PEN World Voices Festival: Evolution/Revolution Readings

By David Varno

Cooper Union Great Hall

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

PEN World Voices Festival The readings featured by PEN World Voices in the authors' original languages are a special treat, as Bud wrote yesterday to accompany Mary's photographs. Sometimes it's nice to follow line for line with the English translations that scroll down the screens behind the readers, other times it seems better to listen and guess at the meaning, to fill in the gaps suggested by familiar words, places, names, and human expression. All of the authors who read were particularly expressive, adding the sounds of emotion, poetry and storytelling to their selections, and while there are certainly things missed in translation, at times I had the sensation of experiencing double.

Jane Ciabattari's account of the readings on the PEN blog (viewable at Critical Mass) is better-rounded, but here's another summary of the blindsiding succession of eight readings:

First to read was Catalan poet Narcís Comadira, who gave voice to the elusiveness of nature and the need to name it with his poem íTriumph of Life,ë in which, in the words of Gerard Cenette, íuniversal existence gains, loses, and at last again gains consciousness.ë Listening to the language of the textures and materials of living things and the earth caused me to envision them anew.

PEN World Voices Festival Next was Palestinian memoirist Raja Shehadeh, who read, in English, a transportive and touching story of a walk through an Israeli settlement that centered on an encounter with a young Israeli man who rescues the protagonist's hat from the river. He engages the man in a discussion on national identity, borders, and the potential for peace, that is by turn friendly and hostile, and just as their exchange reaches the precipe towards real danger, the Israeli shares some hashish, thus allowing Shehadeh to end the tale with a vision of peace in spite of—or perhaps via an age-old—convention.

French-Canadian Nicole Brossard read her letters poems, beginning with L for love and letters, P for passion, possession and poetry, and J: íno translation required—just listen,ë the screen read, as Brossard riffed to crowd's delight. Jose Dalisay introduced a sober tone, with his story íSoledad's Sister,ë textured with the jeepneys and crowds of the Philippines and pained with regret.

Muriel Barbery perked things back up with more French, a reading from her novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the protagonist of which is a concierge who reflects on her role of manners, seeing herself as íone of the multiple cogs that make the universal illusion turn, that the meaning of life is decipherable.ë Then Sergio Ramírez, reading from One Thousand Deaths Plus Oneë intoned that íbeauty is always contaminated;ë that ínothing occurs separately.ë

It was particularly informative to hear the Hungarian Péter Nádas, whose confessional tone adds an extra layer to his macabre íThe Great Christmas Killing,ë a tale of the execution of dictators Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, and the reflection on the enjoyment in witnessing such a thing. íDeath carries the logic of dictatorships into the next millennium,ë he ended.

PEN World Voices Festival Haitian-born poet Edwige Danticat read selections from the poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy in Creole, which addressed the camera lens of American and European tourists in Haiti, and twists the term íboat peopleë to comment on the slave trade and the universality of migration. Morrisseau-Leroy's confrontational and playful tones were highlighted by Danticat's reading; her voice gave pleasure and illumination to the poems.

Last was Salman Rushdie, who read the passage from Shalimar the Clown that introduces the man made of iron, or íiron mullah,ë whom Rushdie admitted could be a derivation of the Terminator, and who indoctrinates the clown-protagonist in Islamic fundamentalism, saying that íit's not possible to shoot straight if the way you see things is all screwed up.ë In setting themselves apart from the infidels, the iron mullah claims that their belief in universal truth is an illusion: íwe believe in something beyond the universal, which the infidels can't see,ë he tells the clown.


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