By Saskia Vogel
During the opening ceremony of the Göteborg Book Fair (23-26 September), the Russian-American author Masha Gessen expressed her dismay at having to share the stage with a representative of Hungary’s government (Judit Hammerstein, the head of the Balassi Institute; Hungary’s Goethe or Cervantes Institute equivalent) and criticized the fair’s decision to choose Hungary as a market focus. Hammerstein and according to Kulturnyheterna, Hungary’s Secretary of State István Igyartó walked out of the opening ceremony. Sweden’s minister of culture and democracy Alice Bah Kuhnke and Iceland’s minister of culture Illugi Gunnarsson were also on stage.
Some of Hungary’s leading authors, including Péter Nádas and László Krasznahorkai boycotted the fair. Péter Esterházy could not attend due to illness and a pre-prepared statement by him was read out during the ceremony.
After the opening ceremony, a number of Swedish authors staged a protest at Hungary’s pavilion, holding up signs in Swedish and English that called for a humane refugee policy. It wasn’t the last protest of the fair. On the Saturday of the fair, a “Manifestation for a human refugee policy” was staged. The “manifestation” was initiated by the fair in collaboration with Church of Sweden, Swedish PEN, the Swedish Writers’ Union and the Swedish Publishers’ Association.
Responding to the sharp criticism of the fair’s collaboration with the state-funded Balassi Institute, the fair’s program director Daniel Levin said that they always work with organizations like Balassi for their market focus programs. In an official statement, he asserted the book fair’s commitment to free speech: “The book fair is an open forum for discussion. The alternative would be to exclude certain perspectives just because we don’t like them.”
The focus on politics detracted from the conversation around Hungarian literature. Noémi Szécsi, a leading figure among the new generation of Hungarian writers whose novel The Finno-Ugrian Vampire (Finnugor vámpír, 2002) had recently been translated into Swedish, expressed her frustration to Goteborgs Posten about a discussion during a seminar on contemporary literature that left little room for anything but politics.