The uniqueness of this year’s edition of the Conrad Festival is not only evidenced by the choice group of guests from all over the world, but also by the multitude and variety of topics discussed during the Festival. Due to the unpredictable pandemic situation in the world, this year for the first time in history we will connect online with the authors and authors, guests of the main event programme. We will meet with Sigrid Nunez, Marek Bieńczyk, Roy Jacobsen, Karl-Markus Gauss, Magdalena Tulli and Elif Shafak, among others. The Conrad Festival is organised by the City of Krakow, the Krakow Festival Office and the Tygodnik Powszechny Foundation.
The idea of this year’s festival
The motto of this year’s festival is “The Visible and the Invisible”. Together with our guests, we will reflect on the ways in which literature names and introduces selected phenomena into society, while leaving others unnamed (or invisible). Michał Paweł Markowski, artistic director of the festival, expands on the idea: “For who decides what is visible and what is not visible? Who has the power to show the invisible and hide the visible? After all, the fact that you cannot see someone does not mean that they do not exist.” He further adds, “And what about the excess of the visible? Does it not tire you out or make you turn your eyes away? Whom and why do we allow to exist in the visible space, and whom and why do we deny it? Whom do we sanctify on the altar of visibility and whom do we ignore?”
The slogan provokes a series of questions that will come back in conversations with our invited guests. Is freedom the paramount value? Can a story change the world? Can memory save us? How do we deal with invisibility? What lies beyond the limit of words? Can memory be restored? These are just some of the issues that we will try to take on during the festival week.
The Festival online
“This year it is not the audience that comes to the festival – it is the festival that comes to the audience via a tablet, smartphone, computer,” announces Izabela Helbin, director of the Krakow Festival Office. “One of the most important literary festivals in the world will come to our homes, accompany us on walks, over morning coffee and afternoon tea. This October, we invite you to evening meetings with excellent writers. And this is all thanks to the digital media and the internet. We cannot imagine that this celebration of literature could be missing from the festival map of Poland. This year it will be slightly different than usual, but equally interesting and valuable.”
Twenty-one meetings in the main programme
From 19 to 25 October, we will host writers from all over the world on the channels of the Conrad Festival. The organisers will connect with Norway, Belgium, the United States, Czechia, France, Turkey, Ireland, Iceland, Russia and Austria. Every day of the festival, a virtual meeting with one Polish writer and two writers from abroad is planned.
“Each of the invited guests,” says Grzegorz Jankowicz, the festival’s programme director, “will talk about a different aspect of this year’s theme. We will talk with some about private experiences (loss, memory, trauma, obsession), with others about social issues (the function of literature in the modern world, invisible parts of Central and Eastern Europe, and the cultural and political relations between East and West).
The question about the experience of pain and its impact on our perception of the world and other lives will feature in a meeting with the National Book Award winner, American writer Sigrid Nunez, who will talk to Magda Heydel about her bestselling novel The Friend. During the first day of the festival, Etgar Keret, an Israeli-Polish writer and poet, known and adored by the festival audience, called a master of the short form, will be invited to a discussion on whether it is possible today to create literature that hides social and personal problems from us.
The paradoxes of freedom and its (in)visible aspects will be discussed by the Romanian-French playwright and writer Matei Vişniec, author of the famous play How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients. Together with meeting host Joanna Kornaś-Warwas, he will try to answer the question of whether every human being can be free and whether freedom is in fact the highest value for humanity. The second day of the festival will conclude with a conversation with the award-winning writer Bianca Bellová, whose The Lake, published in 2016, made her a star of contemporary Czech literature. Bellová will talk about the disappearance of the world as an inevitable part of the process of growing up.
A meeting with the Belgian feminist and philosopher Chantal Mouffe will open the third day of the festival. One of the most important representatives of post-Marxism will raise the problem of populism, which in the 21st century is spreading in almost all corners of the world. From Belgium, we will move to Norway, thanks to Roy Jacobsen, whose novel The Unseen made it to the final of the International Booker Prize in 2017. The story of distant, inaccessible regions of the world will end another day of the festival.
