Mixing Business With Pleasure

The Jerusalem International Book Fair offers the opportunity to examine, buy, sell, argue about and revel in books

While the international book-publishing industry continues to shrink, like just about every other component of the global economy, the Jerusalem International Book Fair is on the upswing. The biennial event opens for the 24th time this Sunday at the capital's International Convention Center, and will be open to the public Monday through Friday, February 16-20.

Like other, larger book fairs, such as the annual event in Frankfurt or those in Tokyo or Paris, the Jerusalem fair has always been a place where business is done, and especially where Israeli authors and their publishers can showcase their wares to visiting foreign publishers and sell them the publication rights for Hebrew books. (Of course, sales also go in the opposite direction, with Israeli publishers picking up the rights to bring out foreign titles in Hebrew.)

With the exception of the "Editorial Buzz" sessions (more on that below), the wheeling and dealing is not open to the public. And wandering around the seemingly endless displays at the Jerusalem convention center can be a little wearing, if not mind-numbing, after the first hour or two. What makes the Jerusalem fair especially appealing, though, are the cultural programs taking place beside the exhibitions, and this year there seem to be more of these than ever before.

The big hit at the 2007 fair was the "literary cafe" series, which returns this year with a vast and varied program, which can be examined in full on the book fair's Web site (www.jerusalembookfair.com/main.html). The format - which was also adopted, with great success, at last spring's Writers Festival at Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem - is simple enough: An Israeli host, a writer or some other cultural figure, has a conversation with one or more visiting writers, in the presence of an audience. In programs expected to draw large crowds, the space for the cafe may be filled up with rows of chairs, but in most cases, the audience is limited to 100 people seated around tables, with coffee and other light refreshments for sale.

The crowd that attends the evening of songs performed to the words of novelist David Grossman is likely to overflow the confines of the literary cafe. Tsila Hayun, whose company, Hotam Cultural Projects, is producing the cafe series for the fair, explains that Grossman has been writing lyrics for years, but aside from "The Sticker Song" - lyrics he ingeniously put together several years ago from a wide variety of bumper sticker texts for the hip-hop group Hadag Nahash - they generally remain in the drawer. But after several successful collaborations in the Tel Aviv area in recent years with composer Yoni Rechter and other musicians, Grossman wanted to offer his new wares to an audience in his hometown. "He wanted to talk about love, and not about grief," said Hayun, referring both to Grossman's best-selling novel of last year, "To the End of the Land," about a mother who tries to escape receiving the news that her son has been killed in battle, and to Grossman's own loss of a son in the Second Lebanon War.

The book fair event, set for 8:30 P.M. Tuesday, will bring together Grossman and composers Rechter and David Peretz, along with performers Rona Keinan, Eran Zur and Din Din Aviv, among others. Admission to it, and to all other book fair events, is free, but is on a first-come, first-served basis.

The embassies of several European countries have gone to great lengths to bring an interesting array of cultural figures to the fair. To English-reading audiences, many of the names may not be familiar, so what follows are descriptions of a selection that sounded especially interesting to me - although I recommend checking the book fair Web site for final program details, and for the languages in which each event will be conducted.

French and Israeli comics

The Paris Book Fair held a session in March that brought together several French comics artists with some of their counterparts from Israel.

Shortly after the roundtable meeting got under way, however, it was interrupted by a bomb scare (Israel served as a special guest of the fair, which led to numerous protests from anti-Zionist activists). The organizers promised to reschedule the event for the Jerusalem fair this year, and that is what will happen at a Wednesday literary cafe at 5:30 P.M., at which artists Charles Berberian, Dan Franck and Stephane Heuet will meet Israelis Uri Fink and Shai Sharka.

Heuet is the former advertising executive who began adopting Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" to a comics format a decade ago (several volumes have been published in English). Franck is a popular French novelist and screenwriter who, together with writer Jean Vautrin, has created a series of comics about a dashing press photographer named Boro. Roselyne Dery, who is the literary attache of the French Embassy in Tel Aviv, says Franck asked to come to Israel because he wants to research the next and final installment of the Boro books, which is to take place in pre-state Palestine. The Baghdad-born Berberian is the co-creator of the popular comics character Monsieur Jean.

In a different vein altogether, philosopher, novelist and politician Catherine Clement will be here to introduce her book "Memoire," which serves as the other side of the coin to the autobiographical novel of her younger brother Jerome Clement (president of Arte TV). Jerome's book, "One Day You'll Understand," served as the basis of last year's film of the same name by Amos Gitai, which stars Jeanne Moreau and is about a mother who keeps her Jewish identity secret from her children during and after the German occupation of France.

Also arriving from France will be the Afghanistan-born novelist Atiq Hatimi, whose latest book, "Syngue Sabout" ("Stone of Patience"), won him France's top literary prize, the Goncourt, last fall. It is the story of a woman who talks to her comatose husband as she cares for him, after he has been wounded in the country's civil war.

Religion and literature

In addition to appearing with Roselyne Dery on Monday at 5 P.M., Hatimi will also participate in a Tuesday session on religion and literature open only to official book fair guests to be held at the Tantur Ecumenical Center, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The religion and literature session is being organized by Jerusalem literary agent Deborah Harris, who explained that a panel of six writers - two of them Christian, two Muslim and two Jewish - will discuss the role of religion in their work. Haaretz columnist Sayed Kashua is the other Muslim writer; the two Jews are Israeli writers Michal Govrin and Dov Elboim, and the Christian participants are Erri De Lucca, from Italy, and U.S. novelist Mary Gordon. Gordon, whose Roman Catholic background has played a major role in such books as "Final Payments" (1978), has also written two memoirs about her parents.

