PEN's Short Attention-Span Theatre



Originally posted on April 30, 2009 on PEN American Center's blog

What a treat! Tonight Cooper Union was a fully loaded shotgun of global literary voices. It just so happens I am engaged in a year-long project I deem the Non-Western Reading Project in which I attempt to restrict my 2009 fiction reading to, well, non-Western authors and stories. We all have our reading lists, mental or literal, in which we document the authors and books we hope to some day conquer. Tonight, thanks to PEN, I add a few more names to my own catalogue. While the queue was fully stacked, my favorites at the end of the evening include readings by Catalonian Narcís Comadira, Palestinian Raja Shehadeh, Quebécoise Nicole Brossard, and Hungarian Péter Nádas. Might there be a future Nobel laureate amongst this storied (pun intended) group?


The idea was for the nine participants to read their selections in their original languages as the English translation was simultaneously projected on screens behind them. A great concept. I wonder if there is a way to duplicate the process and experience with Amazon's Kindle or similar devices? Listening to the story in its original tongue (and by the author!) as you scroll through the English text is just like reading while listening to pleasant background music; it enhanced the experience for me and I am sure many others in the audience this evening. How enchanting was it to hear the mournful passion of Nádas intensify as he pulled us along in his abridged narrative? Intoxicating, really. It must be noted Cooper Union wasn't the best choice for this type of event. With support columns towering amongst the seats many in the audience discovered, once they realized they had obscured views of the screens, that they had sat behind the tall guy who won't take his hat off in the theater. Surely a number of attendees had their experience dampened by such an inconvenience (indeed, the couple in front of me read along with Comadira on a printed version of his poem rather than following the screen). Likewise, it took some time for the projectionist (and I) to get a feel for the workings of the simultaneous sensory (aural and visual) projections. At times I wondered if I were reading faster or slower than the author was speaking, seeking key words to orient myself along with the presentation. Projectionists from time to time also had to speed up or slow down the text accordingly, which was a bit disorienting. Still, these hiccups were not enough to deter from such a unique experience. Once things got rolling they really got rolling. Authors wasted no time in succeeding each other to the podium. I wouldn't have been surprised to see them pass a relay baton between them as they crossed on the stage. Thirty minutes in and I felt like I was channel-surfing through PEN's Short-Attention Span Theater.


Not only did we transcend borders (and hemispheres) at a rapid pace, the subject matter pinballed from one random topic to another so quickly I scarcely had time to process what had just been read. To wit: in just one quick back-to-back-to-back exchange the audience was romanced with a colorful portrayal of a widow concierge in Paris (Barbery), then a graphic depiction of Ivan Turgenev's cadaver (Ramírez), followed by musings on watching the televised executions of Romanian president Ceausescu and his wife (Nádas). Head spinning! Highlights for me included: - Comadira's reading of "Triumph of Life" was a poetic repast and a gentle, rhythmic reminder that I, who dabbles in poetry from time to time, am immature and inadequate in my own lyric endeavors. Phenomenal! - Shehadeh's line from his book Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape in which a Shehadeh recounts a stroll through a valley and a confrontation with an armed, pot smoking Israeli soldier: "This beautiful day and your gun don't go together." To which the soldier replies, "I know, but I have to." - Brossard appears to be a bit of an envelope pusher, and I dig it. She shared three poems each dedicated of the letters L, P, and J (the latter delivered without translation!) "because we need letters to write and to read." Simply put and craftily delivered. She then read excerpts from her last novel Fences in Breathing with neither capitalization nor punctuation-pure train of thought. Outstanding and fresh! - Muriel Barbery's delivery of an excerpt from the hugely popular The Elegance of the Hedgehog was what I would describe as French neo-realist-a matter-of-fact, often humorous depiction of an everyday woman in an everyday life-situation. I half-expected a film to start rolling and continue from Barbery's introduction (if you are reading this, Ms. Barbery, this is not a bad idea!). - Nádas' reading began without flourish, but slowly, almost imperceptibly, as he became fully engaged with his descriptive, his breathing slowed, his voice lowered, his delivery slackened, the audience became transfixed. His delivery was a thoughtful, mournful reading of a televised execution, a devastating sensory experience for anyone. - Edwidge Danticat actually read a pair of insightful poems by Félix Morisseau-Leroy ("a legendary Haitian playwright and poet")-kudos to her for dimming the spotlight on herself and sharing it with a talented, deceased compatriot.


Can I wrap up this post without a mention of Salman Rushdie's reading? I think not, although readers might be as disappointed in my comments as I was with his selection. Rushdie read an excerpt from Shalimar the Clown, but to me it seemed less a rendering from a novel and more like a recitation of a New Yorker feature on Kashmiri freedom fighters. Since he read in English there was no text projected on the accompanying screens. Had the organizers chosen to project absurdist cartoons with witty captions behind him though, the feeling that the latest George Packer article was being read to me by Salman Rushdie would have been complete. Finally, where were the Africans or South Americans or Chinese? To be fair, the event blurb extolled the "best literary voices from East and West." So how about next year having a South-South or North-South version? Or all of the above!?