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Lithuania at the Leipzig Book Fair: an overture before the big show in 2017

Rūtos Statulevičiūtės-Kaučikienės nuotrauka

The Leipzig International Book Fair and the Leipzig Reads (Leipzig Liest) literary festival held at the end of March saw 260,000 visitors (almost 10,000 more than last year), 2,250 participants from 42 countries, and 3,000 events – both in the fair’s space as well as in the city of Leipzig itself. Despite the sea of colors and sights at the fair (also brought on by the annual displays of Japanese manga and other virtual “denizens”), the Lithuanian national stand and all of its events were popular among visitors, German publishers and media outlets alike. This success has laid the foundations for next year’s fair, when our country will be at the center of this enormous literary celebration.

The Lithuanian Culture Institute coordinated the Lithuanian program at the Leipzig book fair. According to the institute’s director, Aušrinė Žilinskienė, presenting at international book fairs always involves much more than literary translations, which, of course, still have a place at the center of the fair. Every presentation is an opportunity to explain the history of Lithuania’s country and people to a wide audience, to show what the country has achieved, and to discuss its problems and pains. It’s positive press for the country and we have to take advantage of that opportunity as best as we can.

Lithuania will present a century of modernization in 2017 in Leipzig

On March 17th, Director of the Lithuanian Culture Institute Aušrinė Žilinskienė, Lithuanian cultural attache in Germany Gabrielė Žaidytė, Vice-Minister of Culture Dr. Romas Jarockis, and Leipzig Book Fair Director Oliver Zille opened the Lithuanian national stand. Over four days, the stand introduced Lithuanian literature and culture to many thousands of visitors, authors and colorful characters, and also let them meet the writers, poets and architectural researchers who participated in the fair.

On the opening day, German journalists and partners (as well as German publishers who had visited the Vilnius Book Fair this year, thereby confirming their serious intent to continue their cooperation) were presented with Lithuania’s concept for its participation as the fair’s primary guest in 2017.

The idea behind the presentation was “The Modern Lithuanian Century (1918-2018): the train of modernization.” According to Nerijus Šepetys, who created the concept, this idea arose from the approaching 100th anniversary of Lithuanian statehood and a desire to show the development, modernization, society and culture of the state of Lithuania.

The debuts of about 15 German-language Lithuanian pieces of literature are planned for the 2017 Leipzig Book Fair, from eminent modern classics (Antanas Škėma, Jurgis Kunčinas, Romualdas Granauskas and others) to Lithuania’s most famous contemporary writers (Tomas Venclovas, Undinė Radzevičiūtė, Laurynas Katkus, Laimonas Briedis and others). The VERSschmuggeln collection will include poems created during a workshop on the translation of Lithuanian and German poets. There will be German-language book presentations, meetings with authors, literary discussions and debates on regionally relevant questions at the book fair and at the Leipzig Reads (Leipzig Liest) literary festival.

The book as an impulse to speak out

As is the case every year, the latest German translations of Lithuanian literature enjoyed great attention in Leipzig.

Grigorijus Kanovičius’ novel Miestelio Romansas (published by Aufbau Verlag) was presented at the fair itself as well as at the Ariowitsch Haus Leipzig Jewish culture center. At both events, actor Matthias Scherwenikas read excerpts from the novel to large crowds, and editor Marlies Juhnke spoke about the author, his life, and the context of his work.

Writer, actor and director Alvydas Šepikas, together with translator Markus Roduner, presented his novel, Mano Vardas – Marytė (published by Mitteldeutscher Verlag). It was clear that the topic of “wolf children” (Eastern Prussian/German children, often without any families, doomed to wander hungry) was received as an especially relevant and sensitive topic in Germany that had not yet been explored but was nonetheless very important. Many of the people that came to those events listened to the books’ excerpts as though they were personally experiencing them, and some older ladies or gentlemen clearly relived their own experiences…

According to Šlepikas, his novel was presented in five German cities last autumn. “I often hear from ‘wolf children’ themselves that the reality had been much worse. Many thank me and ask how I had found out about their lives… I also learned that, in some German and Lithuanian families, there had been silent taboos against these questions. Traumatic experiences are often hidden away deeply. It also appears that the opinion of ‘wolf children’ in Lithuania was rather negative, so it’s natural that they later avoided talking about this even to their children or grandchildren. It’s very important to me that, after this book, many people found the courage to open up, the book became an impulse to speak out,” said the author.

At the Leipzig book fair, Šlepikas and the Mitteldeutscher Verlag publishing house began negotiations for his new collection of novellas, Lietaus Dievas. The author confirmed that he has already signed a contract with the publisher.

Architects’ “subculture” and poets’ appeal

Lithuanians Indrė Valantaitė and Benediktas Janusevičius, together with Latvian colleagues Inga Gaile, Artis Ostups and translator Markus Roduner, each read several of their pieces at the bohemian naTo club. It was clear that, at events like this, not only is each poem’s meaning and the public’s understanding of the translation important, the author’s charisma, persuasiveness and even vocal intonations are also important factors. The German audience listened to Latvian and Lithuanian texts as though they were music.

According to poet, translator and Lithuanian Writers’ Union chairman Antanas A. Jonynas (who participated in the event), writers should not be confused with their books: “The author is one thing and their work is another. These things shouldn’t be related. However, we live in a world where the author’s ability to speak and present themselves and their work is very important. We need to know how to speak to our readers, how to speak at meetings, to make jokes – authors like that have a greater chance of attracting readers than those who write well but are unable to communicate,” said Jonynas.

At the discussions organized at the Leipzig Book Fair, Lithuania’s representatives exhibited their ability to communicate, participate in polemics, and respond to moderators’ challenges. Philosopher and Vilnius University International Relations and Political Science Institute Docent Dr. Nerija Putinaitė, literary critic and poet Rimantas Kmita, and art researcher Dr. Jurga Ludavičienė discussed Soviet reflections in literature. Kmita and publisher Viktoras Kalinke discussed the relationship (and political realities) between German and Lithuanian literature. Meanwhile, these participants were collegially provoked and moderated by journalist Ulf Kalkreuth.

The Dom Publishers publishing house presented the architectural guides for Kaunas and Leipzig that it has published. The events held at the book fair, the Octagon architectural studio and the historical museum of the city of Leipzig attracted both architects and amateur architecture enthusiasts. They were interested both in how the guides would present their native cities and in other countries’ architectural portraits. Architectural historian Jolita Kančienė represented the team that had prepared the architectural guide for Kaunas. It’s important to note that the idea for a Leipzig architectural guide arose during last year’s Leipzig book fair, when the Lithuanian Culture Institute presented the Vilnius architectural guide at the Octagon architectural studio. There, publisher Philipp Meuser met with the young group of architects that became the authors of the Leipzig architectural guide.

By the way, the second presentation of the guide at the museum found itself in rather exotic surroundings. This space was also hosting an exhibition of the Leipzig goth subculture, which has been running annually for several decades (it’s no surprise that a nearby wine cellar was the place where Goethe, as a student, was inspired to write Faust). With goths sporting black dresses at one end and colorful Pokemon fans at the other, Leipzig and the city’s residents maintain a creative relationship with reality. It’s no coincidence that hundreds of thousands of people come to the book fair, which, next year, will focus on Lithuania’s reality and its own interpretations.