One of them was "The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father," about her late, tormented father, David Gordon, a Jew who converted to Catholicism. (An opportunity for the general public to hear Gordon, in conversation again about religion and literature, with both Govrin and poet-thinker Haviva Pedaya, will take place 7 P.M. Thursday. Both Govrin and Pedaya are Renaissance women, working in a number of different cultural fields, and the session is recommended.) De Lucca is a prolific Neapolitan novelist and frequent visitor to Israel who taught himself Hebrew and Yiddish, and has written his own translations of several biblical books. His 2001 book "Montedidio" ("Mountain of God"), describes the coming-of-age of a boy in a working class neighborhood in Naples in the 1960s.

Life in Berlin

Germany is also bringing a large delegation of writers to Jerusalem, many of whom will be participating in the "Berline Runde," a roundtable discussion about cosmopolitan life in Germany's capital (Wednesday at 4:30 P.M.). Israeli scholar Fania Oz-Salzberger, who's written a book about Israelis in the city, will host humorist and DJ Wladimir Kaminer, publisher Thomas Sparr, musician Emmanuel Witzthum, and Iraqi-born writer Najem Wali, among others. (Wali, author of the book "Journey into the Heart of the Enemy," about his travels in Israel, will also discuss his work with Israeli writer Sami Michael, in a Tuesday evening session.) On Wednesday evening, the Russian-born Kaminer will be at the turntable at a Russian disco at Jerusalem's Yellow Submarine club, joined by the band Los Caparos.

German editor and scholar Stefan Weidner, author most recently of "Manual for the Clash of Civilizations," will discuss his book (Monday at 7 P.M., in English) with Israeli political scientist Bashir Bashir. And German-Israeli journalist Raul Teitelbaum will speak about his most recent book, "The Biological Solution," in which he explores how two-thirds of Holocaust survivors were denied any sort of compensation for their suffering. Teitelbaum will be hosted by Israeli historian Moshe Zimmermann (Thursday, 5 P.M.), who will then follow that session with one in which he reads from his own new book, "Germans against Germans: The Fate of the Jews, 1938-1945."

Is peace even possible?

Visitors to the fair from both near and far still trying to make sense of the results of this week's election may find it helpful (or in any case stimulating) to attend a Wednesday evening session called "Is Peace Even Possible?: Israeli Writers Distinguish between Hard Realities and Failures of Imagination." Participants in the panel discussion will include writer and economist Bernard Avishai; post-Zionist provocateur Avraham Burg; real-estate developer, corporate super-lawyer and professed socialist Shraga Biran; secular-Jewish educator Ruth Calderon; and Haaretz editor and memoirist Shai Golden. The moderator will be Ethan Bronner, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.

Quick pitches

As at every book fair since 1985, there will again be a group this year of some 45 "editorial fellows," mid-career editors and literary agents from a number of countries, who meet a wide range of Israeli literary figures, tour the country, and have the opportunity to do a little business and a lot of socializing - not that it's always clear where one ends and the other begins.

One event organized for the fellows that is open to the general public consists of two "Editorial Buzz" sessions, at which editors will make quick pitches of new titles they are developing at their publishing houses. Neta Goren, who oversees the editorial fellows program, explains that in one session, foreign alumni of the fellows program return "to 'buzz' about the books they are working on for the younger fellows," and that in the second, Israeli, session added two years ago, seven local editors, accompanied by their authors, will give brief pitches of forthcoming titles. Following the presentations, there will be an opportunity for the foreign editors to discuss the manuscripts they have just heard about and to negotiate acquisition of rights for them.

Another professional event open to the public will be a panel discussion about a proposal for Israel to adopt a French law that forbids retailers from discounting or otherwise changing the price of a book during the first two years after its publication (Tuesday at 11:30 A.M.). The purpose of the law is to prevent the situation, so familiar in Israel these days, in which publishers and booksellers concentrate most of their efforts on marketing a limited number of best sellers, by selling them at sharp discounts. The larger the publisher or bookstore chain, the more they can discount a title - and although this saves consumers money, it also drives independent stores out of business and greatly limits the variety of books that can be found on the shelves of the country?s bookshops.

The French Embassy's Dery, who is organizing the panel for the fair, is passionate on the subject. "Books are not a product like other products," she says, "and can't be sold the same way." She notes that in France, where the law has been in effect since 1981, the bookstores are not in a state of crisis, "like the rest of the economy," and that the country still has many independent bookshops. She is hoping to encourage Israeli publishers to sign on to the idea of a similar law for here.

The Lithuanian Embassy in Israel has organized a variety of programs at the fair on the country's Jewish past, which came to a tragic end in the last century, and the current rebirth of interest in that past.

Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld

Some other literary cafes featuring well-known Israeli writers speaking with visitors from abroad include:

Amos Oz in conversation with Italy's Roberto Calassso, a publisher and wide-ranging intellectual whose books, many of which have appeared in English, have dealt with such topics as classical Sanskrit literature, Kafka and the perils of romantic nationalism (Monday at 7:45 P.M.).

  • Aharon Appelfeld hosting Spanish writer and publisher Adolfo Garcia Ortega, author of "The Birthday Buyer," in which he imagines a life for Horbinek, the young mute boy from an Auschwitz infirmary who appeared in Primo Levi's "The Reawakening" (Wednesday at 8:30 P.M.).

  • Meir Shalev, speaking with Norway's superstar writer Lars Saabye Christensen, author of "Beatles" and "The Halfbrother," a family saga that portrays the post-war development of the author's native country (Monday at 4:30 P.M.).

    Each of these events should be memorable.