Café Amsterdam, an international Dutch festival, will be held in Budapest for the first time this year, between 29-31 May. We talked to Mireille Berman of the Dutch Foundation for Literature, the organizer of the festival that will feature Dutch, Hungarian, British and American artists.
Café Amsterdam is an international Dutch festival held all over Europe. This is the first time that it takes place in Budapest. How did you decide to bring Café Amsterdam here, and in what sense is the festival in Budapest different from those held in other countries?
It is different indeed, first of all because of the Hungarian authors who participate, and because of the wonderful Brody House Studios in which the festival takes place. But what is striking here is that, at least it seems that way to us, Hungarians take literature very seriously. That is really unmistakable, and it’s often not the case in other countries. In Hungary, you don’t have to convince your partners and audience about the importance and relevance of literature. On top of that, people in Hungary seem curious about translated literature – in contrast with, for instance, the UK, where many people have a sort of hesitation regarding translations. And you have so many good and interesting contemporary Hungarian writers! Hungarian literature seems to be thriving. That is inspiring and uplifting. And it makes us feel like we are organizing this festival on fertile ground.
Literature and music – these are the two focus points of Café Amsterdam. Could you give us a wider perspective for the festival? What is its mission – if there is one?
The festival is about recently translated literature in Hungary. That is why our organization, the Dutch Foundation for Literature, is involved. Lately, we noticed that a lot of very interesting Dutch literature has come out in Hungarian translation. So we thought: let’s give these publications more visibility by bringing their authors to Hungary. We decided, together with the Hungarian publishing houses Gondolat, Typotex and Libri, to bring five Dutch authors (Arnon Grunberg, Douwe Draaisma, Barbara Stok, Frank Westerman and Toine Heijmans) to Budapest to bring them in touch with their Hungarian audience and to help with the promotion of their books in Hungary. But we don’t want to present ‘our’ authors as Dutch authors, full stop. I think that their nationality is not the only thing that defines them. It’s much more interesting to present them in connection with their Hungarian and international colleagues. We cooperate with the Dutch organization Crossing Border, which, as the name indicates, is all about crossing cultural borders. The international authors at our festival were invited by them: the German novelist Timur Vermes, author of Er ist wieder da, the American graphic novelist Ben Katchor and the English Booker prize winner DBC Pierre. They will mingle with the Hungarian and Dutch authors, and the audience can find out what they have in common and in what ways they differ. This way, we try to create a conversation, let voices mingle and mix – and then we’ll see what happens.
Also, conversations, debates and storytelling are exactly what take place in those famous Amsterdam cafés. There is music in the background, and people talk, relax, listen to good stories and music, they meet each other, they just have a good time – that is the background of the name ‘Café Amsterdam’. It’s a certain atmosphere we’d like to create.
How did you choose the authors for the festival?
We invited the authors in close cooperation with their Hungarian publishers. We looked at which Dutch authors had been published recently, and we selected a varied group of writers: well known and established, upcoming and promising, fiction and nonfiction. We also invited the Dutch graphic novelist Barbara Stok, who designed a graphic novel about Vincent van Gogh. This book has been translated by a group of students from ELTE University of Budapest (I heard they did a terrific job, by the way), but her work has not yet been published in Hungary. Which, of course, we hope will happen soon! As for the Hungarian authors, we asked publishers and translators, who came up with good suggestions. But it was hard to make choices, since you have so many excellent writers.
You mentioned that Dutch literary editors and publishers are very happy about the rising number of Dutch books translated into Hungarian and that Dutch people think Dutch literature in Hungary is booming. How did this happen? Who is responsible for this success?
It’s both us and you. Contemporary Dutch literature seems to travel exceptionally well lately. Herman Koch’s The Dinner is a worldwide bestseller, and some other authors are also doing well abroad. Koch is our Stieg Larsson: because of the success of the Swedish crime author, foreign publishers got more interested in Swedish literature. That's how it works. And Dutch children’s books sell very well everywhere, from Germany to China to South America, and we have excellent narrative nonfiction, written from a very international point of view, which makes it easy to sell abroad.
On the Hungarian part, there are some brave publishers who have a very international point of view, like Tamás Böröczki from Gondolat. They are open-minded, and they look further than English and American literature; they are simply looking for a good story, for good literature, regardless of where it comes from. Apart from that, and just as importantly, you have very active and excellent translators from Dutch into Hungarian. They are truly involved in Dutch contemporary literature and often function as bridges between our literatures and between our cultures. They are the ambassadors of Dutch literature. Without Judit Gera, Orsolya Varga, Szabolcs Wekerle, Veronika Máthé, Tamás Balogh, Tibor Bérczes and many more people, there would be no access to Dutch literature in Hungary, and we would not be able to organize the festival Café Amsterdam. They are the silent heroes of this project.
And in general, although I know this is slippery ground: I think Hungary and the Netherlands have some things in common (apart from many differences), which might be the reason why we like each other’s literatures. We are both small countries surrounded by other nations, we have a language that seems strange and foreign, we both have a past in which we used to be more powerful, in sharp contrast with where we are now. That might give both of us a certain melancholic point of view, mixed with a tendency to megalomania.
Hungarian is a small language and it is always a big question for Hungarian publishers how to promote our literature in the world. Do you have any techniques that you would suggest?
Most of all: promoting literature is a matter of customization. You have to find the right publisher for the right book. It also helps if you can subsidize the translation costs, like our Foundation is able to do. It helps publishers to get on board. Furthermore, like I said before, translators play a key role. I’m sure that without a translator like Mari Alföldy, who translated a lot of Hungarian literature into Dutch, many authors would still be inaccessible for Dutch readers.
Which program and author are you most excited about?
I’m so much looking forward to the festival that I almost regret that we have three stages with three programs that take place at the same time. Of course it adds to the festival atmosphere that you can just come in and choose what you feel like doing, but it also means that you can’t attend everything. I’m curious about the poems of Judit Ágnes Kiss, about the discussion between Arnon Grunberg and Timur Vermes – who both like to go beyond the danger point in their novels – and about psychologist Douwe Draaisma, who will have a conversation with Péter Esterházy about forgetting and remembering. I’m happy about the participation of György Spiró, György Dragomán and Dániel Csordás, and I hope these three nights of debate, interviews, readings, music and discussions will be as exciting and interesting as I expect them to be.
Tags: Café Amsterdam