Sunday 27, Day 1
Oh, the clear blue skies of Manchester! Must we really part? If so, then there are few cities more welcoming than a very green Zagreb in the spring. I landed at the city’s tiny airport at 5pm, and jumped in a car with writer Dylis Rose, Jim Hinks of Comma Press (who’d spent the previous night on a bench at Gatwick), Alexandra Büchler, Director of Literature Across Frontiers, driver, Vlad, and festival volunteer, Henrietta.
Flat and green and surrounded by hills and forested peaks, the drive to the old town reminded me of driving through Slovenia at this time last year, though a little more rugged. You sense a city lazily stretching out between the River Sava on one side and the mountains on the other.
Due to our scheduled late arrival time, we missed the ‘informal’ opening of the festival which featured a ‘Croatian artists versus writers’ football match followed by ‘Croatian artists are cooking!’ Here, the legendary Senko Karuza from the island of Vis in Dalmatia, took charge of a meaty barbecue, while the accompanying bottles of booze no doubt nursed the aches and injuries of the knock-kneed footballers. Festival organiser, Roman Simić, later told me that the score was 6-3, to the writers, I think.
With our late-arriving team scrubbed-up and donning their casual-smart literary look (more shoulder-pads than shin-pads), we headed for a recommended restaurant in the centre, where I had to opt for my favourite cevapcici sausages, a dozen stubs of grilled meat (traditionally, a Bosnian recipe but also popular in Croatia), and the season’s first cool bottle of Ozujsko beer.
Then we rushed through the calm city squares, many of them green with lovely trees and benches, to the evening’s event at Booksa, a charming little enclave of a bookshop for ‘A Short Introduction to the Contemporary Dutch Short Story’. This was followed by a very interesting discussion between the writers Bas Pauw, Manon Uphoff, Sanneke van Hassel, and Dimitri Verhulst.
Afterwards, many of the writers carried on the discussion on the pavement outside, in the mild evening air, with their bottles of cool beer until the bar ran out of supplies. I hear a few of the less hobbled hopefuls leapt on a tram and found another bar, where German writer, Clemens ‘Schnappsy’ Meyer, led the way until Zagreb shut down for the night.
Monday May 28, Day 2
I don’t know what it is about this country, but I love waking up here, whether it’s Zagreb, Split, or in Dalmatia. A sense, if not of belonging, then of peacefulness, a space for clear thinking, and, if I’m lucky, inspiration. The streets of this pretty city are so calm, no one runs or rushes, or pushes or barges. Pedestrians walk in a relaxed way. It is like a city in slow-motion. Because of the small population, there is so much space everywhere, on the pavements, in the parks, with a Mediterranean feel of ‘pomalo!’ (Dalmatian: ‘take it easy’). This is especially welcome after my usual and increasingly frenetic cities of Manchester, Berlin, Krakow.
Writers with tight hamstrings and slight hangovers gathered for breakfast in the hotel, before a group of us left for a tour of the city. Again, this sense of calm, a delightful spring day, fine architecture, trees, the city’s Green Horseshoe, statues of Marko Marulic – the fifteenth-century ‘first Croatian bestseller’ (we were informed), apparently Henry V died while reading one of his books (which, it was pointed out, must not be interpreted as a judgement on its literary merit), and more statues: three of St George, one of poet and drinker, ‘Tin’ Ujevic, and of Marija Zagorka, Croatia’s first female journalist.
We walked the main square and the market, and up alongside the ‘out of order’ funicular railway for fine views across the city rooftops: it is a city of spires and cupolas with the high-rise flats of the new town in the distance and the peaks and green pastures beyond. Then we visited the bizarre and (for a while) fascinating, ‘Museum of Broken Relationships’ in which jilted lovers (or the ones who did the dumping) donate talismanic objects from their shattered loves, including the axe of a guy who systematically chopped up his ex-girlfriend’s furniture. Many exhibits were funny, most were sad, some where heartbreaking. My faith in humanity was restored by a man washing strawberries in a washbasin in the toilet.
