Jacques Jouet and Anita Konkka in Dialogue
In summer of the year 2000 Anita Konkka and Jacques Jouet took part
in the unique pan-European project called the Literature Express Europe
2000. The journey started on 4 June in Lisbon: the Literature Express
ran the route of the historic North-South Express, 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 Byelorussia
and Poland to Berlin, where it arrived on 14 July. After the journey,
the authors contributed a written piece to the book Europaexpress: Ein
literarisches Reisebuch (2001). Below is their original exchange of letters.
(Some of the awkward phrasings by Anita Konkka have been purposefully
preserved in this translation).
Paris, 17 September 2000
For the trip, I brought along a story. It tells of men inventing brick
and mortar (and architecture thereafter) and building a tour, in order
to have a look at what goes on là-haut (upstairs). Divinity, disapproving
of such pretension, condemns them, imposing two punishments (peines) upon
them: 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 wears thin more
quickly; toothpaste empties faster from its tube.
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. And it was very true. 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 there
was 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
If we were 100 writers (perhaps 103, but ok, we can round it off) and
if we spoke 98 languages, for 98 of us our own language was indecipherable,
and 2 of us were mute: you and me. You're always exaggerating! Besides,
the story is much too vast a cloak for a single reality.
Bread (Le pain) and pain (la peine)… As soon as store brings out “an other
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
It is not I but Frenchmen who exaggerate. I read in the French program,
that there are "100 auteurs, 43 pays, 98 langues" in the train. Ever since
then, I wondered who the other mute could be. I would never have guessed,
that you were that “Autre.”
How did I get the blisters? you asked. 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 along in 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
You speak to me of Paris, but I cannot answer you by speaking of Helsinki.
It was in Tallin, if I'm not mistaken, that we were the closest.
How curious, we are conversing in two languages, thanks to your abilities
and to the language dubbed dominant. Still, Albanian is not a minor language,
since it is dominant in Albania, as is Rumanian in Rumania. But not Byelorussian
in Byelorussia, for, in Byelorussia, if I've got it right, the press,
television, and schools are all in Russian.
If by breaking and entering, I managed to slip into the skin of the second
mute among the 100 authors (I note that you are not contesting that you
were indeed the first), it is because 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,
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
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 word-blind. I
stumble over words, I mishear, miswrite, misconceive and misread (when
you write upstairs I read up stars). Mere misunderstandings all lifelong.
I'm not quite sure, what you mean when you say you managed, “by breaking
and entering, to slip into the skin.” Maybe it is a French idiom-nothing
to do with skin slipping on skin? In this way we are each other's “l'autre.”
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 “is a simple, yet hard language. It consists entirely of foreign
words pronounced wrongly,” as Kurt Tucholsky said. I am not able to talk
in an abstract way/in the abstract in English. I can only communicate
through stories, dreams and poems. There are mediums which hide and show
what's is hidden. I have a particular story in mind, about an interpreter
and four men, but it is not the European story, because it has been told
by Rumi. But let's leave it untold, because it is not party 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.
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 book-hamburgers. 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 centre 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 shops 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 Byelorussian,
to say nothing of Finnish literature. But does it matter at all? I prefer
world literature. I 'm not a whole-hearted 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
I regret the too brief appearance of Rumi. Who said we were only allowed
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 am clearly saying 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 poops should automatically concern
6 billion human beings? What a bore! I want to demonstrate (show (off))
the language that I know intimately. And, of course, I prioritize a readership
that is also intimately familiar with that language. It's got nothing
to do with France, and everything to so with French. This being said,
I do entirely trust translation and apprenticeship (see the story/fable
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
to 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 Linné (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
As I see it, in the evening the horse changes into a horseshoe and brings
good luck. Among other good omens, one of the most conspicuous is to meet
a piebald (black-white spotted) horse. Sometimes the horse may turn out
to be 'un Cheval qui tombe les quatre fers en l'air,' and then its name
is Nightmare. But how on earth did the horse land in the lift? The answer
is not essential. Everything is possible in dreams. One night I woke up
when the voice of a man said in plain Finnish: "Kaikki on mahdollista"
(Everything is possible). It was clearly worded -as is the riddle of the
Sphinx-but I had no idea, what it indicated. This happened at Malbork.
Maybe the voice hinted at the great train tour, about which I dreamt ten
years previously. There is no time in dreams and myths, everything repeats
itself, and young fools like me (grin) try over and over again to reply
to the riddle of the Sphinx. That's the basic European myth. In other
words, the identity quest and question: ”Who am I.” But if Oedipus had
known who he was, would he have been any better off? Well, that's enough
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
Indeed, how did the horse come to enter the elevator, that vertical train?
