LADY 1: “…So, you know, he’s going to be free, he’s going to go back to his home town, a village in the mountains, close to nature, to sort of rebuild himself and reunite with his childhood friends. And one of his childhood friends is a woman who becomes a lawyer in the Hague, and she works with with women who have been… you know… raped or…”
LADY 2: “Tortured.”
LADY 1: “Tortured, in those wars too. So basically the book is all about, you know, being able to overcome all these feelings, with words, and all that, and also the fact that we are all hostages of things in ourselves. We are not necessarily prisoners…”
LADY 2: “Yeah”
LADY 1: “…but we have to free ourselves…”
LADY 2: “Thematically it is perfect. It depends on how artistic it is — “
LADY 1: “So it is also a novel of ideas.”
LADY 2: “Yes, absolutely. But you know, that when people say why is war a theme that you treat in your press — ”
LADY 1: “It depends on how you treat it.”
LADY 2: “Yes, and also I see that he comes across as a survivor in a torture program and why can’t … you know that he establishes an understanding that it’s a health issue with formative influences, so — ”
LADY 1: “So, so why don’t … you tell me… have a … read the catalogue and confirm to me if — “
LADY 2: “Okay.”
LADY 1: “ — you think you’re interested — “
LADY 2: “Yeah”
LADY 1: “ — or if you tell me right away that yes I want you to send it, but if you are not that sure…”
LADY 2: “Clavo was the French publisher for [indistinguishable]”
LADY 1: “Yes…Yes.”
LADY 2: “I’ve never met him. I’ve been told I should meet him. I’ve also been told he’s phasing out his relationship with them.”
LADY 1: “Really?”
LADY 2: “… I’ve been told this by somebody, who’s close to — ”
LADY 1: “He.. he’s an interesting guy…”
LADY 2: “Yeah”
LADY 1: “He’s a very good translator…
LADY 2: “Yeah.”
LADY 1: “He’s a very renowned translator too. I would think… I don’t know if this is a kind of … experimental book… very experimental. His previous book I thought was very interesting.”
LADY 2: “Yeah…I don’t know… again it’s a question of …so…ultimately it comes down to the aesthetics for me.”
LADY 1: “I’m going to think about it also…”
LADY 2: “Yeah. I mean the books that we publish are… they may be … they can tend they can tend toward the surrealist… they’re not stylistically inaccessible and difficult particularly, but they’re intellectually engaging and they’re … artistically ………… oriented. So that’s pretty much what it is. And beyond that it is the specific subjective sensitivity — we all respond to books differently you know — ”
LADY 1: “Yeah.”
LADY 2: “ — you can’t you can’t really qualify that. Who knows it’s a chemi chemical reaction that happens — ”
LADY 1: “Yeah.”
LADY 2: “ — that causes the neurons to fire, right?”
LADY 1: “No but he is a very interesting author too, in terms of…”
* * *
The Frankfurt book fair is not a literary festival, and this perhaps explains why I’m drawn to it. On display are books, not authors. A few authors do take the stage, in interviews and in panel discussions, but these events are almost a sideshow. More interesting than the authors are people at the stalls, ordinary business-folk trying to strike a deal or start a relationship. Standing at these stalls overhearing book deal conversations like the one above is a charming ingredient to the book fair experience. There are other ingredients too, some literal ones even, as I discovered during our visit this October.
My wife and I visited the fair on a Saturday, starting earlier than we normally do, and at 9:30 am we joined a steady stream of cars pouring into the large parking garage at the Messe. Outside the garage a bus was waiting to drive us to Hall 3 where, after buying the tickets, my wife suggested we split up. It’s something we always do — the fair is too big and our interests are diverse — but this time she seemed more keen to get going by herself. The reason emerged later, during lunch, when she revealed that the previous three hours she had hovered around food stalls. Indonesia, the country of honour this year, had sent a company of chefs to the fair, a team that included a Culinary Program Project Manager, a Food Explorer Program Manager, a Masterchef Indonesia judge: people who inspired her to spend the morning tasting meat delicacies and jotting down recipes. This culinary angle seems new to the fair, and I suspect a smart market research program behind it, a survey revealing that bookworms are also foodies. To lunch I brought with me a bag full of books. My wife came with a full tummy. Both wanted more.
