Politics, Polemics and Reading Pleasure in Frankfurt


Muriel Mirak-Weissbach with Arthur Mesropyan, International Rights Manager of Zangak Publishing House, at the Republic of Armenia stand

Muriel Mirak-Weissbach with Arthur Mesropyan, International Rights Manager of Zangak Publishing House, at the Republic of Armenia stand

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

FRANKFURT, Germany — For an author, a visit to the annual Frankfurt Book Fair can be a humbling experience. When you enter the massive fairgrounds, where over 7,000 exhibitors (among them your own publishers) from one hundred countries have come to put on proud display their latest productions — about 400,000 (!) new titles — it tends to put things into proportion, so to speak, and you ask yourself what, if any, place your own modest achievements might find in this immense literary universe. If you happen to be working on a new book, the challenge is overwhelming.

But that is a highly personal viewpoint and, as such, of limited value. In broader terms, for writers and readers alike, Frankfurt, the biggest and undeniably most important book fair in the world, is the stage on which burning political issues are thrashed out in dozens of appearances by authors discussing their new releases.

This year was no exception. The target of critical debate was writers’ freedom — or lack thereof — in Turkey.

Writers Speak Out from Exile and Jail  

At a press conference to present the German translation of his new memoir, We Are Arrested: A Journalist’s Notes from a Turkish Prison, Can Dündar cast the spotlight on the plight of countless colleagues, journalists and book authors thrown into Turkish prisons for the crime of having spoken their minds. He called on participants to “Stand by us, the other Turkey,” while expressing his disappointment with governments in the West for their failure to address Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan whose government has “imprisoned thousands, including hundreds of writers and journalists” and has “effectively ended freedom of speech as we know it.” And Elif Shafak, in discussion of her new book, Three Daughters of Eve, lamented the fact that people in Turkey have become “an angry people.” Regarding the situation there, which she called a “disgrace,” she said she was “very depressed,” adding that it was the aggression and patriarchy of a male-dominated society that was responsible for these developments. “I’m sad,” she said, “but I do have hope, that countries with a Muslim majority can also improve their democracy and that different ideas can live together in peace.”

Even representatives of official institutions in the host country addressed the issue of intellectual repression in Turkey. So explicitly, in fact, that German press accounts identified this as the leading theme of the fair. Heinrich Riethmüller, head of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, raised the issue in stark terms at the opening. He read from a letter by author and co-publisher of a Kurdish newspaper, Asli Erdogan, which had been smuggled out of prison: “I cry out to you from behind stones, concrete and barbed wire,” she had written. “Conscience is being trampled upon in my country… They are trying to kill off Truth. And even if I do not know how,” continued her letter, “but still, literature has always succeeded in overcoming dictators. Literature that we are writing with our own blood; this, for me, is the truth.”

Riethmüller commented, “For us, freedom of speech is a human right and is not negotiable.” But, he added, “politicians are maintaining silence.” They see what is going on but do not act. And Martin Schultz, president of the European Parliament, declared his “full solidarity” with “all authors and journalists languishing in Turkish jails” and with an online petition calling for their liberation. Addressing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Schultz said, “Let these people free.”

To appreciate the enormity of the catastrophe that has descended on Turkey, one must recall that just eight years ago, in 2008, Turkey was the celebrated guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Among the writers representing the optimism in the democratization process at the time were Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak and Asli Erdogan.

 

The Ottoman Reflex

The response of official Turkey, which was present, as always, with several large stands and plenty of books to have for free, was not terribly nuanced. Among the complimentary copies this year was a little volume on the July 15 coup attempt, presented as a “massacre” that the West observed with “tolerance,” and which Turkey survived, “bitter-sweetly.” When Karen Krüger, a journalist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung who has followed Turkish developments over years, asked the person at the Turkish stand if works by those writers arrested since July 15 were also available, he answered that, as an employee of the Ministry of Culture, he was not authorized to say, but assured her that everything would be dealt with in a round table discussion scheduled on the topic, “Democracy and Culture.” As Krüger reported in the FAZ, participants in the round table discussion could only offer platitudes about the positive role of literature in opening doors to understanding and to democracy. Otherwise, she noted, what dominated in the event and the official stand were books, historical photographs and paraphernalia exalting the glories of the Ottoman era. This she sees as a reflection of what is happening in Turkey: “The birth of a self-styled Turkish-Islamic state, which would like to wipe out from cultural memory the humiliation of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire through the exaltation of ‘forgotten victories’ and whose founding myth will become the resistance of the people against the coup attempt.”

