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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Impressions and Conversations during the Intervals

Ilma Rakusa
Traduction de Andrew Gane

Texte intégral

Nach einem langen Tag und Gesprächen in sechs
Sprachen träume ich von einem Gletscher. Ich sehe ihn
von oben, aus Helikopter-Perspektive: eine
weiss-braune Zunge, gescheckt, zerklüftet – und
schrecklich geschrumpft. Am Morgen weiß ich,
ich habe von der Sprache geträumt, Pars pro toto.

1The copperplate engraving projected on the wall and created by Johannes Putsch in 1537, portrays Europe as a noble virgin with Hispanic head jewelry and precious robes on which the names and symbols of European countries form an odd pattern. While the speakers get worked up, the virgin looks silently around. Only Andrei Bitov cannot bear her grave silence. Turning to the lady, he remarks dryly: Russia is under her skirt. Laughter. In fact, Rusia is emblazoned on the left corner of the skirt, surrounded by Sarmatia, Lithuania, and Walachia.

2All the conversations get caught up in history before moving forward to the present and the future. And the East Europeans seem to bear a particular burden in this respect. Formerly isolated by the Iron Curtain, they now fear being relegated to Europe’s second division. The complexes, the anxieties, and the resentments run deep.

3The idea of Europe is emphatically idealized — Europe is a state of the intellect (Mirela Ivanova), Europe is a poem (Ivan Štrpka) — and commented upon with skepticism. The only chance for people on the periphery is to serve the stereotypes used by the West to think about the periphery. This is the view of Dragan Velikić from Belgrade.

4We sit in the café and discuss the exodus of Serbia’s young people, the European railway network, and the legendary hotels that once carried or still carry the name Europa: in Pula, in Sarajevo, in St. Petersburg. Could it be that the invocation of Europe starts from the edges?

5And then the sudden thought that we, at this Writing Europe symposium, also form a Hotel Europa: a motley and multilingual community of writers, who insist upon their individual visions and consciously accept their social marginality. The poetic play of ideas does not seek political conversion. As its freedom stems from the circumstance that it must not obey ideology or pragmatic objectives. This makes us cheerful, but also a little pensive. Péter Nádas shakes his head in incomprehension: A writer does not have to think about the effect of his words. He should concentrate on writing — a long and difficult process. Everything else is out of his hands.

6At a late hour the question flits across the room whether poetic and political thinking can ever be compatible. Andrei Bitov whispers softly no. If literature does influence social developments, then it does so only indirectly. It has its own speed, and its own temperature. And already he starts on the next story, a real storyteller.

7All are telling stories in a confusion of tongues. Tomas Venclova, who speaks Russian, Polish, Lithuanian or English according to the turn of his head, enthuses about his home city Vilnius, about which he has just written a successful guide. In several days time, however, he is setting off on a three-week journey to India. The introverted poet, an American citizen since 1985, turns out to be a passionate globetrotter, traveling alone to new shores. Most of the writers present are of a cosmopolitan bent. Richard Swartz — with homes in Stockholm, Vienna and the Istrian hamlet of Sovinjak — dreams of a sunlit Stockholm on the Mediterranean. Again, a tempting European utopia. Meanwhile a striking number of paths cross in Berlin. DAAD’s apartment for scholarship-holders at Storkwinkel 12 once served as home for Mircea Cărtărescu as well as Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Dragan Velikić. On discovering this piece of shared past, the Serbian and the Belgian embrace each other in laughter. The friendship is sealed in broken English.

8The symposium’s friendship potential is overwhelming. So much positive interest in one’s neighbor can only be a good European omen. Books circulate, words fly, addresses are exchanged and glasses raised; and soon there are debates, admissions, moving reunions. Andrei Bitov attaches to Dubravka Ugrešić’s lapel a little silver angel from Odessa. Next day Bitov has a miniature Finnish wooden rabbit on his lapel. I myself am carrying Ljubljana’s emblem in my bag: a tiny china dragon, given to me as a gift by Aleš Debeljak. We cough and sneeze together in rhythm. It must be the Europe-virus. But there is no question of ending our interesting conversations prematurely. What are the concerns of Slovenian intellectuals? Are there any signs of a cultural rapprochement within the former Yugoslavia? How does one explain the unanimous solidarity of eastern (central) Europe with the United States? Debeljak responds with verve; he thinks Eastern Europe’s special position is understandable but nevertheless irresponsible; as regards Yugoslavia, he is taking part in several magazine projects promoting cultural exchange among the successor states.

9After a long day and discussions in six languages, I dream of a glacier. I see it from above, as if from a helicopter: a white and brown tongue, blotchy, rugged — and alarmingly shriveled. In the morning I know I have been dreaming of language, pars pro toto. What is under threat? Diversity? And then, all of sudden, I am struck by something Hans Maarten van den Brink has said: Languages do not have a historical right to exist forever. A most disturbing sentence that has somehow forced its way into my subconscious.

10Van den Brink’s Europe, where no one is completely at home and where everyone speaks a language he hasn’t quite mastered, differs dramatically from a Europe of native tongues as postulated by Aleš Debeljak. An East–West divide or one between translators and poets?

