In Dialogue

Context N°17

by Jacques Jouet and Anita Konkka

In summer of the year 2000 Anita Konkka and Jacques Jouet took part in a unique pan-European project called the Literature Express Europe 2000. The journey started on June 4 in Lisbon with 107 authors from 45 countries on board. The train traversed the continent in a great arc, crossing the Iberian peninsula, France, Belgium, Germany, and Poland, up to the Baltic States and Russia, turning down again via Belorussia and Poland to Berlin, where it arrived on July 14. After the journey, the authors contributed a written piece to the book Europaexpress: Ein literarisches Reisebuch (2001). Below is an edited selection from their correspondence. For the complete exchange, we direct you to issue seven of the online magazine Drunken Boat with whose kind permission these letters are reprinted. (Some of the awkward phrasings by Anita Konkka have been purposefully preserved in this ‘translation.’)

Paris, 17 September 2000
Dear Anita,

For the trip, I brought along a story. It tells of men inventing brick and mortar (and architecture thereafter) and building a tower, in order to have a look at what goes on là-haut (upstairs). Divinity, disapproving of such pretension, condemns them, imposing upon them two punishments (peines): geographic dispersion and the plurality of languages. Rather monstrous of divinity, wouldn’t you say? But it failed to think of everything: men reacted by inventing travel (train travel) and translation. Plus, they discovered they could learn several languages.

Since it is absolutely desired that something be brought back from one’s travels, I seem to have returned with this tale, which I have nourished, recounting it over and over at differing stages. Soap disappears quicker; toothpaste vanishes faster from its tube.


Helsinki, 18 September 2000
Dear Jacques,

I remember that in those ancient days people journeyed east. They wanted to make a name for themselves, built the tower. Familiar, isn’t it? Godhead got a terrible fright when he saw the unfinished tower. He exclaimed: “Behold, the people are one, united in a single language, and now they are building this tower. Henceforth nothing that they imagine will surpass them. Go to, let us down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand each other’s speech.” Divide and conquer, thought Godhead. But his was a vain attempt.

Indeed, as you said, men are inventive. One day a man invented the train of Babel. (In Hebrew “Babel” resembles the word balal, which means “to mix”). There were 100 writers on board, and we spoke 98 different languages, as it had been written . . . We were all journeying from the edge of Europe eastward. The tour lasted sex weeks; oh sorry, I mean six. Sex is Swedish.

All languages went into disorder. I lost my tongue. And in my mind the confusion persists. On the tenth day of the journey I limped along a street in Paris. Across the street there was a shop, and in the window a sign: Une autre idée du pain naturel. My left foot was in pain (blisters on my toes). Heck, I thought, this, if anything, is natural pain—but what kinds of ideas do Parisians have about pain? Might they be somewhat more spiritual or emotional than my pain?


Paris, 19 September 2000
Dear Anita,

Bread (Le pain) and pain (la peine) . . . As soon as a store brings out “another idea of something,” the only difference between the non-other idea and the other idea is that the other idea is sold at a higher price. The advantage of pain is that it is not for sale (or is it?). Varvas? Toes covered in blisters . . . but the voyage was not a walking tour! How did you manage to get blisters on your varvas (one of the Finnish words with which I am the most familiar)?

Last night, I dreamt I was in an elevator with a horse.


Helsinki, 20 September 2000
Dear Jacques,

How did I get the blisters? you ask. That’s another story. I must confess, I bought new shoes, put them on, and went to diner and to dance in the disco called the Cabaret Sauvage. That was the simple cause of my pains. My very old grandmother would have said: “It serves you right. The wage of sin is suffering.” So I limped through the streets the next day and fooled around in the passageways of the metro. I would have needed Ariadne’s thread to find the right exit. I had completely lost my bearings. Otherwise I felt at home in Paris, a blackbird sang bluely in the yard of the hotel—it sounded as if Hungarian—and I slept well without sleeping pills (for the first time during the journey). I had no bad dreams until in Dortmund. Some animal, maybe it was a bear or a bull, tried to rape me. It was very hairy. I think it must be the bear, because my name is not Europe. Nothing like that has happened to me for years. I wonder, why that only happened in Dortmund, in such an ordinary German city, where everybody was sitting by the TV watching football, the World Cup matches.


Paris, 20 September 2000
Dear Anita,

You speak to me of Paris, but I cannot answer you by speaking of Helsinki. . . .

Speaking only one language, French, does not in theory suit me. And yet, I have never succeeded in convincingly speaking any second language. It’s a kind of infirmity. To know but one language is to know none, including one’s own. I—who so willingly calls myself a polygraphist, a polytheist, a polysemist, and a polygamist—I realize that I might well have started by becoming a polyglot. Occasionally, I pretend.

