27 October 2017 To pierce a bubble

What the workers in Louisiana dream about? Why to build a bicycle lane when there are no bicycles in town? Who is having an affair with whom in Grudziądz? How long do you have to live in a new place not to be a stranger anymore? The guests of the fourth day of the Conrad Festival look at the world at a microscale.

For years sociologists have pointed out that the reason of unrest lies in the deepening gap between social groups: city and village residents, the rich and the poor, believers of various religions and different ethnic groups. A group of students of the Polish School of Reportage, involved in the project ”The lights of a small town” look at those phenomena in Poland. Nineteen young reporters went to small towns where bicycle lanes are built, though there are no cyclists, where Internet shopping is controversial, and where those who moved in a few dozen years ago are still labelled as “newcomers”. They went there not to be surprised but to understand. “We found out that we live in a bubble, and the media we read and watch do not say anything about a vast part of Poland” said Agata Grabowska, the initiator of the project. 

Michał Witkowski explores similar areas, not as a reporter but a novelist. His most recent novel Wymazane is set in a small locality near Grudziądz. “Whatever theme I take, I end up in a provincial town sooner or later” – he said yesterday. ”Maybe because such an environment seems to me a lot more interesting than, let say, Krakow about which everything has been already written”.

If you wanted to find an American equivalent to such a small town, you should probably look for it in the south the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild travelled there – to Louisiana – to understand how extreme right is being born, why Tea Party is popular and why Americans decided to put their future into the hands of Donald Trump. She asked people known as “red necks” to show her their former school, the church, to tell her about their parents and grandparents. “I learned to speak their language and I understood that they feel to be at the end of the line waiting for “the American dream” – she explained. ”They feel that their place has been taken by women, refugees, Afro-Americans, even animals, all those who benefit from the state’s  financial or structural support.”

Another Festival guest – French researcher Nilüfer Göle, who visited 21 European cities to analyse the conflicts between Catholics and Muslims who live in Europe. “Contrary to stereotypical perceptions, Islam is highly diversified: on the one hand full bitterness, while on the other hand warmhearted, colonial and European, it can be focused on the scared and yearning for modernity” – explained the researcher.  – ”It is a polyphony which is worth listening”. 

The meeting with Hugh Howey, one of the most popular science fiction writer, only seemingly strayed from sociological analyses. In his trilogy Silos he shows a world divided into classes which can hardly communicate at all.

The meeting with Dan Brown was an accompanying event on the Festival programme, but it attracted of fans drew to Kijów Cinema. The author of The da Vinci Code began the evening from a brief lecture on the role and the future of religion. “Today we can still be enchanted with the story of Adam and Eve, but it is harder and harder to believe in it in the times when we have scientific evidence of everything” – he said when he answered to the readers’ questions. They wanted to know if there is any chance for a novel about Krakow (in principle he doesn’t give promises, but he is enchanted by the city), if he is already working on a new book (for the time being he is has taken a moment of respite after the premiere of Origin) and what he thinks about the lead character in the story and if he thinks he is intelligent). The film The da Vinci Code was shown right after the meeting in Pod Baranami Cinema.

Half-through the Festival the organisers decided not only to talk about books, but also to think about the condition of places where we buy them. Jorge Carrión, a Spanish writer, the author of Bookshops – a guidebook through five continents showing the most interesting bookstores – talked about the future of bookshops. In his opinion, the heyday of huge networks is past, and the era of human-scale small bookshop is coming, which will play the role of local cultural centres. “You will be able not only to buy a book there, to have a coffee, to watch a movie or to listen to a concert” – he said, adding that the death of a paper book announced for so long seems an unrealistic vision. “A book is like a spoon – nothing better have been invented so far”.

The festival energy could be heard yesterday in Kazimierz, where a meeting with the  Mikołaj Grynberg, the author of the book Rejwach, was held and a meeting with Anna Bikont, the author a recently published biography of Irena Sendlerowa, in the Galicia Jewish Museum. There was also something on store for the lovers of visual arts  –  an exhibition of Gunter Grass’s drawings – Gdańsk collection On the Way. In the Wyspiański Pavilion Jacek Dehnel and Wojciech Nowicki talked about their collections of unusual photographs.

What can we expect today at the Conrad Festival? For detailed programme of the fifth day click: here.