19th June, 7pm
A major theme of Friday and Saturday so far has been concerned with what happens to the literature of a culture when it is displaced, when the ties between language, place and writer are loosened, either by political necessity or by choice. Yang Lian is an exile too, having fled the Cultural Revolution, but, along with Iain Sinclair and his translator Brian Holton, he is at the London Review Bookshop on Saturday evening to talk about place, rootedness and locality.
‘Hackney’ sounds rough and glottal, protruding, for Anglophone ears, from the surface-textures of Lian’s Chinese. The word is lent beguiling unfamiliarity, gaining a syllable, distending: ‘Hack-en-ey.’ Brian Holton’s translation, read afterwards, contextualises the word – ‘In Hackney the river is a hidden God.’ That Hackney is multi-voiced, which Sinclair sees as central to its attractiveness for Lian, and to writers before him. It appealed to Conrad, who lived there, and whose style was forged out of double linguistic exile, from Polish to French to English. John Clare’s asylum could be found a little up the Lea Valley. The poet is in good company.
And it matters that the place of exile is North East London, where there is an industrial-natural tension redolent of modern China; a powerful correlative landscape that ‘looked sufficiently like a Chinese landscape’ to be useful as a metaphor. This combination of familiarity and strangeness, an oppositional stimulus of home/not-home that Lian calls ‘necessary dissonance,’ means that he is able to write and discuss a paradoxically rooted exile. This is thanks in part to his particular Chinese perspective, which allows, as he explains in his introduction to Lee Valley Poems, distance and time to be collapsed by the deployment of an image, so ‘the cry of a wild goose’ recalls ‘the Tang Dynasty at the instant of hearing, making Lee Valley’s waters flow twelve hundred years upstream.’
‘Lee’ is also, Lian tells us, a common Chinese surname, leading his Chinese readers assume that the valley is a place in China, and the poetry a continuation of Classical Chinese landscape poetry. In a way his Chinese characters provide a way of re-making the Lea Valley waterways within an ‘extreme artificial form…deeply rooted in the linguistic nature of Chinese,’ a kind of appropriated Chinese verbal landscape. As Sinclair points out, the misty, reed-bedded cover of Lee Valley Poems connotes China, while being London. Whilst the canal-ways, memory-retaining respiratory channels for the city (Sinclair again), are physically part of London’s land and waterscape, they are also, and without apparent contradiction, a re-creation of China, embedded in the tradition of Chinese poetry.
This duality, a familiar psycho-geographic relationship between subjective mind and place refined by its precise Chinese context, is technically reliant on the process of translation. Each poem has a root, Lian says, and though the place referred to may shift, it is the translator’s role to find that root, and ‘make another tree’ in a new language. Doing so from the Chinese places an unusual further emphasis on the translator, because, we learn, Chinese characters are tenseless and numberless, so Holton is responsible not only for replication of the sense, but must also decide as to tense and numerical relation between semantic units. This information suggests a much a greater role in the creation of a quite fundamental aspects of meaning than we are usually comfortable with assuming for the translator. After all, says Holton with a smile, ‘we begin by pretending to be poets. I have been accused of poetry myself before now. The black box that lies between language in and language out is very mysterious.’
On Vasily Grossman: Ekaterina Korotkova-Grossman and Robert Chandler, Sunday 20th June, 2pm
Ekaterina Korotkova-Grossman has been for most of her adult life a translator of English literature into Russian. Now entering her ninth decade, and in her first visit to London, she reveals to Robert Chandler that her famous father the war correspondent and novelist Vasily Grossman shared her appreciation of Dickens, citing in particular the figure of Pickwick, a man who might otherwise appear ridiculous but who is redeemed, and redeemed entirely, by his kindness. Kindness is a word that appears several times during the conversation between Ekaterina Vasilieva and her father’s translator. It was, she says, a quality that Grossman came to value far more highly than intelligence; it is, argues Robert Chandler, the quality that makes a comparison between Grossman’s Life and Fate, a book that deals more clear-sightedly with unkindness than perhaps any other 20th-century novel, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace, ‘not grotesque’. Vasily Grossman was, despite the horrors he witnessed, fundamentally optimistic about human nature, his daughter believes. Speaking both in English and through an interpreter, she describes her relationship with him, as well as her own early life, spent in Tashkent during the war and then in Lvov, immediately after the Ukrainian/Polish city had been absorbed into the Soviet Union. Her book about Tashkent remains a work in progress, and her memoir of Lvov can be sampled here: http://www.stosvet.net/12/korotkova/
Movingly, Ekaterina also describes her father’s futile attempts to get Life and Fate published in Russia during his lifetime, and her own attempts (ultimately successful) to revive Grossman’s reputation in the wake of Perestroika in the late 1980s. Grossman was, Chandler and Korotkova-Grossman conclude, a great writer whose greatness is manifested in a constant ability to surprise his readers: where we lazily expect darkness and gloom, Grossman provides lightness and humour; what might seem at first glance to be narrow polemic turns out, when paid more attention (Chandler cites in particular the portrait of Lenin in the recently translated Everything Flows), to have the grandeur of tragedy. Grossman was a truly courageous writer, never doing what we expect, and usually exceeding our expectations; and in the brutal mid-20th-century world in which the bookish and unathletic author found himself, to be kind, and to celebrate kindness, was an act of the utmost courage.