It’s rather extraordinary that there isn’t a single European language; consequently, there isn’t a European literature. Babel is paradise and I will never forgive Mallarmé for having called the world’s languages “imperfect in that they are plural.” Or, rather, long live imperfection and impurities.


Helsinki, 21 September 2000
Hey, hey Jacques, you are on your home ground, but don’t forget that I am only a tourist both in French and English. I do stupid mistakes. I know neither rules and manners nor the connotations. I’m wordblind. I stumble over words, I mishear, miswrite, misconceive, and misread (when you write “upstairs” I read “up stars”) . . . There is always the language barrier, you knocking on one side, and me on the other side of a wall.

The dialogue is going to be difficult, because I must get along with English, which . . . “consists entirely of foreign words pronounced wrongly,” as Kurt Tucholsky said. I am not able to talk in the abstract in English. I can only communicate through stories, dreams and poems . . . I have a particular story in mind, about an interpreter and four men, but it is not the European story, because it was told by Rumi. But let’s leave it untold, because it is not part of European literature. Instead, you could say more about “un train qui siffle dans la nuit / C’est un sujet de poésie”? Or recount something about Europe. Whose Europe?

There is not only one European literature, you said. C’est cela! But what is European literature? Your books, my books, and the books of many others. During our tour of Europe, I would drop into bookshops. I saw heaps of the bookhamburgers. Throughout the continent from the west to the east they sold the same titles and names—John Grisham, Stephen King, Colin Dexter, etc.—like in the shopping center of Munkkivuori (the suburb of Helsinki where I live). Side by the side, in a tight row, on a bookcase in the back part of the shop, is where I would find European literature, i.e. French, German, English, Spanish, and Italian books in translations. There were no copies of Estonian, Ukrainian, Slovenian, or Belorussian, to say nothing of Finnish literature. But does it matter at all? I prefer world literature. I’m not a wholehearted European.


Paris, 25 September 2000
You are right. It is unfair that we are not using Finnish in this dialogue. Were you to write to me in Finnish, necessity would have me go the Finnish Cultural Institute (a ten-minute walk from my home) to beg for a translation. It’s doable. Where there is a desire to speak, there is never a “language barrier.”

I regret the too-brief appearance of Rumi. Who said we were only allowed European stories?

I did not say that there isn’t a single European literature. It’s much more serious than that: there is no such a thing as European literature at all, since a literature is necessarily written in a language, at least to begin with. I speak in a language, not in a nation. Here, I am going make an untranslatable pun: ça soufi comme ça (that’s Enoch already), enough ideologies of universal literary imperialism! What’s that? Our little narrative or poetic shits should automatically concern 6 billion human beings? What a bore! I want to showcase the language I intimately know. So, of course, I prioritize readers who are also intimate with that language. It’s got nothing to do with France and everything to do with French. This being said, I do entirely trust translation and apprenticeship (see the fable of Babel).

I have another story. It is the tale of how, little by little, the Sphinx was devouring the young generation of Thebes. No one knew how to answer her question about the animal with four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening. One day, a young imbecile responds that this animal is man, and the Sphinx kills himself. And the young imbecile thinks he has saved Thebes. But he has only made matters worse by dragging Thebes down into the absence of questions. The only possible reply to the Sphinx of Thebes is a plurality of replies, ad infinitum: the animal in question is potentially the entire nomenclature of Linnaeus (including the species discovered since)—for example, the horse who runs in the morning, rears in his elevator at noon, and has a shoe replacement in the evening. Accordingly, the question is permanent, the Sphinx lives on and endlessly questions, the young generation lives on and endlessly answers.


Helsinki, 25 September 2000
. . . Let’s return to Rumi. His story goes something like this: There were four men and they had but one coin. They went to the market. The Persian said: “I will buy some angur.” The Arab said: “No, because I want inab.” The Turk said: “I do not want inab, I want uzüm.” The Greek said: “I want stafil.” The four men started to fight because they did not know what was behind the names. They had information but no knowledge. If there had been one wise man present, he would have known that each in his own language wanted the same thing: grapes. Such a man could have reconciled them saying: “I can fulfill all of your needs. If you trust me, your one coin will become as four; and four men at odds will become as one.”


Paris, 29 September 2000
. . . When I attempt to retell the story of the Sphin of Thebes, I refuse the notion that it is a story about me; it is the tale of language. I refuse the notion that it is a story about Oedipus; it is the tale of the Sphinx. It suffices that young women and young men answer the Sphinx in the tale, and not horses or koalas. Here too, it is still a question of the mono-, of the whole, of the one. Monotheism should offer some progress over polytheism, a single original language. In translating the Bible, the Septuagint should independently, miraculously finish with the exact same text; the Persian, the Turk, the Greek, and the Arab should all four be looking for the same grape, and Europe should be one . . .

