The Budapest Bookfair

Budapest, Bookfairs and Big Surprises
Translator Anna Paterson
The Budapest International Book Festival 2003 was billed this year as a splendid celebration of its tenth successful year. The expectations were largely met, though some of the main attractions didn't conform to the programme. No matter: Budapest 2002 was fascinating. Anna Paterson reports for Transcript.
A Swedish broadsheet recently called Frankfurt Bookfair a 'playground of hysterical marketing togetherness' with the spring fair in London as its closest trade rival. The fairs in Paris, Moscow and - interestingly - Belgrade are in that league too. But a subspecies of literary marketplace has been evolving in the shade of commerce: the book festival.

Same thing? Not at all. Book festivals market books as do bookfairs, but the former include literary events to attract the general public - live interviews with big names, panel debates, prize-giving ceremonies, readings, signings and so on. This in turn means media attention, and, with luck, more books sold.

In Central Europe, fairs mushroomed after 1989, although some join Belgrade in claiming many decades of trading. A manager of the Anglo-Hungarian book marketing company, Csaba Lengyel de Bagota, told me how, at the start of the 90s, the Hungarian book market was typical of a post-Warsaw Pact case. Struggling to privatise, the property ownership situation was a minefield. Worse, bookshops and publishers alike had huge stocks of unsellable books, created by print-runs of state-approved writing in the order of many tens of thousands (300-10,000 maximum is the present norm). An enterprising academic started a modest fair to stimulate trade co-operation, but it ended up in such administrative misery that expertise from the Frankfurt book fair was called in.

By 1995 the Festival had taken on something like its present shape. Since then it has grown to a respectable size. In 2003, it reports 218 stands presenting some 40,000 titles and almost 90,000 book-hungry visitors attending over 200 events on site and in university departments, museums and cafés all over Budapest.

Running these multiple-event shows is not easy. As the Budapest Festival grew, it had to move and move again. Its 2003 venue, a smallish conference centre added to a Stalinist-looking mega-hotel, was so packed that ten stall-holders were told to set up shop in the chestnut grove outside. Not as idyllic as it sounds, since the weather varied between thunderstorms and high-summer heat, and just beyond the chestnuts a grim flyover crossed a dual carriageway intersection.

Book festivals strive for a distinctive profile, but the more of them there are the harder it becomes. Great literary names do not always turn up or behave, and theme-events can be costly if they strike the wrong note. The Frankfurt model of a 'country of honour' has become so popular that there are international invitation log-jams. Worse, political ghosts sometimes stalk the fairs, as with Greece's recent brusque rejection of the United Kingdom, invited before the Iraq war to be the honoured nation at the Book Festival in Athens.

This year Budapest chose France. The French turned up in force, with a nice big stand and some very interesting and important writers (see Literary Debate in France and in Spain). The politics were confined to official references of the type 'le français, une langue pour l'Europe'.

Of course, no Festival is complete without prizes, not only to local talents but also to at least one international literary figure. The Budapest organisers made the magnificent, though predictable choice of Mario Vargas Llosa: polite, punctual, articulate, invariably interesting and radiating masculine charm - - sorry, I can't help it - Vargas Llosa also turned out to have remarkable stamina. He spoke from the stage in several long events, did his signing (Paradise in the Other Corner, 2001), and turned up at parties. Speaking about his authorship, a main theme was the relation between Vargas Llosa the writer and the politician (see Two Novelists).

Since 2001, the big theme-event in Budapest has been the European First Novel Festival. The programme hopes that it will provide 'a chance for today's young European literary talents, and also to their publishers, to communicate'. This year at least, the line-up on stage of fourteen new (rather than young, for some indeed were mature) novelists something failed to ignite into a significant public event (see Literary Euro-culture?')

The World Literary Soirée was planned as a two-hour conversation session on the enigmatic subject 'Sinners and Victims', a top-of-the-tree literary event with a line-up ensuring a packed audience. Hungary's Minister of Cultural Heritage, Gábor Görgey, himself a journalist, dramatist and poet, was to introduce the stars: Imre Kertész, Hungarian Literary Nobel Laureate in 2002, Günter Grass, German ditto in 1999, and Per Olov Enquist, Sweden's internationally best known writer. When Imre Kertész claimed old age (born 1929, the same year as Görgey) and tiredness after having just completed his latest book, his place was taken by the amiable, inventive writer Péter Esterházy (e.g. A Little Hungarian Pornography is translated into English; his latest, the family saga Harmonia Caelestis, was published in Germany in 2001).

So, no Kertész, but the room was still packed. Grass, however, ever an uncertain guest, had not turned up after a sudden attack of an unrecorded illness, and Görgey must have found some snarl-up in his time-table and cried off too. The stage was left to two seasoned performers, Esterházy and Enquist. They clearly had agreed to forget about Sinners and Victims. Instead they chatted in German for an hour and bit about Enquist's life and authorship, and in particular about his latest novel, Lewi's Journey (2001), just translated into Hungarian (see Two Novelists).

There were other literary vanishing acts and transformations, of course. Eccentric ones, like the Hungarian translator who turned a debate about language and identity in French into a reading, in Hungarian, from a pile of novels she had brought. Or like the packed-out session with Catherine Millet, the smart lady who wrote the astonishingly frank La vie sexuelle de Catherine M, which instead of steamy readings offered some rather dull intellectual chat.

You lose some, but you win some too. A debate about the role of the intellectual - also in French - was a delight even though every single programmed member of the seven-man panel, including the presenter, had been exchanged for second-division names. Only the best literary festivals produce such surprises.

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