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Killer Thrillers from Austria:

An Immersive Evening with
Ursula Poznanski

By Jen Calleja

When my acting editorship of New Books in German drew to a close last summer, I was ecstatic to be invited to curate a series of literary and translation events for the Austrian Cultural Forum London throughout 2015. From my shortlist of envisaged events, an evening dedicated to Austrian crime fiction ended up at the top of the list.

Having previously organised intimate and interdisciplinary readings and performances associated with my Anglo-German arts journal Verfreundungseffekt – embedding readings within exhibitions, hosting performative lectures, projecting translations alongside readings given in German – I wanted this event to be immersive and challenging. This wasn’t going to be a face-to-thefront reading with authors, a table, a plinth and a Q & A. This was going to be something ambitious and enjoyable in its own right. The traditional format of literary events – translation events included – can at times be stale and uninspiring. When you have a genre as evocative and reliant on emotion and tension as crime fiction, can a reading really suffice?

From the start I knew that I wanted to create a one-off performance of an extract from Ursula Poznanski’s highly successful thriller Five, reviewed in NBG Spring 2012 and subsequently translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli for Vintage. I also wanted to invite Ursula (known as Ursula P. Archer in the UK and the US) and Jamie for a post-show discussion on Five, and on writing and translating thrillers. I wanted the whole package: the author and the translator both present and included, and the translation transformed into an engaging live performance.

I told the ACF that I planned to transform their pristine salon – home to the grand piano and the chandelier – into a crime scene, complete with real soil, suspended evidence bags, atmospheric music, and a functioning coffee machine. Did they question any of this? Not for a second. With theatre director Natasha Nixon, architect Thomas Randall-Page and actress Cristina Catalina (who, by chance, turned out to be a German speaker) we rehearsed the reading and made preparations to turn the entrance room of the salon into a torturemurder scene, and the main room into half-woodland, half-detective office. We covered the whole space in thick, clinical plastic; installed a flickering lightbulb and industrial lighting; laid down carpet squares to map out the perimeters of the office; and, last but not least, piled up a dozen planter bags’ worth of soil onto the (plastic-covered) floor, all on the day of the event. There wasn’t a drop of blood, by the way.

Author Ursula Poznanski
Photo: Loewe Verlag
The one-hour performance began with the audience following a trail of gypsophilia up the staircase, and continued with a bodiless voiceover in a fog-filled room, the discovery of a severed hand, and the very unwelcome arrival of a bouquet of flowers. There was even some planned – and unplanned – audience participation. After all the suspense everyone was still eager to hear what Ursula and Jamie had to say. Ursula, having first achieved fame as a children’s author, revealed that she found the inspiration for the book from geocaching (a kind of treasure hunt using GPS) with her children and that rural Salzburg felt more fitting for an outdoor murder hunt in fields, woods and mountains than her cosmopolitan home city of Vienna. Jamie, who loved the book, most enjoyed the scenes between over-worked protagonist Detective Beatrice Kaspary and her two young children – noting that these brought humour and respite during what is at times a brutal and grisly read.

What remained from the evening was a multitude of playfulnesses: treasure hunts, games and riddles, creativity in balancing tension with comedy, letting imagination take you from the delightful to the dreadful, and toying with reading events as we know them.

Jen Calleja
is a writer, literary translator, editor and curator based in London. She is currently translating Nicotine by Gregor Hens for Fitzcarraldo Editions.


Unreal City: Constructing the Capital – and beyond
My next event for the ACF London took place over a hot week in June. I invited Leipzig Book Prize-nominee Teresa Präauer and Ingeborg Bachmann Prize-winner Tex Rubinowitz to London to spend a few days writing alone and collaboratively with British writers Ruby Cowling and Tom McMullan on themes including the city, psychogeography, architecture and public spaces. On 18 June, the four writers read the work they’d produced and discussed the collaborative process at the (this time unsoiled) ACF salon. The evening was as insightful as it was funny, and their pieces all reflected the effect their British or Austrian writing partner had had on their trip around the city as well as a general sense of disorientation, the city’s mythical status and the feeling of being caught up – even trapped – in the rush and the noise of London. There was nostalgia, coincidence, flying and stalking and a balance between bewilderment and curiosity, and it was a pleasure to see these writers go from strangers to companions. I’ll also be editing and translating the work produced for a book to be published by the ACF later in the year.