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.


Berlin LitFest: Barbara Hammond and Harald Martenstein

So Berlin Literature Festival has kicked off, and we’ve attended two very different events so far.

Barbara HammondOn Wednesday evening Barbara Hammond read her dramatic monologue Eva the Chaste at Cafe Hilde. Eva has returned to Dublin after 20 years abroad to look after her dying mother. In that hour when night turns to dawn, Eva speaks about everything from the Catholic guilt and sexual repression of her childhood to her sexual promiscuity as an adult.

Her monologue is frank, peppered with dark humour and interesting turns of phrase. At its heart is her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, and the drama builds layer upon layer, towards its inevitable end.

Hammond herself read the monologue, although it is usually performed by actress Aedin Moloney. Eva the Chaste previously toured in New York living rooms, so having a group of about 15 people (including a very well-behaved baby) gathered around her armchair at the intimate Cafe Hilde seemed apt. She did not get distracted by the fact that the noise from the cafe was a bit too loud at the beginning – testament to the fact that she is an actress as well as a playwright and director – and read with an authentic, confident voice and fluidity throughout.

She seemed pleased, even a little surprised, that people had turned up to see her, and hung around to answer questions afterwards. During the conversation that followed, she explained that the character of Eva had just started talking to her one day, as characters sometimes do, and as Eva had yet more to say she was considering making the piece longer and turning it into a novella.

Harald Martenstein Kino Babylon 2010Yesterday evening well-known German columnist and writer Harald Martenstein presented his new novel Gefühlte Nähe to an audience of roughly 100 people at Kino Babylon. The book is more like a series of 23 short stories, all related from the point of view of different men who have one thing in common; a woman named N. Martenstein’s intention was to explore the love-lives of people in the late 20th century.

The first story he read was about a teacher on whom N had a crush as a schoolgirl, and the second was a conversation between two guys (one of whom had had an affair with N) about women. Both were unexceptional. The first at least had a story going for it, while the second was filled with clichés about women being princesses in love with their fathers etc that you would hear down the pub, which isn’t a problem in itself but becomes one when nothing else really happens, in which case it becomes more like a rant – or, for that matter, a column (for what are columns but rants?)

Martenstein’s particular talent is his humour, and his stories certainly got some laughs, but ultimately they lacked substance. If he weren’t such a well-known figure, I doubt he’d get these published.

He writes well in the male voice, and said that he had chosen to write all these stories from male perspectives because that was what he felt more comfortable with. However, part of a writer’s skill is to be able to write from different points of view. Moreover, even though this book is about men, there’s something chauvinistic about the fact that they are all tied together by a woman who never gets her say. And why is she simply called ‘N’, and not named?

Literary critic Marius Meller asked him a few questions between the two readings, but didn’t draw the author into any meaningful conversation about the work. In any case, he seemed more concerned about the fact that we all had to get out of the room by 8pm. There was no opportunity for the audience to ask questions, although one brave woman did grab her chance to shout out a question about whether Martenstein endorsed the kind of lifestyle that he was writing about. I bet she wished that she hadn’t bothered, because he cut her down with a comment about how he relies on the intelligence of his readers to recognise the difference between the author and his fiction. This inevitably got a few laughs, which encouraged Martenstein to go on insulting the woman, in effect repeating the same point about five times.  What an arrogant git.


Berlin International Literature Festival

The 10th Berlin International Literature Festival begins tomorrow. Thirty-five writers, including Israel Bar Kohav, Wladimir Kaminer and Kate DiCamillo from twenty-one countries will take part in the festival in locations around Berlin over a period of 10 days.

The main location for events will be the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, and the programme consists of three main parts; Literature of the World, International Children’s and Youth Literature and Eastern Europe.  You can find a full programme of events here.