International Literature Festival Berlin

Radio Eins interviews Pankaj Mishra
Radio Eins interviews Pankaj Mishra

The International Literature Festival Berlin is well underway, with lots of interesting events going on around the city. This year there is special focus on the Asia-Pacific, with events covering topics from Reporting from Conflict Zones and Criticism of Islam, to Katherine Mansfield and Rabindranath Tagore.

Participants include Pankaj Mishra (you can listen to the brief interview he gave to Radio Eins here), Louis de Bernières and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa. There is also a special section of events dedicated to International Children’s and Youth Literature.

On Sunday evening, C.K. Stead talked about what has to be one of my favorite novels My Name was Judas, in which Judas, now an old man living a peaceful life surrounded by his family, tells the story of his time with Jesus.

Priya Basil, C.K. Stead and Friedhelm Ptok at the International Literature Festival Berlin, 2011
Priya Basil, C.K. Stead and Friedhelm Ptok at the International Literature Festival Berlin, 2011

Stead, New Zealand’s foremost literary critic, poet, novelist and writer, revealed that the novel began with a comment he made to his wife whilst writing about Katherine Mansfield, in whose life D.H. Lawrence featured, that trying to write about Lawrence was ‘like writing about God.” After making this utterance, he started thinking about how one would actually write about God. Different problems and solutions occurred to him, and the novel formed in his mind.

Not being a believer himself and having no relation to the characters involved, Stead wondered whether he was the right person to tell this story. He overcame this obstacle by making Judas close in character to himself. Instead of an evil betrayer, Stead’s Judas is an intelligent, skeptical man, who always has his childhood friend Jesus’s best interests at heart.

His portrayal of Jesus is similarly novel – it is almost as if the personality traits of the two characters have been reversed in this re-telling. Jesus is bright, charismatic, manipulative and sometimes fundamentalist. Stead tried to reconcile what he saw as two different Jesuses in the Bible – one loving and the other vengeful – through the application of a time frame, so that Jesus starts out with a message of love and progressively becomes more extreme. Stead further humanises Jesus through the difficult and often comic relationship between him and his mother.

The discussion covered the role of langauge, story-telling and the nature of belief. Stead read from one of the most dramatic sections of the book, which takes place just after the crucifixion, followed by a wonderfully read translation by actor Friedhelm Ptok. He also read a couple of the poems that end each chapter and revealed a little trick that I had failed to notice; every one of the stanzas has thirteen syllables.

Although the book is available in multiple languages, it has not for some reason been translated into German. Despite this, there was a good turnout – about 40 people in a venue that was a little too spacious.

By stark contrast, about a hundred people squeezed into the tiny space at Dialogue Bookshop for Conflict and Writing: How do we tell stories after a crisis? on Monday evening. Granta editor John Freeman chaired the discussion with authors Nam Le , Madeleine Thien and Berlin’s own Priya Basil.

Nam Le read from his award-winning debut short-story collection The Boat, Madeleine Thien from her novel about the Cambodian genocide Dogs at the Perimeter, and Priya Basil from her novel Ishq and Mushq, a love story set against the backdrop of India’s Patition.

The authors talked about their experiences and thoughts relating to writing about conflict, the language of conflict, the role and importance of literature dealing with conflict and of course, 9/11…I can’t reproduce the entire discussion here, but the most interesting part of it for me revolved around Don DeLillo’s thoughts, made years before 9/11, when he said, “I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness”.

The International Literature Festival Berlin is on until Saturday 17th September 2011.

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