11Yes, the contrasts and the arguments. Europe is a promise. Europe is a threat. Europe is a poem. Europe is conglomerate of interests. Or without any mercy: Europe is a word we should set about undermining further as time goes on (Colm Tóíbín). The criticism comes from Ireland: England has simply stayed away.

12Irreconcilable positions are presented on the rostrum in a civilized manner. At the restaurant table it is America that causes the greatest stir. A common European identity is little to be felt, but this does not diminish our fellow feeling. People who approach phenomena by writing about them share a basic experience that gives rise to an almost familial sense of togetherness. Like an old acquaintance, Lídia Jorge tells me of her years in Angola during the Portuguese colonial war. The horrors of that period abruptly matured her and banished all illusions. I think of my life in a Switzerland sheltered from history, and of the connection between time, place, and fate, that love — which we also talk about—so completely overlooks. Perhaps it would be better to anchor the European idea to anthropology. Back to the roots.

13One should not understate the human, the all too human, which includes illness. On the day of his planned appearance, the Bosnian author Miljenko Jergović sends the following fax: I was thinking about the future of a united Europe, about European borders, and about whether or not my part of the Balkans is still in Europe — and, in the midst of these thoughts I came down with chickenpox. A political metaphor reported back in its original sense. And this said that the transition countries were suffering from the children’s illnesses of democracy.

14No contemptuous (English) cancellation, but a clever if regrettable coincidence. Bosnia is absent. Belarus and Ukraine are absent too. And a young woman tells me shyly of her homeland Moldava, where there are wonderful writers living in a desolate isolation. For her, Europe is a magical vocabulary, a symbol of freedom and culture.

15The continent is still torn in two.

16Is a Europe without cracks thinkable? Europe’s past has so many fault lines that a pragmatic European construction seems illusory. So culture, with its differentiation and patience, should offer a helping hand. And this will need time, like any complex process.

17In the course of the week, we observe in miniature how opinions are formed and positions revised, how an exchange functions as giving and taking, listening and reacting. Both the “aha” phenomenon as well as shock are part of all this, alongside honesty and a willingness to argue. Europe as work in progress presupposes a frank flexibility on the part of individuals. This is what is demonstrated and practiced at the Literaturhaus Hamburg.

18A late evening round. Robert Schindel rummages in his jacket bag and pulls out several creased bits of paper. It is only now, he confesses, that he has acquired his parents’ family tree. He had no idea of who his grandparents were and where they lived. A Jewish institution in Vienna has done the research, and he can no longer sleep because he keeps trying to imagine all the people. The grandmother from Galicia and his grandfather, director of a Prague brewery, as well as all the other relatives that finally, and without exception, fell victim to the Holocaust. Names, dates, careers, they are all there in black and white, yet unfathomable.

19Central European Jewry went down in the United Europe of the slaves, and the victims, and the killed. The trauma might become a unifying factor if it contains a Never again. European action cannot do without the European culture of memory.

20Over a glass of red wine, Robert Schindel converses with Stefan Chwin, who is counting on the history lesson and its consequences: on Europe’s moral uneasiness, its hesitation, its conflict awareness, its ability to differentiate, and its questioning. Characteristics that must stand up to the pressure of America’s black-and-white thinking and dictates to action in order to be perceived as an opportunity rather than as a sign of weakness.

21In the heated discussion, Europe’s diversity and contradiction sparkle under the protection of the beautiful and strict Virgo. It is better to imagine Europe in the form of a woman than as a Brussels bureaucracy. A vision needs sensuality and cannot be formed out of paragraphs. Mircea Cărtărescu envisions a Europe molded by Dante’s stars, John Donne’s compass, Cervantes’ lance, Kafka’s beetle, Proust’s madelaine and Günter Grass’ flounder. A Europe of the Hellenes and barbarians, the smiling Mona Lisa and the mustached Gioconda by Marcel Duchamp. Europe is not an archive, but a palimpsest: described in multi-layers, with the old lines shining through from under every new text. In other words: Europe can only ever be plural.

22Sometimes the writers seem like monadic embodiments of thirty-three different Europes. Different colors and contours mark their inner maps; none are the same. But paths are paths, rivers are rivers, and mountains are mountains. And the discussion is already underway. And at the rostrum table or in the white-table-clothed restaurant, horizons appear that are alien to none.

23We learned much about ourselves in Hamburg. Because we did not shun friction and argument. There was no feigning consensus, no official objectives — nothing like that at all. The European vocabulary filled up with stories and fortunes, full of life and malle-able to the point of fantasy.

24If it were up to the poets and writers, Europe would pass its current test of endurance with ease.


Further Reading:
Steppe. Translated by Solveig Emerson. Burning Deck, 1997.

Table des illustrations

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Born in Rimavská Sobota (Slovakia) in 1946, the daughter of a mixed Hungarian–Slovenian parentage, Ilma Rakusa is an author, writer, literary scholar, and translator of many works from Russian, French, Hungarian, and Serbo-Croatian (including works by Marina Tsvetayeva, Marguerite Duras, Imre Kertész, and Danilo Kiš). She has received many awards for her work, including the Petrarca Prize for Translation in 1991, the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding in 1998, and the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize in 2003. Ilma Rakusa lives in Zürich, where she has been a university lecturer since 1977.

Andrew Gane (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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