 

And Armenia?

Elsewhere in the same huge exhibition hall was the Republic of Armenia stand, of considerably more modest dimensions, and happily free from any protest or polemics. Leading publishing houses, like Antares, Zangak and Yerevan State University press, joined with the ARI literary Agency and the 1st Armenian Literary Agency, to present new titles in Armenian as well as Armenian works in translation. If 1,500 books are published annually in Armenia, this is in part thanks to support of the Ministry of Culture; about half that number were published in the last five years with ministry support.

Translation plays a central role in Armenian publishing and here the Ministry of Culture is key, with its Translation Support Program to encourage knowledge of Armenian works abroad. Since 2011, Armenia has hosted an annual “Literary Ark” international festival, where writers, literary experts, critics, journalists and literature lovers from all over the world come together, usually for 10 days, to discuss cultural and social-civil issues and contribute to a bilingual publication (in Armenian and many of the other languages) containing contributions in poetry or prose by the participants.

The festival was conceived in 2001 by the Armenian Public Organization of Cultural Cooperation with Foreign Countries, and is implemented with the support of the Ministry of Culture. Participants have come from many European countries, both east and west, as well as the US and Canada.

About 100 writers from 40 foreign countries have visited Armenia in the context of this festival. Then there is the Armenian Literature Foundation, founded in 2012, which is dedicated to promoting translation of Armenian works into other languages, and its representatives participate in international book fairs for this purpose.

The Armenian publishers exhibiting in Frankfurt represent a variety of fields and specializations. Antares Media Holding, for example, produces children’s books, scientific, world literature, encyclopedias, anthologies, as well as classical and modern literature, especially Armenian modern literature. Among its series is the Complete Shakespeare, which includes 39 volumes representing the first complete translation of Shakespeare’s works. The LAC (Literature, Art, Culture) series focuses on works in these fields, both Armenian and international.

The leading academic publisher in Armenia is the Yerevan State University Publishing House, established in 1920 by the authorities of the first Republic of Armenia (1918) who founded the university. The salient feature of this institution’s editorial activity is the production of dictionaries, not only simple language reference books, but also philological works. Thus they have published a Dictionary of Armenian Root Words, a Dictionary of Toponyms of Armenia and Adjacent Regions, an Explanatory Dictionary of Synonyms in the Armenian Language, a Dictionary of Middle Armenian. There are also dictionaries of names of plants in several languages, as well as bilingual dictionaries of Armenian and English, French, Latin, Indian (Hindi), Greek, and so forth. In addition to language-related works, the YSU Publishing House has also issued works in history; on the centenary of the genocide it published numerous books on the subject, and other works on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of independence.

Zangak Publishing House, which has been active since 1997, plays a leading role in producing educational materials, textbooks, manuals, literary and scientific journals. As Arthur Mesropyan, their International Rights Manager, explained to me at the Frankfurt fair, Zangak has been paying special attention to young readers, between the ages of 13 and 18. Finding appropriate literary works for this age group, he said, is particularly important, because young adolescents need good literature to deal with the new challenges they face, whether in social relationships, school activities or family life. Here in Frankfurt, Mesropyan said he had held 30 meetings with other publishers, in search of works to translate. He received a whopping 200 new titles, which now have to be carefully studied, so that the most appropriate can be selected for translation into Armenian.

Zangak had a number of beautiful new books on display, many of which exist in several language versions. For example, a richly illustrated book entitled Disaster David, is in Eastern Armenian, but the text I saw was in English and there exists yet another in French. Other illustrated books for young readers include The Blue Fox written and illustrated by Lilit Altunyan, and My Granny Tamtimaria, by Naira Yedigaryan. A special treat are the books for children that present not only texts but also artistic materials and models with which young readers can create their own versions of the characters, in modeling clay; “besides reading the favorite tale,” the catalogue explains, “children can also make the figures themselves, which will develop their thinking, imagination, talent for making things, and will reveal their artistic skills.” This series includes Modern Tales by Armenian writers, Tales by Hovhannes Tumanyan as well as Classic Characters by the same author, and Foreign Tales, with pieces from German, Chinese and Persian folklore. For a scientific community as well as the general public, Zangak has presented historical accounts, 10 Outstanding Armenian Queens and 10 Outstanding Armenian Kings. Modern novels and other fiction are also well represented, Mesropyan said, citing their Armenian versions of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed and The Kite Runner, as well as Dan Brown’s Inferno.