Animals and Other People | Day 2

Victoria Strobl and Irene Zanol report daily from the European Literature Days.
auf buchfühlung (Victoria Strobl & Irene Zanol)

09.00 – Living with Animals – What is Good and Free?

Hilal Sezgin, the journalist and author, has lived for many years with sheep, cats, raccoons, geese, snails and other animals at a sanctuary in Lüneburg Heath. Due to her animal care duties – especially for her herd of sheep, many of them in their old age – she joined the opening dialogue on day two via a live video link with host Veronika Trubel. Sezgen, who rejects the term pet sanctuary or animal hospice, because of an undertone of a paternalistic gesture towards the animals, talks about her life together with her animals. The author explains that it’s not romantic and only rarely idyllic. She gives several fascinating examples to describe the effect of current animal welfare provisions, which still declare farm animals as a “means to earn subsistence”. For example, the operation for a sheep with a cataract was not even possible without special authorization and also giving some pain relief – obviously, only a few formulations are approved, which aren’t always equally effective – is simply not allowed.

Hilal Sezgin criticizes this state repression of our animals; because animals, regardless of whether domestic pets or farm animals, have a right to a life without exploitation.

When asked whether we ought also to demand moral action from animals, Sezgin says that reflective action could only be anticipated from those who could pose this question in the first place. However, every sentient animal would have a right to a good life. 

10.00 – The Fourth Blow to Man

For the day’s second agenda item, “The Fourth Blow to Man”, Mara-Daria Cojocaru and Rosie Goldsmith took to the stage in the Minoritenkirche in Krems. Unfortunately, Eva Meijer, (a second invited author), was unable to participate in the dialogue. Cojocaru is a poet and philosopher and lives with her three dogs in Great Britain. In her book “Passionate Animals”, she describes the point about empathy towards animals. Animal experiments and livestock farming are the main focus of her work, but also the issue of why people, who are aware of the aim of avoiding animal suffering, unfortunately only too rarely follow the logical conclusion: they make different decisions at the supermarket checkout. This also applies in cases aside from animal ethics matters, where there would be sound reasons to avoid animal suffering: for instance, ecological problems and environmental protection issues.

A unique quality of Mara-Daria Cojocaru’s poetic work, which Rosie Goldsmith draws attention to in the discussion, is her “animal informed poetry” in which she expands writing about animals by not merely composing verse about animals but writing for and with the help of animals – in other words, Multispecies Poetry. On joint walks the dogs act as so-called “leading artists”; they decide which olfactory intriguing objects should be collected by the poet. The street names where the dogs have sniffed out something then become poem titles.

Excerpts from her work with dogs are on display in the Minoritenkirche in a micro-exhibition and video projection. 

11.30 – Invisible Life – Dwellers of the Night

It’s a talking sturgeon that we get to know in the reading by Slovak writer, Michal Hvorecky, from his book “Danube. The Magic River”. Inspired by his work as a manager on one of the large Danube boats, as a follow-up to his first book he decided in his current novel to continue exploring the treasures of the Danube, and this time from the perspective of an animal. The author relates that during his research he became acquainted with this sturgeon as a hidden heart of the river. The Danube resident lived to between 150 and 200 years old when it was still in its native habitat; its living space incorporated the entire length of the river. However, his ancestors, the great sturgeon, an even more impressive animal that lived in the Danube for centuries, have been extinct for some time. The expansion of dams, as well as river cruises have destroyed its habitat and that of its smaller descendants. Michal Hvorecky wanted to give this animal a voice.

It’s not just traffic and building projects, rubbish and noise that destroy the habitat of numerous animals, but also inventions that you wouldn’t directly associate with interference in animals’ living environment. For example, the electric light and the resulting now large-scale illumination of inner cities. This plays a major role in the destruction of the natural habitat of nocturnal animals, which includes 60 per cent of all animals, explains Sophia Kimmig. The wildlife biologist and author set out on the trail of the urban fox in her 2021 bestseller “Von Füchsen und Menschen” (“About Foxes and People”). While many animals, as well as people who are active during the day, are primarily out and about during their respective day times, the fox is a genuine nocturnal and diurnal animal. The fox feels good during the day and at night and is familiar with both worlds.

