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EUROPEAN LITERATURE NIGHT 2016

by Rosie Goldsmith

The most important European diary date’ in our UK political calendar this year may be the UK’s EU Referendum on 23rd June, when we vote ‘Brexit’ or ‘Bremain’, but for us in the European literary world it was May 11th. Once again we gathered together to celebrate our annual ‘European Literature Night’ http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/european/european-literature-night/ at the British Library in London. It was our 8th ‘ELN’, the 8th time I hosted it, and a timely reminder that in these precarious times for European culture, in the world of literature at least we can be both, British and European; we can travel freely from Turkey to Bulgaria, Flanders to The Netherlands, Slovenia to Denmark, to experience the best of contemporary European writing in English. Our six ‘winning’ writers are all literary celebrities in their home countries, all superbly translated, all recently published in English, all selected unanimously by me and my fellow judges from sixty-five submissions. On May 11th these six writers entertained us all with their wit, wisdom and readings in English; for those of you who couldn’t join us, here are their six novels in review. They really are ‘the best of British’.

THE BLACK BOX
By Alek Popov https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alek_Popov
Published in English by Peter Owen Publisheres
Translated by Daniella and Charles Edwad Gill de Mayol de Lupa
With the semi-documentary, satirical writing of Alek Popov we are thrown head first into the cauldron of modern Bulgarian life, emerging with a smile on our faces. Alek Popov is a great storyteller and truth teller. He also likes to shock us and make us laugh.
We confront ‘the black box’ at the beginning of the novel, placed on a kitchen table in Sofia in 1991. The novel, ‘The Black Box’ is narrated in alternate chapters and alternating viewpoints by two brothers Nedko and Angel. The box contains the ashes of their father, Professor Emanuel Banov, who had been guest-lecturing in the USA when he disappeared, and it ‘sits there’ though the whole novel while the brothers explore the mystery of his death. Carefully constructed, in spite of the exuberant writing and colourful language, the novel jumps fifteen years into the future (2007) to tell the contrasting and parallel tales of the two brothers: Ned joins the early exodus of young Bulgarians from their homeland and emigrates to the USA, becomes successful and wealthy; Ango stays in Bulgaria, poor, directionless, a failed publisher and writer, until he wins the Green Card lottery and is able to emigrate. The two brothers are united in New York. Ango becomes a dog walker, immersing himself in the politics of the Dogsters’ Union, and Ned is asked by his firm to tackle a complex business matter back in Bulgaria and to monitor the work of the strange Mr. Kurtz (!) who lives in one of their factories, wears a blanket and has a cult following. Written with great fluency and lightness of touch, it takes you on a great ride, through the big issues of male rites of passage, immigration, belonging and identity, post-communism-meeting-capitalism and accompanied by the absurd freak shows of life of both the USA and Bulgaria.

DRY SEASON
By Gabriela Babnik https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriela_Babnik
Published by Istros Books
Translated by Rawley Grau
Edited by Stephen Watts
Ana is a successful textile designer and botanical illustrator. At the age of 62 she leaves behind her life in Slovenia for Burkino Faso– but why? She meets 27 year old Ismael, a car mechanic, pickpocket, streetboy and orphan with a backstory of abuse, neglect and a mother’s love. But his mother is killed when he is 7. Like Ana he is today alone and orphaned. Both are eloquent observers of their lives and of each other. The story unrolls in both voices, side by side. Overriding the potential clichés of black-white, Europe-Africa, male-female, young-old, rich-poor, this is a sensual, lyrical, visceral, loving and honest novel with astute and poignant discourses on art, politics and fiction. Neither Ana nor Ismael feels they belong anywhere – except perhaps, briefly, with each other, entwined in each other’s bodies. The novel is also funny and dense – perhaps too dense, perhaps too heady a mix. It is a Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud of a novel: raw and fleshy, unadorned but supremely beautiful. It is about finding meaning in life and about the ultimate victory of ‘Love Supreme.’

YOU HAVE ME TO LOVE
By Jaap Robben http://www.worldeditions.org/writer/jaap-robben/
Published by World Editions
Translated by David Doherty
What makes a great novel? What makes it memorable? For me it is a novel that eats its way into you, stays in your gut, nourishing you. I read ‘You Have Me To Love’ several months ago and, like a record stuck in its groove, it won’t let me go. The narrator is Mikael, aged 9 at the opening of the novel, 15 by the end. His language grows with him as he grows, but not his awareness, isolated as he is on his remote island with only his troubled mother, his grief at the loss of his father, some seagulls and a few islanders for company. Jaap Robben is a well-known Dutch children’s writer and poet and this is his first adult novel, but in the voice of a child, with clear-eyed sentences and without judgement. It is a universal story of isolation, loneliness and tragedy. As Mikael’s mother becomes increasingly unhinged he is sucked into her dysfunctional world, seeking refuge, strangely, with a baby seagull, or as his beloved father called them ‘sky sailors’. Inevitably, the pressure cooker blows its lid.

