Daily blogs by "auf buchfühlung" | review European Literature Days 2021

Travel Routes | Day 1 |
Thursday, November 18

tweet from @aufbuchfuehlung. 19:22. / 18 Nov. 21 Arrived at the European Literature Days in Krems. Before we go to the opening event, a glimpse at the news headlines. “The great lockdown begins”, is “Der Standard” headline. But today the motto is still #reiserouten/travel routes. On the road to be free. #staysafe.

18:00 Every road in Krems leads past Stein

Past the Karikaturmuseum, the Minoritenkirche, the vineyards, past the Danube but still always at Stein, Austria’s second-largest prison, right in the centre of town. Stein is a monument to the deprivation of freedom. Whoever is transferred here stays for a long time. Sometimes, he stays forever. “Anyone, who can no longer travel from a place, travels in his narratives”, Najem Wali will later say in his keynote talk. He will refer here to his own imprisonment in Baghdad and remember his fellow inmates.

After the Literature Days 2020 were entirely held on screen as a virtual event, this evening Walter Grond, the festival’s artistic director, took a seat on stage in front of an audience – albeit smaller than usual – in the Klangraum Krems at Minoritenkirche Platz to welcome guests from near and far. According to Grond, the theme for this year’s Literature Days was born from the experiences of lockdown in 2020: “Travel routes. On the road to be free”. The travel restrictions that we’ve experienced globally because of the pandemic brought the topic of freedom to the fore again – the fact that this is being discussed at a moment when new lockdown measures are under review again in Austria gives the event an especially bizarre topicality.

“I saw many colleagues again at Buch Wien International Book Fair for the first time in two years,” Robert Prosser tells us on the way to the hotel. The Literature Days – after Buch Wien last week – are one of Austria’s first major literature events to provide an opportunity for reunion, getting to know people and networking. Once again, they are under the shadow of being the last of these events for some time. In fact, the travel routes are no longer open with just some restrictions; non-readable QR codes or missing PCR test results give a hint that the borders will soon be closed again.

18:30 – Nothing is certain. Everything could already be different tomorrow.

Most writers have travelled in person; those who could travel, have come. Walter Grond in conversation over dinner is rather relieved, in spite of all the uncertainty; perhaps, he is reassured, possibly even pleased. He is here. Appearing with him on this first evening in Krems are Najem Wali and Cathrin Kahlweit, Peter Frankopan and Rosie Goldsmith. Only the young people are missing. The school workshops, which would have been scheduled for Thursday, were already cancelled the week before. Corona is the new context that specifies when something happens, what and how it happens.

The headline theme of this year’s festival was highlighted on the opening evening with the example of two real travel routes – the Balkan Route and Silk Roads. The Berlin-based Iraqi writer Najem Wali was the first of the evening’s two keynote speakers. He took the audience with him not only on the Balkan Route, but on a tour through world literature from Büchner to Rilke, Rolland, Strindberg and Joyce and Hemingway. According to Wali, all of them could only write their immortal works because they indulged in the temptation of travel.

19:13 Terminus Idomeni  – the first conversation

Najem Wali’s flight from Saddam Hussein in the 1980s was an escape that cannot be compared with that of a Syrian in 2016. But the pain is comparable. The pain that perhaps precedes every journey. The pain that longing causes. Anyone who cannot really travel does so in narratives, in the opinion of Najem Wali. In those days, when he arrived in Germany, people knew of Omar Sharif. At that time, he had no idea what the term ‘Kanake’ meant (a derogatory word for those with roots in Turkey or Arab countries). His literature studies in Iraq had not prepared him for this. “I read Goethe and Schiller, the word ‘Kanake’ didn’t come up here”, he explains. “When Iraqis or Syrians come to Europe nowadays, then a different comparison is made. Today, people have no longer heard of Omar Sharif, they know Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein.”

The global historian Peter Frankopan, who lives in Great Britain, would have gladly succumbed to the temptation of travel, however, due to travel restrictions he joined the festival digitally. Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Oxford University and gave us an insight into modern-day international connections. Frankopan explained to those at the literature festival in Krems the significance of the silk roads; those links that always emerge, where people come together for interactive exchange.

20:45 The rock star of history – Peter Frankopan

What would happen if our perception of the world were less Eurocentric? What would we learn then about global connections? Where is the centre of the world today? And what are the silk roads all about in the modern era?

