In town this week: Yann Martel and Jennifer Egan
For 11 days this month (Sept 15-25), Berlin will be aflutter with foreign words. More than 150 writers from all over the world will squeeze into Tiergarten’s “pregnant oyster” (Haus der Kulturen der Welt) to celebrate Eastern Europe in particular, and literature in general… with readings (mostly) in German.
As the accordionist started rocking back and forth ever more lasciviously, and his instrument started to moan more and more provocatively, I became increasingly uncomfortable. I’d not entirely expected this display of barely suppressed Argentinean lust. It was my first Literature Festival reading, and I soon learned that the organizers dress up all their events with musical openers, as if merely listening to a great writer could never satisfy audiences ravenous for culture in all its incarnations.
But there’s another festival fixture anglophones should be aware of – and that’s that even if the writer works in English, and even though this is an international festival in cosmopolitan Berlin, readings are held in German. Authors generally read a brief excerpt as an amuse-gueule before handing over the reins to the German readers, always actors with a capital A.
Well-prepared, these revered creatures never seem fazed by foreign names in the text, reading as eloquently as if they themselves had grown up among Dutch dykes, or in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The Q&A sessions with Anglo authors are held in both English and German, with an interpreter shadowing both Q and A. This has a particularly bizarre effect as half of the audience gets to laugh at an author’s awkward banter in real-time, minutes before the interpreter can reconstruct the joke in German. Here, the moderator’s questions soon veer from the professional (“How autobiographical is your work?” Yawn) to the political; all American authors, like Joshua Ferris (Then We Came To The End, The Unnamed; Sept 16, 19:00, HKW), or even theoretically harmless ones like Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame; Sept 20, 19:00, Babylon Mitte), are certainly expected to have an articulate answer to the question whether Obama’s first year in office changed America.
Despite these quirks, it must be said that the Literature Festival does offer attendees (at least those among us comfortable enough with the Teutonic tongue) the opportunity to explore heretofore-unknown linguistic territory. This year, that territory lies to the east, since the IL B is celebrating its first decade in business with a special focus on Osteuropa. Expect wild talent like Mircea Cărtărescu, reading from his short stories for the Romanian edition of Elle magazine (Sept 22, 19:00 @ HKW), or György Dragomán, who rarely attends these kinds of events. The Romanian-born Hungarian author will read from his popular The White King, a surprisingly funny book about the reign of Ceauşescu written from the perspective of an 11-year-old (Sept 18, 16:30 @ HKW).
The local expat kids won’t miss the Litfest either, with a special reading (in English!) to launch the second issue of Berlin’s one and only English-language litrag SAND Journal (Sept 22, 21:00 @ Collegium Hungaricum). And hey, if you’re more into street than book smarts, there’s (English!) slam poetry up at Berghain's Panorama Bar (Carlos Andrés Gómez, Sept 20, 21:00) and at C-Club, where 13 poets will be slamming it down at the audience-judged Slam!Revue (Sept 17, 20:00).
So, expect a touching tribute to the recently departed José Saramago (Sept 16, 18:00 @ Instituto Cervantes), more strange musical intermezzos, excruciating audience questions (“What does yoga mean to you as an Indian writer?”) and the occasional international lit sensation. This is your annual opportunity to hobnob among lit crowds, and meet great authors – whether you understood that German reading or not!
For readings and Q&As with the illustrious likes of Yann Martel, Jennifer Egan, Leanne Shapton and Karin Slaughter, click here for the best of the Fest. For interviews with these authors and many others, pick up this month's issue of EXBERLINER!
INTERNATIONALES LITERATURFESTIVAL BERLIN | September 15-25. For more information, visit www.literaturfestival.com