Arnon Grunberg
Words Without Borders

Literature as Social Experiment

A literary magazine in Romania published my nonfiction story about a group of American men who traveled to Ukraine in the hopes of finding a bride, or sex, or a combination of both. The tour was organized by a marriage agency in Arizona. Exactly one year ago, I embarked on this tour with them, disguised as an American hoping to find love in Odessa.
The reality there was different, as I wrote in my series of articles about this trip: “First Literature, Then Love.” This is a principle I still subscribe to.
My article in the Romanian magazine was accompanied by a panel discussion on the subject, “Literature as Social Experiment.” Experience has taught me that phrases like “social experiment” can have a different meaning in a place like Romania, especially when compared to the Netherlands or the U.S. So I prepared myself for all kinds of misunderstandings.
Last week, I traveled to Bucharest for the discussion. I had met the host of the discussion during earlier trips to Romania, and that had made it harder to refuse the invitation. The consequences of politeness can be far-reaching, but I tend to like Romania.
The panel discussion took place in a nightclub that could either be called shabby or trendy, depending on your preferences for nightclubs.
Officially, it was supposed to start at 6:30, but it was already 6:45 when the host of the event picked me up in my hotel.
There was a plenty of free beer at the nightclub—Heineken sponsored the event—and plenty of young people who appeared to be busy getting drunk.
The phrase “Literature as Social Experiment” suddenly had a more urgent meaning.
Some of the participants were two hours late because they had other obligations and the microphones were working poorly, but the beer was flowing.
An assistant professor of Dutch literature gave an introduction to my work and contemporary Dutch literature. I oppose what he said: the idea that literature should be treated first and foremost as something that has a “social function” is not my idea. Although aestheticism has its shortcomings, that doesn’t mean all aesthetic values are irrelevant.
Members of a panel discussion should try to remain polite, so I said, “I’m humbled to hear an assistant professor make intelligent remarks about Dutch literature and my work, but I have to point out a few factual mistakes.” After that the complete anarchy ensued, which is not an entirely bad thing.
A woman in the audience asked, “But what would have happened if you had fallen in love with a Ukrainian woman?” I said, “I was there to write about the experience, but an author should never close all doors to the future, even if it’s a future in Ukraine.”