According to Frankopan, the silk roads were never exotic connections, but networks that linked the continents and oceans with each other. Ideas flowed via these routes, merchandise, diseases and death. Here, great riches were won – and lost.

tweet from @aufbuchfuehlung. 00:37 Today, we considered the Balkan Route and the Silk Road – two presumably well-known links – from an entirely new perspective. Thank you @NajemWali. Thanks a lot @peterfrankopan. Good night Krems. We’re looking forward to what awaits us tomorrow at the @Elit_observer #staysafe

Travel Routes | day 2 |
Friday, November 19

tweet from @aufbuchfuehlung. 22:42. / 19 Nov. 21 The #KlangraumKrems has emptied. Only the festival dog, Kiki, keeps watch over the stage where this evening Felicitas Hoppe and Erik Fosnes Hansen took a seat with Veronika Trubel. So, we know that the stage is in good paws and can all sleep easy! @ELit_observer


Rosie Goldsmith, whose extensive knowledge and British charm saw her through a real presenting marathon, picked up the thread of yesterday evening. First off, she continued the morning discussion with Peter Frankopan and Najem Wali about travel routes, the gateways to Europe and the emergence of a new world order. Frankopan compared a historian’s work, as he understands and approaches it, with a Rubik’s cube: “You have to turn the cube around and look at it from all perspectives”, he explained – and today’s discussion partners and readers undoubtedly understood that as a challenge. Today, on Saturday, travel was reviewed and discussed from a wide variety of viewpoints. Even if the twist puzzle cannot be solved until Sunday, one thing can be put on record (and again, in Frankopan’s words): “It’s all about curiosity.”


11:00 Should we all have stayed at home?
It’s a question that, just before the imminent lockdown, several of the guests present maybe asked themselves. However, with regard to travelling women it takes on an entirely different dimension. Women had to stay at home for a long while. It was the men who explored the world, returning home with the discovery that the world was now extensively explored. But is that really so? No, according to the Norwegian travel writer Erika Fatland (“I don’t cook, I study grammar”) and also Kapka Kassabova (“I have geographical nightmares”), the Bulgarian writer and travel journalist is convinced that the opposite is true. Up till now, it was primarily men who wrote down their travel experiences. Their view was masculine. The stories, which they brought from faraway, were those of men. Of course, it was dangerous for women; yet the stories still to be told now, and the discoveries that are still to be made now, would be made by women. “It’s easier for us to see certain things. No foreign white man is allowed in a Muslim village to visit the private domain of a woman. On the other hand, for travelling women all doors are open to the hidden places that there are still to discover today, rituals, which no man has ever seen. As story hunters, now it’s the travelling women’s move.”


14:30 Where can we belong?

“And where do you come from actually?” Not only Johny Pitts’s thoughts in his book Afropean revolve around this question, but also those of many black Europeans. Because just being from here won’t sink into the minds of many people. The great challenge after the BlackLivesMatter-movement is now to preserve this moment and to carry it forward. And Priya Basil could tell a thing or two about conservation. Her film essay “Locked In and Out” was shown to mark the opening of the Humboldt Forum. The restored Berlin Palace, in her view, is a “monumental homage to the colonial process”. In her response to the request for book tips, which every guest was asked at the end of his/her contribution, Priya Basil joined in with a very understandable comment on the explanations of her previous speakers Erika Fatland and Kapka Kassabova: “It’s very plausible that we almost only name male (travel-)writers, whenever we get asked about recommendations; it’s a mirror of our society, a recognizable sign of male dominance.”


18:00 The beauty of travel is arriving at the destination.

To start the literary-artistic soirée, Elisabeth Voggeneder, the artistic director of Forum Frohner, gave guests a guided tour of the current exhibition “Park Seo-Bo and Adolf Frohner”. During a scholarship sojourn in Paris, the Austrian artist Frohner (1934–2007) and the native Korean Park Seo-Bo (*1931) got to know each other and became friends. Their special connection was not only a friendship, but also artistic affinities beyond all cultural and linguistic borders.

We experienced something similar in the readings afterwards by Felicitas Hoppe and Erik Fosnes Hansen. Despite their completely different literary approaches, in conversation with Veronika Trubel they were amazed to realize how many motif-related connections there are between both of their current texts. “Obviously, the motifs are following us”, remarked Hoppe, who was delighted to be here again on the Danube and to be able to read from her novel, Die Nibelungen. Ein deutscher Stummfilm. This heroic tale has been taking readers for centuries on a journey right across Europe.

