Friday, 5 October 2012
Talking Shop: Open Book Fest report
By Konstantin Sofianos
The eateries and drinking-holes of Cape Town's CBD rang with literary chatter, bustling suburbanites mingled with hipsters along the pavements, and in the men's room someone observed that they found the preceding speaker "trenchant", not your average urinal conversation. It was the annual Open Book literature festival in Cape Town, which ran through five densely-packed days across the Heritage Day weekend, September 20th-24th, and featured over a hundred individual events, all steadily attended, and many packed out.
An initiative of the Cape Town Book Lounge, and organisers Mervyn Sloman and Frankie Murrey, the Open Book festival, only in its second yearly iteration, is already poised to establish itself as the premier cultural event of its kind in the country. Its distinction lies in the calibre of international and local authors it has been able to attract: this year's guests included two recent Booker Prize winners, in Alan Hollinghurst and Kiran Desai, book-club staples Lionel Shriver and Joanne Harris, authors respectively of the blockbusters We Need to Talk About Kevin and Chocolat, revered American science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, beguiling children's book author Emily Gravett, and notable emerging talents like Esi Edugyan and Anjali Joseph. These are not tired literary icons dragged out "on the circuit," in Auden's phrase, but rather active contemporary writers who retain an apparent intellectual openness, and an infectious fascination with their developing craft.
Pairing these in imaginative combinations with prominent South African writers and intellectuals, the festival mostly succeeded in fostering stimulating discussions, with often surprising turns, to the warm appreciation of festival goers. So, the charismatic Hollinghurst found himself in amiable conversation with Damon Galgut, but needled by panel-convenor Eusebius McKaiser, and later lampooned by John Crace, of The Guardian's Digested Read-column, who subjected Hollinghurst's elegantly disorientating The Stranger's Child to humorous compaction. Imraan Coovadia engaged Joseph and Stephenson, French graphic novelist Jacques Loustat bonded with Bitterkomix's Anton Kannemeyer, while Rustum Kozain and Edugyan together reflected on the global dimensions of Jazz, and on the latter's accomplished, though perhaps ultimately irresolute, Half-Blood Blues, which tracks an ensemble of musicians as they fly from Jim-Crow America to the tense European capitals of Berlin and Paris in the interwar years.
Earlier, the poet Kozain had been placed in a seemingly incongruous reading-arrangement beside the winningly acerbic Shriver, the astute Joseph and the Nigerian novelist Lola Shoneyin, but which of a sudden erupted into a rewarding debate on the fractures of political Islam, after the topic of the incendiary anti-muslim youtube-video was offered from the audience. Coovadia was to be found in a perhaps too sunny unanimity with Anjali Joseph, as the latter delivered a suggestive plenary lecture on the topic of 'National Literature', held under the auspices of the festival-affiliated Edinburgh World Writer's Conference. Coovadia and Joseph articulated their common disenchantment with the notion of a literary heritage apprehended in narrowly national terms, and both preferred to think instead of selective literary affinities across historical periods and geographical zones. The problem with this under-complicated view, however, becomes apparent in Joseph's own novel, Another Country, which marries an acute observational capacity and an ironic, descriptive brilliance to a rather aimless plot-line, that follows the twenty-something Oxbridge-graduate Leela in her entropic drift from Paris and London to Bombay, and which is further burdened by a clutter of punchy, inane, twenty-something dialogue. Physical or imaginative mobility is both an elite prerogative and not in itself particularly interesting. After a while, Another Country makes you feel like you're chauffeuring a group of chatty post-adolescents between airports, across a radiant urban terrain.
Very much unlike comparable literary-gatherings in South Africa, the Open Book panels did actually concentrate on literary topics, and tended to avoid both ad hoc commentary on newspaper topics of the day, and the gossipy fixation on personalities, with discussants generally interested in talking about the more technical and pragmatic aspects of their literary practice. The multinational constitution of the festival did effectively cast a revealing light on the impressive achievements of a younger generation of South African-linked authors, like Patrick Flannery, Craig Higginson, Henrietta Rose-Innes or Diane Awerbuck, each of whom, to be sure in different ways, unites a wider political and intellectual alertness with a fine aesthetic control, and they seem commonly and properly unafraid to explore the formal possibilities latent to their respective genres. Set at the Open Book festival in international dialogue and comparison, and so beyond both the shadow of established South African literary eminences, and the received, rather stale topics of local literary discourse, the quality and quiet innovation of their work became unmissable, and became also an implicit indictment of our domestic criticism, that has as yet to take the full measure of their various departures.
In marked contrast, there was nothing obviously innovative about the other Edinburgh Writers' Conference panel, devoted to the venerable question "Should Literature Be Political?", and presided over by Antje Krog and Njabulo Ndebele. Both seemed finally less interested in, than anxious about, the topic, and offered little that was illuminating about the question or its terms, instead offering a homily on the values of reading, a rather redundant exercise in the context of a book-festival, one would have thought, and they consequently came in for fierce criticism from audience-members. In fact, the problematic arose in far more interesting terms in an overlooked Monday-morning panel featuring Edugyan, Higginson, and the Malaysian-born novelist Tan Twan Eng, whose exquisitely understated The Garden of Evening Mists has been short-listed for this year's Booker Prize, and which concerns the efforts of the gardener Aritomo to shape and preserve an integral garden-space in the context of the Malaysian civil war. As Higginson pointed out, each of the novelists attempts in their book to suggest or mime in the language of prose an alternate aesthetic medium, respectively landscape portraiture, Jazz music and the high feudal art of gardening, which is then held out as at once resistance to and purchase on the surrounding convulsions of political history, the rise of Nazism in Edugyan's novel, militant Imperialism and the Boer War in Higginson's powerfully detached and haunting The Landscape Painter.
The Open Book festival, beside further hosting a congregation of francophone writers and events under the collective heading of Etonnants Voyageurs, a panel devoted to the annual Caine Prize for African writing, and sponsoring a sequence of accessible lectures and interactive sessions in its dedicated youth and schools programme, also provided the frame for the ceremonial launch of a range of book-titles, including recent novels by André Brink and Etienne van Heerden, new works by Awerbuck, Coovadia, Allan Kolski Horwitz and Eric Myeni, the surprisingly successful translation of Homer's Iliad into an accessible South African vernacular by emeritus UCT classics professor Richard Whitaker, Xolela Mangcu's long-awaited, though remarkably shoddily-packaged, biography of Steve Biko, the debut collection of social reflections by McKaiser, and selected current-affairs orientated titles that fall into the publishing bracket I have personally nicknamed "Achtung! Mangaung!"
In terms of the festival's Growing Libraries project, festival-goers were cordially invited at the end of each session to purchase pre-selected school books, and to donate these to the designated institution, this year the Parkhurst Primary School in Mitchell's Plain, by placing the books in a specially-designated trunk, a perhaps obligatory but nonetheless productive social gesture. Usefully, this trunk was placed in close proximity to the hosting Fugard Theatre's generously-stocked bar-facilities, which was a further humane touch, and which enlivened the festival's amicable social ambience considerably. In more serious terms, if the Open Book enterprise succeeds in future years to attach this quality and range of participants, and continues to foster conversations and encounters on this intellectual level, it will without question count not merely as the major gathering of literary-types in the country, but also as one of the essential events on the South African cultural calendar. - published September 30.