Review of the European Literature Days 2018

From the opening of the European Literature Days 2018 with Robert Menasse and Richard David Precht to the final matinee with Ilija Trojanow...

From the opening of the European Literature Days 2018 with Robert Menasse and Richard David Precht to the final matinee with Ilija Trojanow, a broad spectrum of questions influenced the conversations and debates: What state is our world in? What are the key elements of the present upheaval? What kind of images do we associate with this? How can literary and film narratives help give us orientation in the hazy information world? What is the essential thing about literature (also) in the digital age? What is the nature of the current ongoing change to industrial authorship? What does it mean when writers speak out again more candidly on political and social issues?

At the outset, Richard David Precht in discussing “How the world is educated?” drew our attention to the enormous (equally) intellectual challenge that the digital revolution represents, the most powerful social revolution for two centuries. In the Q&A discussions on “Narrative in literature and film” and the book talks, many writers highlighted the empathy, as well as the courage and risk, which make storytelling meaningful alongside the art itself. Finally, in his acceptance speech for the “Austrian Book Trade Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action” Ilija Trojanow analysed the ambivalence of times of great upheaval. Writers have a privileged role in the world that is undergoing change because of war, imperialism and environmental catastrophes as well as technological developments. The fact that today many writers are again speaking out about the state of our world reflects the dynamics, just as the necessary suspicion towards and warning against any form of totalitarianism can occur in parallel with the mood for change, or even utopian thinking.

Read more about the European Literature Days
Ilinca Florian’s blog presents an insightful and lively Retrospective 
Katharina Hacker’s essay “A Tangled Web of Happiness. Complexity and Film” and Rüdiger Wischenbart’s article “What’s Next? The Law of the Series”  are also available online.

Watch the European Literature Days
The award presentation to Ilija Trojanow and the interview by Katja Gasser (ORF) with the writer about tolerance and the social role of literature are available to watch on the ORF tv-thek 

Read the whole speech for Ilija Trojanow by Robert Renk 

Esteemed Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Ilija,

This is how I would begin: Nuruddin Farah, Lola Shoneyin and Wole Soyinka in safe defence. 

In goal, of course, the wonderful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Mid-field: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Teju Cole, Nadifa Mohamed and the unpredictable Akwaeke Emezi.

As forwards – probably Chika Unigwe and Vamba Sherif and naturally Ishmael Beah.

A little travel game, ladies and gentlemen, that we play – far too infrequently – when we’re on a long journey. Ilija Trojanow and me. Putting together literary national teams.

And gratifyingly, we often agree, we would both e.g. immediately play Alois Hotschnig, this nimble, elegant and mischievous winger of Austrian literature.

Or the magnificent Edgar Hilsenrath for Germany who is still living and yet who is – for so many – forgotten.

But I feel a great need to catch up not only with the forgotten, but also the unknowns. I know how great this is since I’ve known Ilija Trojanow. Previously, it would have been impossible for me to name even more than five writers who were born on this neighbouring continent with the most spoken languages – there are far more than 2,000! 

Try it out for yourself quickly: how big would your African team or your Indian team be?

The stakes in this little game are about nothing, naturally not about restricting fantastic literature within nations, but rather more about expanding horizons. Perhaps, too, just slightly to highlight what the South African commentator Trevor Noah did after the football world cup when he remarked with a glint in his eye: “Congratulations to Africa on the world cup win.” It was a joke with a measured dose of truth which, however, the French ambassador among others didn’t find funny at all.

It’s idle to claim that I have become acquainted with most African writers through Ilija Trojanow, and indeed, in the literal sense of the word. And precisely where I was lucky enough to get to know him and his wonderful wife Susan: in the literary Black Forest metropolis of Hausach.

At that time, he was living in Cape Town and came to Hausach for a weekend. I said,

now that’s also not the shortest journey – and he answered, you put up with it for a friendship. He was talking about the wonderful German-Andalusian poet, José Oliver, who was responsible for this festival and who would, as far as we two are concerned, certainly play both for the German as well as the Spanish team.

For over 10 years, Ilija Trojanow brought a little piece of the African world to the Black Forest. Unforgettable readings that every time in the overcrowded townhall in Hausach led to tangible African temperatures. 

Trojanow not only spent his childhood in Africa, or more precisely, in Nairobi. Early on, probably too early, he tried to be an intermediary. He personally describes an anecdote from this time, which I quote:

In 1990, the world was undergoing a revolution, and I entered a bookstore in Duisburg and introduced myself as a young publisher. What kind of books do you publish then, asked the bookseller. Books from Africa, I proudly replied, African literature. Africa, repeated the bookseller, as though she were eyeing a presumably inedible morsel. No, thank you, we already have a book.

