Prague Writers’ Festival opens 19th year


Sunday evening saw the opening of the Czech Republic’s main annual literary event, the Prague Writers’ Festival, at the city’s Laterna Magika theatre. Now in its 19th year, the festival continues its mission of bringing the crème de la crème of the literary world to Prague, and Czech writers to the world’s attention as well.

The Art of Storytelling is the theme of the 2009 Prague Writers’ Festival, and the opening guests - American cartoonist Robert Crumb and the great Syrian poet Adonis - gave a taste of the diverse story-telling to come this week. Festival organiser Guillaume Basset says the festival has little problem attracting some of the world’s leading authors.

“This city is a rising city in Europe. So the writers are very interested in discovering the Czech Republic and also to make themselves known and discover new readers who they’ve never met before. We bring the Czech Republic to the world – like by broadcasting live via the internet – and bring the world to Prague. And when we explain this to the writer in this way, they’re really excited and they really want to come.”

At the same time you’re bringing writers who are not well known in the Czech Republic to the Czech Republic, so do you have any problems getting Czechs to come to the readings and other events? I’ll just note that there are a lot of foreigners here.

“Even some of the people working for the Prague Writers’ Festival are not Czech, like me for example, I’m French. It’s difficult to find Czech audiences. That’s why we’re doing a lot of work through schools, through universities. This year we have good collaboration with Charles University. And we also have the Walter Serner Short Story Prize which is only for Czechs, and it’s a way to bring Czech people to the theatre.”

The idea for the festival was hatched in the 1980s, when its founder, Michael March, was bringing communist-bloc writers for readings to London. When the Berlin Wall fell, the event moved to Prague, and the world started coming to the post-communist bloc. For Mr March, the effort to reflect the deeper changes in a changing world through international literary debate and discussion continues to be as much a main point as it was in 1991.

“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.”

This year that focus turns toward China and the Middle East, bringing the work of people like Nobel laureate Gau Xingjian and the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, and generating in the process some of the first Czech translations of these authors.