By Alta Ifland
When the thirty-third Salon du Livre book fair opened its doors at 10 am on Friday, March 22, hundreds of impatient readers rushed in. Of these, about a third were school children accompanied by their teachers. This was the first noticeable difference from the American equivalent of the event, the Book Expo America, held each year in New York. The children’s presence was, I thought, a welcome addition, and their teachers’ desire to get them acquainted with the world responsible for publishing books, commendable. It’s true that they made the fair’s crammed space even more chaotic. Yet their presence, combined with another French idea, the “culinary square,” added to the event more spice, or, to quote Roland Barthes, put some “pleasure into the text.” The “culinary square” is a space where cookbooks are displayed, and chefs do cooking demonstrations. If your mouth is watering, so was mine, but each time I happened to pass by the square, all I could see were stands with the traditional French sandwich, a buttered baguette with French cheese and Swiss ham—much better than a Subway, but still, not a very sophisticated culinary production.
The other noticeable difference from the BEA was…the books. When I attended the BEA last year, about half of the space was devoted to digital reading devices. I might be wrong in my estimation of the space, but this is how it seemed to a lover of the physical object called “book.” As I expected from a country that respects tradition, the French book fair had allotted a relatively insignificant space to technology, choosing to honor…guess what? The book. And what a pleasure to hold in your hand those small paperbacks perfectly fit for your palm! What a pleasure to see the enormous number of translations! Again, these are all impressions, not statistics, but, as far as I could tell, there were as many translations there as books by French authors.
Like the BEA, the French Salon du Livre each year honors a country and a city. This year the country was Romania, and the city, Barcelona. But unlike the BEA, where the honored country is only known to a minority of specialists (translators and publishers) and is otherwise barely visible, here, the very center of the fair is given to the guest, and numerous, very well publicized events (panels, book signings) are organized for it. This being said, there is one thing that both French and American readers seem to have in common: their lack of interest in cultures from countries outside of their sphere of influence. Although Romania was the guest, the number of people present at the various events was smaller than that of people who attended, for instance, the numerous panels on French-German relations—and, judging from their accents, many of them seemed to be of Romanian origin. The large community of Romanian émigrés must also explain why books were being sold in both Romanian and French.
A characteristic of the invited Romanian writers—which stands in stark contrast to French and American writers—is how they make a living. Some examples: Florina Ilis (author of the award-winning novel Cruciada Copiilor, translated into French as La Croisade des enfants) teaches Japanese; Savatie Bastovoi (author of Les Lapins ne meurent pas) is a monk, and came in his monk garb, wearing a large, disheveled beard; Bogdan Suceava (author of Coming from an Off-Key Time, Northwestern UP) teaches mathematics at UC Fullerton; Marius Daniel Popescu (author of several novels written directly in French) lives in Switzerland, where he is a bus driver; Dan Lungu (author of the successful novel Sint o baba comunista/Je suis une vieille coco) is a sociologist and a museum director; Razvan Radulescu (author of Viata is faptele lui Ilie Cazane/La Vie et les agissements d’Ilie Cazane) has also written, among other things, the script for the movie The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; Norman Manea (the most well-known writer of the Romanian Diaspora, whose many novels and essays have been recently reissued by Yale UP) is a former engineer who teaches literature at Bard. Compare this variety to the monotonous biographies of most US writers, who all “teach creative writing.”
There was, however, a wind of unease among the members of the Romanian delegation, as several of their most important writers (including leading novelist, Mircea Cartarescu, whose novel, Nostalgia, was published by New Directions) refused to come as a sign of protest against the president of the Romanian Cultural Institute, Andrei Marga, whom they accuse of trying to reintroduce the Soviet-style practices of the defunct communist regime. Twenty-three years after the fall of communism, its effects are still visible.
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