European Literature Days - October 2015

The European Literature Days (ELiT) festival held in the Wachau region of Austria encourages cultural exchange between European based writers, translators, publishers and readers. This year the overall theme was "The Migrants", a loaded term and geopolitically relevant given the refugee crisis currently being played out in central and eastern Europe.

A.L. Kennedy gave a powerful keynote lecture which served as a resounding call for writers and artists to do more to counter the negative propaganda surrounding migrants and refugees. "True art is not an indulgence," she warns, "but a fundamental defence of humanity." Kennedy evokes a past, present and future where 'Those defined as Others go first. The strangers, the migrants, those forced into desperate motion by cascading cruelties." But the rest of us face the same threat and fate: "When art fails, failure of imagination follows and thereafter cruelty thrives." All engaged artists and artists, those interested in safeguarding free expression and culture should view themselves as "voluntary migrants" or "Honorary Others", she suggests, because they know from experience that art is a more powerful tool than propaganda.

Exploring literary trends in Europe, Rainer Moritz, a German writer, publisher and translator, remarked on the popularity of Karl Ove Knausgaard's six autobiographical novels, entitled My Struggle. Books presented as autobiography which contain elements of fiction are increasingly popular, he suggests. Moritz and French-German academic Jurgen Ritte embarked on a lively discussion about 'novels without fiction' also called 'exofiction'. In Germany there appears to be a distrust of fiction and instead a yearning for what is perceived as authentic, including a renewed interest in political novels. Jenny Erpenbeck's latest novel, Going, went, gone, nominated for the German Book Prize, is a case in point. It is about refugees in contemporary Germany. Crime novels continue to be big in Germany. Moritz noted that every city in Germany must have its own detective.

Rosie Goldsmith, who also moderated, responded that if there was a detective in every German town, then almost every English town now has a literary festival. There is also a proliferation of literary prizes and many readers orientate themselves around these awards, using them as a guide to what to read. Goldsmith observed that fantasy fiction continues to be widely read, perhaps prompted by the popularity of various TV programmes and films. Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, is a notable example of the genre's literary potential.

Despite further cuts in arts, the smaller independents continue to publish literary fiction in translation. German authors, in particular, have done well in Britain. Erpenbeck won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The End of Days, there was a German strand at this year's Cheltenham literary festival and Julia Franck's West, Daniel Kehlmann's 'F' and Timur Verms Look Who's Back were published to great acclaim.

True to the festival theme, various international writers who have settled in Europe were invited to contribute. These included graphic novelist Marguerite Abouet, who grew up on the Ivory Coast and now lives in Paris; Lebanese writer Iman Humaydan, president of Lebanese PEN who lives part of the time in Paris; South Korean born Anna Kim; The British-Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub; French Afghan writer and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi; and Najem Wali, an Iraqi writer living in Germany. Once again, EliT explores topical themes and celebrates a diverse range of international authors.

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