Besides, I must admit it to you, the horse in the elevator neighs a little at the notion of a European union. On the other hand, he fiercely favors its expansion. Our voyage included all of Europe’s languages, not merely those of the rich. That, in itself, was great!

Funny, in French legalese, the word for expansion (élargissement) denotes “the release or freeing of a prisoner.” Europe of the rich is imprisoned; we must urgently ensure her broadening (release). And, once she is some forty strong, we’ll broaden her even further. . . .


Helsinki, 4 October 2000
I agree with you on the idea of the European Union. It’s dull like a marriage of convenience. . . .

I think the whole journey was like a long dream, sometimes a bit boring like those countless cocktail-parties, in which we were involved, sometimes a bit nightmarish, particularly when I lost my way. And it got lost very often, even in St. Petersburg! I was all the time so dumfused (dumb + confused) about the babble of tongues. Somehow I felt that I had no time to learn anything about Europe. After all, did it really exist? . . .


Paris, 5 October 2000
Dearest Anita,

I am a louse. I persist to write to you in my comfortable French. Please respond to me in Finnish, or else I will start writing to you in English, or worse, in Europano: ich vais escribir ti in anglik or . . .

For me, our voyage was a pleasure. Why? First, because if you put me by a window on a train, my mouth opens and eight, twelve, twenty-four, two hundred hours later, I am in the same place, my mouth still agape. I am terribly docile. (Here, by the way, is another saying I’ve invented: “If your nose stinks, everything stinks.”) Luckily, during our trip, we had to arrive . . . take our luggage, check-in before checking out, check-out after having checked-in, successively discovering nineteen hotel rooms, if I’m not mistaken. . . . How extraordinary, to stay in nineteen hotel rooms in six weeks. A first for me. I want to become perfectly mobile.

But seriously, I recall the elevator in Lisbon; I recall the cheeses of Malaga; I recall the Swiss pavilion at the expo in Hanover; I recall a long conversation about Kosovo with Fatos Kongoli in Kaliningrad . . . I recall dried fish displayed like gladioli at the market in Riga . . . I even recall having eaten, in Minsk, sieniä (one of the Finnish words with which I am most familiar)—was it prudent? Etc., etc., etc. . . .

It’s bizarre, every time I hear the word Europe, I think of my African friends and my ardor wanes. . . .


Helsinki, 8 October 2000
My dear Jacques,

Don’t ever think of writing in English or Europanto or whatever. Humour is the first thing to disappear in a foreign tongue. I very much like your puns, although je n’y vois souvent que du bleu. Maybe we ought to write this duologue in Latin or Spanish. Tres cosas hacen a los hombres sages: letras, años y viajes (a Spanish proverb). Though I’m no wiser after this six-week tour of our brave new Europe. Otherwise Europe seems to be very fragile. There were many new glass buildings everywhere, especially in Berlin. . . .

I remember throngs of mosquitoes keeping me awake in an Oktyabarskaya hotel. And I remember a sad-looking mare clattering along Nevsky Prospekt at midnight. I remember two metallic horses flung out four hooves above Fontanka—originally there were four horses, but two of them had run away from their pedestals just a couple of days before the literature train arrived. I remember the white nights, actually they were lurid yellowish nights, when all horses, metallic and real—as well as the whole city—seemed to hover in the air, and I was so unhappy, my heels bleeding from long-walking and around-searching for the house where my grandmother lived before she was expelled from the town. I simply couldn’t remember where the house was. . . .


Paris, 25 October 2000
Dear Anita,

Proposal: Literature is a collective activity. What do you think?


Helsinki, 25 October 2000
We are just about to finish our joint venture, and you ask if the literature is a collective activity. Dear Jacques, what else could it be? You have acted as a catalyst for me, and I have given impulses to you, isn’t that true? Maybe the final outcome is not what we expected or imagined, but in any case it is some kind of literature, at least I think so. One thing is for sure, literature is always collective—as collective as language and dreams are—because no one is writing or dreaming in a vacuum. When I am writing, I am in a dialogue with the living and the dead writers, from classic Chinese and Russian writers to modern French or Finnish writers.

Before we put the end to our dialogue, I’d like to return to your story about the Sphinx. Some days ago I read purely coincidentally a poem about the Russian Sphinx written by Alexander Blok. That Sphinx was quite different from the Western Sphinx, who always asks rationalistic riddles. According to Blok the Russian Sphinx is emotional and ambivalent . . . She is mute, “grieving and exulting, bleeding black and bloody tears. And she stares at you, adoring and insulting with love that turns to hate, and hate—to love.” Maybe there will always be a large gap between Western and Eastern Europeans, because of two completely different Sphinxes—and I sense that I’m always hovering on the boundary of those two worlds. Sometimes I understand the riddles of the Western Sphinx, sometimes not, but as you said, it is stupid and dangerous to try to solve riddles. Am I right?


Translated from the French by Jean-Jacques Poucel.

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