By Michael Stein
PRAGUE: At first sight, a book fair would seem to perform a fairly standard function for all participating exhibitors: They each have a stand lined with shelves of books and representatives working to promote those books, the people who write them and the local companies that publish them.
Appearances can be deceiving though, a lesson driven home to the extreme by the widely divergent aims of the exhibitors at Book World Prague 2011 (BWP) last month, where it felt as if a number of independent, totally unrelated book fairs being held under the one expansive art-nouveau roof of Prague’s Industrial Palace.
First of all, there was the Czech book fair, by far the largest part of BWP, which offered a spectrum of exhibitors, from journals of literature in translation to publishers of science fiction, romance and comic books. This was augmented by live cooking shows, children’s entertainment and topless body painting. The one factor that united all these disparate exhibitors was the Czech language — and was clearly intended to cater to the nearly 40,000 mostly local visitors.
Romania: Defying Cliche
In contrast, the exhibitors from the Czech Republic’s Central European neighbors were clearly focused on setting up their writers in the international arena. Romania was touting an increasingly prominent young generation of writers, including Gabriela Adameşteanu, Bogdan Suceavă, and Mircea Cărtărescu. The exhibition of books was accompanied by anthologies of English-language translations of extracts from novels published by Romanian publisher Polirom in an effort to attract further rights deals, particularly into English.
While a growing number of contemporary Romanian authors have been translated into English — Filip Florian’s novel Little Fingers was published in the United States in 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and his Days of The King is due in bookstores in August — the vast majority are still ripe for the taking.
From the exhibits, it was obvious that the range of subject and style of the work belies the cliché that Eastern European literature is strictly in the difficult, experimental mode. There were stories of political oppression, such as The Night Someone Died for You by Bogdan Suceavă and Good Night, Children! by Radu Pavel Gheo, as well as love stories, mock historical epics and vignettes of contemporary Romanian life. Several Romanian writers also made appearances, including Iulian Ciocan, the Romanian-speaking writer from Moldova featured in Best European Fiction 2011, published by Dalkey Archive Press.
Poland: Making a Big Push
Poland is another country that was promoting a sizable stable of increasingly internationally-known names. The latest novels of writers such as Andrzej Stasiuk and Michał Witkowski highlighted a list that included journalists and nonfiction writers who could capitalize on Poland’s reputation for producing sharp, essayistic travel writing — a reputation established by Ryszard Kapuscinski that continues in Stasiuk’s non-fiction work.
Stasiuk’s latest novel Taksim covers much of the same dark, degraded corners of Eastern Europe as his essays, yet in fictional form. Witkowski, whose Lovetown was longlisted for the 2011 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, offered up his latest novel, Margot, about a sexually rapacious female trucker and the vivid cast of characters she comes across.
That these Central European countries put so much into these promotional efforts is a function of necessity: smaller countries and markets inevitably look to gain the exposure and prestige provided by being featured to a larger audience.
Russia, China, Saudi Arabia Fail to Impress
Other, richer, larger countries were far more conservative.
The large Russian stand, for example, was very colorful. Children’s books and picture books of St. Petersburg and Moscow took up the space where one might expect to see the names of the many Russian writers breaking out on the international scene. China was even more extreme in its placid isolation, choosing to focus neither on the Czech nor the international English-speaking book audience at their stand by having the bulk of their display in Chinese.
The book fair that truly seemed to come from another world though was that of the Guest of Honor, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has already faced its share of media backlash over the near total lack of literary content in the country’s presence at BWP. No prominent or even known Saudi writers were brought to Prague, and even a cursory look at the books exhibited show a marked leaning toward the neutrality of subjects such as plant life, photographs of desert vistas and an abundance of children’s books, as if they expected, or were merely hoping for, a 50-50 adult child visitor split. The rest of the selection comprised religious texts and other brochure-like material the majority of the visitors did not know what to make of.
Luckily, it only took a few steps to get back to one of the other book fairs, where discussions of the Arab revolutions and issues of censorship, women’s rights and the state of writing in the Middle East were on the tip of everyone’s tongues. With Arabic writing as the focus of the festival there was a mix of established and emerging writers from across the region in attendance –- from the eminent Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun to younger writers like Egyptian novelist and journalist Mansoura Ez-Eldin, whose novel Maryam’s Maze was one of the many novels in translation presented by the American University in Cairo Press.