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South African Book Fair

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Sailing down the Rivers Po and Nile: The Turin International Book Fair 2009

The Po River in Turin

A special report from Italy by Estelle Jobson


The London Book Fair is mum on its 2009 visitor stats, but the Turin International Book Fair announced them at close of business after the four-day fair: 307 650 visitors, 5% up on 2008, and 1 400 exhibitors. There were over 6 000 meetings with almost 700 participants from about 30 countries. The brand of the Turin fair, seven bars resembling the spines of books on a shelf, is valued at two million euros.

In Turin, the city of chocolate-makers, the fair ran as smoothly as a chocolate drop. The guest country of 2009 was Egypt, creating prosperous opportunity for dialogue, from way-back-when, the ancient kingdoms of Egypt and Rome through to exciting, forward-looking collaboration. The guest country for 2010 is likely to be India whose delegation appreciated the fair’s ‘order, silence and composure’. Had they really not noticed the haphazardly dolce vita air conditioning?

As part of a fair-wide series of discussions on translations, the translation of literature from Arabic to Italian came up. “Till the late eighties, very few books were translated from Arabic into Italian. These were largely academic, historical texts, considered important by ‘Orientalists’”, commented Isabella Camera d’Afflitto, advisor to the Istituto per l’Oriente (Institute of the Orient) in Rome, writer and prolific translator. “Over the past twenty years, that’s changed a lot. Now, modern Arabic writing and fiction is being translated into Italian. Of the approximately 300 titles translated over this period, about one third is Egyptian.” The Arab world is made of up 22 countries, a fact often glossed over by westerners.

Khaled Azab, director of media and spatial projects at the New Library of Alexandria, Egypt, wowed listeners with a mindboggling array of projects and plans, digital and manuscript-based, including an Internet archive in collaboration of, in which all internet pages worldwide are scanned and stored daily. This archive, ironically, will not be available online. “We want you to come to the library. This is our modern papyrus,” urged Azab.

The theme of the fair, io, gli altri (Self, Others) was inspired by the notion that in the cyber age, instead of engaging in a courageous, rigorous quest for self-analysis, “Virtual alter egos circulate on the Internet, ending up feeding a giant comedy/sham of misunderstanding and pretence,” said Ernesto Ferrero, director of the fair.

Turkish Nobel prize-winner Orhan Pamuk, after whimsically taking a photo of the photographers photographing him, took a packed podium through binary thoughts dividing habits, writers, readers into helpful pairs: two kinds of writers (those who read a lot, those who don’t); two kinds of reading habits (profoundly formative, pleasantly entertaining);  two kinds of Istanbul (erstwhile, described in black and white in his book and the modern, colourful, rambling); and again two kinds of writers (visually oriented, dramatically emphatic). Seemingly, there are also two kinds of Nobel prize-winners: those who divide the world into pairs and those who don’t.

Pamuk infused his book Istanbul: Memories and the City with hüzün, a Turkish term for communal melancholy pertaining to the landscape. His next challenge, he informed us, “is to write a novel in the first person, as a single woman and convince the reader that it was written by a woman.”

Salman Rushdie

Launching The Enchantress of Florence at the fair, Salman Rushdie, jocular and disarming, in turn spoke of the collective ownership of stories by families, communities and entire nations and of the courage to write. “Across the Muslim world, many writers are being bold. The people who are afraid are the western publishers,” he said provocatively, “excepting of course Mondadori, who published The Satanic Verses. Writers are very hard to silence. Really, if you look at the Arab world, you don’t see a frightened literature.”

Between a million little chomps on his chewing gum, author James Frey introduced the notion of the city as a central character. Fittingly, Bright Shiny Morning is titled in Italian as Buongiorno Los Angeles. Frey explained, “I wanted to a write a great American novel about a great American city. There are many books about great cities in the world. LA is a great city, but nobody had ever taken on the city in a serious way. It’s a city of dreams, but it’s also totally fucked.” Yeah, whatever, eloquent as ever.

Other big names invited to the fair were David Grossman, very popular with Italian readers, and Yu Hua, Chinese author of Chronicle of a Blood Merchant.

Sindiwe Magona's Books on Sale - in Italian!

The Lingua Madre (Tongue Mother) programme held a bustling schedule with readings of and interviews with those writing in diverse mother tongues, translated into Italian. For a South African, this was the closest to the bone. South African titles translated into Italian on sale in sumptuous piles, were of authors Sindiwe Magona and Zakes Mda.  Branching off the theme memoria, oralità, lingua (memory, orality, language/tongue), voices hailed from India, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Eastern European and Latin America. I look forward to African voices participating in the Lingue Madre 2010 writing contest, winners of which will be published in a collection of stories of foreign women in Italy, lauched at next year’s fair.

Canadian-raised Padma Viswanathan based her doorstopper novel The Toss of a Lemon on her Indian heritage, with the central character of her great-great-grandmother, married at the age of 10 and widowed not longer thereafter, a teen with two children. In taking the imaginative liberties required to transform family facts into entrancing narrative, Viswanathan discovered (when her grandmother read her final manuscript) that she was frequently closer to the truth than she could have imagined.

Several panel discussions at the fair paid homage to the oft unseen labour of the translator. The Saturday panel explored the ramifications of translating illustrated texts, graphic novels, fumetti (comics) and children’s books. Italian, so it seems, tolerates repetition less than other languages, such as English. Yet repetition is a foundation of children’s books. What, what, oh what to do? The “nerd” fumetti reader in Italy, often adult and very pedantic about the accuracy of his or her reading matter, lodges frequent complaints if the authenticity of Superhero’s words, restricted by speech bubbles, is betrayed in translation.