In his novel about the financial crisis, Ein Hummerleben (Lobster Life), Erik Fosnes Hansen took us with him on a journey to Norway. He relates the story of guests deserting a Norwegian hotel, the actually inevitable transformation and the ignorance of the hotel owners, who simply don’t want to believe these changes. The decline of what was once a sophisticated hotel can be read as a parable of our time. In response to the moderator’s question about what kind of traveller he is himself, Hansen explained: “I like being in a different place and being able to imagine here that I’m a different person.” A statement that many people could surely identify with.


There were also a few more stories about travel to tell after the events. For example, Felicitas Hoppe, Robert Prosser and Lana Bastašić talked about how the “story of flying Robert” had always been their favourite fantasy voyage.

“What a wind! Oh! How it whistles”, she quoted from memory,
“Through the trees and flowers and thistles!
It has caught his red umbrella;
Now look at him, silly fellow,
Up he flies
To the skies.
No one heard his screams and cries;
Through the clouds the rude wind bore him,
And his hat flew on before him.”

Today has shown once again how different the approaches can be to going away on a journey, and that travellers need not necessarily be travel writers as well. That even if it might seem like it, somebody often isn’t a traveller at all but simply belongs here. And that, regardless of whether your travel is imaginary or real, you can have your head in the clouds, no matter where you are.

Travel Routes | Day 3 |
Saturday, 20.11.2021

10:30 An umbrella on wheels meant amazing freedom for us.

The Duck outside France, Dolly or Upside-down Pram in the UK – nobody knows the Citroen 2CV by its real name; and not only in Mathijs Deen’s family, this car symbolized freedom writ large. On the old E8, the tarmac arterial route between London and Moscow, or more precisely between Cork and Omsk, you had to discover the world. These roads, the lines linking neighbouring farms, later neighbouring cities, and later still neighbouring countries, are what interest the Dutch writer and travel journalist. He connects childhood memories with them, as well as his recollections as a father and writer. While his own father was still able to buy a car during the 1980s, his grandparents grappled with the hardly decipherable departure timetables of the local railways. Wherever these lines of communication were almost entirely absent, where there were no train stations and hardly any bus connections, the imagination must be used instead.

In Viseu, a small town in central Portugal, where the Rio Paiva river seems to be as wide as the sea and is sheltered in the east by the Alps, the connections to remotely situated villages are few and far between. Here, the local theatre must convey that sense of distance that cannot be obtained so easily here. Patricia Portela brings to life the world in Viseu on stage. The relevance of roads and trading routes, particularly those along the rivers, is still clear. Nowadays, if you want to travel from Amsterdam to Vienna, first you follow the Rhine, then the Main, then the Inn and finally the Danube. The very same river, that former trading route, on whose shores we find ourselves today, and where the Venus of Willendorf was discovered that our moderator, Rüdiger Wischenbart, brought along with him.

11:30 I like the silence of ancient languages.

Nobody knows what classical Greek really sounds like. There is no comparison. No one from the outside can confirm or deny the theories of linguists. That’s the reason why, as Andrea Marcolongo explains, precision is so relevant like in hardly any other discipline. Yet, it’s also the allure that ancient languages have for her. In addition to the love of language, it’s also the love of mythology that influences her work. Because mythology is not writing history. Mythological tales are the geographical information, like signposts, where a modern person can find his/her bearings. They can help us to gain orientation and to find our way through life. Andrea Marcolongo wouldn’t describe herself and no one else as a writer, because like Felicitas Hoppe the day before, Andrea is sure that writers reproduce pre-existing material, newly composing it, at best transferring it in an adapted form. These are translations of already available stories, rather similar to the translation that Karin Fleischanderl had accomplished. Fleischanderl in this case wants to consider her translator’s activity as a skilled craft. She read passages from her translation of Marcolongo’s Das Meer, die Liebe, der Mut aufzubrechen.

17.30 Across the world

The ‘book talk’ with Elisa Shua Dusapin, Lana Bastašić and Robert Prosser made its debut for these three days, which we were allowed to present as part of our podcast Auf Buchfühlung.

Under the motto “Across the world – open-minded, analogue and digital” we became familiar with three very different texts that still turned out to have plenty connections and common features. The question of identity(-ies) is at the forefront; this is introduced in all three books through travel and on the basis of a journey.

Elisa Shua Dusapin, whose novel Winter in Sokcho won the prestigious National Book Award shortly before the start of the festival, read in French and particularly highlighted the limitation of national borders. Elisa Shua Dusapin’s language was wonderfully attuned to the wintry scenario of her work. She is precise and clear – and just as everything incidental in Sokcho is buried beneath snow, her prose only displays what is fundamental.