THE MAN I BECAME
By Peter Verhelst https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Verhelst
Translated by David Colmer
Published by Peirene Press
Both Jaap Robben and Peter Verhelst will be among a whole ‘bank’ (it’s Frankfurt after all) of Dutch and Flemish writers from Flanders and The Netherlands at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, when they are joint Guests of Honour: a great homage to some of the best writers around. How is that they conistently produce such great literature?
Peter Verhelst’s ‘The Man I Became’ is the first novel I’ve read in the voice of a gorilla. Although I had just watched the ground-breaking CGT ‘Jungle Book’ film, nothing could prepare me for the simple, unadulterated genius of Verhelst’s vision of the evolution of man.  As a reader you must completely adopt the ape’s point of view or this short novel won’t work. You follow the path of the nameless ape-narrator as he is taken from his jungle roots to the New World and taught to become human; to talk, walk upright and use a mobile phone like a human and – the ultimate test – to attend a cocktail party and make small talk. Our ape-protagonist becomes events manager at the animal theme park ‘Dreamland’, more a nightmare of human hierarchy and cruelty. The stark images and unbridled fantasy of this superb novelist, also a poet and playwright, remain controlled and incredibly clear in spite of the complexity of the topic and the sadness at his core.

KARATE CHOP & MINNA NEEDS REHEARSAL SPACE
By Dorthe Nors http://www.dorthenors.dk/
Translated by Misha Hoerkstra & Martin Aitken
Published by Pushkin Press
If you haven’t read Dorthe Nors do so now. Last year our Danish ELN-‘winner’, Naja-Marie Aidt, went onto fame and fortune; this year’s Danish short story writer is on a similar stairway to heaven. Disturbing and beautiful, sublime and spare, these sharp parables of everyday life are both cruel and compassionate. There are 15 stories in 82 pages and nowhere is a word out of place. And with this short, short review, in honour of Dorthe Nors’ short short stories, I intend to achieve the same: reviewers can do it too!

ISTANBUL ISTANBUL
by Burhan Sönmez https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burhan_S%C3%B6nmez
Translated from by Ümit Hussein
Published by O/R Books (NY/London, 2016)
& Kalem Agency, Istanbul
In spite of the fact that it is set entirely in a Turkish prison – no one’s favourite place - this is an uplifting book. The writing and translation are outstanding, as is its insight into humanity and inhumanity. Looking into the eyes of Burhan Sönmez, when I interviewed him on stage on May 11th, as he described his own torture and suffering, I briefly descended into his personal hell but ascended again on the wings of his remarkable compassion. Four prisoners share an underground prison in a torture centre. When they are not being tortured (which we do not witness), they tell one another stories about the city of Istanbul, above ground. These stories enable them to survive and remain human. As Sönmez explains,
‘there are two Istanbuls, one below ground and one above. Yet in reality both are one and the same. This is the main point.’
Ten days, ten stories and ten chapters, like Boccaccio’s Decameron. Classical in structure and profoundly moving, this novel will, I predict, itself become a classic.

Rosie Goldsmith

Rosie Goldsmith ist eine britische Multi-Media Journalistin. Sie ist im Bereich der Kunst und Internationalen Angelegenheiten spezialisiert und hat auf der ganzen Welt an führenden Sendungen von BBC Radio gearbeitet. Außerdem spricht sie mehrere Sprachen, präsentiert und sitzt diversen öffentlichen Veranstaltungen vor und ist Vorstandsmitglied bei ELit Literaturhaus Europa.

Rosie Goldsmith is a British multi-media journalist with specialist knowledge of arts and international affairs. She has worked across the world on some of BBC Radio’s flagship programmes, speaks several languages and chairs and presents public events. She is member of the ELit Literaturehouse Europe's board.

Rosie Goldsmith ist eine britische Multi-Media Journalistin. Sie ist im Bereich der Kunst und Internationalen Angelegenheiten spezialisiert und hat auf der ganzen Welt an führenden Sendungen von BBC Radio gearbeitet. Außerdem spricht sie mehrere Sprachen, präsentiert und sitzt diversen öffentlichen Veranstaltungen vor und ist Vorstandsmitglied bei ELit Literaturhaus Europa.

Rosie Goldsmith is a British multi-media journalist with specialist knowledge of arts and international affairs. She has worked across the world on some of BBC Radio’s flagship programmes, speaks several languages and chairs and presents public events. She is member of the ELit Literaturehouse Europe's board.

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