Then it was back to the hotel to prepare for the event I was taking part in that evening in Booksa ‘Story and Travels’. When I arrived at the bookshop, I was surprised to be asked to do a spontaneous interview for Croatian TV, but I think it went quite well. Then it was time to sit on the sofa with Serbian/Portuguese writer, Dejan Tiago Stankovic, and Scottish writer, Dilys Rose. We were a little pushed for time as there was a big Croatian-Serbian event following just an hour later. But Jim Hinks moderated with great skill and perceptiveness, ably supported by Mima Simić. Dejan was great, talking in a very interesting way about coming from Belgrade but living in Portugal, and writing in Portuguese; and Dilys, too, spoke well. There were many themes in our brief discussion – belonging, exile as a metaphor, the mutations/inspirations/deformations of language when you live and write elsewhere, the short story as a form for capturing these themes – that the three of us would have loved to develop but I think the event gave a fair glimpse of our work and of where we’re coming from.
We ducked out of the Croatian-Serbian event due to growing hunger. After I had led the group on a long and fruitless walk in search of a restaurant in the upper-town (sorry everyone!), we settled finally on a cheap’n’tasty pizzeria, oblivious to the heavy downpour that was now rattling the parasols outside and rushing down the cobbles. At the table, Alexandra B, reached for her phone saying she needed to post something on Twitter about the festival thus far, on the theme of Europe and the short story. But what? Portuguese writer, and lovely person, Jacinto Lucas Pires, and I offered ideas to fill her 140 words, before she opted for my ‘Austerity measures? To cut a long story short.’
Suitably fortified, we grabbed a couple of taxis to head to the event with six writers talking and reading. Our taxi driver misunderstood us and took us to the student village a few kilometres out of town and not to the student centre, so we had to double back and pay a cool 67 kuna for the privilege. So I missed the impressive Cees Noteboom. Everyone leaving the audiorium said he’d read a brilliant story and spoken wisely. My friend Gyorgy Dragoman (we read together at Wroclaw’s International Short Story festival in 2008) also read, and I’m sure most people enjoyed his speed-reading. Indeed, all the readings offered something to think about or discuss afterwards, not least that of Clemens ‘time for another Schnapps’ Meyer who delighted the audience with his eccentric replies, broken or babbled English, and nervous, jerky energies. He’s a wonderful guy, and I will certainly be looking him up, and his stories already available in English.
And this is the wonderful thing about the festival thus far: the opportunity for the writers and organisers to discuss with each other’s work, the short story as form, in unhurried surroundings, unlike UK festivals where the writer is shipped in and out with the minimum of fuss or contact, and you usually don’t have the time or the opportunity to sit down with other writers. Here it is different. It is intimate and, like Zagreb itself, calm.
That said, now I do have to dash. It’s time for lunch with Jacinto, with Maja Hrgović, a Croatian writer, and with Xabier Montoia, a poet and writer from the Basque Country. We always knew that politics and economics would not hold Europe together, but a cultural correspondence and cohesion may just have a chance.
Tuesday May 29, Day 3
“The ship of Europe is dancing in the harbour,’’ thus spake Nooteboom on the evening of day 3 of the festival. The avuncular veteran of hotels, revolutions, and Q&A sessions, Cees Nooteboom proved the consummate showman in a packed-out auditorium, offering his carefully considered answers with sufficient trimmings of irony and wisdom to keep everyone entertained. He knows exactly when to advance and retreat, when to keep the audience at bay or to bring them closer, just as he knows how to manipulate his own political opinions to claim either impartiality or passion. But he was excellent on the relationship between writing and being on the move, on that balance between the calm ‘in the eye of the storm’ needed for work and ‘the turbulence of travel’, and his dry wit was perfect for hedging his bets about the fate of Europe.
Earlier in the day, a dozen of us writers, including Croatian writer, Maja Hrgović, discussed the limits and liberations of the short story as a ￼￼form. How it grows, where it comes from, and is it true – as I’ve heard a few writers here claim – that the short story is somehow more suited to smaller countries? We also talked of the difficulty in interesting London-based publishers and press in translated stories, when those institutions see the rest of Europe as merely a failed-copy of the UK. Sharing anecdotes along these lines we were outraged to hear that the publisher of a well-known annual anthology of European literature is asking each country for a payment to have their author included.