With Lana Bastašić and her novel Catch the Rabbit we set out on a road trip through the countries of former Yugoslavia. The skilfully composed novel, with its tapestry of allusions, focuses on friendship and how two completely different women figures grow up in a man’s world. This is not primarily a story about the collapse of Yugoslavia – there are only hints about the war in the novel – rather Catch the Rabbit is a novel about the question of one’s identity, and about what jeopardizes it when a rift runs through a multi-ethnic country and divides its citizens.

Robert Prosser’s Gemma Habibi is a novel about boxing, but it’s also about our present moment, about refugees and migration. Besides, there is another narrative strand where two protagonists travel to Ghana. It’s a novel that connects three countries – and if you like, three worlds: Kurdistan, Vienna and Ghana.

It was a multilingual evening with many instances when it became clear how important translators and interpreters are as mediators of literature: whether like this evening for the German-French conversation on stage, whether all day and each day with simultaneous interpreting in the background or – like Rebecca Zeinziger, Bastašić’s translator – in the audience. All of them only make it possible to send works of literature on travels.

20:00 The stardust, which seems to rain down on us, is ultimately only dust.

It was the celestial soundscapes that the musical trio Brot & Sterne brought into the Klangraum Krems with the hurdy-gurdy, trumpet, percussion and hang; and teaming up with Burgtheater actress, Dörte Lyssewski, who read from Christoph Ransmayr’s Atlas eines ängstlichen Mannes, that enticed moderator Katja Gasser to say the words: “It sounds as if music were living from your books.”

After Ransmayr read from his current novel Der Fallmeister, the discussion revolved around his dependence on stories. He explained how confrontation is the best protection against the fear of foreigners, in other words, travel in general. He recounted personal confusions in his younger days – fortunately, he hasn’t succeeded in converting his hometown of Roitham in Gmunden to Maoism – and the danger posed by stupidity. Ransmayr’s words were a warning, a cry for reason on a day when, not a hundred kilometres further along the River Danube – in Vienna – tens of thousands of people were protesting against the Covid measures.

Travel Routes | Day 4 |
Sunday, November 21

11:00 None of us is clear

The sounds of Duo 4675’s alto saxophone and double bass filled the Minoritenkirche for the start of the matinée in celebration of Navid Kermani. This Sunday morning, festival-goers have assembled here again – the occasion is the presentation of the Honorary Award of the Austrian Book Trade for Tolerance in Thought and Action to Navid Kermani. “The award ceremony at the Minoritenkirche is the Austrian equivalent of the presentation of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in the Paulskirche”, remarked Benedikt Föger, President of the Austrian Publishers and Booksellers Association, in his welcome address. It’s no coincidence that both prizes awarded by booksellers – the international peace prize in Germany and the award presented today – have similar names. Peace and tolerance are the cornerstones that literature is based on.

The laudator, Dietrich Diedrichsen, referred in his speech to the possibilities and limits of understanding others, to the source code of openness, the condition for poetic beauty.

The award was particularly special for him for two reasons, according to the laureate’s delighted response. On the one hand, because it is an Austrian prize. There are no limits for a writer outside the linguistic realm. Kermani’s homeland are the German language and German-speaking literature; the birthplaces of modern German-speaking literature are simply Vienna and Prague – much more definitively than, for example, Berlin. He considers the prize as a kind of incorporation into the community.

However, it’s not only an Austrian prize; on the other hand, it’s also one awarded by book retailers. Against all the odds of the changes for the book market and the literature business, the readers are staying faithful to book shops. Much more is down to booksellers than before; writers could depend on them, even in challenging times for the industry, while Amazon in the meantime even wanted to stop book distribution because the big company treats books as not being able to keep pace with other “consumer durables”.

In his reading from the novel Your Name, Kermani – for one last time during recent days – took us with him on a journey. This time it was to Teheran, from where the narrator’s grandfather set out for Germany.

The ideal of cosmopolitanism, emerging from travel – according to Kermani in the following discussion with Katja Gasser – is ultimately the only chance to solve the crises of our times. The pandemic and climate change can only be solved on a global scale, because like literature they’re not bound by borders.

It is the last event on this long weekend of European literature in Krems. People have moved together and here the atmosphere, where all of Europe genuinely seems to be gathered together, is like a close family, warm and sympathetic for each other. The hospitality, which Priya Basil referred to in her panel discussion, that attitude with the capacity to overcome the label “the foreigner”, is tangible. Even Navid Kermani refers to this hospitality in his acknowledgements, to the understanding, the empathy and the compassion. We feel nostalgic as we leave Krems. For several reasons: we know that perhaps it will be a while, quite a long while before it’s possible for us to meet again

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