October 31, 2013
Krakow named “City of Literature”
by Sal Robinson
Joining Edinburgh, Iowa City, and Melbourne, last week Kraków, Poland was named a UNESCO “City of Literature.” Each year since 2004, UNESCO chooses one city for this designation, based on a number of criteria. Those criteria, as the UNESCO eggheads put it on their strangely confrontational site, “Do you have what it takes to become a UNESCO City of Literature?”, include:
- Quality, quantity and diversity of editorial initiatives and publishing houses;
- Quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature in primary and secondary schools as well as universities;
- Urban environment in which literature, drama and/or poetry play an integral role;
- Experience in hosting literary events and festivals aiming at promoting domestic and foreign literature;
- Libraries, bookstores and public or private cultural centres dedicated to the preservation, promotion and dissemination of domestic and foreign literature;
- Active effort by the publishing sector to translate literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature;
- Active involvement of media, including new media, in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products
Kraków has all this and more. It hosts two literary festivals, the Conrad and Miłosz Festivals, the annual book fair of the Polish publishing industry, the Polish Book Institute, and many publishing houses. It has bookstores, it has the famous Jagiellonian Library, with its extraordinary collections of medieval manuscripts and underground political literature. Miłosz lived part-time in Kraków in later years, Sławomir Mrożek and Stanisław Lem were residents, and Wisława Szymborska may been its most famous recent inhabitant: Szymborska moved to the city when she was eight and lived there her whole life. The 2010 documentary “Sometimes Life is Bearable” memorably showed Szymborska in her Kraków apartment, searching through drawers of tchotchkes for her Nobel medal.
Kraków has assumed its new status with celebrations and vigorous, mostly charming self-promotion. The words “Krakow Miasto Literatury UNESCO (Krakow, a UNESCO City of Literature)” in large rainbow-colored letters appeared in the city’s main square, and a series of initiatives got immediately underway. For anyone who’d like to get a sense of the place at street level, Magdalena Piekorz’s hour-long documentary “View of Krakow” follows Adam Zagajewski around the city.
There is a certain amount of Zagajewski solemnly intoning, but also interviews such as one with young writer Maciej Miłkowski, in which he says:
I don’t know what I was thinking when I came here eight years ago. I had no job, apartment, or family here. I still don’t… I guess I fancied meeting Czeslaw Miłosz in Planty Park, handing him my manuscripts, hoping he’d read them on the spot and say they were great.
The dream, clearly, lives on.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.