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On the eve of my departure to attend the EU Prize for Literature in Brussels as part of a group invited by the European Commission Representative in the UK, literary critic Nick Lezard Facebooks: "I have been sent a list of my fellow-attendees, and all I can think of is: this is the list of dramatis personae at the beginning of an Agatha Christie novel. At least one of us is going to get bumped off, maybe on the Eurostar, and one of us is going to be the murderer. I do hope I'm neither of them." Luckily his skills do not lie in divination and fortune-telling.
We are a motley group of “literature and publishing professionals,” from a range of organizations, including: translators from Spanish, Polish, and French; the British Council and Arts Council England; English PEN, the Free Word Centre, the Writers’ Centre Norwich, Speaking Volumes; publishers MacLehose Press, Portobello Books, Peter Owen, Bloomsbury; agents Conville and Walsh, Janklow & Nesbit, Marsh Agency; the Institut Français in London; The Royal Society of Literature Review, the Guardian and the Independent newspapers.
Such is the fame of Brussels's gray sixties architecture there is even a Belgian advertising agency named GREY. Serious-looking people of all nationalities with a common interest in politics or business walk to and from huge glass buildings. There is something brave new world about it all and most particularly the technocratic language spoken by the Eurocrats who gave us presentations on Creative Europe policy, funding for “cross-border cultural projects and innovation,” digital policy strategy and copyright.
In the evening, seated in the ballroom of the Concert Noble, we watched the thirteen winners of this year's EU Prize for Literature go up on stage to receive their award and say a few words. Their stories reflect the Commission's commitment to promote cultural diversity. Bulgarian revolutionaries fighting against the tyranny of Turkish rule in the 1870s; a novel about a Czech photographer “master of the nude who never had much luck with women”; a fifty-something Greek loser’s darkly comic monologue about his struggle not to collapse into defeatism and despair; Latvian alternative culture and heavy metal music; a historical whodunit set in Berlin; a collection of Turkish stories with a focus on the politics of mourning; a novel about an eighteen-year-old Dutch girl’s first love during the build up to World War Two; a tale of two brothers, one in Serbia and the other in New York . . . I hope some find their way into English.
It made a positive change from the usual stories about Blighty losing its sovereignty and swastika politics. It is easy to forget that the European Economic Community was originally formed to foster peace and prosperity.
We were fuelled by champagne, cordon bleu cooking, coffee, croissants and—in some instances—those famous “frites avec mayo” and beer. It’d be easy to put on weight living it up in Brussels. You think you’ve tasted chocolate? Well you haven’t—not until you’ve savored Pierre Marcolini.