Central European Classics: Michael Hoffman, Georges Szirtes, Tomáš Zmeškal, chaired by Simon Winder, Sunday 20th June, 4pm
Assembling a series entitled ‘Central European Classics’ is attended by a central difficulty: how to reconstruct the conceptual geography of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but without empire-nostalgia, and ‘not in a Hapsburg way’?
These are questions that Hungarian-born poet and translator George Szirtes, Czech novelist Tomáš Zmeškal, and poet and translator from the German Michael Hoffman, discussing Gyula Krúdy’s Life Is a Dream, Josef Škvorecký’s The Cowards, and Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters, respectively, succeed in raising and complicating, bringing the World Literature Weekend to a close. Stephen Vizinczey is absent due to illness, so Szirtes also discusses György Faludy’s My Happy Days in Hell. Simon Winder, Penguin’s series editor for the Central European Classics, chairs the discussion.
Defending the charge of canon-formation while using the moniker ‘Classics’ is tricky, and no one likes to seem pedagogic. Simon Winder is aware of the problem, saying near the beginning that the ten books selected – a list of which can be found here: http://www.lrbshop.co.uk/home.php?cat=390 – are not intended to be definitive or canon-forming, but are instead to be read as a way of understanding the strangeness of daily life behind the iron curtain.
Part of the physical area the talk and series cover was Soviet, part Western European, and much of both under Hapsburg rule before that. As these interlocking tensions are teased out, the picture that emerges is one of a division between a former aristocracy and its decline, and new literatures produced under Communism. According to Szirtes Hungarian literature is characterised by two dominant states of mind – the shrug, gestural, denoting something like ‘so what; what next?’, and the reverie, in which mundane Soviet existence is transformed in surreal ways. Krudy’s Life is a Dream falls into the latter category, a series of bizarre stories where dream can shade into nightmare, in which a queen sticks her tongue all the way down a knight’s throat, killing him with a ‘kiss,’ and a man exasperates his waiter by eating an infinite amount of food and dispensing advice on how each dish might have been better cooked.
Stefan Zweig, and Michael Hoffman’s unfavourable review of his republished memoir The World of Yesterday in a recent LRB, lurks behind the conversation, referenced obliquely at the end as ‘an article on a certain writer.’ If Hoffman’s assault on Zweig can be more generally applied, as the panel suggests, to a need to ‘clear away dead wood’ from the large body of ex-empire, German-language writing available to an Anglophone readership, then the literatures of Soviet Europe are not, as Szirtes says of Hungary’s slim translated canon, ‘ in the luxurious position to be pruned.’
Perhaps Hoffman likes Bernhard because he bucks the trend. As an Austrian, he should fall into the aristocratic camp, but instead he is that rare thing, a ‘Western dissident,’ who, with no oppressive state apparatus to react against, is nevertheless dissatisfied and ‘exacting.’ The implication appears to be that we can learn from this attitude, later made explicit. The Central European condition of re-adjustment to the loss of a formerly great empire should feel familiar to the British, argues Hoffman, and these books provide a way to ‘precisely and delicately and ironically understand…the best way for England to understand what’s happening to it, why it doesn’t feel good.’
2010’s World Literature Weekend was characterised by a remarkable cohesion. Certain themes proved recurrent between events given by very different writers and translators, focusing on very different parts of the world, and taking place on different days. The umbrella theme of exile and displacement worked well to unify the discussions without reducing their necessary complications to the simple or obvious.
For those who attended most of the events, striking parallels emerged. Exilic distance, combined with memory and perhaps nostalgia, proved to be a powerful aid to the writing process. ‘You can’t write about a place until you regret it,’ Alain Mabanckou said of his native Congo. Repetition had stylistic significance for Elias Khoury’s arabesque-influenced prose rhythms; retaining Ismailov’s distinctive repetitions was important for Robert Chandler’s translation of The Railway. Elias Khoury and Alain Mabanckou were both happy to admit that literature can offer a substitute home, or indeed an alternative ‘way of travelling’ (Khoury). Camus and Proust were cited frequently as important influences, perhaps unsurprising given the large number of Francophone writers. Political, ethnic and religious identities were persistently figured as non-unitary, and nationalism as an imposition hostile to this pluralism. ‘In reality there is no one pure identity,’ said Khoury. In both Central Europe and Central Asia nationality has been re-allocated, and nationalisms created by fresh divisions of physical geography. The land can seem to shift, changing how people relate.
Lastly, translators were billed at least equally with writers, and the craft of the translator, building on 2009’s panel discussion, was subject to a great deal of examination. Given the very small number of books that are currently translated into English from other languages, the most subtly telling measure of the World Literature Weekend’s success may just be how much of the extremely engaged and knowledgeable festival audience are pondering a new career.