A new treasure of literature has evolved out of lingua francas, writes Brent Meersman.
Cape Town’s Open Book Festival gained timbre this year with a contingent of a dozen writers participating under the auspices of Étonnants Voyageurs, a multinational literary movement dedicated to world literature.
Among those in the group were writers from Mauritius, Turkey, Haiti and Afghanistan.
The name, taken from a line in the last poem of Les Fleurs du mal by Charles Baudelaire, can be translated as “amazing travellers” or “astonishing voyagers”. The movement is the brainwave of writer and philosopher Michel le Bris and is held in Saint-Malo in northern Brittany.
It started out in 1990 as a festival of travel writing and featured writers such as Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux and Nicolas Bouvier but it soon evolved into a literary current, consciously contradicting the dominant trend in France that has favoured the post-war nouveau Roman and self-absorbed postmodern texts — writers writing about writers for other writers, “navel gazing” and “pretentious”, “having no object but itself”, according to festival ambassador Emmanuel Delloye.
Delloye says Le Bris was raised in a small village, unlike Paris, facing “the great outdoors, open to the world, facing the sea” with the viewpoint that literature has “to tell the world … to decipher. To recount the complexity of this new world is the job of writers, not of so-called experts, like economists.”
Delloye lived in Afghanistan for six years in the 1970s and read many English travel works such as Arabia Deserta by Charles Montague Doughty (1921). Such travel writing is “creative non-fiction” and not reportage or travel diaries.
Étonnants Voyageurs also resists French language purists, and provides a forum to reinvigorate the language and the imagination with the patois of former French colonies.
Some argue that the ascendancy of English as a world lingua franca was helped by the timely openness of its publishers to American, “Hinglish”, “Chinglish” and “Spanglish”, and by the embrace of writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Ben Okri, Hanif Kureishi, Michael Ondaatje and Salman Rushdie.
As Antjie Krog put it at one Open Book forum, “English is now a South African language. We are messing it up the way we need to.”
Delloye says so-called Francophone writers bring new culture and idioms. “You see through their gaze, history.”
He cites Amin Maalouf’s Les croisades vues par les Arabes (The Crusades through Arab Eyes). Such books “help us to know ourselves much better, to be modest. Modesty was not a French quality.”
In 2007, 44 prestigious writers signed a manifesto “Towards a World Literature in French”, which was published in Le Monde. It was a rallying call to end the distinction between French writers and writers in French, to “rub up against the world in order to capture its essence and vital energies”.
This followed the awarding in 2006 of five of the seven French literary prizes — the Goncourt, the Grand Prize for Novels of the Académie Française, the Renaudot, the Femina and the Goncourt for high school students — to foreign-born writers.
As the manifesto put it: “A Copernican revolution … because it reveals what the literary milieu already knew without admitting it: the centre, from which supposedly radiated a Franco-French literature, is no longer the centre.”
No one speaks or writes ‘francophone’,” says Delloye. “Francophone literature is a light from a dying star. In a strict sense, the ‘francophone’ concept presents itself as the last avatar of colonialism.”
The Saint-Malo festival has joined the World Alliance, an initiative of Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh Literary Festival, and is now partnered with Edinburgh, New York, Toronto, Berlin, Beijing, Melbourne and Jaipur.
Half a dozen South Africa writers will be invited to Sant-Malo next year as part of the French-South African season.