The Frankfurt Book Fair and the People’s Republic

As a bibliophile, one event near and dear to my heart is the Frankfurter Buchmesse or Frankfurt Book Fair*, which takes place every year in the second week of October and has been doing so for some five hundred years (missing a few years on rare occasion due to wars and such) since shortly after Johannes Gutenberg invented movable-type printing in the first place in the near-by city of Mainz. I even managed to attend this event once and so can attest that, although it’s mainly meant for publishing professionals, visiting it is well worth the while of any mere civilian with any interest in books – even despite the knotty problem of finding someplace affordable to stay as local hotel rates skyrocket.

This year, however, I had no interest in making the journey even if I could get away. It was clear things were going to be especially awkward. One main highlight of each Buchmesse is the exhibitions and events put on for the literature of the “guest of honor” country, but this year that Ehrengast was to be the People’s Republic of China. That’s right: not the country in the world known particularly for its free press or tolerance of free expression, which you would think would be central themes to the very ethos of the annual Frankfurt goings-on. Maybe the Buchmesse executives, after honoring one country each year for so long, simply ran out of non-problematic countries to feature. More likely – since this custom of Ehrengast countries/literatures probably does not go back that far in time – someone in charge rather felt it was time to acknowledge the economic/political/demographic gorilla in the room and finally come to grips with granting the People’s Republic that one-time special status that it “deserves.”

Unfortunately, the Fair hasn’t even opened its doors yet (it does that tomorrow; mere-mortals visiting in a private capacity, however, are welcome only on the weekend) but there has already been a ruckus or two involving invited dissident authors declining to appear in preparatory events, non-invited dissident authors appearing anyway, Peking representatives walking off stages in a huff, and the like. Despite the fond hopes of the Buchmesse organizers, all of this (and the similar incidents that are sure to happen during the Fair itself) should have been perfectly foreseeable: all the drama surrounding the Olympic torch-tour imbroglio of last year (especially the Chinese muscle-men dispatched to convoy the torch-runners) showed that the Chinese authorities are far from shrinking violets when it comes to defending their country’s reputation abroad, while on the other hand authors who have spent their professional lives trying to get published and/or fleeing from the authorities (or, to take one case, have undergone emergency brain surgery to counter-act the effects of a beating from the police) also cannot really be expected simply to play nice just because the high-profile event at which they are also guests of honor happens to be occurring in another country. Cameron Abadi of GlobalPost has a good write up of the mess so far in his article How to politicize a book fair.

There has been yet a further development on the Buchmesse front, however, with which Abadi’s article does not deal. That one came out of Stockholm last Friday, and was namely the awarding of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature to the Romanian/German author Herta Müller. And yes, this threatens to make what was already a ticklish and uncomfortable Frankfurt Book Fair even more so. Felicitas von Lovenberg has an excellent report/essay on this in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Readers can save lives; and allow me to remind you here that the FAZ is no more a Frankfurt local paper than the New York Times is about New York City – it is itself really the “newspaper of record” for Germany).

Why should the Nobel Prize affect this years Buchmesse so profoundly? The essence of the problem is fairly simple. All those publishing professionals heading to Frankfurt no doubt are looking forward to this year’s Fair as a chance to discuss the very real economic challenges facing the publishing industry worldwide – mainly such things as the Internet, e-books, and even the dreaded prospect of the Napsterization of books. But Herta Müller doesn’t write about any of that; indeed, as Von Lovenberg notes, for years she was notorious among book critics (Western European ones, at least) for writing about really only one thing, time and again, and that was the terror of living under a dictatorship. But now those complaints about her single focus are looking rather petty – in light of her Nobel Prize, assuredly, but also in light of the fact that this is 2009, twenty years after the great revolutionary year of 1989 when so many people in Easter Europe managed to throw off the dictatorships they had hitherto been living under. Naturally, there’s no question of any mere coincidence between this anniversary and the Literature Prize going to Müller. Van Lovenberg: “The honor from Stockholm was what was needed, that precisely in this year of historical reminiscences must be understood as an urging against forgetting and repression [of unpleasant memories], to remind everyone in a re-united Germany as well how great and how important the life’s-theme of Herta Müller is – and how current.”

The Public Knows You – The Public Protects You

Not content with this observation, Von Lovenberg takes it even further. For the very reason Herta Müller was even able to survive Nicolae Ceauşescu’s brutal dictatorship to be alive today – after she had made clear early-on her distaste for it – was that her first novel, Niederungen (“Lowlands,” 1984) had been smuggled through for publication in Germany and had met with great acclaim there. In short, she was able to become a public person – someone whom “one can not easily have disappear,” as Von Lovenberg notes – and eventually gain permission to emigrate to West Germany. Thus: publicity/renown saves lives, the lives of artists! All the more reason to continue full-speed-ahead with the aggressive schedule of panels of dissident Chinese authors that those in charge of the Buchmesse have planned to parallel the more People’s Republic-friendly events this year.

Finally, there is 1989 itself – a very historical year, let it be remembered, not only for Eastern Europe but also for China. But the contrast between these two cannot be greater, and not just in the respective political results: in the former 1989 is celebrated, but in the latter the highlight events of that year at Tienanmen Square are still forbidden by the authorities as a topic for discussion. Then again, when the Frankfurt Book Fair took place as usual back then in October, as mass unauthorized demonstrations where starting to occur regularly in Leipzig and then other East German cities, and Mikhail Gorbachev had visited East Berlin only the week before to help celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the DDR, and no one knew what would ultimately happen . . . the Book Fair was shamefully silent, seemingly taking no note of the momentous events occurring just to the east of it.

This year, given that fateful confluence of the People’s Republic and Herta Müller’s Nobel, Felicitas von Lovenberg says the Buchmesse must remember this failure to speak out against totalitarianism and not repeat it. This year, she is confident, “[i]t’s not just a matter of in which form – analog or digital – books will be published in the future, but also about which books, where, and who.”

* It’s interesting to note that the Frankfurt Fair snagged for itself way-back-when the URL – as if it is the Buchmesse in Germany, whereas its long historical rival and other big German book fair, the Leipzig Book Fair that is held every March, has to make do with When innovations like the printed book come along – or the Internet with its URLs – you’ve got to be quick!

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