Chugging along on Europe's Literary Express

Article excerpt

What happens when one hundred writers spend a month without books on a train, debating in more than 40 languages and stopping along the way to meet the crowds? For one traveller, the Literature Express Europe 2000 did not live up to its dream of cultural dialogue

One hundred writers on the same train. Awesome. Unprecedented. The train started in Lisbon and was called the Southern Express until it reached Paris. Then it went to Berlin, Saint Petersburg and Moscow, for which it was rechristened the Northern Express. For the purposes of the entire trip, therefore, it was the North-South Express. A legend comparable to the Orient Express was born.

I boarded the train without any preconceptions. It was enough for me to know that in Germany, where the idea was invented, it was called Literatur-express Europa 2000 and in other countries the Comboio da literatura europa 2000, the Expreso da literatura europa 2000, the Literaturtrena europa 2000 or Literaturas ekspresis eiropa, and so on. A train with many names that all said the same thing but had a different ring each time. In that sense, it was lyrical; what more could poets ask for?

And by the way, what would a train like this be like without cellular phones, cameras and other substitutes for male virility? Answer: it would be worthless. Cellular phones, extensively used during the trip by serious-looking passengers, gave the train a distinctive feel. They were to our train what the six-shooter is to the western.

At first, there was just a train. Only as time went by did it become our train, for all of us writers, attendants and journalists. Much to my surprise, the journalists were very polite. They belong to our big family. We accepted them and that put them at ease. We didn't mind the situation, for not only were the questions they asked very different from the common ones, but they also took a more original approach to photographing us. They were our teammates, in the noble sense of the term.

Our train is on the Internet: www.literaturexpress.org. We travelled across Europe at top speed, but our souls did not follow. But we are on the Internet, therefore we are.

We represent a vast potential: the European intelligentsia on rails. All of us travelled quietly in the same direction, in first-class. If the train disappeared in Durrenmatt's [1] tunnel, many books slumbering in our guts and minds would never see the light of day, and many poems would be swallowed up by darkness. Oh, dearest locomotive, whether you look like the mouth of a crocodile, a shark or a laughing cormorant, beware of the Durrenmatt tunnel! The publishers, who love us the same way that pimps love their prostitutes, would never forgive you your trespasses.

The women and men of letters were received by the former French prime minister and deputy mayor of the city of Bordeaux, Alain Juppe, who invited us to attend a reception held in our honour at city hall. He did not show up and sent a delegate to read his speech, which was probably drafted by his secretary. After the first three sentences, translation into English and German began, which slowed the process down considerably, though the more the sentences were put through the translation mill, the shorter they became. To be honest, they should have been translated ad absurdum, until the machine ground up all our languages. Then the last language should have been translated into French, which would have given us a completely new text. That is how money gets laundered in my country I tell myself.

Bordeaux is the city of the three Ms. If that brings to mind McDonald's, the symbol of the Mercure hotel chain or, if you are familiar with Switzerland, the MigrosMarkt logo, your way of thinking is most definitely down-to-earth. For Bordeaux is in fact the city of the writers Montaigne, Montesquieu and Mauriac.

Question: "What do you think of the train?" the journalists ask. We asked each other the same thing. …