The Prague Writers’ Festival which begins on June 6 is all about the encounter of ideas. Over the last twenty years this annual event has become a lively forum for writers from many parts of the world, and the diversity of their work and thought has been the festival’s greatest strength. This year it revolves around the theme of Heresy and Rebellion, pointing to the perennial tension between the writer and the society in which he or she lives. A couple of days ago I met the festival director, Michael March, to talk about this year’s event. We began by looking at the festival’s roots, which go back more than 30 years. In the late 1970s Michael March started organizing readings in London by writers from behind the Iron Curtain, and in the process he found out just how little people knew about Central and Eastern Europe.
“People had no idea what was happening, because it wasn’t part of their immediate existence, and so, to bring the writers in a physical sense – for them to see them and breathe them - really brought them closer to the work. It brought it to them in a human sense and it was extremely well received.”
This must have involved some delicate negotiations. Sometimes it must have been quite hard just getting the writers out of their own countries, to get visas for them to be able to take part in the events that you were holding in London.
“The regimes saw literature as propaganda, and they supported literature in translation. Of course this was undermining the effect of the regime, but during this period there was great literature, because literature was physically, financially supported. And there’s a tremendous contradiction in that. And also the combination of the chemistry of writers coming through the Second World War at this particular point in history, having the experience, the tragedy, all of the various elements that constitute poetry – they were supported by the regimes. Some, of course, couldn’t be, but in general most were. In the West, this does not exist. There was commercial censorship, and there still is.”
The reason why I’m asking about the period before 1989 is because you decided immediately after the fall of communism 20 years ago to bring this festival to Prague and it’s been going ever since. The moment the Iron Curtain opened, you leapt across…
“I was blindfolded, directionless. Someone spun me in this direction and I crossed these borders that were no longer borders, and ended in Prague. I created the Prague Writers’ Festival in a country that had no literary traditions vis-à-vis the international world. These were myths – there really weren’t readings in this country. We helped create the tradition as it now exists. We were the first. We opened the doors.”
But even 20 years later I sometimes feel that this festival still has not become an intrinsic part of the Czech cultural world. There is a separate and more introverted Czech cultural scene, and your international festival exists almost as if in parallel to this.
“It’s the fate, almost the DNA, of the country, to be closed, to be suspicious. We’re strangers. All writers are strangers. The writers, to be effective, have to be heretics. They have to be outside the circle. They have to be observers. Poets and philosophers observe the world from the outside, and we create the world. In Greek the word for poetry means ‘to create’. And so the festival, to be effective, to be alive, must be in opposition, must be strange to the everyday accommodation of the real.”
Another aspect of the festival that I find very interesting is that you are also encouraging and actually publishing translations into Czech.
“The festival is a cultural foundation. We have a series called ‘World Poets in Prague’ – ten volumes of poetry – bilingual Chinese-Czech, German-Czech, English-Czech, Portuguese, Swedish… We are publishing three books for this festival. One is Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s ‘A History of Clouds’; then there’s Derek Walcott, with a book entitled ‘Feast’ – it’s a first translation of his poetry into Czech, translated by Miroslav Jindra, who received the State Prize for translation – and there’s my own volume of poems, ‘Only a Promise’.”
You have some very famous, internationally highly respected writers coming to the festival, with no less than three winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tell me a little about the people who are coming and the process of getting them here.
“The festival is constructed with the idea of ‘Heresy and Rebellion’ and we invited writers in essence to share their experience of this theme. Gao Xingjian has lived in China. His novel ‘Soul Mountain’ was extremely well received. He received the Nobel Prize in the year 2000. The political process catapulted him towards this prize. You could say the same thing with Herta Müller, a very great writer, a very poetic, lyrical writer.”
I should add that Herta Müller is an ethnic German from Romania, and she moved to Berlin shortly before the fall of the Iron Curtain. She has lived in Germany since.
“Herta is just a wonderful writer, but she’s been, in a way, scarred by her experience in Romania and the death of her friends. She writes about this. But it’s not just this experience in Romania. It’s the mechanism of oppression, torture and power that she’s writing about. So it’s quite universal. In the sense that she is now in Germany, this gives a greater focus to her work. Receiving the Nobel Prize, her work is translated now for the first time into Czech.”
You mentioned two of the three Nobel Prize winners. Who is the third?
“The third is Derek Walcott. Born in Saint Lucia, he received the prize in 1992. He’s a poet of the Caribbean and the sea, the sun, and a poet that has faced colonialism. His ancestors were slaves. He writes in English. The language of Saint Lucia is Creole – a bit of French – it’s the West Indies. We will speak at the American Center about slavery. We will talk about slavery in a very large sense, as an economic system, a business, terror, occupation, colonialism.”
It strikes me as very interesting and stimulating in the Czech context, to bring a writer from the very different world of the Caribbean to the Czech Republic to exchange ideas.
“I would say that of course this is the sense of comparison, which we wish to see drawn. Diogenes said, ‘The art of slavery is to control the master,’ and this art, in terms of the Czech Lands being occupied through history, is seen in that Czechs did try to control their master – through indifference, through rejection, things which in a way should be abolished but can’t be abolished. It takes centuries to disappear, because the experience of these lands has been under occupation. Of course, in speaking about slavery and colonialism, we want people really to reflect upon their own history – and then seek this question of identity. The festival creates the context to create literature, living literature in conversations and readings. The whole art of the festival is in living, in creating.”
And you say that the festival creates a context to create literature. It does this in a literal sense, because you have a short-story writing competition as part of the festival.
“It’s for students, for writers, under the age of 21. To expand their writing abilities, we give this prize. It’s sponsored this year by Google, so they get very good gifts!”
Is this a Czech language short-story prize?
“Yes, it’s for Czech students in the Czech language.”
And have you had a chance to read the stories and make your own conclusions about the sort of things that are interesting teenage writers? Do you see any trends, or anything that is exceptional in some of the writing?
“The stories are being read now. There were 400 stories sent to us. But I’m not reading them. We have a staff who is conducting the prize and is reading the stories – the young members of our staff. What we see is that there really is great interest, of course, in being rewarded [laughs].”
You think the interest is in the prizes rather than coming from the heart.
“This is the conversation in society between the heart and the question of the heart being recognized. The question of recognition is tremendously important. The writers we bring are recognized, and the young generation are writing now to recognize themselves firstly, and then to be recognized outside themselves, inside society. In this case, we’re the society. We’re giving them the recognition. That’s important.”
The Prague Writers’ Festival has a great website. It’s labyrinthine, in fact. I’ve really enjoyed delving into the website in both English and Czech. It includes plenty of extracts from the writers’ work. It has become more and more a focus of the festival, hasn’t it?
“It is quite natural. And then things really develop. They expand. Things come to the website, and we’ve focused on that, because it’s also a way of communicating directly to our audience. We’re trying, in an organic sense, to exercise our thoughts, provide culture and ask people, in a way, to have a conversation with us.”
The festival takes place from June 6-10, and focuses mainly on the Nová scéna (New Stage) of the National Theatre here in Prague. You can find more information on the website: www.pwf.cz