How easy it would be – ladies and gentlemen – to give a laudatio speech, if Ilija Trojanow only had one book.

Claudio Magris once answered me – in response to the question what he found most difficult about the writing process: the most difficult thing is to make the leap from the research to text. Too little research would be libellous, but too much can bury the entire project. This happened to him once.

When he spread out the entire collected material on an Australia novel in the attic (I still have this vivid memory of it), he was overwhelmed and at that very moment shelved the novel project that he had been working on for years. At the time, I didn’t quite understand this. As a matter of fact, however, when months ago I spread out Trojanow’s complete works – in the absence of an attic – in the dining room on tables, chairs and crockery shelves, and gradually more speeches and new books were added, such as e.g. the recently published “Gebrauchsanweisung fürs Reisen” – that we will discuss a little later – and my Trojanow text universe expanded into the living room, over the sofa and TV set ... – then I could understand exactly what Claudio Magris meant. 

So, in recent months I was travelling. On the Trojanow continent.

It’s at least as diverse as India. And – here the literary cat beautifully takes a bite out of the worldly tail – ultimately, I am familiar with the vividly coloured diversity of India from Ilija Trojanow’s books. Now I can admit it: it was one of the most thrilling, multifaceted and yet most coherent journeys of my life. And I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of the books, every one of them is worth the journey:

I sat with Alexandar and his hearty godfather Bai Dan on the tandem ...

I was together with Richard Francis Burton, this anomaly, in India and Africa, and even more, I was allowed to see him in the mirror, not only from the viewpoint of his arrogant English friends, no, also through the eyes of his Indian servants or African leaders. This is one of the things, among others, that makes this novel “Der Weltensammler” (“The Collector of Worlds”) so extraordinary.

I went along the Ganges, completed the Hajj pilgrimage, travelled across Bulgaria both geographically and historically, went to glaciers in Tyrol that are melting away and travelled on a cruise ship to the Antarctic ...

And I did all that without leaving my two rooms.

In summary, I can say: the world is incomprehensible, but the saving grace lurks in the right book!

It’s fitting that in his Gebrauchsanweisung the master even brings this form of travel close to us: he observes: “Even a single location can be the playground of a journey of discovery. For instance, a bookstore.”

Of course, I have to mention that well over a year ago Ilija Trojanow got locked overnight in the Wagner’sche bookstore in Innsbruck, where he travelled through shelves and worlds, as he describes in his “Gebrauchsanweisung”. And I think with this kind of reference we can hardly be denied the prize for the “bookshop of the year 2019”.

Our prizewinner is not only an exceptionally gifted traveller, but also a wonderfully alert spirit who doesn’t mince his words to point out dangers and injustices. Sometimes, something unforeseen can happen. For example, once he was refused entry to the US right at the time, and probably purely by chance, when the book “Angriff auf die Freiheit” – co-authored with Juli Zeh – was published about the expansions of the surveillance society.

Trojanow has therefore – albeit not entirely voluntarily – provided proof that literature can make a difference. 

He – and in a few minutes, he will justifiably receive the Austrian Book Trade Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action – accepts, of course, that there are writers who think not everyone must play an active role in social and political discourse. For him personally – so it seems to me – writing purely for the sake of writing is not socially acceptable;  the responsibility is to shake at the social and political injustices that belong together in an immanent sense in the act of public writing!

Sometimes, he can be sharp-witted, but always with an assured sense of style, always stylish and above all never, by no means without having tackled the subject, which he criticizes, from all sides. Never, under no circumstances purely for the sake of being sharp-witted, because he is always basically focused on communication. He is not interested in a KampfANSAGE (‘invitation to fight’) but – on the contrary, like in the book which he co-wrote together with the Indian journalist and poet Ranjit Hoskoté – he is interested in a “KampfABSAGE” (‘cancellation of the fight’)! Because cultures don’t contest each other. Rather, they flow into each other.

He would – I think – support those at any time who are justifiably outraged about conditions. However, he would never agree to this all-inclusive outrage that is currently toxic throughout our society. I can quote a fitting comment from the speech on the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade by Aleida and Jan Assmann:

“Be outraged!”, 93-year-old Stéphane Hessel told us. His manifesto was a million-times bestseller.

That was eight years ago. Meanwhile, outrage has changed sides (...). It is true that democracies are strengthened by controversy and debates, but not everything is up for discussion in them. (…) Not every opposing voice deserves respect. It loses this respect when its aim is to undermine the foundations for diversity of opinion. Democracy thrives not on controversy but rather on argument. (...)

