Tuesday, 21 November 2017 | News today: 4

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, Dutch writer: Genoa as city is very good metaphor for Europe as continent

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer (1968) is a versatile writer. He writes poetry, plays, essays, columns, reports, short stories, political satire and novels in the style of Rabelais. Half of the critics consider him a genius, the other half a retro-stylist. His last published poetry collection is the first poetry book ever to win the three biggest poetry prizes in the Netherlands.

Tired of the Dutch state system, this artist and aesthete moves to Genoa – a warm coastal paradise where the most common task turns into a mini-adventure through the bureaucratic hell – and revives the city’s poetics through the semi-autobiographical and fantastic novel “La Superba “. The novel is an important work for the chaotic Zeitgeist and covers topics such as: migration, sexual identity, racism, bureaucratic labyrinths and, of course, love. Pfeijffer is self-critical and humorous and he does not share the hard, elitist and snobbish character of the intellectuals.

The main character, in whom we recognize the author’s own traits, explores the wild side of this mysterious and exotic city, full of labyrinths and magic. Everything begins with the sight of a female leg, which throws the narrator in the search for “the most beautiful girl in Genoa”, a quest that will lead him through the streets of prostitutes, migrant shelters, harbors, and bars full of sailors.

This book is like a pocket edition of Dante’s “Inferno”, written by an author who enjoys going to extremes, a true master of language and narration.

We talked to him before the promotion of the Macedonian edition of “La Superba”, which opened the Festival of European Literature “BookStar, organized by “Antolog”.

The Festival of European literature “BookStar” opens with the promotion of the Macedonian translation of your novel “La Superba”? Is this your first cooperation with the Festival and with a Macedonian publishing house?

Yes, it is my first cooperation, it is my Macedonian debut. It is the first time ever I am in Macedonia, and it has left a huge impression on me. Skopje is a very fascinating city and I am very much looking forward to meeting the Macedonian audience tonight. I think it is a wonderful festival, they organized it with much love and commitment and they actively involve the audience, the readers with literature.

Have you ever had the opportunity to read works by a Macedonian writer? Do you have any knowledge of Macedonian literature?

No, I must admit that I do not have any knowledge at all of Macedonian literature. I think it is also very difficult to find a work by Macedonian authors translated in my own language, in Dutch, but after my stay here and after this experience, I will try to find something in English, because I became very curious.

“La Superba” is called a masterpiece and was praised highly when it was published in 2013, when you won the Libris Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the Netherlands, and the Tzum prize for the most beautiful sentence written in Dutch language. You are also recipient of the three biggest poetry prizes in the Netherlands. How do you regard the prizes? What do they mean for you?

Of course, I was always saying that the prizes are absolute nonsense, that they are only commercial, that for a writer it should not be important at all to win a prize. But then when I actually won the prizes that I completely changed my mind. Especially the Libris Prize. It did a lot for the book. It won new audience for which I am very grateful for that. That’s what what prizes can do. Many readers become curious about the book and you find new readers and a larger audience.

You dedicated the novel to Genoa, the city you live in. The love towards a city with rich history is obvious, but what is the most fascinating thing for you in Genoa?

In my answer to this question, we can talk about two different things. For me personally, I fell in love with Genoa, with the city, rich history, little, narrow alleys, where all kinds of people live and this mixture of different kind of people… This beautiful city has a very strong poetry for me. But, then, in the book, of course,”La Superba” is set in Genoa. It is, to certain extent, a book about Genoa, but then at the same time it’s not a book about Genoa, but about migration, about the fantasy of a better life elsewhere, and getting lost in that fantasy. Many things in the book are actually a metaphor for getting lost in the fantasy for a better life. Also Genoa, “La Superba” is a metaphor for Europe as a whole. It is from the point of view of migrants who see Europe as an alluring place to live well, to be there, but at the same time it is very arrogant and difficult to get in and succeed there. Genoa as a city is a very good metaphor for Europe as a continent.

In the novel you mention football as a religion … In Italy, this sport is highly cherished. Do you like football?

Not really. I used to follow it, but I think football has been ruined a bit by money and I am not following it anymore. It is true that in Italy football is really like a religion. Some people go to church every Sunday, but then other people have something very similar to do on Sunday, and that is to watch a game. And it is also like a religion that is not really a pleasure like going to mass in the church where it is preached, and also watching the game of your favorite team can be suffering. But, still, you have to go every Sunday to see the game, so it is really like a religion even if you suffer. Also, this religion of football in Italy has its own Bible, in fact it is better than the Bible because it appears every day, and it is a pink newspaper called “La Gazzetta dello Sport”. I think that actually could be an idea for an update of the Bible to make a daily edition.

