Munich Spring Book Fair: Gastland Kanada

Posted on December 12, 2008 by Peter Stenberg: Dept. of Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies, UBC

For 10 days between February 27 and March 8, 2008, Munich became the centre of Canadian literature, film, music and dance. Munich, the second largest publishing centre in the world, after only New York, devoted its biannual spring book fair to the literature and culture of Canada. Its curator, Thomas Kraft, was a recent visiting writer at the Department of Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies at the University of British Columbia. He invited Canadian authors, academics, and dancers to meet, mingle, read, discuss, lecture, eat and drink together in a wide variety of venues, ranging from the monumental Gasteig cultural centre and the nearby popular event site, the Muffathalle, through the Munich Film Museum and the neighbouring new Jewish Community Centre on Jakobsplatz to various book stores throughout Germany’s most engaging city. Several authors also did additional readings at Munich schools.

Dr. Kraft gathered together twenty-four Canadian writers, a dance troupe from Quebec, and three Canadian academics, Peter Stenberg and Ira Nadel from UBC, speaking respectively on John Huston’s film version of Under the Volcano and the life of Leonard Cohen, and translator Gerald Chapple from McMaster. Taken as a whole this event brought about a memorable presence in Canadian literature’s most important foreign-language market, Germany, as well as in the always vibrant literary scene of Munich. Each reading was introduced by a German moderator, fluent in English or French, and accompanied by a German reader drawn from the large group of actors in the Munich theaters.

Dr. Kraft’s decision to present the Bavarian public with a combination of authors representing the established and flourishing base of contemporary Canadian writing in Europe alongside the next wave of authors, paid dividends. The list of invited authors included figures well-known on the German literary scene: David Albahari, William Gibson, M.G. Vassanji, Anne-Marie MacDonald, Peter Robinson, Rudy Wiebe, and keynote speaker Alasdair MacLeod, whose oracular reading resonated powerfully in the translation delivered by the splendid German actor Jörg Hube. While these were familiar names to most in the audience, it was clearly a surprise for many of them to discover that all of them were Canadian. This was particularly true of science-fiction guru Gibson and crime novel specialist Robinson, who were assumed to be American and British, and of Albahari, who has lived in Calgary for fifteen years, but who most Germans understood to be a premier “European” novelist, whose works are all translated from Serbian into German before they are into English. A trilingual Serbian evening, shared with Vladimir Tasic, a mathematics professor at the University of New Brunswick, whose Serbian-written novel, Farewell Present, is available in German but not in English, drew an overflow audience in a city in which many refugees from the Balkans live.

Of course, Dr. Kraft’s selection was also carefully designed to draw attention to the recent publications of Canadian writers who are currently making their presence felt on the crowded German literary stage: Peter Behrens, David Bezmozgis, Giles Blunt, Joseph Boyden, Dionne Brand, Bernadette Calonego (who has just published a novel about British Columbia in German), Allan Stratton, Vladmir Tasic, Drew Hayden Taylor, Madeleine Thien, and Miriam Toews and non-fiction authors Misha Aster and Heather Pringle; Ying Chen, Diane-Monique Daviau and Nicholas Dickner made up the French-language contingent. The programme also included evenings devoted to Leonard Cohen, Glenn Gould, and Mordecai Richler. The Cohen evening featured Giles Blunt engagingly playing and singing Cohen songs, and the Quebeckers speaking about the influence of Cohen on their own writing. In addition there was a Canadian film series in the Munich Film Museum, (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Away from Her and Huston’s Under the Volcano) a Quebec dance festival, and a televised podium discussion on potential ways of improving Bavarian-Canadian cultural relations.

Many observers felt that this was the most significant event that focused specifically on Canadian literature ever held in continental Europe.

Dr. Kraft could also be more than satisfied with the multicultural nature of the group that he invited, something he felt was crucial to put across the feel of the Canada that he himself had experienced during his several visits. Of the invited participants, two were born in Yugoslavia, (Kosovo and Serbia), at least four in the United States, and one each in Latvia, Trinidad, Switzerland, China and Kenya. This does not even include Sri-Lankan born Michael Ondaatje who had appeared as an appetizer before the festival officially opened, nor German-born army brat Anne-Marie MacDonald.

In conjunction with the live events of the festival, the Münchner Kulturreferat (Munich Cultural Branch) also published a Reader (as it was called in German), edited by Dr. Kraft, that was available at no cost across the city and at all readings, and was designed to provide an introduction to the central interests and themes of Canadian literature and its authors. This 125-page anthology contains 24 essays, 10 by authors who took part in the conference and 14 by German academic specialists of Canadian literature. Using the motto of the entire conference as its title, Literatur baut Brücken (Literature Builds Bridges), the collection offers many insights from both a Canadian and German perspective on wide-ranging themes of interest to Canadian literature.  For most Canadian readers, however, there is an obstacle to gaining access to the information in this booklet as it is, of course, entirely in German, even those contributions from Canada that were originally written in English or French.