Fault lines appear at Frankfurt fair

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 October, 2009, 12:00am

Nearly 200 mainland publishers attended this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, but only one threw a party - privately owned Shanghai 99 Readers. And unlike state publishers, who were intent on selling Chinese books abroad, in line with government policy, Shanghai 99's deputy editor Peng Lun was frank about his firm's goals.

'We're here for one thing only - to buy foreign rights,' Peng said.

Call it a tale of two fairs. The event, which ended on October 18, not only revealed tensions between the official contingent, with its 26 state-approved writers, and the dozens of dissidents and exiles who converged on the fair to have their say; it showed that even the Chinese publishing world was divided.

Emerging private publishers were setting the agenda in Frankfurt as well as back home, following their de facto legalisation by the General Administration of Press and Publications in April after nearly two decades of operating in a grey area.

In order to convince the mainland, where publishing and speech freedom are tightly controlled, to take part, book fair organisers promised the guest of honour could set its own programme without being disturbed by dissidents and critics. Everyone hoped for 'dialogue', yet the atmosphere soured from the start, after officials barred critical voices such as novelists Yan Lianke, Liao Yiwu and Tsering Woeser from attending.

China's presence this year followed years of negotiation. Yet members of the official delegation seemed unable or unwilling to engage with their critics.

Mo Yan, one of the mainland's most famous writers, failed to show up twice at scheduled events. A reading by Li Er, author of the highly regarded Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree, flopped after Li spoke only Chinese and his interviewer only German. No translation was provided by the Chinese organisers despite the years of preparation.

Lovers of Chinese literature were more likely to find what they wanted outside the fair grounds, at the Confucius Institute, or Frankfurt's new Literaturhaus, where Chinese authors gave public talks, though rarely stayed to mingle afterwards.

China spent 100 million yuan (HK$113 million) on the fair, 70 million yuan from the government and 30 million yuan from cultural groups and private publishers, according to Jing Bartz, head of the Beijing-based German Book Centre, the book fair's Beijing office.

Hundreds of state publishing houses exhibited titles such as novels by former culture minister Wang Meng, or treatises on nano physics, crop engineering and language instruction. Despite the dull offerings, China Publishing Group, the country's largest publisher, sold 900 copyrights. China is generally thought to have agreed to take part in the fair because it wants to increase book sales to the West. In 2005, officials were shocked to learn just one Chinese title was sold at Frankfurt.

At the Shanghai 99 Readers stand, the material was a lot more daring than at the state-owned stands - a Chinese version of Erich Fromm's The Sane Society is forthcoming.

The company's foreign language list is already the most impressive in the country, and includes Philip Roth, John Updike and William Trevor among dozens more.

Yet amid the buzz at Shanghai 99 Readers' party, there was a sense of unease.

'Yes, we want dialogue,' said Pan Kaixiong, president of People's Literature Publishing House, the biggest state-owned literary house, which collaborates closely with Shanghai 99. 'But they also need to listen to what we say.'

Berlin-based Chinese writer Lingyuan Luo said: 'Germans and Chinese have very different ideas of what dialogue is.'

An independent Chinese writer and journalist who asked for anonymity because he lives in Beijing, sees inviting China as guest of honour as 'a waste of money'.

'I thought initially it would help them to reach out to the world and have dialogue and learn,' he said. 'But as the event wore on, I saw how little the officials and writers seemed to care about that, and I've changed my mind.'

But for Shi Ming, a Cologne-based writer and translator who has made his home in Germany for 20 years, the fair was a success.

'Its biggest success was that it showed the German public that China is not a monolith. It is not just human rights problems or a flourishing marketplace, it's both,' said Shi.

'China is just a very contradictory country. And to have shown that, that's pretty good.'