By Peter Weidhaas
Each year since 1988, the Frankfurt Book Fair has invited a Guest of Honor to the Book Fair, giving a country or a region the opportunity to present its own literature and culture on the brightly illuminated stage of the Fair.
Starting in 1976, the Fair had focused on a specific topic every two years, including “Children and Books” (1978), “Religions” (1982), “Orwell” (1984), as well as regions like Latin America (1976), Africa (1980) and India (1986). These programs had a great deal of success, but there was also, occasionally, a great deal of controversy.
In 1976, when Latin America was the focus, the selection of the noted Argentine writer Julio Cortazar as the central figure among the Latin American authors did not sit well with the Argentinean military regime (Cortazar was a vocal opponent of the government). In 1980, Africans boycotted the Frankfurt Book Fair for a day because publishers from what was then the Apartheid state of South Africa were also allowed to exhibit at the Book Fair. In 1986 when India was the focus, the German press accused the Fair management of racism because they had allegedly not given the invited Indian authors enough to eat.
So, after these experiences, in 1988 when the Guest of Honor initiative as it exists today was launched, the Book Fair gladly took the Italians up on their offer to take full responsibility for the full program. When Spain and France, and yes, even the then Soviet Union applied for the next Guest of Honor program, it became a permanent part of the Fair.
Numerous Guest of Honor programs followed: France, Japan, Spain, Mexico, Flanders/the Netherlands, Brazil, Austria, Ireland, Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, the Arab world, Korea, India once again, Catalonia and Turkey. These too also occasionally led to strident public debates. But more often than not, those debates took place in the guest countries themselves. There were heated parliamentary debates and public battles, which first and foremost concerned the money for financing their appearance at the Fair, but often also focused on who should represent the country in Frankfurt and how.
The Frankfurt Book Fair has an “obligation to provide” (the German word is Bereitstellungspflicht), not only a forum for the publishers of the world to come together to display their books and products, but also, since the 1970s, cultural content -– without regard to the assessed value of that content.
The Frankfurt Book Fair has been committed to this obligation from day one. The cultural content can and should be seen, heard, as well as judged and criticized by the audience, by the public, but also the many publishers and booksellers in attendance.
In the end, it is -– as it should be –- always about “content.”
One word on the events at the September 12th symposium, “China and the World – Perceptions and Realities.” The organizer, i.e. the Book Fair, which had arranged and prepared this symposium together with partners from China, had an obligation to provide cultural content in this case, too.
The result of this is that the two Chinese authors Dai Qing and Bei Ling, who were invited to the symposium by the Book Fair, but then removed from the program due to pressure from the Chinese co-organizers, were ultimately given an opportunity to present their positions. Though this appeared to be an unresolvable disagreement with the Chinese partners, the Director of the Frankfurt Book Fair Juergen Boos asked the two authors to come to the podium without consulting the Chinese, at which point the official Chinese delegation left the room in an outrage. The fact that he apologized publicly to the partners afterward for his behavior, which, by the way, required a lot of courage and enabled the symposium to proceed, is something I consider to be a proper display of decorum toward the guest.
I have congratulated my colleague for his conduct; he fulfilled his obligation –- both to the Fair and his guests — without ever compromising freedom of speech, a core value of the Frankfurt Book Fair.
WATCH: Peter Weidhaas on video at the September 12th symposium “China and the World”
Peter Weidhaas served as director of the Frankfurt Book Fair from 1974 to 1999.