Notes from Frankfurt

By Susan Harris

Turkey, the guest of honor, has dispatched a delegation of 350 writers, interpreters, and translators to the Book Fair. A Fair supplement to the English-language paper Today's Zaman notes that Turkey's application for guest country status had been repeatedly turned down "because of issues including torture and restrictions upon freedom of thought and expression," then adds, cheerily, "It was accepted last year." A number of Turkish writers have boycotted the Fair, stating that they did not wish to cooperate with the Justice and Democratic Party (the AK Party) in what they believe to be a political, rather than literary, event. (When asked to comment, most declined, though writer Buzet Ukuner said tartly that she "did not want to talk about an event to which she had not been invited.") In an interview elsewhere in the paper, Orhan Pamuk remarks that he has no need to be recognized by the state: "it's enough that they don't throw me in prison." Pamuk's opening address on Tuesday castigated the Turkish government for its prosecution of writers and the corresponding chilling effect on Turkish literature. He was followed at the podium by Turkish president Abdullah Gül, who expressed his pleasure at Turkey's "political and economic reforms."

The economic crisis manifests here in the disappearance of the free Lavazza stand in the international center in Hall 5. Given the ubiquity of Champagne and the multitude of happy hours--at the end of the afternoon, the corks pop like church bells marking the time--this is perhaps a churlish complaint, but paying for one's cappuccino is almost as startling as the Thai massages being offered at that country's pavilion across the floor.

Wednesday afternoon the main aisle of Hall 5.0 was suddenly overrun with a flying wedge of camerapeople and reporters, scrumming alongside a figure concealed in their midst, and flanked by policemen fore and aft. I caught a glimpse of a familiar birthmark: Mikhail Gorbachev is here flogging his collected writing. He looks like his own double, the way any public figure does after he's been out of the spotlight for a few years and has gone on aging off-camera.

With the early announcement of the Nobel last week, the Fair is absent that suspense: the anticipation animating the halls at noon on Thursday, the news of the winner telegraphing its way through the Fair, the flurry of handwritten signs and additions to lists on posters and stands, followed by the stampede to the author's home publisher to jockey for Champagne. There does not seem to be a big book this year; the winner of this year's big German Book Prize, Uwe Tellkamp's Der Turm (The Tower), a thousand-page take on the downfall of the German Democratic Republic, is considered too German to travel. The big book of the 2006 Fair, Jonathan Littell's nine-hundred-page Nazi tale Les Bienveillants, will appear in English in 2009, in a market quite different from the one in which it was bought.

Friday Words Without Borders and Literature Across Frontiers, and their online magazine Transit, co-sponsored a panel discussion of the reception of Turkish literature in their respective countries. Pamuk was in the audience ("Of course," he said. "These are all my translators"); as the photographers crowded about, snapping left and right, Pamuk himself raised a camera and photographed the panel. Tuula Kojo, his Finnish translator--in fact, the only Turkish-Finnish translator, though she said she is training a student--opened her talk by asking, "Have you ever had a Turkish lover?" and continued the metaphor of translation as a work of passion and love ("Did you ever get money because you loved a Turk?" "Do you have enough time with your Turkish lover?"), while Pamuk smiled demurely. The Czech Petr Kucera spoke of the challenges of translating from one marginalized language into another; Maureen Freely of the UK decried the lack of knowledge of Turkish language and culture in he English-speaking world; Hanneke van der Heijdan described the Turkish immigrant population in the Netherlands and the rise of social realism there; and Wolfgang Riemann commented on the German market. Then everyone had a glass of wine and continued the conversation, shouting over the drumming from the International Center.

Saturday and Sunday the public is allowed in, and the halls are chockablock with packs of teens, browsers, families with strollers, and urchins on scooters. They walk five abreast or entwined--love is grand, but surely it can express itself without blocking traffic--and commit the cardinal sin of stopping at the end of the escalator to gaze about at their surroundings. This is not enchanting when one is hoofing it to Hall 8 carting one's weight in catalogs. I am a very fast walker and a very short person, an unfortunate combination in a crowd that suggests why there are so many giants in Grimm.

The topic of the fair was, of course, the effects of the grim financial situation. This resulted not so much in a muted mood as in a metamood: people were constantly talking about whether they were, should be, or were pretending not to be concerned.

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