A Controversial Homage to Catalonia Commerce Replaces Politics at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Catalonia is a controversial choice for guest of honor at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. The changing emphasis in choosing the annual guest of honor mirrors the way the show has changed over the years -- and not necessarily for the better.

By Margit Knapp

Catalonia is this year's guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Catalonia is this year's guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is all about bringing the international publishing world together. The guest of honor, usually a country or region, plays a special role in furthering that idea, serving as a forum for interaction among countries, cultural regions and linguistic regions, as well as facilitating negotiations in the sale of publishing rights. Experts agree that a guest of honor's presence at the fair is an important economic factor.

Nevertheless, the relevance of the concept has been questioned time and again in recent years. Is it still a vibrant discussion platform, or has it degenerated into an opportunity for touristic navel-gazing and an uncritical opportunity for self-promotion?

The debate is especially heated over this year's choice of Catalonia as the guest of honor, a small linguistic region with controversial cultural policies. The areas where Catalan is spoken include Catalonia itself, the Balearic Islands, Valencia, the tiny principality of Andorra, a few towns in Spain's Aragon region, and the community of L'Alguer on the Italian island of Sardinia.

To varying degrees, Catalan enjoys the status of an official language in most of these regions. But Catalonia has caused a significant uproar with its closed-minded policy of not including the many Catalans who write in Spanish in its definition of Catalan literature.

The Catalan regional government has hired the Ramon Llull Institute, a cultural organization similar to Germany's Goethe Institute, to stage the exhibit. The institute is named after a medieval scholar from Mallorca who, in the 13th century, when Latin was the language of philosophy, theology and poetry, also used the new Romance languages to write about the dialogue between the Christian and Muslim worlds. But the institute has retained little of its namesake's cosmopolitan approach.

Because their language was banned under the Franco dictatorship, many Catalans are especially keen to stress the independence and importance of their language. And yet despite the fact that Franco has been dead 32 years, a relaxed linguistic and cultural coexistence between the Catalan and Spanish cultures remains as distant as ever. In fact, the pendulum seems to be swinging in the opposite direction today, with a certain undercurrent of nationalism not uncommon in the regions where Catalan is spoken.

Rivalries within Spain led to heated discussions in the run-up to the book fair. Sergi Pámies, one of the best authors writing in Catalan, declined an invitation to attend the Frankfurt fair, saying that he preferred not to be exploited for nationalist purposes.

Shouldn't an international book fair invite countries and regions as its guests of honor that widen instead of narrow our perspective, that set new directions instead of airing old nationalist sentiments?

It was Volker Neumann, the former head of the Frankfurt Book Fair (from 2002 to 2005), who invited Catalonia, apparently without considering the problematic nature of inviting a linguistic region in which regional nationalism is thriving, more so than in most other parts of Europe. Critics already say that the choice of Catalonia brings the guest of honor concept to a low point.

Catalonia's presence at the fair isn't lacking financial support. The official budget for the Catalan exhibit is €12 million, one of the largest in the history of the guest of honor program. Both the Arab world and Russia each spent only €5 million on their respective exhibits in 2004 and 2003. Lithuania, a small country, managed to spend only €1.5 million in 2002, and yet its exhibit at the fair was very successful.

Of course, the cost of an exhibit is not always directly related to its success. What determines success is whether an appearance at the Frankfurt Book Fair stimulates lasting interest for the literature of the respective country, as it did for Dutch literature in 1993.

The joint exhibit by Belgium's Flanders region and the Netherlands was an eye-opening experience for all book lovers. It helped, for example, to raise the profile of Dutch author Harry Mulisch in Germany. And since then Dutch literature has secured a permanent place in German publishing houses and book stores -- the ideal outcome of a guest appearance in Frankfurt.

Peter Weidhaas, the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair for many years, developed the concept of special topics and guest of honor appearances. Weidhaas's idea made its debut in 1976 when the fair featured half a continent -- Latin America. And what a success it was. Indeed, that year's Frankfurt Book Fair was at least partly responsible for the subsequent meteoric rise in the popularity of Latin American literature in Europe.

Some of the greatest names in world literature, like Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa and Brazilian writer Jorge Amado attended the 1976 fair. The Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, who was living in exile in Paris at the time, also attended. A military junta had just taken power in his native Argentina.


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