Art of storytelling meets art of dissent at 19th Prague Writers’ Festival

Michael March, photo:

The capital event of the Czech literary calendar began this week with the start of the 19th Prague Writers’ Festival. Each year the festival brings dozens of major personages to the Czech Republic from across the world. This year the theme of “the art of storytelling” is being discussed among the literary greats of, what festival founder Michael March calls, “three ancient civilisations: China, Arabia, and Berkley, California.”

The literary delegates descending on Prague for this year’s writers’ festival come from worlds as diverse as China and the US, but share a strong common element: dissidence and exile. Many of the tens of writers on hand here this week either abandoned or fled their homelands for life in Europe, and indeed they have many stories to tell.

Ma Jian for one has dealt intimately with modern Chinese society in books that have been hailed as defining statements on issues like the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the harsh realities of Tibetan culture. These statements however found him briskly blacklisted in China, and since 1986 he has lived and wrote in exile in Hong Kong and the UK.

“The main thing that totalitarianism does is limit people’s thoughts, their inner freedom, which is the very thing that a writer creates his work from; he needs freedom to be able to create. So I left China in the physical sense, but in doing so I gained the inner freedom and ability to think about the country. When you want a good view of a mountain, you can’t be standing on top of it - you have to stand at a distance. So living in London I have the feeling that I’m looking at that mountain that is China from afar.”

Yang Lian is one of China’s so-called “Misty Poets”, a group of experimental poets who resisted the Cultural Revolution and most of whom were imprisoned and exiled in the 1980s. Though today tipped for a Nobel Prize, Lian was stripped of his citizenship in 1989, and since that time there have been a number of places he’s called home.

“I have been living in the United Kingdom since 1997, but before then I was on the road for about 9 years and I travelled around the world many times. So I’m a traveller, external and internal. So even though I now live in London, I still feel I continue the journey. As a poet I never actually write about another part of the world. I write about others, but through myself.”

Social dissidents have equally powerful stories to tell, and the art of storytelling does not always demand a writer. Also present in Prague this week are rogue cartoonists Robert Crumb, his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, all of whom played leading roles in the underground comics movement in America in the 1960s and 70s. Mr Shelton for his part said he did not at all feel out of place as a cartoonist at a writers’ festival, when I asked him if he considered comics another kind of storytelling:

“Yeah it’s very much storytelling, it’s like theatre. To do a short theatre sketch or a skit as we say is a little story or a joke and it has very much to with the art of storytelling. Not so much like a short story or a long story, but it has the same sort of things involved as a skit in the theatre.”

Robert Crumb, like his compatriot Mr Shelton, has lived in France for many a year now. Though not on the run from a totalitarian regime, both cartoonists know well the feeling of being stifled in their native land. For Mr Crumb in particular there is much in the US to deserve one’s dissent.

“In the last 25, 30 years America became so hateful. I like my friends there, but the culture and the attitude – it just became such a land of hustling scoundrels and swindlers and thieves and greed. It became so disgusting. And the development in California where we lived was just this merciless, ongoing juggernaut. It was horrible. But in France it’s not happening like that, it’s a different situation.”

In a way, the Prague Writers’ Festival was actually established on the back of political and social dissidence. In the late 1970s the festival’s founder Michael March was bringing Central European writers to London’s Keats House museum to introduce their work to the western world. When the collapse of communism came, the world of western writing came to Central Europe, and so began an annual Prague powwow of writers and readers that has endured to this day. For Mr March, the festival’s history since 1991 is not so much focused on dissidence but staying on top of change.

“There was no tradition of readings, they had been prohibited. They had maybe existed in cafes during the First Republic. But there was no tradition of readings. The outside world had not come here. But 1989, which everyone associates with great political change, indeed had political change, but in the world it had the aspect of geographic change, not transformation. Now, 20 years later, is when the change is occurring. And we change the festival each year, it changes as the societies are being transformed. It tries to catch the essence of what is occurring in every sense.”

An interesting thing one sees at the Prague Writers’ Festival is the connection some of the international guests have to this country. In talking to writers as far removed from here as wine from water, I found that for some, being in Prague was something of a homecoming, close as they were to Czech literature. The Czech experience of domination and defiance described by Czech writers from Jaroslav Hašek to Václav Havel and key to the Czech “art of storytelling”, became a part of these authors’ own tales as they worked out their own “art of defiance”. Ma Jian again:

“Yes, the Czech Republic is a small country but the literature is extremely rich, and for some reason it’s very close to us Chinese. Writers like Hašek or Čapek and those from the totalitarian era have given us a tremendous amount of strength and inspiration. We encountered their work in the 1980s and these writers taught us to express and confront the totalitarian environment with the weapon of ironic humour. Generally speaking, Czech literature has had a big impact on contemporary Chinese literature.

“Havel said, that in a totalitarian society, despair and disappointment reigns free, but as you see in your country, wherever there is despair and disappointment there is also hope that is never lost, and that can eventually prevail.”

And so, as the Czech Republic celebrates its 20th year since the fall of communism, it’s apt that the stories told through the Prague Writers’ Fest keep the tradition of dissidence and the “art of dissent” here alive.