This weekend was under the sign of cosmopolitan literature.
First of all, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio received the Nobel Prize in literature: ‘author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.’ This was the occasion for me to deepen my acquaintance with Le Clézio’s works. I started reading his first novel, Le Procès-Verbal, for which he obtained at the age of 23 the Renaudot Prize — a prestigious French literary prize, awarded by journalists and critiques.
In Paris, where I currently resides, is organised yearly a literary event called ‘Lire en fête’ or ‘Party for reading’. This was the occasion to attend to two events with a Danish and a Swedish writer, very different the one from the other.
Jan Sonnergård, born 1963, became famous in Denmark with the publication of a short novels collection entitled Radiator published in 1997, to which succeded Sidste Søndag i Oktober (last Sunday in October) in 2000, and Jeg er stadig bange for Caspar Michael Petersen (I am still afraid of Caspar Michael Petersen), 2003. The name ‘Radiator’ was chosen because one of his literature professor declared that it was not possible to imagine ever using this word in a novel. This trilogy describes three classes of people in their meaningless existence in Denmark during the nineties. The language is extremely provoking, as the title ‘Radiator’ was meant to be. The first short novel Jan read, from Radiator, is written in a language close to a techno beat, and was uttered just as fast by a reader wearing an agressive blue and red Spiderman shirt. A group of young underprivileged have decided it was ‘payback time’ as they are going to loot a discount supermarket of its best products, and walk a rampage tour in an aggressive and nihilist cynicism, attacking anyone on the way. Another one told the story of a middle-class couple, leaving the most hypocritical life in their knowledge of the wife’s affairs with other men. The last one, told the story of a young drug addict from the upper class. These short-novels represent for me exactly the Copenhagen I experienced during my years 2001-2006, as I read his short-novels at this time, and as I was experiencing a different kind of life in Copenhagen.
Jan read three short novels, cut with jazz music interpreted by a trio tenor sax, bass, guitar led by the Danish saxophonist Martin Jacobsen. They were soothing the harsh tone of Jan’s stories, perhaps to remind of the higher value, the ideal of perfection that humankind is also capable of aspiring to in its unquenchable thirst for eternity.
Jonas Hassen Khemiri, born 1978 in Sweden, is a writer of Tunisian descent who explores the relation of language and power, and questions identity through language-plays in his two novels. He was in Paris to present and talk about his last novel recently translated into French. French was for him a ‘family language’, to which he declares having a vocabulary related to those things. Still, he displayed a good command of the language and was able to introduce to the audience a very vivid understanding of his world views in the novel Montecore-En unik tiger (Montecore: a unique Tiger), which won the Swedish P O Enquist literary Prize in 2006. It is not possible to translate such a book, and especially in French, since French is part of the book in Swedish. In the French translation, Lucile Clauss and Max Stadler decided to imagine a different character than the Swedish one, more accessible to French readers, by transforming him into a Tunisian man whose use of French is transformed into a reverence to what is perceived as high culture, and hence using formal language.
It is possible to read an interesting Chat in Le Monde with Jonas, in which he explains his relation to language and identity.
I have thought a lot on identity, language, globalisation and cosmopolitanism this weekend, from a literary perspective. Every language is tightly related to a country, or a society more specifically, and at the same time, it is completely autonomous of it. Jan used today’s street language to describe in the same violent and aggressive way some of today’s capitalist conditions. The focus is very tight, and the limits set to today’s Copenhagen. How to translate such conditions and languages? In French the academy is still impregnating minds with an idea of extreme reverence to French. To the point that in such a way, French is a dead language. French writers are also respecting the language very much. Jonas is inventing expressions creating verbs from words, imagining a new language to stick to a character who is a writer born in Sweden, but from a Tunisian father speaking French, and of course globe trotter in the world where English is the new lingua franca.
Language seems to be the country for Le Clézio, in all his travels, and also for Jonas, who is extending the limits of language beyond the borders. Jan, in a different way, limits even more the language to fake internal limits, in order to better denounce them in a violent super-realism. Still, it is very difficult to find proper ways to communicate such new ways, since translations work inside the nationalist paradigm, and intend to interpret for a supposed “national” audience, pieces of work which are transnational, supranationa, or infranational. The solution would be the creation of a succesful literary theory to transcend these problems. A cosmopolitan literary theory?