Prague Writers’ Festival postscript

I like writers’ festivals – not when the writers read their work, which is usually boring, or when the discussions are overly organized, in which case they can be dull too. The most interesting aspects of writers’ festivals are the moments that typically slip through the cracks, that you have to see in person to really grasp what is going on.

At the recently concluded Prague Writers’ Festival just such a moment took place. There was a discussion in which Junot Díaz was asked by one of a group of American students on a year abroad how they could bring some of their cultural experience back home with them, to keep the momentum going, as it were.

Díaz gave an earnest, impassioned answer, saying that people need to exercise their souls as much as they do their bodies. He pleaded with the students not to treat the experience of art as only part of their time in Prague and Europe, but to make a point of doing something connected with arts at least once a week. He was eloquent and the students seemed to respond to what he was saying. The room was filled with a sense of optimism that a cultural baton had been passed and grasped by eager hands.

A few minutes later, after the conversation had meandered into other areas, the gray eminence of Czech letters Vladimír Páral returned to the question, almost shouting “Once a week! That’s nothing. Three times a week at least. Why not read a poem three times a week!” and went on a bit of a rant directed at the group of students, who were sitting together in a block of seats, that culture isn’t just a sideline and that American trash culture is what’s pushing out quality art and literature.

Páral was speaking in Czech and there were headphones available with simultaneous translation. He placed a lot of the blame on Hollywood (Incidentally, he is 78 years old) and got so worked up he ended up switching into English to shout “Stop Hollywood! Stop Hollywood!”

Páral came back to the question once more, and in his climactic attempt to address the issue he tried to tie it back to the young American who had asked the original question. He conjured up a young lady on a Saturday night realizing that she has gone all week without having had sex. He asked whether, needing to hit her once a week quota, she’ll put on sexy panties and rush off to a club to pick up a guy at any price.

At this point he stood up and bowed in the direction of the students and asked, “Or, young ladies, isn’t it true that you make love any time you feel like it, on a Monday, a Tuesday, in the morning or evening, in a cloakroom, on the beach, in an auditorium, in the kitchen – really, anywhere – behaving naturally, and doing it more than once a week. And that’s just how you should treat literature!”

Díaz was writhing in his chair in stunned laughter as he listened. When Páral was done the red-faced moderator thanked him and said it was certainly a subject worth discussing but that fortunately time was running out (that’s not a typo – he was relieved).

And the students? The future consumers and even creators of American culture – what did they make of this erotically charged plea to read good novels and poetry as often and freely as they fuck? Were they shocked, laughing ironically, high-fiving each other because some of them were planning on taking the great Czech writer’s words literally and getting it on in the auditorium once the discussion wrapped up? Alas, none of the above.

Throughout each of his rants they all sat there politely without much of a reaction at all. And then it occurred to me that these students, who might have been here a semester or a school year, couldn’t have possibly learned enough Czech to have understood what Páral was saying, but that not a single one of them had headphones to have his speech translated. He could have been much more graphic than he was, or instead of only insulting their country’s commercial film industry could have insulted their families – it wouldn’t have mattered. They would have sat there with the same blank politeness, some of them checking their phones and writing messages, others thinking how cool it was that they had met and talked to Junot Díaz, which was probably why they had come to the festival in the first place. After all, he’s famous.

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Categories: Essays, Literary Events


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