‘Writers write. Actors read. Audience listens. Everybody wins.’
This is what Liars’ League promises, and what it delivered at its European Literature Night event on June 9th. The authors introduced were largely from post-communist countries, including Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and East Germany. It was refreshing to see, however, that this wasn’t necessarily why they’d been chosen – there was no great emphasis on reworking a communist past. Instead the stories presented were notably multi-faceted: Jan Krasnowolski’s African Electronics tells of a Polish cocaine smuggler in Britain who has to traffick his boss’s nephew to Dover – or else. But rather than making this a tragic story of human freight, Krasnowolski uses the imagery of popular gangster movies and creates a colourful picture of modern Britain from an outsider’s perspective.
Next up, Sigitas Parulskis’ Darkness and Company changed the mood completely. In his story, a photographer witnesses a WWII massacre on the local Jewish population and, over the body of a little girl, is pondering what it means to photograph these events when suddenly a boy buried in the mass-grave escapes. In contrast to Krasnowolski’s light-hearted story-telling, Parulskis examines the relationship between reality and photographic depictions of it, emphasising the crossing of different ways of seeing. Anti-semitism in Lithuania is dealt with, but from a philosophical angle.
Kateřina Tučková’s Žítková Goddesses carried forward the sincerity of Darkness and Company: a girl secretly watches her aunt preparing a love-spell in the dark of night. Her fascination for the mysterious goings-on peaks when a thunderstorm threatens her village, and in an attempt to avert it, her aunt realises the girl has ‘special powers’ too. The extract made a fascinating follow-on from its predecessor: completely timeless, encouraging a focus on the plot rather than the historical events surrounding it – in contrast to Parulskis’ work, set at such a particular moment in the past.
The final two stories swiftly moved us back to the present. Nora Bossong’s Limited Liability tells of an elegant German businesswoman, who travels to the US where her father lives with his new, tacky girlfriend Fanny. The story jumps between Louise’s first meeting with Fanny and a present where the father has died and the women have to cope with his legacy, trapped in an apartment with a lawyer and two policemen. Moving fluidly between times and places, the colloquial tone of Bossong’s story gained complexity with the many strands it tied together – and all the questions about Louise and Fanny that had to be answered. Gloria Sanders’ reading helped create a light-hearted mood again after the previous, more serious texts, and her switching between broad New York and British accents proved just how well a story can be performed and not just read.
The same was true for Slovenian Tadej Golob’s Pig’s Feet – my personal favourite of the night. David Mildon’s reading may not have been as theatrical as Sanders’, but he knew exactly how to emphasise Golob’s original vernacular. A graphic artist is proposed to reillustrate a book after the over-the-top publisher inviting him finds one of his old cartoons, entitled ‘Superfucker’. Compared to the other stories we found out relatively little about Pig’s Feet – which made it rather tantalising – its first-person narration and focus on the meeting between artist and publisher gave us characters correspondingly involving and left us wanting more.
It’s the ethos of Liars’ League that it should be a collaborative business between writer, actor and audience, but perhaps special credit should go to the translators, whose nuances of language and expression gave every author their own distinctive voice, and really brought home the ebullient range of writers currently working in languages other than English. There was, thankfully, no attempt to marginalise the authors as ‘Central’ or ‘Eastern European’ – instead, the evening stressed the diversity and talent on offer rather than the otherness and, as the slogan promised, no one went away empty-handed.
Liars’ League at the Phoenix was part of European Literature Night 2015, supported by the Polish Cultural Institute and the Czech Centre, London.