The fantastic voyagers are already on their way
Backstage at the Jerusalem International Book Fair, one finds the bookseller of Hebron, publishers at the American Colony bar, passion and tales of $1 million changing hands.
The title is the "Jerusalem International Book Fair." For years, the emphasis was justifiably placed on Jerusalem. What better place to hold a book fair than the eternal capital of the People of the Book? The fact that other peoples consider Jerusalem their Holy Grail (like Muslims, for whom the Koran defines the Jews as the "People of the Book") has not hindered the fair's success: It merely provided a background for fascinating arguments throughout the 23 years of the fair's history, and a consensus that there is no place for violence when people are discussing books.
The fair's international flavor is expressed by booths presenting books of foreign publishers, manned by the staff of the importers, Steimatzky and Academon. Some national collective stands depend on the participating countries' enthusiasm (variable). Everyone talks about books. People come to see books, and they come because of books.
Talking about books appears to be apolitical. Politics are restrained in official ceremonies: Shimon Peres quotes Jerusalem Prize winner Leszek Kolakowski's "Conversations with the Devil" and suggests that Jerusalem should be saved from the devil by means of books. In a taped address, the prize winner himself speaks of the difference between patriotism and ethnic hatred, and the need to delegitimize hatred.
Politics are more apparent in the daily life of the fair, in words and in deeds: Israeli and Palestinian literati and filmmakers, Arabs and Jews, meet south of Jerusalem at Tantur (an ecumenical institute) "to talk about it." That's what one does at international meetings: Listen to things that are sometimes hard to hear, and talk about it.
One booth in Arabic
There is one booth of books in Arabic at the fair, representing the Dandis Bookshop in Hebron. Sameh Dandis, the son of the owner, smiles graciously as he mans the booth. The family store in Hebron features 23,000 titles, he explains, most of them printed in Arab nations. In the last year and a half, the family firm has been prevented from importing books printed in Syria and Lebanon.
"Who prevents it?" I ask. "They," he answers, forming quotation marks with his fingers. They do not import books from Iran, he quips, because, "there aren't any."
Hebrew University faculty members buy books from Dandis. When the firm exhibited in Ramallah, two years ago, the aisles in front of its booth were full. Dandis is disappointed by a lack of buyers in Jerusalem, despite larger attendance at the fair than in previous years.
A month and a half ago, the shop lacked a permit to attend the fair. "Who wouldn't give you a permit?" I ask. "You," he smiles. On the first night of the fair, he slept in the hotel next to Binyanei Ha'uma (officially the Jerusalem International Convention Center). On the second night, he slept in his home in Hebron to avoid growing accustomed to comfort. On the return trip to Jerusalem, on Tuesday, he waited at the roadblock for a few hours, but finally arrived. I bought two English-language books from him, both printed in Egypt. One features animals in the Koran, who tell their own stories, and the other presents the contented testimonies of Western women who have converted to Islam. I paid NIS 28.
A French journey
What blurs the lines between Jerusalem, internationalism and the books is the fact that it is a "fair."
A fair is a colorful, happy place in which many things happen, all at once. The books, the politics and the ceremonies are the fair's showcase. The fair, and the many fairs within the fair, take place simultaneously. You're lucky to get a piece of the action. If not, you may never know that the fair took place, even if you were nearby. For example, Jean Rouaud, author of the book "Fields of Glory" (published in Hebrew by Hasifria Hahadasha), was interviewed by Michal Govrin before an audience of Francophones and Francophiles in the literary coffee shop located between two flights of stairs in Binyanei Ha'uma.
Govrin, who heroically interviewed and translated in French and Hebrew, begins with Rouaud's book, in which he returned to his parents' home, a village subjected to two world wars. At first, it appears to be a story about the "major" history of the war and the "minor" history of the village, something which Govrin readily identifies with from her Jewish perspective.
It quickly becomes clear that this is a practical, cultural and political matter. Rouaud says that, next year, he and his friend Michel Leuvrey intend to bring the major French book and film festival Etonnants Voyageurs (Fantastic Voyagers) to Tel Aviv. The festival, which began in Saint-Malo and continued in a variety of locations around the world, is an international celebration of books that depict journeys, in the literal and figurative senses of the word.
Why Tel Aviv? Because Rouaud and his friend protest the French anti-Semitism concealed behind attacks against the State of Israel. They say that by displaying their concern and fondness for Israel, they are confronting a trend in their nation, as writers should.
Who will these fantastic writers come to, in Tel Aviv? To those who live in Tel Aviv and speak Hebrew, or to those who have difficulty coming to Tel Aviv and do not speak Hebrew on a daily basis? If they want to come, they will. If they don't - Who? Them? Us? - they won't come.
Schulim Vogelmann of Florence will be there. He is the son of a publishing family, born in 1978. He completed Jewish day school, in Florence, with the eight other last students to attend the school. Then, he decided to search for his Jewish roots. He came to Israel, studied Hebrew, became a citizen, completed abbreviated service in the Israel Defense Forces, made friends and returned to run the family publishing house, La Giuntina.
The Vogelmanns have already published Italian translations of Haim Be'er's "The Pure Element of Time" and Yehoshua Kenaz's "The Great Woman of the Dreams" and Benny Barbash's "My First Sony." Avirama Golan's "The Ravens" is currently being translated.
Kenaz, Barbash and Golan attended the launch party of Schulim Vogelmann's autobiographical book, "Mentre la citta' bruciava" (While the City Burned). Vogelmann wrote the book in honor of the grandfather he never knew, who always said that when he wrote his autobiography, it would begin with "I was born in a train car while the city burned."
Late at night in the bar
The truly important fair is the one seen only by editors and young publishers from around the world who attend the fair in the context of a program that is virtually hidden to the wider public. Here, they meet, talk shop, exchange texts and details in a relaxed atmosphere. Late at night, in the American Colony hotel bar, publishers Heloise d'Ormesson and Gilles Solal-Cohan, who are a couple, speak passionately to Jonathan Burnham (of HarperCollins, New York) about Spanish writer Lucia Echeverria, whom they publish in French. Their enthusiasm is not derived from a desire to sell - they don't own world rights to the book.
Burnham's recent $1 million plus purchase of Jonathan Littlell's book about a Nazi soldier, written in first person, rocked the publishing industry. Littell's agent, Andrew Nurnberg, passes by as they speak. Passion and millions of dollars were the subjects of the editors' and young publishers' seminar, which was held yesterday.
Martin Levin, who began working as a publisher in 1950, and left to work on the legal aspect of mergers in this field, told the young editors about his own mistakes: He refused to bet on Ian Fleming in a timely fashion (because who would bet on a dead author?) and on Martha Stewart (because she was merely his lawyer's wife, who wanted to publish a coffee-table book about food and lifestyle). On the other hand, after Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying" failed in an edition whose cover carried only her name and the title, he published the book with the zipper on the cover.
Larry Kirschbaum spoke of his errors. He was not too anxious to publish Madonna's book, and agreed to publish a book by O.J. Simpson's ex-wife, who discovered God some time after she signed the contract and before the book was released. As a result of her new piety, the book lacked some of the anticipated juice.
Kirschbaum spoke about a world subject to the threat of militarism. (In his view, this derives from Islamic fundamentalists, and Israel and the Western world are unfortunately being dragged along.) He advised young publishers to hang on to their passion and belief in books - not for the sake of profit, but to assure the publication of what they believe to be worthy titles.
Outreach to young editors and publishers is the most important aspect of the fair, and it does not make headlines. If something comes out of these efforts, it will only be witnessed in a number of years. Thus, it is important to find a way to involve Israeli publishers in this project, and not just for the sake of meeting obligations. If young publishers from abroad continue to come here only to experience Israel and meet among themselves (they can also do the latter abroad), Hebrew books will not gain what they could from the fair.
The entire fair is based on passion: As long as the fair's director, Zev Birger, who was justifiably greeted by applause at every opportunity, continues to be enthusiastic, the fair will exist as a showcase for booths and books (which in some cases were a necessary pretense). Birger, 80, should live to be 120, in his serene, charming manner. But without profound thought regarding long-term planning, while public budgets continue to dwindle, this fair may take a different path.
Fantastic voyagers will continue to come, and books will continue to be released. But the nature of fairs is to come into town, make people happy and leave. We will remember how lovely and important this fair was only when the next one appears - if at all.
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