Preview: Prague Writers' Festival
Nobel Prize-winner Pamuk guest at writers' fest "damaged" by drastic funding cut
Posted: April 17, 2013
Orhan Pamuk, courted for a long time by the festival organizers, will appear at this year's PWF.
In what may very well be the final edition of its long, successful existence, the Prague Writers' Festival is bringing 2006 Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk to the Czech capital for a reading, a book-signing appearance and a discussion at the mayor's residence.
The 60-year-old author of The Black Book, My Name is Red, Snow and The Museum of Innocence is also widely known as a vociferous activist for freedom of speech in his native Turkey, especially regarding the mass killings of Armenians and Kurds under the Ottoman Empire. As a result of comments he made, his books were burned by nationalists, and he was put on trial for "insulting the honor of the Republic." Perhaps ironically, with more than 11 million books sold in some 60 languages, Pamuk is his country's best-selling writer. The charges were ultimately dismissed.
According to the festival's deputy director, Guillaume Basset, it took five years of negotiations to have Pamuk agree to be part of this year's program.
"We first invited him in 2008," he says. "But he was busy. He teaches, and he'd recently won the Nobel Prize. And many writers, especially novelists, often say they can't come because they are writing. But usually it doesn't take longer than two years to convince them to come."
When: April 17-19, various times
Where: Various venues
Tickets: 60-300 Kč
Basset says it was thanks to the festival's excellent reputation among writers who'd taken part previously that Pamuk finally agreed.
"A month ago, his agent called to say that Pamuk had heard good things about the festival and wanted to come. This has happened before. For example, [American novelist] E.L. Doctorow also came because he'd heard from writers that our festival was a good event."
The writers the festival has brought to Prague over its 23-year existence comprise a virtual Who's Who of world literature, and include nine Nobel Prize winners, such as Nadine Gordimer, Derek Walcott, Gao Xingjian, Harold Pinter and, now, Pamuk.
In addition to the Turkish novelist, other festival invitees this year include Czech novelist and screenwriter Vladimír Körner, Egyptian author Sonallah Ibrahim, the exiled Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, and novelist and journalist Miguel Sousa Tavares of Portugal.
This year's Prague Writers' Festival is significantly smaller, both in terms of time and number of invitees, than previous editions. This is the result of a massive cut in the funding provided by the City of Prague, from last year's 3.5 million Kč ($176,000) to 300,000 Kč - a reduction of more than 90 percent. Basset says this may eventually mean the end of the festival.
"Usually we have 12 writers; this year we have five," he says. "We don't know how the festival will maintain itself next year. This was almost a lethal blow."
He goes on to list the expenses the festival's budget must cover: travel for the invitees as well as a small honorarium for their appearance, simultaneous translations for writers who don't speak Czech and for the Czech listeners, publicity, fees for the use of the venues and salaries of the festival staff, among other costs. Basset says without funding from the Culture Ministry, this year's festival would almost certainly not have taken place.
He complains that the reasoning for the cut in the city's subsidy made no sense and may have been partly due to the fact that this year, for the first time, the Prague City Council created a Grant Committee to oversee cultural funding, in the stated interest of transparency.
Basset provided a translated transcript of comments by the committee's chairman, Jiří Liška, taken from the minutes of the City Council meeting, in which he justifies the funding cut as follows: "The [Writers'] Festival has virtually no impact on the city of Prague. The reasoning that there are almost 400 students in the auditorium who listen to a writer imported from abroad may be seen as good, but some publishing houses and other subjects see this in a negative way."
"This is ignorant and provincial," Basset fumes. "He has obviously never been to the festival. We have ambassadors who come, writers, editors, translators, politicians - and, of course, students. And Czech people come to hear world literature."
Basset also cannot understand the reference to "publishing houses" that, Liška hinted, are hostile to the festival.
"We've always worked well with Czech publishers, such as Argo and Odeon," he says.
In fact, the festival has in the past arranged with local publishers to publish the first Czech translations of several important foreign writers, such as Nobelists Derek Walcott and Herta Müller.
"We don't really know what's going on," Basset says. "We have been badly damaged. Our festival is one of the oldest and most successful in Europe. And the irony is that we supported Prague in its bid to become a UNESCO Creative City of Literature."
According to UNESCO, to receive the designation a city must have "experience in hosting literary events and festivals aiming at promoting domestic and foreign literature" and must be an "urban environment in which literature, drama and/or poetry play an integral role."
And yet, Basset says, this year the city has allocated only 2.5 percent of its cultural budget for literature.
"Every year we have brought world literature to the Czech people," he says. "If we don't survive, how are they going to hear it?"
Siegfried Mortkowitz can be reached at
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