The Bookworld international book fair rises from the ashes

Less than six months ago, a disastrous fire reduced an entire wing of Prague’s historic Industrial Exhibition Hall to a pile of twisted metal and masonry, but the building has made a remarkable recovery. In a few days’ time it will be housing the Czech Republic’s biggest annual book fair, Svět knihy or Bookworld, which will be taking place for the fifteenth year running, and seems remarkably unscathed either by the fire or the rages of the world economic crisis. To find out more, I managed to steal a few minutes with the busy and energetic Bookworld director, Dana Kalinová, and amid the organized chaos of her Prague office, she told me about the event’s priorities.

“From the beginning we were sure that we cannot be just a trade fair. It was not possible, because there is already one very important world trade fair and that’s the Frankfurt Book Fair. Others are based on a language environment – like the London Book Fair, a very important book fair for literature written in English. We knew that we must combine the trade fair with a literary festival. So our book fair is also open to the public. It’s not intended just for professional visitors, and we have lots of programmes, also readings, book launches, debates, discussions. Every year we organize around 400 programmes.”

And this year, given that the Czech Republic currently holds the presidency of the European Union, you have a European theme.

“Thanks to this we also managed to get some higher support, to be able to invite writers from each country of the European Union plus candidate countries. So around 32 or 33 writers are coming from Europe at our expense and we are very happy. Our partners from abroad and also from the Czech Republic helped us as well.”

Tell me a little about some of the writers who are coming.

“Well, there are lots of them, but maybe listeners will know the Polish writer, Olga Tokarczuk. Her works were translated into Czech and she is quite famous here. So we are very happy about her visit.”

She is interesting as well in the fact that she lives very close to the Czech border and she has written about that borderland between the Czech Republic and Poland.[Her brilliant novel on this subject ‘House of Day, House of Night’ has been published in English translation by Granta].

“Yes, and that’s why I think she is also much read in our country. We also have Elif Safak coming. She’s a Turkish writer. She has not yet been translated into Czech, but her works were translated into lots of other languages. She’s an example of a writer who is quite famous internationally, but is not yet very famous here.”

You also have several writers coming from the English-speaking world.

“Yes, I don’t know how well-known they are here, but for example, Patrick McGuinness is coming - he’s a poet – and from Ireland Vona Groarke is coming, and her book was also published here in Czech. But I think it still needs to be promoted, so we are very happy that she is coming. And we shall hold lots of debates based on international awareness of European literatures, problems of the media and how they affect literature. These will be international debates held in English, so English-speaking visitors will find lots of programmes held in their language too.”

I was intrigued to see some of the other themes of the Bookworld fair, one of them being cooking. Tell me a little about this – cooking and literature!

“It’s nothing new actually. We were inspired by similar activities of other book fairs. It’s attractive for the public, of course, and there are lots of cookbooks published every year. So our idea was to prepare a special space for chefs, who would cook and introduce their books and some special recipes. People might watch and meet with them, and might talk to them. So it’s quite an attractive programme for the public.”

And this again is with a pan-European theme, isn’t it.

“Yes, of course. But another theme that I think is very important is ‘Literature and Education’ and ‘Fantasy and Creativity’, because these are themes widely discussed in Europe this year, and within the framework of this we shall introduce Wikipedia and the people behind Wikipedia, which I think might be very attractive, especially for younger people.”

Wikipedia is something that we tend to take for granted. I don’t think that many of us actually stop and think how does it work and who does it.

“Yes, so we will learn more about that! And we will have a special pavilion of fantasy and creativity, we will have some workshops, there will be illustrators and some interesting people working with visitors, lecturers, reading meetings dedicated to this theme as well.”

Left wing of the palace now
Returning to the subject of cooking – and having people cooking in the pavilion – given the experience from last year, when a major part of the building burned to the ground, I should imagine that you are going to have to be rather careful as far as the fire risk is concerned!

“Well, of course we had to ask, and there was a very strict instruction how to do this! It’s still a tragedy I must say. It was a historical building and it is beautiful, but if you look at it from outside, there is a tent built instead of the left wing, and the palace looks as though it is handicapped a little bit.”

And on the subject of problems, it’s no secret that the world economy is in recession at the moment, and this is also affecting the book trade. You are in part a trade fair, so there must have been some impact on Bookworld as well.

“Well, surprisingly not. We have managed to fill the space. There is no gap. There is a lot of interest among publishers to participate. Some of them made their space smaller, but some ordered a bigger space. So I still do not feel it, as far as the interest in participating is concerned. I remember the words of my colleague who is running the Buenos Aires book fair. It was about three years ago, when Argentina was facing big problems, and she wrote us a letter that the book fair held during this crisis was one of the best and most successful.”

Maybe books are a way of getting away from the less pleasant aspects of life outside…

“… and also people are looking for education and information. They need to be more educated to get employment. Maybe this might also be one of the reasons.”

But I have noticed that the prices of books have gone up dramatically in the last few years. In the old days you would buy a new novel for around 50 crowns – that’s about 2 US dollars. These days you find yourself paying four or five times that for a new 200-page novel.

“You are right. Maybe one way to solve the situation would be to reconsider pricing and expenses. So maybe the crisis might even help to make something more clear.”

And there isn’t really a tradition of paperbacks here. Most books that you buy in the shops are hardback.

“Do you know why…..? It’s because Czech people are famous collectors of books. Nearly every family has a big library at home, and you can hardly preserve a paperback. That’s why we still prefer hardbacks.”

So that means that people like the book to be an attractive and durable object.

“Yes, I cannot imagine my home with no books!!”

I was also intrigued how multi-media this year’s Bookworld is going to be, because you also have the world of film and theatre creeping in.

“Yes, we did it because we had a feeling that literature is still a kind of Cinderella compared with other media, like film or theatre, although it has inspired all these branches. That is why we decided to organize a theatre festival and film festival. These festivals are based on literature and books, so we called the film festival ‘Books on the Screen’. Almost three quarters of films are based on books.”

It’s true that I’ve met very many Czech writers who have also written screenplays for film or who have adapted their own books for film – writers of all generations.

“The film festival could go on for ages, because there are so many films!”

It’s a very big festival, so how can our listeners and people reading Radio Prague’s website keep themselves informed about what’s going to be happening in the course of Bookworld?

“We have our website in Czech and English. In English it’s Visitors can look at the curriculum vitaes of writers who are coming, they can select programmes they would like to visit. So I think it’s very good to work with our website before they come to the book fair, because they will be ready to visit the programme they would really like to see.”

To conclude, can you remind us again where and when the Bookworld book fair will be taking place?

“It will be held from May 14-17. We hope it will be raining a little, so people will come. And there are also programmes held not just at the Industrial Palace (Průmyslový palác) in Prague 7, but also at some other venues in Prague, such as the Viola Theatre and various cinemas.”