‘International Publishers’ is where I spend most of my time each visit, and this year was no exception. The walk through those sections, passing stalls from China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, and so on, is like a tour of world cultures. You hear different tongues, see the natives, and occasionally catch societal traits and foibles too: the Japanese reverence for hierarchy, Iran’s outlook on free speech. This year, in contrast to my earlier memories, more men and women sat in stalls staring into their phones, devices that supplanted the space people once used for conversation or to read. Some may have been reading an article on their phone, or even a novel, but watching them engrossed in a book conveys, at a book fair, an impression vastly different to seeing them with a phone. A book has one purpose, a phone many.
The books themselves were too many. So many that one might even come away wishing an end to the publishing industry, an end to this endless production of titles, an end that would bring into focus titles unnoticed and unread. Günter Grass once warned some Indian writers that “a visit to the Frankfurt book fair would put us off books forever.” It isn’t just the number of books that is off-putting. Libraries may have bigger collections, but in a library no one is trying to sell the books. At the fair, this commercial face is all too visible, in the spread of titles, in the size and glitz of stalls from large publishers and rich western countries. Small and independent publishers are less prominent and, unsurprisingly, offer more interesting content. At one such small stall, from a New Delhi publishing house, I met a middle-aged Indian. He asked me where in India I was from, what I did here in Germany. I was curious about business at the fair — had his visit been successful? And just like that, in minutes, a rapport emerged. Our common Indian background made this possible, and the foreign setting — for him — also had to do with it. As an Indian visitor to the stall I probably was an exception, which piqued his interest. We all need a common center to trace a locus of interaction.
Mr.Saikia showed me some titles from Speaking Tiger, the publication he had founded, and offered them at five Euros each. (Books are not on sale for the general public, but on the last two days one may negotiate at some stalls and turn lucky.) Nudged by Mr.Saikia’s recommendation, I picked up four titles: Ruskin Bond’s A book of simple living, Syed Mujtaba Ali’s In a land far from home: A Bengali in Afghanistan, Omair Ahmad’s A Storyteller’s tale, and Nehru’s India: Essays on the maker of the nation — Edited by Nayantara Sahgal ). Later, at another small stall, I bought Robert Walser’s The Walk, and from one that was unmanned (and whose neighbours knew nothing of them) I stole Vijay Seshadri’s poetry book Three Sections.
At the China stall, occupying an area that could pack a dozen stalls in another part of the hall, a petite girl was handing out copies of a magazine — The World of Chinese — with an enthusiasm that smelled of propaganda. The Iran stall was empty, arrayed with posters justifying the protest without naming the author who had “offended more than one billion people in the world in name of freedom of expression”. Salman Rushdie had been invited to open the book fair with a keynote, and the Iranians were protesting against this “violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The absence of Rushdie’s name on those protest posters was a curious omission. Did the organisers prohibit it? Or was it a pointer to the general nature of the protest? In any event, those empty stalls stood as a cautionary note to anyone who saw the recent nuclear deal as a sign of a bigger change in Iran, a more open political class.
Outside, in the large square between the exhibition halls, a different form of expression had found all the freedom it desired. Packs of teenagers hung around in daring and inventive costumes, inspired by manga and anime cultures, readying themselves for the Cosplay championship at the end of the fair.
The yearly recurrence at the same time in the same venue, the throng of book-devotees, the teenagers in anime costumes, the foreign natives in traditional garb, the book deal rituals: a visit to this fair is a pilgrimage. There’s a plenitude of images and ideas to worship, and for a digital age reader the milling crowds in book-filled halls are a blessing, a reassurance. Anyone who thinks book-reading is on the wane should visit Frankfurt in October. If she is a foodie, she’ll find more than books to savour.