Contemporary Central/East European Writers Converge

As the concept of an exclusive, Central European identity gained prominence among writers from the region in the 1980s, one theme that was visible, polemical, and politically noteworthy was the distinction between “Central” and “Eastern” Europe. From a particular cultural perspective, which Milan Kundera defined in his essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” (New York Review of Books, 4/26/84), Central Europe was understood as everything Eastern European that was not Russian. Out of many possible reasons for this exclusivity, I would like to focus on the postcolonial implications of rejecting Russian and/or Soviet culture. The goal is not to prove Central Europe postcolonial (a task which would call for a much broader reevaluation of the categories), but to compare the articulation of Central European identity in the West by certain writers and dissident intellectuals, with similar claims of regional identity by postcolonial writers and intellectuals. I will use the transcript of a conference which took place in Lisbon in 1990 as an example of such a cross-examination.

The Lisbon Conference was the second in a series of three annual meetings of Central European and Russian writers (1989, Vienna; 1991, Budapest) sponsored by the Wheatland Foundation of New York. The stated goal of the first part of the conference was to determine the status of Central European literature: whether certain characteristics could be found in common in the work of writers from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Albania, and whether that literature could be distinguished from Russian, or Soviet literature. The Russian half of the conference was supposed to demonstrate a similar diversity, by introducing some of the literatures of the non-Russian Soviet writers to a world audience (the presence of Armenian writer Grant Matevosian represented this idea to the organizers). Although most of the presenters had prepared papers for this conference, moderator Michael Scammell decided to summarize the contents of the papers himself, and then open up the floor for a general discussion. As a result, after a few initial statements about the nature of Central Europe, a real confrontation took place between those representing Central Europe, and the Russian writers present.

The most significant fact to emerge from the ensuing debate was that the Russian writers (more specifically, those writers from Russia who were in the West for the first time) were unfamiliar with the concept of a distinct Central European culture. They were even more perplexed when their attitude towards Central Europe was described as cultural imperialism, or even colonialism. During the second day of discussions on this topic, Iosif Brodskij began to moderate the misunderstanding between his fellow Russian poets and his Central European colleagues from New York. Also contributing to the conversation about colonialism were Derek Walcott and Salman Rushdie, who spoke from the audience. This was a crucial moment for the proponents of Central Europe as they recognized their own, visceral reaction towards the Russian writers, an identity defined against Russian-ness that had so far only been theorized. By looking closely at the exchanges between writers at the Lisbon Conference, this paper should provide a way to understand the anti-imperial aspect of Central European identity in broader debates about colonial and imperial powers, and what happens when those powers lose their cultural currency.