Writing on the Danube: Part 1 on Readux

Writers from Germany to Bulgaria take a literary boat trip down the Danube and attempt to explore issues of European identity, the chaotic state of the world and the precarious situation of freelance writers.

The Danube runs almost 3,000 kilometers from the Black Forest in Germany all the way to the Black Sea, and has just as imposing a presence in Europe’s cultural history. From September to the end of October 2011 a transnational cultural project is being carried out called Literature in Flux, in which writers, translators and journalists from all of the ten countries the river passes through are paying tribute to the Danube’s cultural role by participating in an ambitious cultural exchange. The program involves a journey by steam boat, the MS Stadt Wien, from Ruse, Bulgaria to Vienna, as well as numerous panels, readings and accompanying events in various regional ports of call.

For Slovak writer Michal Hvorecký the journey along the river has a special resonance, as his most recent novel Danube in America (Dunaj v Amerike, 2009) is the story of a writer on a 20-day trip on the Danube from Regensburg to the Delta in Romania, and recounts Hvorecký’s own experiences working on a boat for a US travel agency.

“But this experience was something completely different,” Hvorecký said of Literature in Flux, also a 20-day trip. “I had much more time for myself and for the fellow writers, for the places we visited and for the river itself. When I was working on the Danube as a tour manager, it was just work, work, work – 24/7, and it was all about the Americans and their wishes and complaints, and so on. This time I was meeting many more locals and the people I am most interested in: poets, fiction writers, publishers, editors of literary magazines, actors, etc.”

The riverboat was virtually a Noah’s Ark filled with both established and young up-and-coming writers from the region. There was Romanian novelist Filip Florian, whose Days of the King was published in English translation in August by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher that had brought out his novel Little Fingers in 2009. There was the Slovenian writer, Nataša Kramberger, who earlier this month was awarded the EU Prize for Literature for Nebesa v robidah: roman v zgodbah (Heaven in a Blackberry Bush: A Novel in Stories); as well as many other participants.

Besides the cultural interactions on the way from Belgrade to Vienna, Hvorecký spent his time on the boat putting the finishing touches on revisions of the German translation of Danube in America, which is due to be published in 2012. While onboard he was also contacted regarding an offer to translate the novel into Czech.

“I can hardly imagine a better place for this editorial work than in my small cabin with the river waves splashing against my small round window. The whole story came back to me intensely,” he said.


A tale of two cities

Literature in Flux is being organized by HALMA, the European network of literary centers, and the program clearly indicates that the river represents a potential for cultural unity in a region that has seen more than its share of cultural division. It is a notion born out to some degree by the trip itself. “We really understood each other well and shared lots of ideas on politics, nationalism, identity, art of the novel, creative writing, basically anything. If only our politicians could speak to each other so openly and freely: Serbian with Croat, Slovak with Hungarian and Austrian with German,” Hvorecký said.

That this hasn’t been the case on the political level can be seen in Hvorecký’s own words, as reprinted in an editorial in Slovak daily SME, where he mentions hearing of the fall of the Slovak government in Novi Sad, Serbia and the similarities between this city on the Danube and his native Bratislava. He writes that he feels at home in Novi Sad because these two cities on the Danube share “unimaginable corruption, bribery, nepotism, the collapse of the independent justice system, the horrendous deterioration of the education system, the flowering of the grey economy …”

Hvorecký also said the writers involved in Literature in Flux all agreed how difficult it has become to survive as a freelance writer anywhere in Europe. “But still the East somehow remains more difficult, because the cultural scene and funding was not reformed in most of the countries of the former Eastern Bloc.”

Slovak writer and founder of the feminist project ASPEKT, Jana Juráňová is even less optimistic, and is not convinced of either the tangible or intangible benefits of such a transnational project. “I am not sure there is a Central European identity and feeling. Maybe there is, but I cannot see it. The idea of Central Europe is more and more distant to me.”

And though Juráňová is participating in the project and thinks that it is always good to support authors and help publicize their work to new audiences, her outlook is not terribly hopeful. “Nothing dramatic will change. And from my experience – I can present my texts somewhere in English or German, and even when people coming to the presentation would like to read more, there is still a long way to publishing the whole book – and the long way mostly ends in nothing. And sometimes I have the sad feeling that there are more people writing than reading.”

Literature in Autumn

As this year’s program ends in Vienna it leads into the city’s annual Literatur im Herbst literary festival, which is also devoted to the Danube this year and will include many of the writers that have traveled from Ruse and other points on the river in readings and discussions from October 28 – 30. Exchanges of East-West perspectives, a speech asking what color the Danube is and the participation of writers such as German-Romanian novelist Richard Wagner, Romanian novelist and poet Mircea Cărtărescu and Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin are some of the highlights of the three days of literary fare.

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Categories: Essays, Literary Events


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One Comment on “Writing on the Danube: Part 1 on Readux”

  1. 31/10/2011 at 10:54 am #


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