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The Gothenburg Book Fair 2003
Laurie Thompson
This article appeared in the 2004:1 issue.

The Gothenburg Book Fair 2003The Swedes – or at any rate the Gothenburgers – seem to be gluttons for cultural punishment. Well over a hundred thousand of them bought tickets to attend one or more of the four days of Bokmässan 2003 (25-28 September, 2003), no less than 33,000 of them on the Saturday. Unlike most other book fairs, the Gothenburg Fair is linked with a comprehensive programme of Seminars and Mini-Seminars, lectures and discussions featuring international as well as Scandinavian writers and experts on a wide range of topics. Tickets for Saturday or Sunday cost about £30 ($50), £40 ($65) for Thursday or Friday; or if you were suffering from a severe dose of cultural under-nourishment, you could secure a bargain ticket for all four days for a mere £85 ($140). Swedes seem prepared to put their money where their cultural taste buds are.

In addition to the seminars and mini-seminars, there are always a mass of smaller-scale performances (free, once you have paid for entry!) on a number of special stages, or at many of the stands run by publishers or organizations with a literary or general cultural interest. The latter are ideal places to be if you want to hear more about the latest book by a favourite writer, straight from the author's mouth (and with a bit of luck, you will be able to get a signature for your copy into the bargain).

Those of us from countries with comparatively large populations are always pleasantly surprised by the intimacy that seems characteristic of cultural life in Sweden. All authors appear to know one another, and they rub shoulders on the Book Fair floor with the general public as a matter of course: no ivory towers for Swedish writers. An English friend resident in Sweden was in ecstasy at Bokmässan a few years ago: “Can you believe it?! On the way in, Jan Guillou stood on my foot! I think I'll have the shoe mounted.” This year, he was busy buying me a coffee in the bar of the Hotell Gothia, which is part of the conference centre, when he noticed a man over the room, busy talking into his mobile phone, waving to me in greeting. “Who's that?” he asked? “It's Håkan Nesser,” I told him. “Wow,” he said. “Excuse me a moment while I go and touch the hem of his garment.” Chatting to revered authors is something many Swedes do as a matter of course; no doubt most British and American authors would be just as approachable if they lived in a country with a population as comparatively small as Sweden's, although one suspects that the interest in books and, indeed, in culture in general might be more widespread among a larger proportion of society in Sweden than in most English-speaking countries, and hence informal contact more natural.

There is always a theme or themes for events at the Gothenburg fair, and this year the two main ones were Polish Writing, and Popular Science; the so-called International Square had grown again and was packed with stalls representing every aspect of world culture one can think of, not least of course various organizations with strong views on Afghanistan and Iraq, although a noticeable theme was Africa, with a number of talks on African problems and readings by African writers.

Next year's theme will be British writing, which will presumably mean that even more authors and publishers from the UK than usual will attend.

Many of the titles of talks featured under the Popular Science umbrella were so fascinating that one would have preferred not to miss them, but miss them one often had to do, so rich was the selection of offerings available. “Is it fun being an astronaut?” (featuring the Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang describing the ups and downs of a day in space); “The sexual diversity of animals”; “What is hair?” (starring Ann Pattersson, an international lifestyle guru); “Is it enough simply to answer questions?”; “Does literature need science?”; “Art goes underground” (delivered by Göran Söderström, an expert on Strindberg and art who has also edited a book on the importance given to art in the Stockholm underground).

Talks by best-selling authors such as Henning Mankell always guarantee a packed auditorium. Interestingly, his only appearance at this year's book fair had nothing to do with his crime novels that have taken the world by storm, but was in the bustling International Square and was on the short (but compelling) text he has written about the Aids catastrophe that is creating havoc in Africa, and what the Western World can – and should – do to help. Mankell spends half his year in Africa, and is donating all his royalties from this book to the cause in Africa. He is actively supporting the writing of Memory Books, brief records of the lives and personalities of Aids victims so that orphaned children with no memory of their parents will have something to help them cope, if indeed coping is possible in a society with ever-decreasing numbers of fit adults.

Less heart-rending and infinitely more amusing were many of the short talks given by authors on their most recent publications. P.O. Enquist was interesting on his attempt to re-invent himself as a children's author, and Jonas Gardell displayed a convincing knowledge of the Bible as he discussed his most recent book, Om Gud (On God). Readers of Gardell will have noticed his many Biblical references, but not many would have expected him to write a serious, non-fiction book that attempts to pin down our understanding of God and reconcile the many apparent contradictions the concept incorporates. Ake EdwardsonOne of the most amusing and entertaining sessions of this type involved a discussion between Svante Weyler (boss of Norstedts) and Åke Edwardson on the latter's new book Jukebox, which is not an Erik Winter crime story but a partly autobiographical account of growing up in rural Sweden in the 1960s – Edwardson's father owned a café in which the centre of attraction was a jukebox, and readers of the Winter series now have the answer to why Sweden's youngest Detective Chief Inspector and so many of his colleagues are so knowledgeable about, and inspired by, popular music. Edwardson, almost unrecognizable with his new hairless hair style, brought the house down with two Elvis impersonations; if talking-book versions of Edwardson's novels appear, recorded by the author himself, they might be worth listening to.

As always, there were plenty of sessions of interest to translators. Boel Unnerstad, translator and Chair of the Swedish Writers' Association, and Olle Josephson, of Svenska språknämnden, discussed a new dictionary that will be of great value to translators from Swedish and well as into Swedish: Svenskt språkbruk (Swedish Usage) is intended to replace Svensk handordbok, which has long been a useful tool differentiating between Swedish constructions. But as both speakers insisted: don't throw the old one away! The new dictionary is obviously much more up-to-date, but as translators are well aware, it is often necessary to be familiar with older usage. In a slight variation from an experiment that turned out to be successful last year, Linda Schenck frequently appeared at the Translators' Association stand translating texts by Kerstin Ekman into English, her computer screen being projected in enlarged format onto the wall so that passers-by could pause and observe “work in progress”, and ask any questions that occurred to them.

Needless to say, there were plenty of books available for visitors to purchase – at special “Fair prices” alleged to be cheaper than usual, although some journalists questioned that claim last year. A couple of dozen or more literary societies, devoted to celebrating the work of a particular Swedish author, encouraged visitors to join, or just to pause at their stall and chat about mutual experiences in reading their favourite's works, and buy the T-shirt or refrigerator sticker.

The International Rights Centre was active again this year, with over thirty tables occupied by agents and publishers trying to sell each other foreign rights of books they hope will conquer the world. Most activities of this kind are concentrated on the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, which takes place in early October, but sterling work was put in by those behind-the-scenes people whose job it is to place their authors abroad – especially in the English-language world. Sweden does pretty well in Germany especially, also in France, Holland and Italy; but North America, Great Britain and the Commonwealth are more difficult areas when it comes to translations from Swedish, although some progress has been made lately and the number of Swedish books appearing in English is rising. Translators from Swedish in the English-speaking world have every reason to be grateful for the work done by the unsung heroes (more usually heroines) in the Foreign Rights departments: vi tackar så mycket! And those translators present in Gothenburg were also grateful to the Swedish Institute (and not least Helen Sigeland and Daniel Gustafsson) for the support they give, the wine and nibbles that help one get through a hard day, and most especially the dinner for translators which enables colleagues from all over the world to meet and discuss their work and problems. It seemed appropriate that the name of the restaurant involved was Himlen (Heaven).