The festival begins in Zagreb, on a rooftop terrace, where a waiter brings out platters of fish, meat and bread. Everything is delicious. You are introduced to Robert Perišić, the author who leads the festival. He writes and speaks beautifully. Another organiser, writer and publisher, Ivan Sršen, is clever and reassuring. He always knows what to do. When you return home you will find yourself thinking What would Ivan do now? How can I live my life without Ivan to guide me? But you also know that Ivan wants you to carry on without him.
Each night there is a bilingual Croatian-English event, compèred by a talented poet called Marko Pogacar. Actually Marko’s compèring is quite alchemical, because he draws so many disparate strands together each evening. Translations are projected behind the writers as they read. It becomes apparent that many contemporary Croatian writers are high ironists, forging dark comedy from aspects of life that most disturb them – war, corruption, the riotous hypocrisy of those who claim to govern us.
The tour runs from Zagreb to Pula to Rijeka, a region of densely forested mountains. Pula is a beautiful town by the coast, with a famous amphitheatre. You become obsessed with submerging yourself in the sea at any available opportunity. The festival organisers are deeply understanding, though you (alright – I) arrive at events henceforth in damp clothes, smelling faintly of salt. The readings in Pula take place at an abandoned barracks, the walls covered in lurid graffiti; in Rijeka, at an observatory, a planetarium, where drifting constellations hypnotise the audience. And a hypnotised audience is a happy audience. Everyone stays that night in a 1930s Josip Pičman hotel, with views across Kvarner Bay.
The final venue in Zagreb is another atmospheric building, reclaimed from the past. Perhaps we have succumbed to group hysteria, or the residual effects of celestial hypnosis, but it seems suddenly that there are strange moments of understanding between writers and readers, that these moments are genuinely significant to those concerned, that this is actually why we write, even though writing is also the most absurd enterprise as well.
With many thanks to our wonderful hosts – Robert Perišić, Tina Tešija and Ivan Sršen – the audiences, the publishers and my fellow authors.
By Joanna Kavenna
Joanna Kavenna grew up in various parts of Britain, and has also lived in the USA, France, Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic States. Her novel Inglorious won the Orange Award in 2008. and her writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, the International Herald Tribune among other publications. In 2013 she was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. She will read an excerpt from her satiric novel Come to the Edge.