“You’ll notice an empty chair has been placed next to the podium on stage. This is to symbolize those writers who could not be here today due to political oppression.”
Thus intoned Leonard Lopate at New York City’s uptown 92nd Street Y, introducing a major PEN World Voices event featuring Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa and Umberto Eco. Ironically, at just this moment I was caught in a chaotic crush in the back of the auditorium along with several other late arrivals and second-tier press-pass attendees who couldn’t find a seat in the packed house. A particularly stern usher was hissing at us to leave, another was telling us to walk forward, and I was starting to wish I had the nerve to walk onstage and sit in the damn empty chair myself.
Yes, there was a big sellout crowd for the “Three Musketeers”, and in fact it’s encouraging to realize that New Yorkers will pack a room just to hear a postmodernist from Bombay and London, a postmodernist from Italy and a postmodernist from Peru read stories to us, and despite the clumsy start the Rushdie/Eco/Vargas Llosa reading delivered rare literary pleasures in a sophisticated, harmonious arrangement. It was a reading to remember.
Umberto Eco read a passage from Foucault’s Pendulum in original Italian as the words scrolled on a screen behind him. While this may have made some attendees feel they were at the New York State Opera and others wish they had worn their contacts, I personally found it easy enough to follow and enjoy the text’s cosmic psychological wanderings as Eco’s gravelly voice rumbled in sympathy. I tried to follow along and transliterate (not that I know Italian, of course, but I can always try) and then gave up when it became clear that the text scrolling had lost track of the live reading. No matter, I loved hearing the piece.
Salman Rushdie was next, reading a passage (in English) about an Indian commoner in audience with the Mughal emperor Akbar from the new novel The Enchantress of Florence, just released in the UK and scheduled for release in the USA soon. I could not get a good sense of Rushdie’s overall intention with this novel, though descriptions of the book suggest a scope similar to Orhan Pamuk’s great My Name Is Red. Rushdie didn’t “wow me” like he did last year, though I am intrigued by this new novel’s historical setting.
Mario Vargas Llosa read from his latest novel The Bad Girl, again in the original language, though this time the text scrolled in perfect time with the author’s reading, and the audience responded with much enthusiasm. The three eminences then gathered for a loose and lively chat about why they liked to call themselves the “Three Musketeers” (Rushdie even mulled over “The Three Tenors”, which I had suggested in a blog post on Thursday, and I was also starting to think up other alternatives including “The Traveling Wilburys” and “Velvet Revolver”). With Alexandre Dumas pere now in play, Rushdie, Eco and Vargas Llosa now began batting The Count of Monte Cristo back and forth, debating whether or not such “bad writing” as this can also be great writing. All three seemed to agree that bad writing could be great writing and that this often happens (it’s not hard to guess that all three authors were thinking of their own excesses here, as well as those of Dumas pere).
The panel was great fun to listen to because the writers were loose and rambunctious, eagerly speaking over each other at times, fully devoid of the stiff politeness that too often mars these gatherings. An after-event hangout with several bloggers and book critics and one photographer (Mary Reagan’s photos of Eco, Rushdie and Vargas LLosa should be up soon) suitably capped the evening.
Earlier on Friday, I enjoyed a lunchtime reading with Peter Carey, Halfdan Freihow, Janet Malcolm and Francesc Seres, hosted by Rachel Donadio, and I’m looking forward to a conversation between Ian McEwan and Steven Pinker later today. I won’t blog about that, though; there’s a New York Times Book Review that needs attending to, and I’m on the case.
Congrats again to the energetic and hardworking folks who put together PEN World Voices, a literary festival worthy of the name.