No such disreputable goings-on were going on at the lovely Booksa at 6pm when the Literature Across Frontiers project, ‘Tramlines: A Journey to the Heart of the City’ was discussed by Jim ‘that’s Hinks’ Hinks of Comma Press, LAF’s Alexandra Büchler, award-winning short-story writer and festival director, Roman Simić, and Manchester-based writer, Michelle Green. The project’s aim – following on from LAF’s Sealines project – is to send a writer to explore a city they don’t know by choosing a single tram line and writing about their experiences ‘to the end of the line’ (oh, Erofeev!). Michelle spent much of her week in Zagreb on the number 11 tram, ‘travelling with an unstamped ticket’, taking photos, scribbling down words, deciphering graffiti and she’s already gone back to write up her impressions as a story. The story will then be available via an app on your phone so you can listen as you travel, either on the very same route, comparing perceptions, or as a self-sufficient piece.
Jim made the interesting point that with the short journey being a brief journey in itself, it is often predicated on encounters between strangers and these encounters frequently take place in municipal spaces, and on public transport. I’m intrigued to see how this ‘ticket to read and ride’ turns out. Other writers will cover different cities, with Roman Simić going to Manchester to pick a line on the city’s tram system, where, he claims, he won’t be writing about the Smiths, Joy Division, ‘or popular stuff like that’. Well, when I was growing up in Manchester, Joy Division and the Smiths were anything but populist, in fact, the opposite, which shows how much they have been appropriated and re-marketed since then. Perhaps Roman hasn’t heard of Simply Red and Take That?
￼After a slightly wacky discussion about the Tramlines project which threatened to go off the rails once or twice, the event was saved by Michelle Green reading a powerful and disturbing story inspired by her time in Darfur, Sudan. The audience sat spellbound. Her first short story collection will be out with Comma Press next year.
Meanwhile, back at the Studentski Centar, the evening’s final event saw six writers read short stories to a venue bursting with young and dynamic readers: a favourite writer of mine, David Albahari read, as did Stanislav Habjan, Nuala Ni Chonchuir, Jacinto Lucas Pires (with a story that reminded me a little of Robert Walser), Neven Usumovic, and Belgian writer, Dimitri Verhulst. Pires spoke of the short story as ‘a limitation that’s productive’ and as a point on the ‘literary food-chain’ before a novel. I also bumped into a friend of mine, Jonathan Bousfield, who lives in Zagreb, writes the Rough Guide to Croatia as well as most of the English-language articles for Time Out Croatia. ‘For me, as a reader,’ he told me, ‘I find this festival inspirational.’
The Studentski Centar is a great venue for such events, as there’s a parasol’n’gravel courtyard for babbling in the breaks, grabbing a beer in a beaker, or rinsing out your glass while staring hopefully at one of the festival volunteers who’s coming round with a bottle of Walnut Schnapps concealed in his rucksack.
Those who imbibed too much of the black stuff finished the night croaking with the toads in the city’s Botanical Gardens. (And I jest you not.)
Afterword: After reading the blog from days 1&2, the Union of Hard- working and Not-at-all-boozy Writers has asked me to point out that David Hasselhoff fan, Clemens Meyer, is a connoisseur of schnapps and his relationship with that drink should not be regarded in any other way.
Recommendation of the day: Basque writer Xabier Montoia rates very highly the Catalan writer of short stories, Quim Monzo.
￼Tomorrow: Staring into the abyss of Pazin with Jules Verne!
Wednesday May 30, Day 4: ‘Staring into the abyss of Pazin with Jules Verne’
Checking out of Hotel Central in Zagreb on Wednesday morning, we took our European short story roadshow to the good people of Pazin, 220km away in northern Istria (and just 50km north of Pula, where James Joyce used to spend his summers, travelling down from Trieste). The route was increasingly green and hilly and forested, and then mountainous. We passed Karlovac, home of the legendary Croatian beer, Karlovacko. Then we skirted Rijeka, a glamorous and significant port during the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and now an open-minded city with a flourishing arts and music scene.
Tantalising glimpses of the Adriatic prompted a half-dozen writers to rootle in their bags for cameras. As they stood trying to snap the shimmering sea while avoiding passing trucks, petrol stations, and great lumps of shrubbery, Dutch writer, singer, musician, and all-round wit, Dimitri Verhulst quipped, ‘A safari!’ At that, we snappers felt humiliatingly touristy and not at all writerly so we sat down in our seats and rootled instead for our notebooks and pencils: how best to describe such beauty?