Admittedly, he wants to climb the animal ladder. At noon, he stands on
his hind legs, but he doesn't last long. He has no time to compose his
Kalevala, his Chants de Maldoror, nor to make love frontally.
When I attempt to retell the story of the Sphinx 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 aught all four be looking for the same
grape, and Europe aught to be one….
Besides, I must admit it to you, the horse in the elevator neighs a little
at the notion of a European union. However, 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 a legal context in French, 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. And, once she is some
forty strong, we'll broaden her even further.
By the way, are you familiar with the Camarguan saying that I have just
coined: “Who dreams on horseback, dreams in horse tongue”?
Helsinki, 4 October 2000
I agree with you on the idea of the European Union. It's dull like a marriage
of convenience. Doesn't inspire to write in the Mayakovskian way: "I take
from the pocket of my baggy trousers/ My purple-coated passport/ Read
it, envy me/ I am a citizen of the European Union."
Well, I'm now back from St. Petersburg. I took a tour of the most impressive
monstrosity I have ever seen. It was a huge unfinished dyke constructed
as protection against the floods rising from the Gulf of Finland. But
the dyke construction stopped ten years ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Now the site is an enormous wasteland. All that's left is but grit and
gravel, concrete blocs and a dead bridge in two halves. It's a highly
inspiring place. Young Russian filmmakers like to direct films and make
music videos in that setting. I invented a story there telling why there
are floods in St. Petersburg, why "mysterious waters, now there rise",
as Pushkin chanted/sang. History tells us that Swedish prisoners built
the town. The work was so hard that ten thousand builders perished. But
actually they were Ingrains, my people, who lived in that area. The town
was built on their bones. The Ingrian women lost their husbands and sons.
Their sorrow was immense, but they dammed up their grief and put a hex
upon the town (in bygone times, those women were rune singers and well-known
for their power to chant charms-there are lots of their charms in Kalevala).
Mysterious waters are their tears. Every seventy years or so, their tears
come pouring out in floods four meters high. Believe or not, it's true
and it's the only possible explanation for the St. Petersburg floods.
During our Babelian train tour no place made so strong an impression on
me as that dyke site did. I think the whole journey was like a long dream,
sometimes a bit boring like those countless cocktail-party, 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?
Back to horses. You asked if I know Camarguan sayings. Unfortunately I
have no good dictionary of French sayings and idioms. And to be honest
with you, I had never heard of Camargua before going to the library to
read the Grande Larousse. At first I thought that it was some fabulous
hippoland full of talking and singing horses. I agree that the lift trip
is too short for making great love or epic, but a warm-blooded horse can,
at least, fall in love in the lift of Ostankino on his/her way to Seventh
Paris, 5 October 2000
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…
Why am I such a louse? Because Camargue (near Arles, close to the Mediterranean)
is inhabited by three species of natives: horses (you are perfectly right
about it being a hippoland), wind, and mosquitoes (the Camargans are going
to kill me). That's why I invented the saying; mosquitoes and wind do
not have dictums. Horses, however, just might.
I love to invent dictums because it's paradoxical. That is, unless all
dictums be invented.
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 still
had to arrive, regularly, take our luggage, check-in before checking out,
check-out after having checked-in, successively discovering 19 hotel rooms,
if I'm not mistaken (I am counting the two couchettes). How extraordinary,
to stay in 19 hotel rooms in six weeks. A first for me. I want to become
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 (it could
have taken place in Camargue, but I was not altogether indifferent to
its happening in Russia); I recall dried fish displayed like gladioli
at the market in Riga; I recall a long exchange in Moscow on the comparative
philosophies of France and Russia, before an audience in the Turgeniev
library; from Minsk, I recall the young Byelarussian writers, and their
blocked elders; 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.. I recall plenty of things that I do not necessarily feel licensed
to make public, things that lend me no authority to speak of cultural
It's bizarre, every time I hear the word Europe, I think of my African
friends and my ardor wanes. That's my own Mayakovsky.
I think of you and of your Ostankino???, which is a superimposed Eastern
multiplex made accessible by elevator, or is it a character from the Kalevala
(I am going to find out)?
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
By the way, Camargue is like St. Petersburg by way of its mosquitos, winds
and horses. 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 or
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.
