Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Sherko Fatah @ International Literature Festival Berlin

Being kind of unilateral in my literary interests, I don't tend to take full advantage of the "international" side of the Berlin Literature Festival. This year is no exception, as I'm only going to two readings by German writers. Ideally, I suppose, I'd take a week off work and hire a full-time babysitter and just flit from one event to the next, but you can get too much of a good thing.

Last night's reading by Sherko Fatah was scheduled late in the day. It was a dark, dank evening and on my way to the station I came across a man in a suit so drunk he was unable to get to his feet after falling over on a rain-slippery pavement, his face bloodstained. A woman stopped her car and we started to call an ambulance, but the man struggled upright, grabbed his briefcase and staggered off unaided. From then on, everything seemed rather threatening and surreal.

I found my way to the Berliner Festspiele, where I have never been before in all my 13 years in Berlin. Nice place. I even managed to get a ticket just in the nick of time, only disturbing the drum improvisation artist very slightly as I dashed in, breathless. The festival always has a bit of music before each reading, which makes me feel extremely uncomfortable every time. Can't we just cut to the books stuff and save a bit of time and money? No, we all have to be bloody renaissance man and appreciate classical music, sheesh.

But my drumming discomfort was mercifully short, and then came Sherko Fatah. The presenter was the renowned critic Wilfried F. Schoeller, who I found rather fond of his own voice and who kept insisting there were references to Christianity in Fatah's book Das dunkle Schiff, about an Islamic jihadist. Fatah politely commented that he hadn't intended to put any in. The author read for a good thirty minutes, and to start with I worried that my mind would drift at the late hour (which it must have done if I was worrying that it might rather than concentrating on the reading). But I was soon picked up and carried along on a wave of excellent writing, especially a description of a ragged group of Iraqi freedom-fighters/rebels/Islamist insurgents sheltering from US bombs in a cave.

Fatah refuses to psychologise, focusing the story on the fate of his protagonist Kerim, who ends up with the jihadists by chance. A reluctant fundamentalist of sorts. There is a lot of brutality and demagogy here, but it is always recognisable as such. The author doesn't seem to take sides (at least not in the section he read last night) - except in the sense of sympathy with Kerim, who is almost an adventure-story hero and later stows away on a ship to Europe, where the seed of his indoctrination finally blossoms.

What I found most interesting was when Fatah talked about his research process. He makes regular journeys to Iraq to visit his father, and actually visited the caves where the passage he read was set. At the time he was there they were empty, but have since been occupied again by other makeshift armies. He said he had spoken to people about the war and had tried to talk to a former fighter in prison - but it was impossible to penetrate to him - "it was like he was on drugs." And he said there is a huge amount of film footage available, recorded on camcorders like the characters in the book use and posted on the internet. So he used this to get an idea of just how brutal the situation was, although he did censor himself to a certain extent.

I'm really itching to read the book now but have to finish a couple of other things first. Sherko Fatah took part in the British Centre for Literary Translation's summer school a couple of years back, and has an advocate in Britain in the person of the translator Martin Chalmers. Das dunkle Schiff is in the running for the German Book Prize, so you can read a translated extract (including the sit-up-and-scream prologue) at signandsight (trans. Alexa Nieschlag). I think we can safely assume the book will be available in English at some time in the future, whether it wins the award or not. And so it should be.

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