And so on we rolled into Pazin, with its tight, winding streets and pretty buildings, a town on the edge of a deep, tree-haunted abyss with the river Foiba rushing along the bottom. Jules Verne wrote about Pazin, its ancient castle and underground cave – Pazinska Jama – in his novel, Mathias Sandorf (1885). It may not have been 20,000 leagues deep (it’s 130 metres), but you can’t see the bottom, and it provided our group with a rich source of jokes. Indeed, later that day, Alexandra Büchler, Serbian writer, Srdan Srdic, and your insipid, I mean intrepid blogger-explorer (that’s me) went to look round the writer’s house that sits on the edge of the abyss (that engorged nothingness that threatens to swallow the setting sun and is already digesting trees and the fast-flowing river). Srdan will live there in January. He relishes the idea of writing something dark and cold and sinister, while staring into the emptiness. Good luck with that, Srdan!
While on the house’s lovely terrace, my attention was grabbed by a rope pulley system stretching across the chasm from our hotel down to the writer’s house. It’s one of those where you step up to a wooden platform, grab the bar above then swing down the length of rope across the abyss, your legs out in front of you, or behind, or behind then in front, your eyes open or closed, or open then closed, in any case the whole of you in your hands, squeezing the bar, not thinking of the depths below the soles of your shoes (though that could be my vertigo talking). There was some debate about how long this crossing takes, but less than a minute for sure. When our guide added that ‘it is currently being repaired’, Alexandra and I looked at each other in some alarm, trying not to imagine what may have happened to the person on the previous crossing. So we harnessed our imaginations to a joke about a hotel waiter swinging across the gorge to deliver the finest Croatian lamb to the famished writer in his/her house.
It’s a cosy little house, with a great contrast between the light of the afternoon sun that fills the writing room and warms the terrace, and the verdant darkness below. (In this respect, the location reminded me of the physical and psycho-mythical landscapes of Thomas Bernhard.)
Which means it’s a perfect writing spot during the spring and autumn, or, if you’re as tough as Srdan, the winter ‘when there might be some problems’ as our guide informed us.
Earlier, we’d checked into a hotel that offered calming views across the green fields and hills to the peaks in the distance. Even the sporadic drilling from the en-suite renovation work could not detract from such a peaceful landscape, with a few well-sculpted clouds hanging around just to take part in the bucolic scene. After lunch, we were off again: first, a tour of the town, including Jules Verne Street, and the castle (from which Mathias Sandorf, incarcerated there, escaped by climbing down into the abyss and hiding in the cave).
Then we were scheduled to meet the mayor. Alas, the mayor could not make it, which elicited another round of jokes about people disappearing in the abyss, or council meetings in the cave. Instead, we were treated to a charming presentation about Pazin by one of the mayor’s assistants. We all felt very welcome.
Soon afterwards, with stomachs growling (prompting more abysmal jokes), it was time to head to the Pazin PUO venue, for the evening’s readings. The funny and delightful Dutch writer, Manon Uphoff, opened the event with her powerful story of lost innocence, ‘Desire’, that was included in the Dalkey Archive European Fiction anthology, and in the huge book of her collected stories published in Holland. She was followed by the effervescent Jacinto Lucas Pires who turned back the years to read his first ever story, ‘Light and Shadow’. Jelena Lengold’s tale-with-a-twist, ‘Wanderings’, paved the way for a quintet of potent short pieces by Basque writer (and musician), Xabier Montoia. Dilys Rose gave a fine rendition of her witty and well-crafted story, ‘Are you sure you want to talk to me?’ before local writer and award-winner, Enver Krivac, closed the proceedings with ‘First Supper’, a clever piece riffing on the cross-over between biblical and colloquial Croatian. Indeed, the last two pieces ensured that the evening ended on a high, with plenty of laughter, though it was slightly disappointing to see a low turnout from the local population. (Prompting more jokes along the lines of ‘don’t go down into that dark abyss’.)
But that didn’t detract from another stirring festival event. The strength of FESS is its intimacy and it energy, and how much time we all have together – writers and organisers alike – to inspire and galvanise each other to better work. Each evening, the readings and Q&As (well led by Mima Simić) are helping us to think differently about our own stories: how they work, which sections could be improved, while also fomenting ideas about new projects. As Manon said to me at breakfast this morning, ‘we’re having our writing brains renewed’. One night, Jacinto Lucas Pires had a dream about a short story. The next day, he was writing that story on the bus. Rarely do writers get this much time to spend with each other during a festival (or at any other time) – especially writers from across Europe. The group has a great dynamic, with non-writers such as Dimitri’s wife, Natalie, and the Dutch Foundation for Literature’s Bas Pauw contributing as much as anyone to the happy, friend-making atmosphere of humour and creativity. The bus journeys always include conversations about writing and publishing short stories, and the future of the form.