Karl Jaspers was among those who developed the vision of a new Europe after two catastrophic world wars. That involved for him (...) overcoming European arrogance towards other countries and cultures. (...) Accordingly, he declared: “The European arrogance is gone, the self-assurance which once called the history of the West the history of the world... ” [Karl Jaspers, “The European Spirit”].

Jaspers was wrong for all his justifiable cause. It’s sufficient here to look at a drifting, red-haired would-be hairstyle of a figure with German roots who is the current leader of the US. 

However, in Ilija Trojanow he has certainly found an eloquent torchbearer who precisely observes the “last rebellion of the old white men”.

Democracy thrives not on controversy but argument. How true! And if we read Trojanow’s essays and speeches we are gifted with abundant arguments! To stay focused on Jaspers and to help do justice to some words like tolerance, sympathy or the ‘do-gooder’, here is another quote from Jaspers: “Sympathy not in the sense of mild complaint, but of being in it oneself (‘Silber-darin-sein’) is what makes a human person human.” How funny and scornful that any Austrian bishop, any charitable worker would concede that I (and Jaspers) are right, and almost every politician who wrote Christian in his membership book would like to contradict this almost out of reflex ...

Being-in-it-oneself (‘Selber-darin-sein’) includes – at least the contemplated – self-experiment. For instance, in his Solothurn speech Trojanow argumentatively showed us how complacently the literary canon is cultivated in Europe. As one of several examples, he mentions a survey in The Guardian, and I quote: In 2003, “The 100 greatest novels of all time” was published. Eight British writers rank among the top ten (and I mean ‘British’ – no Americans). 41 of the top 50 novels were written in English, a single one in German, by Franz Kafka at Number 49. Obviously, there is a permanent Brexit in literary reception. The first non-Western writer only emerges at Number 76, Gabriel García Márquez.”

Here, Trojanow also recounts a self-experiment, namely, how difficult he found it to insert a new title in a canon of 60 titles for students – and at the cost of a title that was already included!

We take far too little time for personal experiments, ladies and gentlemen.

How many Indian writers can you already name?

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we – like our prizewinner – must all join Olympic summer individual disciplines for self-experiments. The very thought of having to run the original Marathon brings me to the brink of collapse, and I take my sports and fitness hat off to Ilija Trojanow. He spent four years travelling the world, to train and write about it. Some things stopped at a single experiment, and other things he took with him.

Perspectives can fundamentally change during travel. Robert Menasse once mentioned in a speech that although he emigrated from Austria to Brazil, when he broke camp years later, he returned to Europe. A change of perspective with the announcement of years. 

Young Ilija’s journey to the second floor of a school only lasted a few minutes. But it certainly changed a great deal!

I quote from “Nach der Flucht”: “Class 1b”, says the headmistress, “on the second floor”. She points upstairs. A wide staircase. When they turn into the corridor, a door is slammed shut.

The mother knocks on the door. “Come in!” A room full of children his age. He begins to feel ashamed. His mother talks: broken language. He cannot do any better. “No, no”, the teacher fends them off with both hands, “I already have four Turks in my class.” And shoos away mother and son. The stairs have more steps on the descent.

Can one imagine such perceptions of emotions? Do the stairs have more steps on the descent? What a simple, outrageous observation. Can one invent such a feeling? A biographical element could resonate in this. And if it should have been like this, or similar, then in this miniscule moment, in the moment of taking a step, which wasn’t there beforehand, which maybe was never there at all, yet which was a great step in our writer’s consciousness, here in the intermediate space everything was de facto decided. This young pupil was clear that he will learn this language and be good at it, like almost nobody else.

Ilija Trojanow once said on the subject of home: for him, home is where he has his books. What a wonderful sentence for a bookseller! It is fine that he has now found his home in Vienna – especially for Vienna. And how wonderful for me and our game, because you can confidently vote Trojanow into many teams – the Indian, African, German, Bulgarian and now also in the Austrian team … what are national borders anyway, when one holds such a cosmopolitan joker in one’s hand!

I am no longer holding things up now any more: Sincere congratulations to Ilija Trojanow on the prize and to the jury equally warm congratulations on the choice!

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright


Walter Grond

Walter Grond, born 1957, Austrian novelist. He is artistic director of ELit Literaturehouse Europe.

Walter Grond, geboren 1957, österreichischer Romancier und Essayist. Er ist Künstlerischer Leiter von ELiT Literaturhaus Europa.

Walter Grond, born 1957, Austrian novelist. He is artistic director of ELit Literaturehouse Europe.

Walter Grond, geboren 1957, österreichischer Romancier und Essayist. Er ist Künstlerischer Leiter von ELiT Literaturhaus Europa.

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