Two days after I left Iraq, I traveled to a small resort at the Black Sea for a writer's conference about the future of literature. For some reason it seemed to me the right sequence: first Baghdad and then a conference about the future of literature.
I have been to a few literary festivals, but this was going to be my first literary conference.
The difference is the audience. At a festival you have an audience that does not consist of other authors, at least in theory. At a literary conference you speak for your colleagues.
The hotel in the resort of Neptun was comfortable. Nearly all of its clientele were octogenarians from Germany, France and Romania. I believe this was appropriate as well. When you are supposed to discuss the future of literature, you don't want to be surrounded by giggling teenagers.
Most participants of the conference were poets and almost fifty percent of the authors were from Romania. Not completely illogical since the Writer's Union in Romania had organized this conference.
English, Romanian and Hungarian were the languages spoken at the conference, and for those of us who hadn't mastered all of these languages there were simultaneous translations. As in Iraq I was reminded of the power of the interpreter and sometimes it was not clear whether the interpreter was messing up sentences or the author himself was not able to produce a clear sentence.
The interpreters were probably not completely innocent. My remark that I have never read Henry Jamesmainly a footnote to my presentationwas understood by the Romanians that we should stop reading Henry James. Based on the translation of my remark, some of the Romanian authors reached the conclusion that I had said we should stop reading altogether.
My favorite participant was a Romanian poet in his seventies who wore a pith helmet all day long.
He added to the discussion by saying that all authors should strive for world peace.
Another Romanian author remarked that the decline of the literature began when authors gave up writing with a pen and started to use typewriters and, even worse, laptops.
The president of the writer's conference stated that the Communist time in Romania, and elsewhere, was awful but at least writers were important during this period, whereas now they are completely marginalized.
This is not to poke fun at our hosts during the conference. Just a reminder that even an absurd answer to the real or imaginary problem of the marginalization of literature can be refreshing.
Especially after Iraq.
Published Jun 24, 2008 Copyright 2008 Arnon Grunberg