Well, we have committed ourselves to write on our experiences of the trip
and about our experiences with Europe inter-alia. I'm musing how to write
about private experiences in public without being fictional in form. I
have never before tried doing that. Ought I write my memoirs? Impossible,
because to write memoirs of oneself is to write of the fellow travelers
as well, and then there is “the risk of invading their personal privacy.”
Need I ask for your permission, if I'd like to write that I remember you
swimming in the Baltic Sea at Svet? Svet-what was the name of that place
It was a strange experience for me to travel with others on so tight a
schedule. In some ways, I'm a flâneuse by nature. I used to travel alone
around Europe by train and bus. Never by air. Didn't ever dare ascend
Ostankino, Eiffel or any other tower either. Therefore I hold no high
opinion on Europe. But perhaps it is a little wider after our grand European
hotel tour, even if the journey was so hurried and sometimes a bit troublesome
like a led dance.
Paris, 10 October 2000
To some extent, this trip was terrible. We were given a vague mission
and our implicit expectations were not necessarily shared. I recall Brussels,
and that idiotic reception on the benches of Europe, as if we were among
the elected… elected monkeys…. How idiotic!
Writers are often tempted to think that it would be safer to read us first.
How true, indeed. To brandish a writer without having read them is a bad
idea. To accept being brandished in this fashion is yet another. But perhaps
you weren't even there.
I do not know if we need Europe, but we do need relations between us.
What's more, we already have them.
Today, by way of the good old mail, I received a letter from Fatos. And
Aleksandar Gatalica sends fresh news from Belgrade.
Helsinki, 21 October 2000
I was lucky enough not to be invited to that reception. You know I'm not
happy at official receptions and cocktail parties, except when they are
garden parties. If Hell exists, it is an everlasting EU reception. Meanwhile
you were suffering in Brussels as an elevated, exalted ape… (if not a
horse?) I enjoyed my stay in Flanders, meditating under an old tree at
Villa Mont-Noir and having a country dinner, peeled potatoes and a big
pig roasted on a spit, at an open-air restaurant called Het Labyrinth.
It was not a hot or cramped place, regardless of the name.
For some time, at back of my mind, I have had the word élargissement which
you said also means “mise en liberté d'un détenu.” Oh yes, of course it
makes sense, I think, the enlargement means setting a prisoner free. But
I don't think about the enlargement of the EU. My angle is slightly different.
I remember a Midsummer' s night dream I had during our journey. I was
a guard woman transporting prisoners by train. They ran away from the
train at one station and I couldn't stop them, inexperienced as I was
in my new occupation. The train left and I remained on the platform. There
was a ticket machine and above it this text: “This machine works only
in the rain.” The sun was shining. I took off from the station with a
forbidden book under my arm and went to bathe in a river. That happened
at a Latvian village. But in reality I was in Kaliningrad. On the previous
day I was going to check on Immanuel Kant's dilemma: how to cross the
seven bridges of Köningsberg without stepping twice on the same bridge.
I never got to any of those bridges, but landed instead in a large park.
It was like a land of the living, a lot of people spent Saturday (Saint
Jean) evening dancing, singing, playing accordion and drinking vodka there.
They were at large (en fuite) from their poverty and the dullness (boredom)
of everyday life. The Russians (not all peoples) are wide-screen people.
They are at their best when they have a lot of room, time and freedom.
They say: poguljat na vole, vyjti na volju, “to celebrate in freedom and
to get to freedom.” Probably, “enlargement” for them means above all to
set the soul free by celebrating, traveling and drinking lots of vodka.
In several senses, our journey was un voyage d' élargissement , wasn't
it? But as regards the mission you mentioned, I think that writers are
not good missionaries, thank heavens!
Paris, 25 October 2000
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. But according
to Blok the Russian Sphinx is emotional and ambivalent. She never asks,
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
Paris, 26 October 2000
Last night I said to myself: ok, I will send a question off to Anita,
henceforth a friend of mine in letters and in spirit. Anita will respond
and we will have finished our first collaborative piece. But things never
happen the way we tell ourselves they will. So, Anita, answer my question,
but complete your reply by sending a new one. To that question, my reply
is categorically negative. Not in order to try what's stupid and dangerous,
but in order to imagine already having succeeded.
Helsinki, 31 October 2000
Marvelous to be your friend 1300 years after Li Po!
I will consider what you have said.
I have nothing more to add, for last words are mostly beside the point.
PS. Imagine that! There are just now 10 000 plastic bears decorating the
street Unter den Linden in Berlin. The artist is planning to show the
bears in Paris to find an answer to his question “how can the boulevards
of this world communicate with each other.”
-Translated by Jean-Jacques Poucel