Monday, 16 March 2009

Looking Back at Leipzig

This time around, my visit to the Leipzig Book Fair was slightly different to usual. First off, I usually have a trusty partner in crime but he couldn't make it this year, what with cycling around the Middle East and all that. Instead I got to know a few of the vagaries of the Balkan literary world, as my companion hailed from Macedonia. There were also more events aimed specifically at translators than ever - and also, I got the feeling, more translators into English popping up all over the place at unexpected moments. So although it was great to see all these people, it felt rather more like business than pleasure at times. There was lots of talking shop with publishing people and gossiping with colleagues, which is fun in its way but inevitably left less time for consuming literature. But I was tickled to talk to Wolfgang Hörner, who had indulged in a spot of vanity googling and found my glowing praise of his person.

Still, I did manage to catch a few readings, if not the usual overflowing cornucopia. I went to a couple of Krautgarden events and rather liked Aleksandar Hemon, who read from The Lazarus Project - although as usual I was annoyed by Sigrid Löffler, the critic who presented him. She's a person I always mean to respect but fail to do so because she just talks so much - in this case combining the role of interpreter and moderator into an almost one-woman show while Hemon leaned back and looked bemused, uncomprehending.

And at the glorious Lange Leipziger Lesenacht I enjoyed Benjamin Lebert's reading from his new novel Flug der Pelikane (sample in German here). The book is set in Hamburg and the USA, with a young man becoming obsessed with an escape from Alcatraz. A couple behind me got my goat by whispering "Isn't he cute?" all the way through, but it's true. The man is 27, looks about 15 - and has the talent of an accomplished writer, having debuted ten years ago. He's even taught creative writing in New York, bizarrely enough. Peter Constantine's translation of Lebert's previous novel The Bird is a Raven won him the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize in 2007.

I also saw Maria Cecilia Barbetta in interview and reading from Änderunsgschneiderei Los Milagros (on the German Book Office's latest list for translation funding, by the way). I had met her on Monday and fawned rather, being quite a fan of her beautiful and playful novel. And seeing her at the book fair confirmed my impression of a really smily and charming - and stylish - person who loves writing.

The highlight for me though was swinging back to the positive side of my seesawing attitude to Feridun Zaimoglu. He was one of six European authors invited to write a piece on the subject, "Where is Europe drifting?" and present it at the fair. The texts will be published in the journal Sprache im technischen Zeitalter. Zaimoglu was on finest form, reading his provocative text in a slightly restrained version of his usual lyrical singsong. He described attitudes on the ground to migration and Europe in the North - Kiel - the South - Istanbul - and the East - Prague. Apparently the West was implicit as a phantom throughout, but I was vaguely offended that he hadn't worked his stay in Wales into the piece, which was more prose than essay. Best of all, and I'm sure he was pleased too, the text made a number of elderly ladies all hot under the collar. They left, shaking their heads in protest, during the section where Zaimoglu had "collated" opinions from a fictitious (?) working mens' bar in Kiel. It was like Kanak Sprak all over again, only this time the Germans were shitting on the Turks (and the Poles and the Czechs and so on), not the other way around. But although he claimed he finds the statements of the man on the street "truer" than what you hear in cappuccino bars, the man is reflective enough to admit that he can't possibly represent those people - who, he said, have a voice of their own. And the presenter Thomas Geiger finally nailed him down on his political position: "salon lefty". Well well well.

I spent all of yesterday recovering.


Anonymous said...

"Three East German authors named for National Prize"

kjd said...

Thanks for the tip-off.