It was agreed that onomatopoeias (thump, smack, ah!), often inseparable from visuals and absorbed as ‘canonical’ into Italian, are rarely to be tampered with. Isabella Zani, literary translator who translated Waltz with Bashir into Italian, commented: “Even if there are periodic sequences with comparatively little text, the overall work of translating illustrated texts is just as demanding as literary translation and I must examine every image carefully. I do the same amount of research, checking terminology as I do for the translation of novels. The same scrupulousness must be applied.”

Activist Author, Handcuffed to the Stand

In protest against forthcoming Italian legislation to criminalise illegal immigration, pacifist, hotel manager and first-time novelist of Luna Fritta (Fried Moon), Fabio Sorrentino, handcuffed himself to the stand of his publisher, Fermento. His novel links the 1943 sinking in Sicilian seas of an American Armed Forces ship, sailing to liberate Sicily from the Germans, with modern-day immigration. In these self-same seas, thousands and thousands of clandestine immigrants from North Africa have drowned over the past decade.

The author, who sheltered victims of the recent earthquake in Abruzzo in his four-star hotel, lamented, “It’s absolute nonsense for Italy to criminalise illegal immigration. The true criminals are the traffickers, transporting people in horrific conditions and the mafia who are also involved. What kind of hope is Italy offering asylum seekers? Instead of giving them a hand, we are pushing them away and now even declaring them outlaws.” Gianni Bonfiglio, Sorrentino’s publisher said, “We publish books with two goals in mind, to evoke emotions and to spark debate. This lyrical writing will do just that.”

Combining the joys of print-on-demand with the choppy waters of global warming, Croma Multimedia pitched to the public EcoPoD, their ecologically sound POD range, “100% eco-compatible”:  recycled fibres, reduced air and water pollution, optimal energy consumption, all nattily presented in a sample (recycled paper) booklet. Eco-friendly printing has come eons, a long, long way.

On the other end of the environment-friendly contingent was one-woman publisher Zona Franca “cardboard publishing house” with its limited edition POD runs of not more than 120. Each and every book carries a trendy original artwork designed by artist Andrea Cortopassi on its recycled cardboard. Never has recycling been so stylish!

"Toilet Books"

Hands-down leader of innovation was the toilet series of tiny Roman publishing outfit, 80144edizioni “stories short and long, according to one’s needs”, with their sixteen collections of short stories and “best of anthology” by established and emerging talent, toilet 1, toilet 2 and so on. The duration of each story is indicated in minutes. Presumably the length corresponds to the relevant bathroom need. Gutsy, funny and funky and utterly void of vulgarity, the series design meets the need for short reads in a format a little taller than er, a toilet roll.

Founder Paolo Baron explained, ‘The idea was born from the very sad fact that people read less and less. I wanted to find a way to catch people when they have a bit of time. The bathroom is the only place where we’re really alone, without the phone, without the TV and so on. Just about everybody reads in the bathroom.’ The toilet series contains collections short stories with no particularly scatological content. On the other hand i love porn, a collection of erotic stories, has been a runaway success.

Possibly the cleverest book packaging to be spotted in the aisles was Briolibi and McRae Books’ copublished 320-page Spaghetti, in English and Italian, containing over 130 recipes in a format easily mistakable for a box of… spaghetti. The hardback cover has a magnetic lid, so that it clicks shut. Just beware not to throw the book into the pasta pot inadvertently.

Casting further back in time, Maria Pacini Fazzi Editore published an unusual cookbook too pertaining to the theme of the fair, containing culinary secrets from the table of the Pharaohs. Food and Drink: Life Resources in Ancient Egypt is written by renowned Egyptologist and archaeologist, Edda Bresciani who participated at the fair as a speaker.

Jeune Femme - Fetish Bookseller

Somewhat racier was the stand of Glittering Images, publishers of fetish books, decorated with bondage ropes, crops, red velvet, black heels and larger-than-life prints of retro 1950s cinema fetish shots. Titles “for sophisticated collectors of the unusual” were being sold by a charming jeune femme in a black, plastic French maid’s minidress. “The most popular line is the Diva Albums, published in English, French and Italian. They contain a mixture of drawings, photography, cartoons and early cinematography on each theme,” the sales team explained.

There’s only one way to navigate such a devilishly snaking route from fetish to anti-xenophobia; spaghetti to the edible, chocolate Sphinx; absorbing alike the words of great gurus, lesser-known, punchy writers and unpraised translators. And that’d be gliding down the rivers Po and Nile, dropping one’s anchor from time to time, from stall to stall at the Fiera Internazionale del Libro Torino.


View Estelle Jobson’s photos of the Turin book fair here:

Photo of Po River in Turin courtesy Funchye


Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    June 6th, 2009 @11:10 #

    Bump. This piece deserves a look, mense.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    June 6th, 2009 @12:10 #

    Enjoyed it first time round, and even more on second look. Estelle writes dispatches from her Italian life that are well worth subscribing to. (I'm sure the Veep will hook you up if you're interested.)

    The writer at the fair who really impressed me was the bloke who chained himself up in handcuffs. Before Richard gets excited, I should explain that Mr Handcuffs was calling attention to Italy's treatment of refugees.


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