Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Free the Word!

We arrived in the rain. Or was it hail? London's weather was doing its very best to remind me of why I love living in Berlin. Pushed my credit card into a slot and out came two pre-booked tickets. I'm always so very impressed by technology - my friend told me it made me look like a country bumpkin when I said "Ooooh!"

And then we wandered around the huge Royal Festival Hall looking for the Spirit Level, where Emine Sevgi Özdamar was reading. It was tucked away in the basement, but looked like the coolest part of the joint. I see they're doing a poetry-cum-Northern soul & ska nite there soon. Sigh. When will Berlin's retro rockers finally dig the poetry beat, man? Although this may be one of those things one has to do oneself to get it done at all. I'm envisaging a sweaty event in the Roter Salon... But how will the rude boys and the hair-slided poet girls get along?

I digress. The venue was full to the brim and I had very nearly finished re-reading Die Brücke vom Goldenen Horn when Maureen Freely and Martin Chalmers came on stage. Strange, we thought, where is the author? But she did turn up, stealing the show the minute she entered the room, with an interpreter in tow. And the reading was marvellous, everything one might wish for - two brief extracts in German followed by longer sections of Martin Chalmers' very good translation. Lots of chatting, although sometimes the need for interpreting meant the answers didn't quite match the questions. So we learnt that Özdamar dislikes all forms of nationalism and the Turkish criticism that she should write in Turkish rather than German, that she loves the German of Brecht and Heine and that the tone of the book is deliberately sober.

The format was interesting. As I've said, Emine Sevgi Özdamar has a huge stage presence, and she really dwarfed everybody else on the podium. Maureen Freely was charming and witty, but I felt that Martin Chalmers and the interpreter almost blended into the background. That's something translators do tend to do - perhaps because they see themselves as providing a service of a kind to the authors themselves. And of course an interpreter really shouldn't steal the show from whoever they are speaking for. But I would have been interested to hear more from Martin Chalmers than the couple of statements he made on translating the book.

Sadly, the event had to come to an end, and I felt there were still many questions unanswered - why are there so many shoes in the book? How does she feel about her role as one of the few actively political women in late-1960s Istanbul? How did she feel about that back then?

I was once told by a Turkish-German that Turkey "didn't have a 68". Having no idea of contemporary Turkish history, I took his word for it. Özdamar's book proves that young man wrong. The difference between, say, Paris and Istanbul is that Turkey's political spring was followed by a military coup and huge violence and repression - sending the activists into prisons and exile. And The Bridge of the Golden Horn is an excellent and moving illustration of how it all came about.

I was initially surprised that Özdamar was on the programme of the Free the Word! festival with its theme of sedition. But she fitted in perfectly. In a year in which Europe is marking 40 years since 1968 and at a time when Turkish writers are facing a tough time, she brings together both aspects of activism and exile/persecution. Plus, the book is part of English PEN's excellent Writers in Translation programme (for last year), promoting free speech and intercultural understanding. And outstanding writing of course.

No comments: