Serbia – the land of books
As a publisher I can live without the Book Fair, but as an ethnologist I can’t. The Fair, for me, was and still is an inspiring event to reflect on the ethnological themes. An ethnologist passes through its halls like through a forest of symbols and – in the words of my colleague Srdjan Radovic – reads it as a text, deconstructing its discourse. For example, I noticed that the Fair has preserved some features of traditional folk gatherings and carnivals and thought that it would be interesting to ethnologically compare this event and Trumpet Festival in Guca, the symbolic communication at fair stalls and the one under the Trumpet Festival’s tents, the speeches praising the Serbian books and those praising the Serbian trumpet. You could make a good doctoral dissertation out of it. But, I didn’t fail to see the fact that the Book fair is offered as a national spiritual feast, as a long movable feast in honor of the book, which was for the occasion elevated to the rank of national sanctity.
The Book Fair has had this festive, i.e. religious character, since the beginning in 1956. Back then the book was placed among the icons of Yugoslav communism, together with women (March 8th), workers (May 1st), youth (May 25th), veterans (July 4th), the republic (November 29th) and the army (December 22nd). Fair slogans “Festival of the book”, “Feast of the written word” originate from this period. They were meant to convey the message that Yugoslavia – no matter what our enemies thought of it – was in fact a land of peace, knowledge and culture, a land of books.
The Book Fair sends the same message orbi et urbi even today, except that it now applies to Serbia, a country falsely accused by the Western media of causing wars. The message is – come to the Fair and see for yourself that Serbia is, in fact, the land of books.
Opening the fair yesterday, the Chinese writer Liu Zhenyun mentioned the tragedy that struck his homeland, the Henan province, during World War II, when the famine caused by drought killed three million people. He said that that terrible suffering is unknown to the world, which is really scandalous. To my own embarrassment, I also have to admit that I have never heard of the Henan province tragedy. I will have to read his novel Back to 1942, where he describes it.
However, Zhenyun’s statement that the Henan tragedy of the Chinese in 1942 is “worse than the one caused by Hitler and the Nazis”, is also scandalous. The calculation he used to substantiate it is scandalous: Hitler’s Nazis killed 1,100,000 Jews at Auschwitz during the whole World War II, which is three times less than the number of the drought victims, which took three million of Zhenyun’s countrymen in one year. Thus, he concludes, “it would mean that three Auschwitzes happened in 1942 in the Henan province, only without the Nazis and Hitler”.
China really is a big country and it has everything: great history, great people, great culture, unfortunately it is also plagued with great disasters and suffering. But I do not understand why it has to have an Auschwitz too, and not only one but three. The fact that the world has the one in Poland is enough. It should also be enough for China.
If Liu Zhenyun really doesn’t know that death by starvation due to drought, however terrible it is, is not the same as a death in the Nazi gas chambers, that counting the victims of Auschwitz and the victims of Henan does not belong to the same mathematics, I recommend that he reads the writings about the Holocaust and Auschwitz by his colleagues, the Serbian writers Kis, Tisma, Albahari, David. I assume that he knows one of the languages in which their books were translated. Because – as he himself said in his speech at the Fair – “the more we read literary works, the more our mutual understanding improves and our differences disappear, because after all, we are all people.”
It’s time for the book of victory
What happened to social theory at the Fair? Where are the critical studies of society, culture, church, nation, gender … Ubi sunt? I’m asking, because there was almost no socio-theoretical literature at this year’s Fair. Its presence at the Fair has always been conspicuous, but now it is so modest and discreet that you need a GPS to find a few books from this field at the fair stands. Up to this year, one of the few publishers who bravely defended the colors of the socio-theoretical literature on the Fair was Dejan Ilic (the Book Factory), one of its best publishers. But he had to get out of there and create his own book exhibition, which he called the Small Fair. With best wishes for success, I send him a friendly warning to not organize a raffle at his alternative show. That is my trademark.
There’s no theory, but there is history. I do not mean the modern critical historiography and the study of the culture and politics of memory, which today can’t be separated from social theory, so it is also hard to find at this year’s Fair. However, there is a lot of narrative war and political history, which in the 19th century was known as national-romantic history. Books in which it is presented are mainly a mixture of pure fiction and questionable facts.
The slogan of this year’s fair “It’s time for the book” targets primarily this type of books about history. You will realize this when you combine it with a slogan launched enthusiastically the other day by mayor Mali: “The time has come to celebrate the victories”. Apart from the directors of military parades and recitals, who better to do this than patriotic storytellers of the Great War and the Russian czar. Even directors can’t do without them. When the time of the book and the time of victories coincide, then it is their time.
Books for all senses
I read on the website of Vulkan publishing company that, along with stacks of books, they prepared a variety of gifts, attractions and gizmos for the visitors of their stand, intending to make the books more appealing than they already are. As if they knew what a sucker I am for chocolate, Vulkan is tempting me like this: “In the course of searching for your favorite books, you’ll enjoy a combination of unusual flavors of Milka chocolate with TUC crackers and Milka chocolate with Lu biscuit”. I must say, if I am to fall for this, let it be TUC crackers.
If I prove myself as a real fan of this publisher, I’ll be offered a cup of coffee by Doncafé, because – Vulkan reminds me – “coffee and books are always a perfect combination and the visitors of Vulkan stand will enjoy the taste and superior quality that appeals to all the senses”. If, however, I come with a lady friend, a special gift awaits her. If she buys a book, “Forever with you” by Danny Atkins, she will receive a powder box. “All ladies will,” Vulkan promises, “enjoy the perfect combination of a romance novel and Golden Rose Paris Compact Powder.” And that’s not all. The publisher has opened a VIP bar at its stand, and its sponsors have ensured that there are tasty cold cuts and fine quality wine and beer. Vulkan’s advertising bait ends like this: “Enjoy our books with all your senses”.
Let me be clear. Do not look for irony in my words or, god forbid, mocking. I would really prefer to go to Vulkan’s stand than to one of those grim-faced gatherings called book launches, which look more like memorial services. After all, we at “XX vek” are also offering visitors of our book fair two attractions: raffle and cocktail. We will also tantalize your senses.
The genre problem
Our three biggest publishers – Laguna, Vulkan and Evro-Giunti – publish hundreds of new titles a year. In order to show them all at the Fair, they need a large exhibition space, and this need of theirs was “recognized” and met by the organizer. They can’t complain: they were given more than a third of the total area of the Arena.
However, if I understand correctly, something else was bothering them at the Fair. They have a problem to classify thousands of books, so the interested reader can find something that speaks to him based on the type and category. Novels about love and death, which make up a good part of the supply of these publishers, they still managed to classify by sections: action, adventure, erotica, romance, drama, crime, thriller, historical thriller, historical romance, horror, mystery, angels and demons. That way they meet the specific interests of their audience, because this one likes love tales from the past, another loves supernatural beings, another wants more blood, and that one wants historical heroes.
These publishers face this genre problem because they don’t have what is called a publishing profile or physiognomy. They publish anything that sells, a number of very different books, but they must classify them somehow. The solutions to this genre problem are sometimes, I have to say, very imaginative. For example, Laguna has put into the same category Coelho’s Diary of a Magnus and a book about quitting smoking titled The Electronic Cigarette, Isidora Bjelica’s novel Salvation and a book Serve to Win by Novak Djokovic. The connection between them is revealed in the title of the category which brought Paolo, Isidora and Novak together: “Body and soul”.
Father and son
Once, an old writer went,
Like a gray mandarin,
Followed by the youngest son
From his third marriage.
There was a Fair and on it
Tons of books, three halls and upstairs,
Horrible crowd and noise,
It takes an hour just to get in.
Which writer do you want me to buy, son,
The dad tested his son’s wishes,
Coelho, Pavic, Gai Tza
Or some other Chinese?
Or maybe something about the war,
To learn about the army!
Speak son, quickly,
Should I buy A Time of Death?
The idiot scratches his head with an iPhone,
As if he can’t decide.
Oh, dad, buy me,
Buy me the Fair kebabs.
Now the dad scratches his head,
And looks deeply at his idiot son.
Oh, I used to love Tolstoy,
And my son wants barbeque.
Six micro columns written for Danas, the Fair guide, 27.10 – 01.11.2014.
Translated by Marijana Simic