Publishing spotlight on a jittery Lithuania

  • 2002-04-11
  • Darius James Ross

All eyes in the international literary and publishing world will be focused on the 54th annual Frankfurt Book Fair where Lithuania will be the guest of honor.

The question now is whether Lithuania is ready for it.

The "Buchmesse," which runs Oct. 9-14, is the publishing industry's equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival. It is the one annual event where attendance is mandatory as publishers launch new titles, do their biggest deals and invite their stars to give readings.

In 2001, the fair had 259,000 visitors and 6,700 exhibitors from 105 countries. Over 400,000 titles were displayed.

Lithuania fought off competition from Turkey, China and the Czech Republic to be given the prized guest-of-honor status. It seems the Czechs bowed to the inevitable, saying they would not have time to prepare the required 3,000-square-meter pavilion. Tur-kish cultural officials gave financial reasons and the Chinese said it was "too early."

But there were also rumors hovering in the background that Turkey and China's hopes were dashed by human rights concerns regarding freedom of expression for writers and journalists.

"Perhaps there were some political reasons too," acknowledged Rosemarie Rauter, the fair's project manager for international exhibitors.

Frankfurt had proposed a shared pavilion for the three Baltic States but Estonia quickly stepped back, citing the enormous commitment of hosting the Eurovision pop-music awards in 2002.

Latvia meanwhile vacillated because of the expense involved in Riga's 800th anniversary celebrations in 2001, but Lithuania gladly accepted, realizing the enormous public relations value in the distinction.

"It would have been a shame not to have accepted," said Rasa Drazdauskiene, director of Lithuania's organization committee.

"We have a chance to present Lithuania to the publishing world in the presence of international journalists."

Frankfurt's organizers are considering scrapping the guest-of-honor system and replacing it with annual themes, meaning that this is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Drazdauskiene.

Drazdauskiene readily admits that Lithuania is scrambling to be ready in time, but seems unfazed. "Everyone involved, including the organizers, realizes we are doing the best we can under the circumstances," she said. Instead of the usual 3,000 square meters, Lithuania only has to prepare a 1,000-square-meter pavilion.

The space, water, lighting and electricity come at no charge although Lithuania has committed itself to spending 4 million litas ($1 million) on the cost of building the pavilion itself, as well as on staff and display materials.

The sum was recently approved by the government's budget committee.

Drazdauskiene does not lament the absence of the other two Baltic states. "It makes things easier not having to coordinate programs with two other countries and relations among the three countries at this time are not the best," Drazdauskiene added.

In addition to the main pavilion, Lithuanian jazz musicians as well as the Oskaras Korsunovas theater company and other artists will tour Germany before and after the fair. "We still get too many questions like, 'What language do you speak?' or even, 'Where is Lithuania?'" She said. "Our goal is simply to establish Lithuania as a presence in the minds of visitors as a normal, democratic country that is an integral part of the European cultural landscape and not a backwater to which you must bring your own bottled mineral water."

But for others in the Lithuanian book trade it is the country's literary reputation which is most at stake. "We were told to pick one or two major writers and focus on them, but we don't have any Nobel prize winners or other literary figures of international stature," said Ausrine Jonikaite of the publishing house Books From Lithuania.

Lithuania may not have a Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Nadine Gordimer, but some writers come close.

Algirdas Julien Greimas, who died in 1992, lived in Paris most of his life and was one of last century's most important literary theorists, ranking with the likes of Roland Barthes and Northrop Frye, but his work is too arcane for the average reader.

Jonas Mekas, an accomplished New York avant-garde filmmaker, turned to films because he could not master English and his highly regarded Lithuanian poetry hasn't had an impact outside the Lithuanian-speaking world.

Tomas Venclova, a Yale University professor, is well-known in literary circles for his essays and poetry but lacks the magnetic persona of a bard such as Dylan Thomas.

Contemporary writers such as Ricerdas Gavelis, Jonas Kuncinas and Jurga Ivanauskaite are simply not yet on the radar screens of many readers outside Lithuania.

But some of these names could benefit from exposure in Frankfurt in the same way that Polish writers Jerzy Pilch and Olga Tokarchuk became better known after Poland was guest of honor in 2000.

"The Buchmesse has a history of offering little-known writers the chance to become known in Germany and then to go on and make it internationally," said Jonikaite."Frankfurt is a real challenge for Lithuania. We've had to ask ourselves: 'Who do we have that is worth promoting?' We've had to ask ourselves about this nation's literary accomplishments."

Books From Lithuania has a short-list of 29 writers who will be showcased in Frankfurt and some of whom will give readings. Jonikaite and her team are racing against the clock to come up with quality translations into German.

Germany's Foreign Ministry has come up with a 20,000 euro ($17,700) grant to fund the translation work, but there are still only six people in the country capable of carrying out literary translations into German, says Jonikaite.

The market for Lithuanian literature in translation is by and large limited to Scandinavia and Germany due to strong cultural ties with those countries.

Meanwhile books by the likes of Marianne Fredriksson, Majgull Axelsson and Lars Gustaffson are a common sight in Lithuania's bookstores.

Smaller publishing houses, such as Germany's Athena-Verlag are beginning to produce small runs of Lithuanian novels. "Publishing is a peculiar industry, a blend of business and culture in which companies have to balance quality literature and profit-making," said Jonikaite.

She said that companies were now printing one Lithuanian novel at a time and then watching it to see how it does before committing any further.

Jonikaite said she was pessimistic about the prospects for Lithuanian writers in English translation.

"In the English-language world, having a good agent is the key thing and getting a good one is costly," she said.

Added to this is the fact that Lithuanian writers have trouble with the notion of handing over publishing rights to a company.

"For 50 years they had ab-solutely no rights to their work (under Soviet rule), and they aren't anxious to give these up now, which is very understandable," she said. "On the other hand, it is in their interest to sell the rights as it's the only way to earn serious money as a writer."

Jonikaite also criticized Lithuania's domestic publishing companies for doing little to promote the country's financially beleaguered writers.

"It's no secret that the only reason Lithuanian publishers have been going to book fairs in recent years is to buy the rights to books in other languages," she said.

Saulius Zukas, president of Lithuania's publishers association and director of the Baltos Lankos company, promises that 2002 will be the first year this changes.

"We will be promoting Lithuanian writers by creating 50 to 60 thematic displays on topics ranging from the Holocaust to Lithuanian classics," he said. "The fact is that if we hadn't traveled to fairs to buy the rights to books in foreign languages, there wouldn't have been a single translated book in Lithuania in the last 10 years," he said.

On April 5, the separately financed Lithuanian publishers stand was denied any financial assistance from the government.

About 20 publishers were scheduled to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, but the lack of government funds may mean that only a few larger houses can go.

For English-language information on Lithuania's participation at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, go to