The Dutch fortress of Galle was a bulwark of colonialism, keeping ‘backward’ locals out with the might of its guns. Today, it has a poly-cultural air with a distinctly British expatriate top layer. As such, it’s a fitting venue for the Galle Literary Festival, a rolling stone which gathers no cultural moss, its own self-importance somehow dwarfed by the country’s general indifference to the arts. Literature is a very distant poor cousin when the extended Sri Lankan family goes marketing. The festival has its foibles, high moments, and an amazing ability to survive in a time warp.
Some of the venues, expatriate-owned, are examples of how a little foreign blood can rejuvenate crumbling relics of colonial architecture which someone, in a moment of confusion perhaps, labelled ‘heritage’ long ago. Together with much else that is heritage in this country, these derelict buildings crumbled and gathered tons of moss until these modern avatars of the old colonial energy came to their rescue, turning former offices, barracks and stores into hotels and residences. Outside, locals are still persona non grata, hulking near their three-wheelers in an unofficial quarantine. This modern, more democratic façade, instead of blurring the old colonial and feudal pecking order, has merely given the whole thing a more vicious free market form. The pricing of books at the Sansoni warehouse certainly reflected this truth, with some slim paperbacks (Less than 200 pages and in cheap print) priced at Rs. 1600! None of the books were price marked according to their local prices.
One had to ask the man with a calculator, and absorb the shock nonchalantly unless the buyer arrived in Galle in a yacht. The Galle Literary Festival, with its glitter, literati, cuisine and chamber music, offered an effective reality check to anyone looking for one under the sweltering sun. Or it offered a great escape into literary magic, poetry of circumspection and food for thought as well the churning mill of the stomach. The highlight on Saturday seemed to be a literary lunch with best-selling British author Sebastian Faulks at a rejuvenated colonial setting. Faulks spoke for fifteen minutes to a captive audience seated at three tables about how he was invited to write a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming’s family. A former cricketer, he said while rambling on how he was introduced to Ian Fleming’s novels by an Indian cricketer at a bowling school.
He went on to analyse the pros and cons of both James Bond and his creator, noting that Bond is a crime buster rather than a spy, and wondering why Ian Fleming never set any of his novels in the Middle East, or in Iran under Shah Reza Pehlavi, a wonderfully apt setting for cold war intrigue. Both Bond and his creator were lucky. The film series became an international franchise. As Faulks noted, Bond wears a thin shirt with a thin tie and carries an Italian Beretta, a ladies’ gun. This was later up gunned to a more manly, menacing Walther P38. You wonder if any of the women who shared his bed noted the difference, or cared. Another interesting point not raised by Faulks: Would anyone except researchers into crime fiction remember James Bond today if the film franchise hadn’t come along? Anyone below forty knows or remembers the Saint? Or the man from U.N.C.L.E? Or even Perry Mason, for that matter? Sebastian Faulks’ audience consisted mostly of expatriates. As for the local segment,
I couldn’t help wondering why I hadn’t seen any of them at any Colombo literary event such as poetry or book reading. Is it because such events are by definition humbler, hence free of charge? I still haven’t recovered from seeing a largely empty auditorium at the Goethe Institute last month when Sri Lankan poets Ariyawansa Ranaweera and Somasunderampillai Pathmanathan read their poetry together with visiting German poet Barbara Kohler. True love of literature, it would seem, is best generated when it costs a lot of money. That Ranaweera and Pathmanathan (Who write in Sinhala and Tamil respectively) are included in this year’s festival list, one suspects, is thanks to the efforts of the Goethe Institute who included them in their marathon ‘Poets Translating Poets’ project connecting 48 poets across two continents. The first afternoon session, was at the fort’s maritime museum. A sizeable crowd, both Lankan and foreign, was there to hear German crime writer Andrea Maria Shenkel talking to journalist Smithri Daniels.
I had spoken to her earlier in the day; apart from her writing, we discussed what life is like for authors in Germany. Shenkel, growing up amidst post-war difficulties in West Germany, worked for the postal service before she started teaching at the postal school. She was already thirty when she wrote her first book ‘Murder Farm’ which became a best-seller, was made into a film and got translated into more than 20 languages. Shenkel insists that she’s not a thriller writer. Her books are not the conventional Whodunits. ‘Murder Farm’ is narrated in the first person and the third person by a number of people. It’s a literary technique used by distinguished writers such as William Faulkner. His ‘As I Lay Dying’ uses a similar narrative style and interestingly, was the Nobel Prize winner who came closest to writing a thriller. Shenkel has written five books, and is currently working on a sixth. They belong to the roman noir genre. She has not invented a detective, and bases her work on actual crime stories. In Ice Cold, she set the story in prewar Germany as she believed the murderer should be executed for his crimes.
The author is an opponent of the death penalty (No longer practised in Germany) but her emotional perspective on the actual crimes committed and intense emotional reaction prompted this creative desire to see the fictional executioner undergo the emotional trauma of facing the reality of his legal execution. As housewife and mother as well as being an author, Shenke has little time for reading, and insists that thrillers are not high on her reading list, in any case. Writers in any country, even commercially successful ones, must keep writing to survive. In Germany, no more than 5% of writers can be called full-time authors. The rest must work at other jobs. But, compared with much of the developed world, under serious threat now from Amazon.com, Germany is a healthy place for writers. While it is no longer possible for a writer to directly offer a book to a publisher in the UK and the U.S. without the help of a literary agent, a German writer can directly submit his work to a publisher. German writers benefit too, from paid book readings, which are very popular. They get paid for the readings as well as travelling. Amazon has not been able to make serious inroads into the German publishing industry and book market because of the strong relationship which exists between book publishers and bookshops.
In sharp contrast to the rest of Europe and the U.S., small bookshops there are not closing down in droves. One can order a book from any retailer in Germany and expect it delivered the next day, and at no extra cost, which is much faster than Amazon. This situation is a lot healthier for writers and publishers than in the UK, where publishers feel threatened by Amazon, and pass on their losses to writers. As a result, the UK Authors’ Guild recently said in an open letter to publishers that they should offer a fairer share of profits to authors. People at the literary launches in Galle would have been blissfully unaware of what authors have to go through to get published, and then avoid being dropped by publishers. And why should they be concerned? Festivals are a conglomeration of happy hours, where author and fan alike can enter a fairy tale setting of heightened sense and sensibility. Hopefully, somebody will remember to price mark the books next time