March 12, 2014
Three weeks in book heaven
The Buenos Aires Book Fair opens today, with hundreds of stands and events
by Pablo Toledo
The Buenos Aires Book Fair, the biggest event in the local book world (and one of the highlights of the Latin American editorial calendar) opens its doors for the general public today at the Rural, in Palermo. As usual, the roster of local and international guests is the main draw for the massive crowds gathering in its stands and conference halls – last year, over 1.2 million people attended.
The brightest star in the constellation of international guests this year is probably John Maxwell Coetzee, the South African who won the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature for books such as Foe, The Master of Petersburg, Disgrace, Diary of a Bad Year and Life and Times of Michael K. Coetzee will be present in only one event, a conference/reading which will take place today at 7.30pm at the Victoria Ocampo hall.
That will take place after the official inauguration, which begins at 6pm with organizers, municipal and national authorities taking the podium. Then, writer Vicente Battista will offer the inaugural talk. Those who remember the political uproar when Mario Vargas Llosa was invited for the same honour two years ago will understand the irony in picking a writer with such outspoken political affiliations – a member of the Carta Abierta Kirchnerist thinktank, Battista has often spoken in the media to defend the government’s positions on different matters.
This comes as the book industry celebrates a period of sustained growth supported by some strategic policies that funnel official money to its coffers. One is the fact that national, provincial and municipal governments are buying textbooks and books in general by the millions to distribute in schools and libraries, with sale volumes increasing exponentially over the last decade. Right now, the State is the largest book buyer in the country by far. During the Book Fair, moreover, librarians from across the country are given vouchers to spend on material for their collections – these sales make up an estimated 30 percent of the gross sales within the Fair, no small contribution.
In this light, the alleged kirchnerist pressure to move the Book Fair from its current premises at the Rural to the Tecnópolis site, a move that would take it from an easily accessible location to a roomy but distant and hard-to-reach spot in the northern suburb of Villa Martelli, takes the form of a direct order unlikely to be refused. So, if this were to materialize (and if the national government were to keep up the pressure, now that they are struggling to force through the confiscation of the Rural premises), we might be looking at the last of the Book Fairs in Palermo...
the book’s the thing. But on to literary matters! Besides Coetzee, the international guests roster includes Germans Sarah Lark and Raul Zelik; Belgium’s Pierre De Roo; Colombian favourite Laura Restrepo; Cuba’s Leonardo Padura; Spanish heavyweights Javier Cercas, Rosa Montero and Arturo Pérez Reverte; Young Adult novelist Claudia Gray and bestselling thriller author John Katzenbach (an absolute hit at the 2010 Fair) from the US; French writers Christophe Dejours, Mathias Enard and Jean Philippe Toussaint (Francia); Mexican regular visitors Laura Esquivel and Juan Villoro; and Russia’s Vladimir Sorokin.
A special treat inaugurated this year is having a guest city present itself in its brightest literary and cultural colours. This new tradition opens with Café Amsterdam, a large and interesting space dedicated to showcasing the city of bikes and canals. There is an exhibition of the letters of Vinvent van Gogh and his brother Theo, an exhibition of the best designed books from Holland and displays of Dutch children books and comics. Writers Maarten Asscher, Gerbrand Bakker, Douwe Draaisma, Arnon Grunberg, Herman Koch, Cees Nooteboom, Carolina Trujillo, Joke van Leeuwen, Jan van Mersbergen, Wouter van Reek and Anne Vegter are in Argentina to offer a series of talks.
For those interested in edgier fare at the Fair, the second edition of Zona Futuro is just the ticket. This series of workshops and talks brings the cutting edge of the local literary scene and thinking to this mainstream event. This year’s focus is on self-run publishers – the tiniest of publishing houses, where books are edited, laid out and even manufactured by hand by the editor him/herself.
Still not interested? Try out Zona Explora, a series of events with scientists and researchers. Or Milhojas, a special event within the event this weekend featuring the best food and wine writers in the country. Or the Diálogo de escritores latinoamericanos Latin American writers’ gathering, where authors from across the continent will gather to exchange writings, experiences and ideas. Or the international storytelling conference. or the international poetry festival. Or the hundreds of talks, workshops and courses on every conceivable topic under the sun...
So, no excuses to miss the Book Fair! Two tips for when you go: first and foremost, weekend crowds are murder, as are the huddled masses of May 1, so avoid those dates if possible (if you have to make it on those dates, any time after 6pm is at your own risk). Also, almost everyone enters through the big gate opposite Plaza Italia or the even bigger gate on Sarmiento Avenue... but there is a perfectly serviceable, mostly deserted entrance on Cabello street, by the US Consulate, so no need to stand in those neverending lines!
The Fair opens from 2pm to 9pm on weekdays (doors open at 1pm on weekends, close at 10pm on Saturdays). Tickets cost $20 on weekdays and $30 on weekends, but admission is free for children under 12, students, teachers and pensioners, and there are plenty of two-for-one deals (check at the venue, www.el-libro.org.ar or www.ticketek.com.ar).