On Thursday dinner was held in the garden of the Honeymoon 2 Guesthouse. The place was half full when we got there: the writers had already settled into groups. (Most of the writers were Australian or Indonesian, with a smattering of Americans, Canadians, Europeans and other Asians.) It was like walking into the high school cafeteria, looking for an empty seat and hoping the Heathers would not notice you.
We sat with Mr and Mrs Kader Abdollah, writers who left Iran in 1988 and are now living in the Netherlands. We told them about the Hollywood movie we’d just seen, the one set in Tehran.
“Really,” they said, so we told them about it. They looked skeptical but made a mental note to watch it. (Later we googled them and found that “Kader Abdolah” is a pen name derived from the names of two friends who’d been executed. The writer had studied physics in Iran, opposed both the Shah and Khomeini, and sought refuge in the Netherlands. He has written many books, among them the bestselling The House of the Mosque and a Dutch translation of the Koran.)
We were joined by two Russian writers, Natalya Reznik and Oleg Borushko. Natalya was born in Leningrad and lives in Colorado, where she writes code for a software developer in the day and poetry in Russian at night. She also translates poetry from English to Russian.
We mentioned having read The Free World by David Bezmozgis, about a family that was allowed to leave Latvia and was waiting in Rome for visas to Canada. She said this happened a lot in the late 70s, when entire families claimed they were settling in Israel but went to North America instead. They all had to wait for their papers in Italy. By the time Natalya and her family left Russia in 1994 the Soviet Union had collapsed.
The tragedy of Russian literature, Natalya said, is that its greatest writers were doomed to a living death. Most of them could not publish their work during the Stalin regime. “Mikhail Bulgakov knew that The Master and Margarita was his masterpiece, but it was not published in his lifetime.”
“And Vasily Grossman,” we said. “He’s, like, Tolstoy.”
“You know Grossman?!” Natalya said. We explained our mild obsession with the NYRB editions of little-known Russian masterworks. She was so pleased that someone outside Russia had heard of Vasily Grossman, we practically had a blood compact. So dinner became a discussion of Russian history from Stalin to Putin.
At the line for the buffet the London-based Sri Lankan author Romesh Gunesekera introduced himself. “And you are from…”
“Manila,” we said, “Where part of your novel is set.”
We spotted Nick Cave at the next table, but at that moment the only Nick Cave song we could remember was the one they played in The X-Files when Scully was abducted. We not only remembered but could actually spell Andrey Platonov, Sigismund Krzhizhanovsky…
Whoever said you can’t learn about the world from books doesn’t know anything.
P.S. Atin-atin na lamang ito. Napansin namin na tila minamata ng ilang manunulat ang mga blogger. “Akala ko’y blogger ka lamang at wala pang nailalathala,” sabi ng tagapangulo ng isa naming panel. “Mabuti naman at may naisulat ka na palang aklat.” Ano kaya ang ibig niyang sabihin.
Kung mababa ang tingin nila sa blog, bakit pinagmalaki ng isang manunulat na ang kanyang blog ay nakakakuha ng 20,000 hits kada buwan? (Napangiti na lamang kami dahil di hamak na mas marami ang magbabasa ng blog ng aming mga pusa.) Aminin: gusto rin ninyong magkaroon ng malaking audience. Ano ang pinagkaiba nito sa mga may-akdang nagsasabing di sila interesadong magkaroon ng bestseller dahil literary sila?