Susan Curtis recently visited Montenegro to attend The Podgorica International Book Fair, 1-5 October, 2019, and wrote a special report for BookBlast. The entrepreneurial founder and MD of Istros Books in London, she publishes translated literature from the Balkans and South-East Europe.
The Frankfurter Buchmesse which is happening this week takes place over five days every October. It is the world’s largest trade fair for books and is THE place to be for publishers, agents, authors, illustrators, film producers, translators, and representatives from trade associations to network and do business. It attracts more visitors than any other book fair.
The smaller local, regional book fairs are less daunting to visit, and are great opportunities to bring new books to a variety of readers and local communities. They are also more likely to showcase a greater variety of independent small publishers and private presses.
Podgorica is the capital city of Montenegro, one of Europe’s newest nation states, and also one of the smallest, with a population of just 620,000 people. The city once bore the name of Yugoslavia’s charismatic post-war leader, and the International Air Transport Association code of the airport still appears as TGD (Titograd) on the Book Fairvideo map as we come into land between the high surrounding mountains that it is now named after.
The Podgorica International Book Fair was started five years ago in order to promote local and regional authors, as well as provide a forum for booksellers to sell to the general public at reduced rates. Interestingly, the walk from my hotel to the fair led through a number of green spaces and past a statue of Tito on which wreaths of flowers are still laid today. This inclusive and tolerant attitude towards the past, coupled with a steady but tempered national pride began to mark Montenegro as a happy anomaly for me in a region often marred by retrogressive nationalisms. It is initiatives like the book fair, organized by the Secretariat for Culture and Sport of Podgorica, with the assistance of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education, that show a real commitment to culture and maintaining those regional ties which serve to enrich the literary output.
In a leisurely trajectory towards full cultural independence from neighbouring Serbia, Montenegrin was officially recognized as a separate language by the International Organization for Standardization in 2017. Here in the UK, this was marked by the first ever ‘Montenegrin Translation Slam’ event at the London Book Fair, featuring veteran translators from the language to English, Celia Hawkesworth and Will Firth, justifying their word-choices from a section of the as yet unpublished novel, The Hungarian Sentence by Andrej Nikolaidis.
So far, the only Montenegrin works of fiction to be translated and published in English are three novellas by the aforementioned Nikolaidis and the cult hit Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahić (both translated by Will Firth and published by Istros Books) Lover-crossed Star: Selected Poems in a Kindle Edition by Tanja Bakić, and the now out-of-print novels of Miodrag Bulatović which appeared in the 1960s, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, among others.
This will be supplemented next year by the publication of the new novel Catherine, the Great and Small by Olja Knezović, yet the output is still far less than the cultural shakers of the small but ambitious country would like; although a project to produce demo translations of works from Montenegrin writers which was initiated at the book fair two years ago has opened the door for a few more*.
This year’s fair was dedicated to the 500th anniversary of the printing presses of Božidar Vuković, one of the first printers and editors of books in Montenegro and founder of the famous Vuković printing house in Venice (1519–21; 1536–40). A step up from the previous location on the ground floor of a shopping centre, the fair is now housed in the newly renovated Beemax arena, which provides a space large enough to accommodate sixty publishers, along with a stage area where launches and panel discussions took place: from presentations of Polish, Spanish and Bosnian authors to – a joyous new discovery for me – children’s poetry by the hugely talented Serbian writer, Dejan Aleksić.
The fair lasted five full days and was especially popular with groups of school children: book fairs in the region – unlike the London business-centric version – tend to be places where teachers bring their classes in order to encourage a habit of reading. On the last day, their presence was marked with book-themed costume ‘maskenball’, where I spotted several Pippi Longstockings and a Winnie the Pooh.
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