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Literature, Nature & Thermal Spas

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Leukerbad Literature Festival, by Donal McLaughlin


The sixteenth International Literature Festival in Leukerbad took place on what, for me, was my final weekend at Translation House Looren, aka heaven on earth for literary translators: perfect working conditions, the tranquillity of the setting, great conversations with staff and fellow translators. For four weeks, Zurich had (mostly) failed to lure me away. Leukerbad, or Loèche les Bains – 1411m above sea-level in Valais, south-west Switzerland – succeeded, though. Leukerbad lured me away.
 
© Beat Schweizer
The Literary Evening in the ‘new swimming pool’
 
Arriving via Visp and Leuk, even regular visitors are stunned each year by what James Baldwin called an 'absolutely forbidding' landscape; the sheer verticals that surround this mountain village. Part of the charm of the festival is its ability to combine international writing – in the form of readings, interviews, workshops, and literary walks – with an eclectic mix of venues: the Dala Gorge; the former railway station; the gardens of plush hotels; the restaurant at the top of the Gemmi (2322m); and the thermal baths. This time, a permit had been denied for the former swimming pool. Would Saturday's Literarischer Abend be the same without the cafe-style set-up in what was once the pool itself? Bad Rehazentrum Leukerbad, built in the 1950s and now a listed building, proved the perfect substitute.
 
This year, co-directors Hans Ruprecht and Anna Kulp had invited twenty-three authors from Austria, Belarus, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Russia, the UK, the Ukraine – and, of course, Switzerland. Most congregated on the Thursday evening in the Rinderhütte, a 'Panoramarestaurant' on the Torrent (2350m) to enjoy views of twenty 4000m peaks in the Valais Alps and Rhône Valley; a dramatic thunderstorm; much talk of books; and the best raclette in the world. We took the cable-car back down late evening, and 'work' would begin the next day.
 
© Beat Schweizer
Peter Stamm reads on the Alpina Terrasse
 
 
Poet Rolf Hermann led the two-hour walk through the Dala Gorge on Friday morning. A guide from Leukerbad Tourismus explained the various springs en route, while – when there was space to gather round – Rolf entertained with various performance pieces. The walk ended at Hotel Regina Therme, in time for Peter Stamm to read two of the stories in his latest collection, Seerücken.
 
An important feature of the festival is that invited authors read at least twice, sometimes with a separate 'in conversation' event, thus allowing readers to negotiate clashes. Just as well for this visitor, too – as I learned of a Swiss novel I am to translate just as short story writer Anna Weidenholzer, Leipzig Book Prize winner Clemens Setz, and Belarusian poet Valžhyna Mort were next up. The news had to be celebrated. With the author.
 
Rolf Hermann was back, late afternoon: first, as part of a session devoted to Lyrik; then, assisted by Walter König and Alexander Tschernek, with a stunning account - including audio and film footage – of black author James Baldwin's visits to Leukerbad in the 1950s. A meal followed, with Pro Helvetia representatives and their 'cultural mediator' guests; before the surprise of what was soon being labelled the 'new swimming pool' – and stand-out readings by German and Swiss Book Prize winner Melinda Nadj Abonji, supported by musician Balts Nill; Ukrainian novelist Oksana Sabuschko; and German author Katja Lange-Müller. At midnight, up the Gemmi, TV presenter Monika Schärer and publisher Gerd Haffmans presented translations of Samuel Pepys.
 
Saturday began with the focus on a translation workshop, conducted during the week in nearby Leuk, where Abonji had worked closely with translators (or potential translators) of Tauben fliegen auf, courtesy of the LCB and Pro Helvetia. Jürgen Becker chaired with customary aplomb as the Swedish, French, Romanian, American, Slovene and Serbo-Croat translators aired the challenges involved, before reading versions of that great passage in which the immigrant family plays Monopoly. The Swiss version of that board game counted amongst the translators' first 'difficulties'.
 
Saturday afternoon offered chances to catch up with Sabuschko, Setz, and Lange-Müller. And a first chance to hear Michail Schischkin, a Zürich-based author, writing in Russian, whose Venushaar makes brilliant use of Schischkin's experience as an interpreter for asylum-seekers in Switzerland. Even better, for me, was a last-minute, stop-gap event: Katharina Narbutovic in conversation with Swiss novelist Urs Mannhart (recently returned from Finland and Minsk) and Belarusian poet, Valžhyna Mort. Narbutovic, who chaired, interpreted, and read her own translations of Mort, was nothing short of sensational.
 
And so to the traditional 'Long Literary Evening', the programme for which becomes available on the day: three 15-minute readings per hour, from eight till late. It isn't meant to be a contest, but this particular cross-section of the festival demonstrated the strengths of that generation of Swiss writers still under fifty. Melinda Nadj Abonji (again with Balts Nill and his tins and plastic bottles), Pedro Lenz (Das Kleine Lexikon der Provinzliteratur) and Christoph Simon (Spaziergänger Zbinden) raised the bar – and the roof – when it came to performance.
 
Sunday morning, traditionally, is time to get your bathing cossie out. This year, Nina Maria Marewski read at the Roman-Irish bath. A trio of prose readings – Weidenholzer, Simon and Schischkin – then concluded the festival, and Schischkin's take on asylum-seekers' interviews with immigration officers provided a sobering counterpoint to the pleasures of literature, mountain landscapes, and hot springs.
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Donal McLaughlin 
will feature as both author and translator in Best European Fiction 2012 (Dalkey Archive Press). He will also accompany Swiss writer Urs Widmer on a reading tour of India in January.
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