There is wit in abundance, of course, but we are all earnest about the survival of the short story, and, more, of taking the short form to a wider audience. And all of this in the always affable and stunningly beautiful country of Croatia! If you have never been, you should visit, and soon. You won’t regret it.
At the end of another great day of FESS, and our first in Pazin, a group of us walked back to the hotel along the edge of the abyss. Alas, we didn’t see the ghost of Mathias Sandorf, or of Jules Verne, nor even a trace of the mayor. Though, of course, no one dared to look all the way down.
Short story recommendation of the day: Dilys Rose admires Ewan Morrison’s collection, ‘Tales from the Mall’
Tomorrow: A trip to Motovun, and a night of readings is rounded off with Fado and popular song
Thursday May 31, Day 5: ‘A trip to Motovun, and an evening of readings and song’
After breakfast on the hotel veranda watching the early-morning mist clear across the hills (not to mention the abyss), we made the 20km journey north to the extraordinary medieval town of Motovun. It is extraordinary because it’s a picturesque hilltop settlement overlooking the River Mirna Valley, with stunning views of pale red rooftops and the river itself, of vineyards and forests, of green pastures and distant peaks. History is close at heel. The town’s parish church of Saint Stephen dates from the 17th century, while the crenulated crown of the Romanesque-Gothic bell-tower goes back to the 13th century.
Motovun is also know for its truffles, fine wine, annual film festival, and for its spa water – which should be a winning combination in anyone’s book. Indeed, after a tour of the sights, a walk around the city walls, and a climb up to the main square, we were treated to a wine-tasting session or – in one or two cases – a couple of pints of Union beer (Zivjeli Dimitri and Natalie!). During the walk, I chatted with Adam Walko, the Croatian translator of the great Hungarian writer, Laszlo Krasznahorkai (who was a guest at the festival in 2010).
After a fine morning in ‘magnificent Motovun’, as Irish writer, Nuala Ni Chonchuir, described the town, we were whisked away to a domestic restaurant for a lunchtime feast of homemade soup, a local recipe for chicken pasta, small donut balls, and deliciously fresh cherries, all local produce washed down with Istrian wine. As the sated souls made their way back to the bus, Dimitri and I sang some Tom Waits songs. I think he was warming up for his performance (with guitar) in the evening…
Back in Pazin, the night’s event began with Serbian writer, Srdan Srdic, receiving the Edo Budisa award; Srdan is the fearless soul who will stare into the depths of the gorge from the writer’s house in January. His story was followed by Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s lovely piece, Moon Hill, and then by the great David Albahari’s very funny story, ‘Tito in Zurich’. Albahari also had everyone laughing during his chat beforehand, saying he had brought along a double (like Tito used to) in case the going got tough. Occasionally, during the story, he invoked this double by pointing to the empty chair beside him, much to the audience’s delight.
Dimitri Verhulst’s ‘Rocky III’ had a brilliant opening and kept that level throughout. I chipped in with ‘A Peacock in Sulphur’, my BBC Radio 4 story about Niko Pirosmani, Georgia’s national painter. I enjoyed the on-stage chat with Mima Simić about writing stories for the radio and the different editing processes that involves; in other words, how it feels to wrestle with a story ‘contaminated by a commission’. Both feisty and funny, Mima has been a lively moderator throughout this festival. Jim ‘high jinx’ Hinks has been great, too: he has the knack of finding a revealing angle on each topic for discussion. Likewise, occasional moderator and festival organiser, Katarina Brajdic has a sharp (and very quick) sense of humour. It’s not easy to be up there asking questions when the writer is focused on their reading, and to do so with a mixture of insight and levity is very welcome, especially when compared to the over-formal proceedings of most literary festivals. Roman Simić is also indefatigable when it comes to moderating or running the festival.
