Thursday 18.08.2011 Jenny Erpenbeck

17 days, 757 events, 797 authors: That’s the scope of the EIBF this year. And today I will use the ticket that I placed first in my basket. Sit down and take your seats for Jenny Erpenbeck is in the house!

The event was chaired by Michel Faber, whose own review of Visitation, places him on the same tier of mega fandom as myself. His own close reading of Erpenbeck’s work fully informed the discussion about both The Book of Words and Visitation.  First Erpenbeck read a small section of the former, then Faber read the same section in English.  That was followed by discussion.  The pattern repeated for Visitation. 

Erpenbeck said that her first novel, The Old Child, belongs to a different life.  She wrote it when she was 27.  She maintained that the dictatorship in The Book of Words is an amalgam of many dictatorships.  This is to emphasise the universality of the questions of truth and betrayal.  Visitation she said was the book she was meant to write.  Can you top it?,  asked Faber.  No (!!!!), she replied.

Just before opening the floor to questions, Faber asked whether Erpenbeck would swap all the sales and acclaim for the house that is the focus of Visitation.  When I started the novel, I would have taken the house, said Erpenbeck.  But she is now no longer sure because of the history that came to light along the way.  In addition, the house is no longer abandoned and wrecked.  New owners are restoring it to its former glory and so she is no longer hurting.

Audience questions focused on life in the GDR and the impact of 1989.  There was good and bad in the GDR said Erpenbeck.  She remembers one of her first shopping  expeditions in a Western bookshop.  Everything she could wish for was on the shelves and because of that there seemed no reason to buy anything. 
The Old Child (Not Yet Read) / The Book of Words    / Visitation

Friday 19.09.2011 Judith Schalansky

Judith Schalansky is also from the former GDR.  Travel restrictions forced her to take flight in her imagination to other countries with the help of her atlas.  Childhood holidays on a island in the Baltic engendered a curiosity in her.  Convinced that paradise was to be found somewhere on a remote island, she began to research.  50 islands, 50 maps and 50 stories later, Schalansky, using her design skills,  has put together the most beautiful book.  So beautiful it won Germany’s most beautiful book of the year award.

Schalansky describes writing the book as an adventure, unfortunately one that has disproved her hypothesis of paradise.  Too often life on a remote island is hell, she said.  Life is fine as long as there is only one human on the island.  Life quickly degrades when there are more.  Besides there is no freedom on an island, you’re too dependent on supplies from the mainland.  You can’t live on a remote island, she said.  You can only survive.

These are conclusions that are verified by the stories of shipwrecks, failed expeditions, prison colonies, megalomaniac conquerors, cannibalism, murder and mayhem to be found in Schalansky’s “beautiful” book.  It’s not the only irony.  The book was a poetic project,  said Schalansky.  Her voyage of discovery through many old and dusty tomes.  She cannot verify the truth of every story. and she is amused that the book is to be found in the travel sections of bookshops.

Audience questions revealed an irate islander who took exception to Schalansky’s conclusions.  She should visit these islands, he said.  The islanders don’t want to leave.  It’s the mainland governments who are making island life difficult. She really should go and see for herself and perhaps even rewrite her book!  With a disarming smile Schalanksky reminded him of the subtitle of her book: 50 Islands I have never visited and never will.  I’m not interested in reality, she said.  These islands are springboards for my imagination and fantasy.

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will 

Donal McLauchlin acted as a safety net translator at both events.  Though Jenny Erpenbeck never really fell into it.  Judith Schalansky called on his services more, answering entirely in German.  As a result I realised I can still understand German (hooray and what a relief) though my short term memory would never let me act as a realtime translator.  Hats off to Donal.