Jon Gower reflects on the European Festival of the Short Story and argues the form should garner more recognition on this side of the Atlantic.
It is all too easy to envy the reception of the short story outside these shores. In the United States the form is feted, widely published, and, hell’s teeth, actually read by folk. It’s so unlike the UK, where, apart from some big names – say Ali Smith, Jon McGregor and Colm Tobin – the short story rather gets short shrift.
So it was downright fascinating to attend the European Festival of the Short Story in Croatia, staffed by some of the most enthusiastic volunteers you’ll find anywhere. Now in its 12th year, the 2013 edition of the festival had Wales as its partner or featured country, so four or us – Deborah Kay Davies, Rachel Trezise, Owen Martell and myself travelled to Zagreb, joining practitioners from Iraq, Lebanon, England, Canada and, of course Croatia itself.The Welsh contingent you’ll know from their books, but as travelling companions they’re peerless, ensuring a good laugh wherever we went.
After a few days of readings and discussions in the capital we decamped to Varaždin, a preserved, baroque gem set in rolling green countryside, so it was a festival on two very different sites. Here we were hosted by Denis Peričić, a local writer and sometime collaborator with Nick Cave, who really knows how to entertain people with, or over a liquid lunch. His kindness, and that of his wife, was typical of all of the other folk – many of them students of comparative literature – who looked after the visiting writers.
The most striking thing about the festival – other than its irrepressible organiser Roman Simić, whose enthusiasm floods through his on stage questioning, where there are always three questions rolled into one – was the primacy of the word. Where many literary festivals dwell on the writer and tend to keep readings short this festival is all about the stories themselves.In the events you are encouraged to read entire stories, with newly commissioned translations into Croatian or English, or both being projected onto big screens so that the audiemce can read along, as it were.
This form of communal reading has its interesting peculiarities, not least the delays in the audience reacting to any gags in your work, while it also shows up the differences between the speed at which a language is read aloud and read on the page.This was most interestingly the case when Hassan X, a fantastic Iraqi writer, now living in Finland read his work.Hassan may be a fast reader, anyway, but the Arabic moved along at a clip, leaving the audience to catch up over the course of a couple of silently projected pages at their own leisure, as the author sat there, smiling, seemingly listening to them read.
But there was another salutary difference between this and other festivals too, a well, entirely OTT response from the audience, especially at the student centre in Zagreb, where, each night it was standing room only for reading sessions which lasted for up to three hours.Punters sat on the floor, crammed into corners, with everybody, and I mean everybody, sipping cold beers.Readers were greeted with hearty and animated cheers, and you might have been forgiven for thinking that you were in a rock venue rather than a short story festival.
One should salute the translators, working in a large range of languages, from the aforementioned Arabic through Spanish, and from Croatian into English. I know that one of my own stories, ‘The Pit’, which references a great many south Walian mining terms would not be easy to render into another language.
These translations offered us a chance to read many writers whose work would have previously been unknown to us.The Barcelona-based David Roas’s story ‘Das Kapital’ was a technical master class in how to pack the import and impact of a short story into the last few lines, or, in this case into the last few words, causing a quiet revolution in the reader.I was completely bowled over by the bloody, and bloody funny, stories of Hassan Blasim, and as so often happens he turned out to be an excellent fellow, full of life and vim.And there were so many other writers and their work to encounter and delight in.Adam Marek was certainly one, a short story specialist from Bedfordshire, whose work has been under my radar (although the shortlisting of his latest collection, The Stone Thrower, should help gain him some much deserved and wider recognition.)
This is an empowering festival for any short story practitioner, as audience members talk to you afterwards about the finer points of your story, or where the applause resounds not for the words but the wordsmiths.It is also a fabulous advert for Croatian hospitality, which flows readily, like beer, so perfect for ensuring a liquid and sustained exchange of writerly ideas.
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Jon Gower is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.