In her current book “Lebendige Nacht”, she attributes the motif of night as still associated with evil in literature to people being active during daytime and being heavily dependent on light: “Our sight is our strongest sense. Darkness and night have a threatening effect on us,” says Kimmig. 

The biologist gives her explicit affirmation to the question about an animal language. This is posed by the moderator of this dialogue and readings, Rainer Moritz, who identifies it as THE question of this year’s literature festival. “People are only animals anyway and have at best developed a slightly more complex type of language. To dispute that other animals have a language is the logic of a purely anthropocentric world view.”

14.30 – Metamorphoses and Transmigrations of the Soul

Rosie Goldsmith welcomes two guests on stage in the afternoon: Sibylle Grimbert and Antoine Jaccoud. Grimbert, the French author and publisher, has already published her eleventh novel with “The Last of His Kind” (“Der letzte seiner Art” (2023), German translation by Sabine Schwenk). Here, she focuses on the story of the great auk, Prosp, related by the zoologist Gus. The question here is how it affects a human when he meets an individual known to be the last representative of his species. Grimbert deliberately narrates not from the perspective of the declining great auk. (“For me it was absolutely impossible to be inside the penguin”). Rather, she tries to establish how man and animal communicate; she describes the feeling of losing a friend – and at the same time also the reminiscence.

The theme of parting is also the focus of texts by Antoine Jaccoud, the French Swiss author, playwright, screenplay author and sociologist. The author describes how he drew great compositional energy from saying goodbye, from the fascination of the end and invested this in writing the stories for the book “Der gefrorene Zulu im Diemingtal” (“The Frozen Zulu in the Diemtig Valley”, German translation by Alex Capus, 2022). Jaccoud reads an excerpt from the monologue, “Goodbye, Children”.

Both dialogue partners agree that the relationship between humans and animals is currently undergoing radical change. Jaccoud summarizes the reason for the greater openness of many people: “because our existence is now in jeopardy”. On the other hand, Grimbaud wants to remain cautiously optimistic. She doesn’t consider herself as a campaigner and doesn’t believe that fiction could change the world. But she draws hope from young people.

19.30 – Words and Sounds: Teresa Präauer and Anna Mabo

The second festival day drew to a close with a happy performance constellation. And not just because the stage director and musician, Anna Mabo, already produced the debut performance of Teresa Präauer’s novel “Oh Schimmi” in 2018. It was also because their words and sounds – enriched with Clemens Sainitzer’s melodies on the cello – made a memorable stage finale in the Klangraum Krems Minoritenkirche.

Teresa Präauer not only gave Rainer Moritz more information about the animals that populate her work, but also demonstrates besides the rewards of what she calls “dancing thought”: namely, changing one’s position in thought, staying agile, surprising oneself in interviews with one’s own answers.

Amidst the music and conversation, Teresa Präauer read from her two books “Oh Schimmi” and “Tier werden”, which like many of her previous pieces constantly allude to animals. Teresa Präauer explained with a glint in her eye how, at some point, the animal issues got on her nerves. So, in her new novel “Dining in the Wrong Century” they only appeared in the form of recipes. But animals definitely played a leading role in the musical fringe programme. Teresa Präauer promptly responded with “dancing thought” to Anna Mabo’s fantastic rendition of “The Bear” and gave the audience two reading tips. Nastassja Martin “In the Eye of the Wild” and Marian Engel’s “Bear” are two completely different books about bears; they have given new impetus to the basic question of the function of animals in literature.

“Anna Mabo inspires me to headbanging!” – the music inspired this impulse not only for Teresa Präauer, but for the audience as well. At the end of the evening, everyone probably had to agree with a line from the song “The Bear”: “and you have to put up with it, even if you find it tedious, that questions are only ever the answer to your questions.” The leitmotif “Animals and other people” was debated so comprehensively over the past two days of the festival that many of the answers opened up new questions – fortunately, we will still be able to give them our attention during both upcoming festival days.

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