The meeting with writer Kevin Barry is a real treat for lovers of Irish literature. Barry is the author of novels and short stories. His book Night Boat to Tangier was on the list of nominations for the 2019 Booker Award. The destructive power of words, in turn, will be discussed by the Icelandic novelist and radio journalist Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir, author of Eyland [Island], described as the most important Icelandic novel of recent years.
On the fifth day of the festival, Belgian writer Adeline Dieudonné will meet with readers. The author will talk about toxic family relations, which she described in a moving way in her debut novel Real Life. The book sold two hundred thousand copies in France and received fourteen literary awards. The readers will meet with Maria Stepanova, an award winning Russian poet and journalist with a very characteristic style, to hear how to deal with the burden of the past and memories.
On Saturday afternoon, Viktor Yerofeyev will tell us about Russia. A writer and publicist, known for his skilful handling of the grotesque and sarcasm, he reckons with Russian history and mythology in his works. Another guest, Karl-Markus Gauß, will take us southwards into the world of the Balkans and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austrian writer, an expert on Central European ethnic minorities, tirelessly travels through those European countries and cities that others have already forgotten about. The sixth day of the festival will end with a conversation with Shafak, whom Orhan Pamuk called the best Turkish writer of the last decade. Her works have so far been translated into twelve languages.
The last day of the festival will have an exceptionally strong resonance thanks to Irish essayist Emilie Pine, whose texts, which constitute a kind of diary, challenge the superstitions of femininity and their strength is unconditional and critical sincerity. The surprising final meeting with opera singer Ian Bostridge will shed light on the question: What happens to our life when we are practically obsessed with just one work? In Bostridge’s case, it is Franz Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey), which he has been performing for several decades and about which he wrote a fascinating book.
Strong Polish representation at the Conrad Festival
The Conrad Festival also means original presentations of Polish literature. Readers will meet with Zyta Rudzka, writer and screenwriter, who received the Gdynia Literary Award in 2019 for her book Krótka wymiana ognia [A Brief Exchange of Fire], and Marek Bieńczyk, Polish writer, literary historian, winner of the Nike Literary Award for his collection of essays Książka twarzy [Book of Faces], nominated for the same award last year for his collection of essays Kontener [The Container]. The festival programme also includes a meeting with Mikołaj Łoziński, whose latest novel, Stramer, reverberated widely in the literary world and has been nominated for the Nike Literary Award.
Five-time finalist of the Nike Literary Award and winner of the Gdynia Literary Award 2012 for the novel Włoskie szpilki [Italian High Heels], Magdalena Tulli is another guest of the Conrad Festival. We will also meet with Joanna Rudniańska, winner of the Janusz Korczak International Award, author of the renowned novel Bajka o Wojnie [A Fairy Tale About War], and Małgorzata Rejmer, author of the book Błoto słodsze niż miód [Mud Sweeter Than Honey], which won the Polityka Passport award. The list of this year’s guests concludes with Agnieszka Pajączkowska, a culture expert and creator of photographic projects. In her book, Wędrowny Zakłąd Fotograficzny [The Wandering Photographic Shop], she describes a journey through the eastern and south-western borders of Poland, during which she offered to take portrait photos of the inhabitants in exchange for family stories.
The Conrad Award
On the last day of the festival, we will meet the winner of the Conrad Award, which has been handed out since 2015. The statuette, in the form of a characteristic telescope, goes to the author of the best prose debut every year. The Conrad Award is a part of the programme for supporting debuts in Krakow – UNESCO City of Literature, a joint venture of the City of Krakow, the Krakow Festival Office, the Book Institute and the Tygodnik Powszechny Foundation
The Conrad Festival is co-financed by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage from the Culture Promotion Fund.