Far from deterring visitors, this year’s focus on world literature will make it a book festival to remember
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Nick Barley’s tenure as director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival is that he has introduced new elements every year; from the Unbound events in the Speigeltent, bringing a more cabaret atmosphere to the sometimes douce Charlotte Square, to Stripped! for graphic novel enthusiasts, and a revisiting of the 1962 Writers’ Conference; and from guest selectors to the dramatised reading of Alasdair Gray’s take on Faust and the collaborative Letters Home drama.
Last year, two things in particular stood out. Inevitably, with the referendum less than a month away, many of the non-fiction events were concerned with Scotland’s future. The festival also welcomed two publishing titans in the forms of George RR Martin and Diana Gabaldon, both writers in the fantasy genre, not, in itself, a form which has always found a comfortable home at the festival.
Against such a background I was more than curious as to what 2015 would bring. Barley has taken the exceptionally brave step of concentrating on world literature, global issues and works in translation. This is brave – maybe even rash – as the UK’s record in supporting foreign literature (Scandinavian crime novels aside) is both risible and miserable. According to the much quoted statistic, 3% of books published in the UK are translations, as compared with 14% in Germany, 27% in France and 40% in Turkey. So this year has Innu poets, Mexican artists, Greek graphic novels, Chinese human rights activists, North Korean defectors and authors from another 50 countries. The question is, will the audience come with the programmers?
I would hope so. The book festival’s brand is sufficiently strong that visitors tend to risk trying out unknown authors. Indeed, many of the most memorable events I have attended or chaired have been with less well-known authors: Miguel Syjuco, Enrique Vila-Matas, Bernardo Atxaga, Xiaolu Guo.
The popular Reading Workshops also have the same focus, with events looking at Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Simenon’s Maigret books and the recent International Man Booker winner, László Krasznahorkai. As well as translation duels, this represents a major commitment to the often overlooked “International” part of the festival’s very title.
But all those good intentions count for very little when weighed against a more important reason for being invited: the calibre of the work. One of the events I am looking forward to most is Allan Little, the new chair of the festival, interviewing the Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon. Hemon, who was memorably described by the critic James Wood as a postmodernist who got mugged by history, is the author of The Lazarus Project and an incredibly affecting memoir, The Book Of My Lives; he will be launching his new novel, The Making Of Zombie Wars. Hemon has been compared to Nabokov, and it’s a judicious comparison.
Likewise, Timur Vermes has produced one of the most audacious novels I’ve recently read; Look Who’s Back. In it, a man wakes up in a Berlin park in the 21st century. His last memories are of the Soviets drawing near to his bunker. Yes, it really is Hitler; whom everyone thinks is either a method-acting comedian who never breaks character or a conceptual artist. His speeches are soon a YouTube sensation – a technological phenomenon he refers to as U-Tube. It is hilarious, and asks some very profound questions about free speech and the legacy of the war.
Carlos Gamerro appeared in 2012, and is back as part of Charlotte Higgins’ curated strand, Gods And Monsters. He will also be talking about his new book, The Adventures Of The Busts Of Eva Peron. Finally Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen is a starkly mythic novel about contemporary Nigerian, interweaving personal tragedy with cosmic resonance.
It seems fitting that many of the English language writers appearing share a similarly avant-garde attitude to those in translation. David Mitchell, Scarlett Thomas, Ryan Gattis, Nell Zink, Tom McCarthy, Sara Baume, Richard Beard and Emily St John Mandel (who wrote Station Eleven, George RR Martin’s favourite novel of last year) are, in different ways, showing how adaptive and flexible the novel form can be. It feels, in some ways, almost like the first inklings of what the early 21st century canon is going to look like.
A major theme of the non-fiction part of the programme reflects on displacement and crossing borders; the ways that stories link people to their pasts and help navigate towards their futures. It is a pleasure to see Irving Finkel return to discuss the oldest stories of them all, the Mesopotamian clay tablets that give us the first journeys, politics and confrontations with the inevitability of death.
Tying together the internationalist theme to that of human rights and the changing nature of the Middle East is a clever way of constellating the events. Ziauddin Sardar on Mecca and ACS Peacock on the Seljuk empire look particularly intriguing in this regard. Another strand looks at health and mental health; again issues which resonate with the other themes: Suzanne O’Sullivan’s book on psychosomatic illness, Gavin Francis on the human body and Ray Tallis on the corpse all promise to be enlightening.
Along with talks by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst on Lewis Carroll, Bernard O’Donoghue on Chaucer, Robert Crawford on TS Eliot, Ruth Scurr on John Aubrey and JO Morgan’s stunning version of The Battle Of Maldon, this looks as if it will be the most literary book festival for some time.
The Edinburgh International Book Festival runs from 15-31 August.
For more information, or to book tickets, visit www.edbookfest.co.uk
Main image: Ian Rutherford