Friday, April 13, 2012


National Theater New Stage
April 15 - 18

Witty banter at last year's festival with
 Werner Lambersy, Nedim Gursel and Michel Deguy.

A break from the music scene this week to take note of Pragueʼs premier literary event, the Prague Writersʼ Festival, which opens on Sunday night. This yearʼs theme, “Only the future exists,” raises some provocative social and political questions, with readings and discussions focused on the future of Islam, America and the Czech Republic. And PWF President Michael March has cast those conversations in apocalyptic terms.

The future is being taken away as all the social institutions put in place after World War II are being deconstructed,” he says. “Instead of people feeling positive about the future, thereʼs a tremendous sense of fear and dissatisfaction that has to be explored. Thatʼs the work of poets and novelists.”

Now in its 22nd year, the festival has always been a wide-ranging event, in both content and form. Topical themes and writers who come from all over the world – this year, India, China, Egypt, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, Portugal, Great Britain, the United States and the Czech Republic – generate a lively array of ideas and opinions. And the audience is part of the process, as fans get to meet and talk to the authors at social functions before and after readings and panel discussions. Itʼs a highbrow intellectual gathering without the usual pretense of such affairs, a down-to-earth encounter with big names and universal concerns.

This yearʼs festival has branched out into a number of multimedia events. There are film screenings at the Municipal Library (Saturday at 4:00 & 6:00), a tea ceremony at the New Stage preceding a discussion with Chinese poet Duo Duo (Tuesday at 7:00), and a jazz and poetry night at Prague Crossroads featuring American poet Jerome Rothenberg, Norwegian poet Jan Erik Vold and a jazz trio (Tuesday at 7:00).

There should be plenty of verbal fireworks at the discussions. Rothenberg will be joined by Indian novelist Anita Desai and Turkish essayist Gündüz Vassaf for a consideration of Americaʼs future at the American Center (Wednesday at 5:00). And three highly opinionated authors will wrestle with the future of Islam at the New Stage (Tuesday at 6:00): Egyptian novelist Hamdy El-Gazzar, an eyewitness to the events on Tahrir Square; Spanish exile Juan Goytisolo, who has lived for the past 25 years in Marrakesh; and British playwright and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, whose ethnic roots are in Pakistan.

Kureishi was appalled by Islamic fundamentalism when he visited Pakistan,” March says with a mischievous grin. “We already have 10 ambassadors signed up to attend that discussion.”

The political overtones of the festival reflect Marchʼs approach to literature as a living entity rather than something bound in hardcover or locked in an e-reader. He deliberately seeks out authors who have delved into current events and social issues – dissidents, exiles, provocateurs – and encourages them to speak their minds.

We ask the authors to talk from their own experiences,” he says. “Thatʼs what they bring to the festival – ideas and a vision formed by personal experience that can serve as a guide for the rest of us. They donʼt come to Prague to promote their books and sign contracts. They come to share their experiences, meet their peers, spend a few days absorbing the local culture and take what theyʼve learned back with them.”

Which is not to say that PWF eschews the normal trappings of a literary festival. There are plenty of authorsʼ books on sale, along with book signings after all the readings. Many of the readings and discussions are in English, and those that are not offer simultaneous translation in English and Czech. Best of all, generous funding from the city and private sponsors keeps prices low – except for opening night, no more than 150 Kč for most events, even less for students. And almost all the afternoon events are free.

An international event of this caliber is rare in Prague, a city blessed with stunning architecture and a rich music culture, but too often handicapped by a notorious narrow-mindedness. Itʼs a tribute to March and his team that theyʼve been able to keep the festival not just alive, but flourishing as an annual gathering of first-rate thinkers and stimulating ideas. Open your mind, broaden your horizons and join the conversation.

Photo courtesy of the Prague Writers' Festival

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