The ‘literature’ in a literary festival

The recently concluded LLF was all about the connection between art and fiction, and how culture blurs all boundaries between various genres

William Dalrymple.

Featuring a Nobel laureate in the opening and closing sessions was not only the most popular feature of the 8th edition of Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) but also an apparently well-thought-out ‘idea’ to unveil the element and ‘poetics’ of the popular lit-fest.

Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel Prize-winning novelist preferred to talk – in both the sessions – on the art of fiction instead of (the current) politics. Politics is not something that maculates the ‘purity’ of art. It seems that he thought it more befitting in a literary festival to share his views on the art of fiction.

Literary festivals are a place where literariness must reign supreme. Interestingly, Pamuk referred to Russian formalists in the inaugural session, who pioneered the theorisation of poetics or literariness of fiction. They asserted that literariness of fiction doesn’t lie in a crisscrossing plot but in the description of a story. In fiction the ‘how’ precedes the ‘what’; i.e. the way of narrating events is far more important than what is being narrated.

It was wonderful for students of literature, connoisseurs and even lay people to note the point he made about the relationship between painting and fiction. Pamuk mentioned that his novel My Name is Red is deeply related and indebted to miniature painting. He philosophised about the relationship between a picture and a story or between and an image and a word. Interestingly, he also mentioned that his fiction is mostly based on philosophical issues. Every fiction writer who prefers complex description to a simple storyline is inclined to engage with philosophical matters.

In the closing session, Pamuk mentioned that we should refrain from imitating the Eastern past or the Western present. He said that there was a need now to combine them. (Point to ponder: Is it the only way that we are historically left with?) Obviously, this is one of the most problematic issues we, the eastern people have been made to face – and feel obliged to resolve. But these issues cannot be resolved by taking some ideological stance on the eastern glorious past or the western developed present. We need philosophy. We require fiction in which this issue is philosophically dealt with. (Mirza Athar Beg’s works in Urdu are a good example of such fiction.)

The conversation regarding the relationship between painting and fiction was taken ahead in another session where Saleema Hashmi’s book Nazar ki Umang, the Urdu translation of The Eye Still Seeks by French Urdu writer Julien Columeau was launched. The book discusses the history of the contemporary visual arts of Pakistan in an unorthodox manner. One of the panellists said that not only do painting and fiction have some surreal relationship with each other, fiction and history also share a similar connection.

The assertion that art blurs boundaries between genres and seeks to go beyond all kinds of borders and barriers, whether they be geographical, national, religious, racial or linguistic was made more than once in various sessions. In this assertion, the true logic and purpose of a literary festival is enshrined. Its mention across the sessions on diverse topics made the audience feel that their presence there was not purposeless.

The thorny question of centre and periphery came to the fore in the closing session. Having grown up in a Western-looking family in Istanbul, Pamuk identified himself as a ‘provincial man’ as he over the years got familiar with the experiences of other, different people – living at the margins, in poverty. The issue of centre and province is essentially political. So Pamuk couldn’t avoid indulging in political comment. However, instead of talking about contemporary Turkish political conditions, he gave an overview of the political history of modern Turkey. He briefly explained how the Turkish elite and intellectuals had failed to form a unique Turkish identity after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Their failure gave way to an imitation of western liberal ideals. And herein lies the great problem mentioned above.

How the ‘centre’ pushes people to ‘nowhere’ and how enormously people have to suffer was shared by Hazel Kahan in a session titled 55 Lawrence Road. She was born to a Jewish couple in Lahore at her residence at 55 Lawrence Road, Lahore. Her parents, both of them medical doctors were forced to leave Germany because Hitler banned the medical practice for Jewish people in the early years of World War II. Kahan’s story had the elements of displacement and homecoming which are major themes of modern literature.

As modern art blurs boundaries between genres, public spheres of the post-modern era haze off boundaries of disciplines. It is not unusual to see a debate on culture and art taking history and politics into its fold, a thing I observed at the LLF.

William Dalrymple, another internationally acclaimed author, in a session dedicated to his recently published book The Anarchy: Relentless Rise of East India Company shared with the audience revealing facts about the loot and plunder of the East India Company. In another session, sharing the stage with FS Aijazuddin, Dalrymple talked about the secular aspects of the culture of the Punjab. Alas, we can now only nostalgically recall the secular landscape of the region.

Translation turns national boundaries virtually redundant. Once a book is translated, linguistic and cultural borders begin to melt. ‘Transcending Geographies was the title of the session in which mechanics of how Urdu travelled in translation was explored. Though all the participants – Rocio Moriones Alonso, who has translated Manto into Spanish, Shahnaz Aijazuddin, Amer Hussain, Amjid Islam Amjid and Musharraf Ali Farooqi – are acclaimed translators themselves, the discussion mostly revolved around the hackneyed idea of faithful translation. An important idea that evolved during their debate was about the need to set up more translation studies departments in Pakistani universities.

Orhan Pamuk in conversation with Ahmed Rashid.

Current issues of local and global politics were widely discussed in other sessions especially which featured Vali Nasr, an American-Iranian scholar. Some Pakistani politicians were also invited to share their views. My takeaway from the talks with political personalities was that only the ‘authors’ of books had some substantive things to share about literature. Many Pakistani politicians apparently have nothing to add to what they say on TV talk shows. I believe that real value in talking about literature comes from the experience of writing a book and the research that goes into it.

It is heartening to see that the number of sessions for Urdu and Punjabi has been increasing every year. This time ten sessions were slated for Urdu and three for Punjabi. A Pashto mushaira was another sensation. In sessions on books by Masood Ashar, Asghar Nadeem Sayyad and Amir Hussain, trends in contemporary Urdu fiction were discussed. There was a consensus at these talks that faction – an amalgam of fact and fiction – might be called a dominant trend in contemporary Urdu fiction. This also sheds light on the fact that Urdu fiction writers are more concerned with documenting sufferings of their peoples. The poetry and persons of Faiz and Jaun Elia were also discussed. It is, however, the need of the hour to include more Urdu poets like Ghalib, Rashid, Majeed Amjid in the future editions of the LLF.

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Rakh say Likhi Gai Kitab (short stories). He teaches Urdu at Punjab University.

LLF: The ‘literature’ in a literary festival