Indeed, I think this warm sense of humour is something I’ve noticed about Croatian people, in general. Perhaps this friendliness, this willingness to laugh together and to make people feel at home, comes more naturally in the sun, amid such beautiful surroundings. Croatia has to be up there with Georgia in terms of being one of the most breathtaking and hospitable countries I’ve visited in Europe.
Meanwhile, Neven Usumovic rounded off the readings with an intriguing story, ‘Chikungunya’, about a fetishist.
With the literary part of the evening complete, we retired to the veranda bar and the adjoining square. Mima sang and played Croatian folk songs, the multi-talented Jacinto Lucas ‘Benfica’ Pires impressed with his subtle renditions of Fado (including a Fado version of Radiohead), before Dimitri ‘Union beer glass’ Verhulst got everyone singing and dancing along to Tom Waits, Johnny Cash and more.
It was rumoured that their voices could still be heard the following morning echoing round the abyss.
Recommendation of the day: Dimitri Verhulst rates Dutch short-story writers, Frans Pointl and Anton Koolhaas, as well as Belgian writer, Roger van de Velde.
Tomorrow: Return to Zagreb, a Ladies’ Night of readings, and a Closing Party featuring the inimitable D’Elvis…
Friday June 1, Day 6: ‘How many writers does it take to change a tyre? Plus, A Ladies’ night of readings, and a Closing Party featuring the inimitable D’Elvis…’
‘I used to think you had to write a short story about something strange,’ David Albahari was telling me, ‘but now I think I write short stories about the ordinary.’ Indeed, he does, though the ordinary seen from an unusual perspective, with a twist or involution, and always with a teasing wit and irony. I recommend his collection in English, ‘Words are Something Else’ (1998) along with the translated novels: Leeches, Bait, and Goetz and Meyer.
We were sitting outside a service-station because something strange had happened. We were on our way back to Zagreb from Pazin, and the wheels on the bus were going round and round, round and rou… Until, pop! One of the back right tyres burst.
Now talk turned to our predicament: ‘How many writers does it take to change a tyre?’ I asked. Punchlines on a postcard, please, because none of those present could come up with one, though David Albahari did suggest that the writers should push the bus all the way back to the Croatian capital. (Thanks for that, David!)
This looked a possibility when the driver decided we would drive on with the flat tyre. Consequently, we all had to sit on the left-hand side of the bus and as close to the front as possible. As I passed round a notebook for recommendations of good short-story writers, Dimitri Verhulst’s wife, Natalie, quipped, ‘What’s this for? Details of our next of kin?’
Passing Rijeka this time was all mist and rain as if the sky had come down to settle upon the sea. We trundled on in the increasingly heavy downpour, but in good spirits, talking enough to keep plenty of air in that tyre. In this way, we made it back to Zagreb more or less on time, which was quite something in the circumstances.
A Ladies’ Night of readings kicked off the final evening’s fun. This time we were in Zagreb’s swanky VIP Club, a subterranean silver-and-black haunt, a perfect venue for the event. Dilys Rose gave another good reading of her poignant and witty story, ‘Are You Sure You Want to Talk To Me?’ while Jelena Lengold re-read ‘Wanderings’. Croatian writer, and friend of mine, Maja Hrgović read the accomplished and beguiling ‘Back in 5 Minutes’. Maja has been in the Dalkey Archive Press anthology, Best of European Fiction, but during the on-stage discussion, she bemoaned the fact that this was probably due to her being a woman in Croatia writing about the conflict. This is something we had all discussed over lunch on the second day of the festival: how difficult it is as a European short story writer to be published in English unless there’s some kind of peg (however superficial or serious) that a UK publisher and its marketing team can hang you on – and, yes, that’s often as painful as it sounds.
Maja has another fine story, ‘Whale’s Ass’, on the website of ‘The European Short Story Network’ (a great site for the connoisseur of the short form). The story is translated with great flair by Tomislav Kuzmanović – and it was wonderful to meet him at the festival, too.
With her seductive wit and book of dark delights, Manon Uphoff closed the readings with her very funny story, ‘Shit’, in which a wealthy house-owner and poor passer-by contemplate eating piles of dog poop. It turned out to be a rousing, and not at all foul-smelling finale to this year’s festival.
