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03 April 2008


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John Simmons

Sacred Land
Free the Word kicked off last night. I went to the Sacred Land talk where Ngugi wa Thiongo and Alexis Wright were the readers and speakers. To be honest, the event didn't reach the heights, though you came away with the impression that these were fine writers. But everyone seemed underprepared and bland. It was just a little too low key and didn't spark into life.

This impression was corrected straight afterwards at the reception. Switching from the Purcell Room to the National Theatre Terrace Bar (great venues both) here was a chance to celebrate literature and the word. Ngugi, freed from the need to be 'public', gave a great speech of thanks with a memorable anecdote about seeing and hearing Pablo Neruda at a PEN event in the US many years ago. Ngugi talked about Neruda's "mesmerising power of delivery" - "I understand not a word of Spanish".

Other good quotations - "Art transforms and makes us view what we would naturally pass by", "Evoke the sense of wonder - it's the beginning of knowledge", "the only thing you can't take from us are words".

Here were authors I would not normally encounter, from countries, languages and cultures I might not come across. But that's my failing. I thought about Ngugi's encounter with Neruda, not understanding Spanish but enriched by the experience. What creates that? It's not really the sound of the words, although I'm sure the sound of Neruda reading was wonderful. It's the conviction behind them, the sense that this writer has a direct channel to some kind of truth that transcends even language. As Ngugi quoted from St John: "In the beginning was the word...And the word was made flesh." Through the word made flesh we feel the sacredness of life.

john simmons

Found in translation
Two wonderful readings on Saturday afternoon made an uplifting change from my usual Saturday torture of watching football. First Yang Lian reading his poetry and talking to the Chinese Tze Ming Mok from New Zealand. The basic idea was lovely. Yang Lian read one of his poems (about Stoke Newington!) in Chinese; then a reading of a literal translation by Jacob Edmond; then a version by Tze Ming Mok (she 'half speaks Chinese')in English; then a translation by Yang of the previous version into Chinese; then a final version by Jacob into English. Confused? It was fascinating Chinese whispers, somehow appropriate for a writer-in-exile like Yang. He suggested that the best way of reading is by translating and I think he's right - it's what we do most of the time with business writing. It's only when we've written that description of the annual results that we understand what the original said.

Then Sjon, the Icelandic novelist and Bjorn collaborator, in discussion with Victoria Cribb, his translator. Sjon, looking wonderfully nerdy, was as deadpan as it's possible to be and very funny. Having tried, as an experiment, to write the most Icelandic book ever, he was surprised when The Blue Fox became an international success, translated into 20 languages. Interesting facts emerged: the fox is the biggest land mammal native to Iceland apart from the human. How about this for a first line of a chapter: "The night was cold and of the longer variety". A structure to the novel of four chapters: white, dark, white, dark.

A lot to think about, a lot to enjoy. "In small countries we learn about the world from the stories of the rest of the world." The bigger the country the less able it seems to be, or less willing, to learn about the world from the stories elsewhere in the world.

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