In the novel you say: “In my homeland, my whole life was easy and I lived beautifully. But it was too easy and too good.” Did you find the excitement you were looking for in Italy?

This is actually the autobiographical part of the novel. Not everything is autobiographical in the novel, much of it is fiction, but this is very close to how I really felt. I was living in Holland for 40 years and it was really pleasant, easy and comfortable to live there. But then I moved to Genoa and decided to stay and I realized that in Holland I lost my capacity to be surprised. Everything was so predictable. Perhaps because Holland is a perfect country, everything works, there are no surprises, which is good also to earn money or have a business there, but at the same time it is very boring. In Italy I felt the sensation of waking up and living in Italy is like living in a theater, in an opera. The most increadible things happen around you and I really like that. But, then, I was very fortunate to still work Holland, that’s where my money comes. I do not have to work in Italy, then of course all this surprises and theater can become frustrating. But I only have the fun part of Italy.

You describe Rashid, a migrant who sells roses, but pays the bill after leaving … He dreams of living in Europe, but it is not the way he imagines it … Have you had any experiences with migrants?

Yes, actually, for the part of the book that refers to the Senegalese Djiby, I did a lot of research and I spoke with immigrants from Senegal, Morocco, I also did research in the newspapers. Unfortunately, I must say that exactly that the part about Djiby is a true story. Only the person Djiby does not exist. It is a combination of different stories and events placed in a fictional character, but the story is true. Also, after the publication of the book, I had the opportunity to make a documentary for a Dutch television about migration and we made a series. Then I spoke about many problems, about the situation that I still follow. I think it’s the most important geopolitical development of the moment. The future of Europe as a continent depends on whether or not we will find a solution or a way of dealing with this issue. This is a problem for all of Europe, not just a single country to solve the problem. There should be a pan-European approach to this problem.

Transsexuals are portrayed through interesting and true events. You wrote “Migrants vs. an already semi-destroyed state system, sex and mambo italiano”. Does all this contribute to once more confirm the fact that “La Superba” is a kaleidoscope of tragicomic modernity. Was that your writing goal?

I am not sure. When I start writing, the process is for the larger part very intuitive, I don’t make a plan and I don’t have a writing goal. A masterpiece, or something else, I am just trying to find ways to tell a story. And then I’m always interested in writing in a way that I don’t impose my own opinion. Actually, the book does not provide answers, but rather opens up some good questions. When I began to write “La Superba” I realized that the best way to do it is to tell stories about migration, also contrasting stories. There are many characters in the book that are driven by the dream for a better life and all are getting lost in their own imagination in their own way. I just juxtapose the stories and I don’t impose my opinion. I left the reader to create his own opinion. I think it is what  literature can do, to show things, and to tell stories and perhaps change the point of view of the reader and make him think. If I want to express my opinion, I have different ways: Every now and then I write for newspapers, in columns … there I express my own opinion. It can be very relaxing, according to me. But it is interesting that the novels, ther you can show the complexity. Perhaps the reader of “La Superba” will realize that the result in the end is much more complex than he, or she thought or assumed before reading the book. I think that is a good thing.

What does creating mean for you? How do you perceive literature?

Creating for me almost feels like a necessity. Always, as a child, I had the need to create something. Draw small little things … As a child I was fascinated by the fact that you can make something first did not exist, and then it exists. Recreating creation, there is magic in that. I am still that little boy who is fascinated by the magic of creating something that did not exist before. And for me, I cannot imagine a life without doing that.

Do you go to book fairs? Do you like meeting with readers, signing books?

Yes, I do it quite often and I like it. Most often because writing is a very lonely profession. You may need a few years to write a novel and you do not have anybody to talk with the whole time. You are isolated in creating and for a change I like to meet with readers and talk with them about the book.

You have been in Skopje for several days? Are you having a good time?

I have been in Skopje for three days and I like it very much. Absolutely everything I write is related to fantasy and reality, facts and fiction, the truth and the lie, and I think it’s very difficult today to draw a line between these categories. And Skopje as a city is very much like that. It looks like a city I could have invented in a novel.

Will you write a novel about Skopje in the future?

Maybe. The city is inspiring and you never know what might inspire you in the future. I am staying until Sunday and I have time to think.