And then for the presentations: Bas Pauw, of the Dutch Foundation for Literature, was awarded a bottle of Rakija for his stunning hat-trick during the football match – European writers versus Croatian artists – on the opening day (which now felt like a fortnight ago, so stuffed with good things was our schedule). As spokesman for our group of writers, Bas then gave a charming speech, thanking the organisers for a truly memorable festival, before presenting the volunteers with the gifts we had bought for them after a whip-round among the writers. (It should also be added that the design of the festival posters, brochures and flyers was eye-catchingly brilliant.) Festival director, Roman Simić (who won a short story competition in a Croatian daily paper this week), then read out the names of the participating writers to great cheers and furious clapping. It was a lovely moment.
With the informal formalities aside, it was time to welcome D’Elvis onto the stage: a sort of heavy metal Elvis in a black shell-suit with a red flame down the side, perhaps looking more like an advert for Burger King. But did he and his band know how to rock? Hell, yeah! After a couple of warm-up numbers, the band urged everyone to unfold their bus-weary limbs on the dancefloor, where Jacinto Lucas ‘Jumping Flea’ Pires was leading the way with boundless energy, Elvis’s shivering shoulders and plenty of leaps and shuffles. Even those lurking at the back (hello me, Nuala, Dilys!) were soon hailed into the midst of the dancers as the band seemed to get better and better, playing everyone’s favourite Elvis numbers, while mixing it up with bloody good versions of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Johnny Cash, and the Pixies. In the spirit of the short story, D’Elvis offered funny little vignettes between each song. They left the stage triumphant; they left the dancers euphoric.
A DJ took over as our festival friends began to drift away, into the night and the rain outside, with thoughts of flights in the morning. There was a last-minute exchange of email addresses and farewell hugs, and all the writers agreed that the FESS had turned out to be the most dynamic and inspiring literary festival they had ever attended – an exhilarating (and blissfully exhausting) six days! What’s more, when we catch up on some sleep and get back to work in earnest, I am sure we will all write with renewed faith in the short story as a form, and that’s thanks to the energy and encouragement offered by this wonderful gathering.
So to all the organisers (both FESS and LAF and all the other attendees) and volunteers, to the venues, to the good people of Pazin (and the mayor in his cave), and to all the writers and to all the readers (and listeners) who came to the events, I say a heartfelt: Hvala Lijepo! Thank you very much!
Let’s hope we can all meet again soon. Here or there or somewhere. And not only on the page.
Vidimo se! And keep those stories coming!
Recommendations of the day: Manon Uphoff recommends the short stories of Dutch writer, Maarten Biesheuvel.
Nuala Ni Chonchuir recommends: the short stories of John MacKenna, Geraldine Mills, and Orfhlaith Foyle.
Tomorrow: ‘I sit at my desk / my life’s grotesque’ (Joseph Brodsky). Yes, we all get back to work, or, at least, to thinking about work…
The Festival of the European Short Story is held in Croatia every spring. Visit europeanshortstory.org to find out more.
James Hopkin has lived in Krakow, Berlin, Manchester and several other cities and countrysides in Europe. He gained a First Class honours degree in English and Philosophy in Manchester, then a Distinction in his MA on modern fiction, followed by a British Academy Award for a PhD. In September 2002, he won an Arts Council short story competition with ‘Even the Crows Say Krakow’. He signed to Picador the following year. Winter Under Water (2007) was an assured and critically-acclaimed debut marking the arrival of a major new writer. His short stories have been anthologised (see the Cargo/McSweeney’s anthology, ‘Elsewhere’, for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, August, 2012), and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 (‘Rostropinov’) and BBC Radio 4 (‘The Mural at Frau Krauser’s’ (Radio 4, Berlin week), ‘A Georgian Trilogy’ (re-broadcast October, 2012), ‘A Dalmatian Trilogy’ (Jan, 2012, re-broadcast Feb, 2013)). A small collection was published in 2008 (with an ebook version in 2011), along with the paperback of Winter Under Water (ebook, 2012). Hopkin won a J B Priestley Award in 2010, and a Society of Authors’ Award in 2011. His new novel, Say Goodbye to Breakfast! (Picador) and a full collection of stories will appear very soon. In April, 2013 he was the Kamov writer-in-residence in Rijeka, Croatia. Follow his work on his Facebook Page.
You can read one of James Hopkin’s stories, ‘A Day in the Dark Season’ in Transcript .
James Hopkin’s visit to the Festival of the European Short Story was kindly supported by Arts Council England and the Culture Programme of the EU.