Changing narratives from the smaller countries of Europe

If you are a writer from one of the smaller countries of Europe, writing in a language spoken by a few million or perhaps just a few hundred thousand people, your chances of finding an international readership are almost non-existent. The organization Literature Across Frontiers has been working to redress the balance, helping to draw attention to writers from all corners of the continent, and above all struggling to get their work published and translated internationally. At the recent Bookworld book fair in Prague, the driving force behind the organization, Alexandra Büchler, chaired a fascinating discussion involving four young writers from smaller European countries. Afterwards they all joined me to talk about some of the themes that came up during the discussion:

Polona Glavan: “My name is Polona Glavan. I come from Slovenia. I’m a novelist and short story writer.”

Roman Simić Bodrožić: “My name is Roman Simić Bodrožić. I’m a short story writer from Croatia.

Clare Azzopardi: “My name is Clare Azzopardi. I come from Malta and I write short stories and books for children.”

Christos Chryssopoulos: I’m Christos Chryssopoulos. I’m from Greece and I give lessons in how not to work!”

How do you give lessons in how not to work?!

CC: “Well, I make it another person’s job to make a living for me. So I give them things to do… like reading.”

So you write.

CC: “Yes, I do.”

And you have all been brought together here by Alexandra Büchler, whom we have featured on Czech Books before. Alexandra, tell me what’s going on here.

Alexandra Büchler: “We have brought quite a number of writers here this year to the Prague book fair. There are some official reasons. On is that the Czech Republic is holding the presidency of the European Union Council, so this year’s programme of the festival and book fair is actually dedicated to literature from Europe – and that means literature from all corners of Europe. When we were putting the programme together, we actually thought that it would be interesting to bring mainly young writers to get a kind of fresh perspective on what writing in Europe is about now.”

We have one writer here whose work has been published in Czech translation. Polona, how did that come about?

Polona Glavan: “It was the initiative of the translator who is a lecturer of Slovenian here at the Prague university. He follows Slovenian writing out of interest and he liked my work. That was basically it, so he proposed it to a publisher and the publisher accepted.”

And what has been translated?

PG: “My first novel, A Night in Europe. It’s a bit of a romantic story about travelling and being young.”

We are currently sitting round a table and aptly enough you’re sitting next to your geographical neighbour, a young writer from Croatia. Roman, during the discussion that’s just ended you talked about the impact of the war, when Yugoslavia was disintegrating. You described it as a tsunami that shifted the entire universe that people were living in, in the former Yugoslavia. In what way?

Roman Simić Bodrožić: “I think the changes are obvious. Those who previously seemed the biggest are the smallest in fact. We split from the rest of Yugoslavia, we have a new currency, but what exactly changed is us: that series of little ruptures that you can trace if you have a very, very sensitive instrument – and writers normally have that. So that instrument in my case is ready to follow those changes inside relationships, in love, in parenthood, in the way you raise your children. So that’s what I’m after and I don’t know how successfully, but I do it.”

Polona, is that something that figures in your writing as well, given that Slovenia – albeit very briefly – also went through an armed conflict at the beginning of the 1990s?

Polona Glavan: “No, I can’t really say it’s present in our literature – the war as such – but maybe some aftermath of it: the relations with our neighbours [she and Roman laugh], and the transition – the economic transition. I think that would be more prominent – how our value system changed. So you can connect that with the war in a way.”

There are only two million Slovenians. Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004. There are just three hundred thousand Maltese. Malta joined the EU at the same time. Clare, has that fact changed your life significantly?

Clare Azzopardi: “No, I don’t think it has changed significantly, apart from the currency of course [laughs] and some other things, such as things going up in price. But no, it hasn’t changed.”

CA: “Yes, this is very true. I write in Maltese. I decided to write in Maltese, and I write for a few hundred. It’s an advantage, as you say, because I know my readership and I know what I want to say. I’m not afraid of saying anything or of the way I write it, but it’s a disadvantage because no one else can read it. However, thanks to LAF, some of my stories have been translated and published, and one of them has been translated into Czech as well.”

You mentioned LAF – that is Literature Across Frontiers – which is actually you, Alexandra…

Alexandra Büchler: “Well, it’s not quite me. It’s a network of organizations and individuals and it’s basically a platform, whose mission is to promote the diversity of European writing and bring out of the cold writing that is not so well known because it’s written in small languages. So we really try somehow to fight against this notion that European writing means British, French, German possibly, or Italian or Spanish.”

Chris, you were described during the podium discussion a few minutes ago as the odd one out, and this was mainly because of the way you write. Alexandra said something interesting – that although you wrote in Greek, she felt it could have been written in English originally. That was something that she said she didn’t feel about the other writers who were present in the discussion.

Christos Chryssopoulos: “Well yes. I think on the surface it’s possibly true, because a lot of my work is set in places which are non Greek. They have non Greek references. My latest novel is about an American poet, Laura Riding Jackson, and her relationship to Robert Graves, but literature has always had this possibility to cross borders and works of literature have affinities which they create by themselves. It’s an interesting thing. When you were talking about lesser spoken languages, everyone thinks that they want to be international. Well, one of the tricks is to try to be local in an interesting way. For a while I moonshined as a visiting scholar in the States and I was living with an Indian writer. He was from Mumbai and was writing in Marathi, which is the local language. I was joking with him, saying that I don’t need to be international. I don’t need to be translated in all parts of the world. Just get me translated in Mumbai! It’s a city of ten million people, so that will do!”

And that’s about the population of Greece, isn’t it?

CC: “Exactly!”

We are in the Czech Republic, which is a predominantly Slav country. We have round this table two writers from Slav countries - Croatia and Slovenia - and two writers from non-Slav Mediterranean countries. Do you feel any kind of literary Slav or Slavonic identity when you come here to Prague?

Polona Glavan: “What I feel actually is more a Central European identity, as opposed to Mediterranean or Southern European. The tradition of Kafka, for instance, is our own tradition. I can’t understand Czech, but I think it’s a political and historical identity that I can feel here.”

Roman Simić Bodrožić: “Yes, I would agree with Polona. I cannot think about some real pool of Slavic themes or approaches to literary texts or the world. I think it’s all mixed up, you know…”

What about in relationship to Serbia, where you have virtually the same language? Is there an overlap in the readership and in the market?

RSB: “It used to be completely different before the war. I don’t know if Polona would agree with me, because the Slovenian situation is a bit different, because they have a language of their own and a language apart, in a sense, but it was quite normal for me to enter a bookstore and buy a book by a Serbian author and read it as if it was a Croatian author, and now it’s not such a normal thing. There is a gap between the two literatures. It’s not simply political. There are lots of very practical reasons why we are not following the scene back there or why they are not following our scene. But I think that gap is diminishing and the moment when the price of a book in Serbia or Croatia will be more or less the same and people forget things that were in the past, maybe it will be a bit different. But I think that Serbian literature in Croatia functions in some kind of no-man’s-land. It’s not our literature and it’s not foreign literature. We don’t dub their movies, but they’re not our movies.”

Chris mentioned the fact that his writing isn’t necessarily set in Greece. There are lots of references outside the Greek literary context. Clare, writing in Maltese would that be feasible? Would that be something that you would do in your writing as well, or do you stick very much to a local literary and geographical context in your writing?

Clare Azzopardi: “I guess I do stick to a local context, although not necessarily to Maltese characters.”

You mentioned earlier the fact that there is today a very large non Maltese community in Malta…

CA: “Yes, it’s true. We have many irregular immigrants coming over and staying, and the culture is changing nowadays. They bring over their culture, their traditions. It’s interesting to meet these people and listen to their narratives and write about them.”