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Germany guest of honour at Geneva book fair

The guest of honour at this year's International Book Fair in Geneva is the powerhouse of European publishing - Germany. For the next few days, German culture, and especially literature, will be the focus of attention at the Salon du Livre.

During the course of the fair, at least 20 German writers will be in Geneva to take part in discussions about their work and the renaissance in German writing.

Germany was the birthplace of Johannes Gutenberg, the man credited with inventing the modern printing press over 500 years ago. Today it occupies an equally important place in the world of books. Germany publishes the second largest number of books in the world after China and is the leading buyer of foreign rights.

The German publishing industry has a potential market of some 100 million German-speaking readers. Switzerland forms an important part of that market, receiving a quarter of all the books Germany exports.

Many more titles by German authors are sold in translation. Nevertheless, Germany is pleased to have the opportunity to bring their work to an even wider readership.

"It's a great honour. To be a guest at such an important cultural event is very important, so that people can discover the new German literature," says Greta Foeth, who has helped coordinate the German presence at the fair. "I think it's very important to show your culture to other countries."

Two years ago, Switzerland was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair - the biggest book fair in the world. The invitation to Germany was a logical step in cementing the relationship between the two events.

But Frankfurt is essentially a trade fair. Geneva has the advantage that it is open to the public, and therefore offers a greater opportunity to bring these books to a wider readership.

Many of the writers in Geneva belong to a new wave which has broken away from the introspection of past German authors.

"The new literary scene is much more entertraining," says Sabine Kaldonek of the Frankfurt Book Fair, who has helped to organise the German presence in Geneva. "It's less political and less concerned with trying to come to terms with the past. It's giving Germany a new image."

For the first time since Günter Grass, German novels are being translated into other languages in significant numbers. There's a general feeling that Grass's Nobel Prize last year has helped give German literature a shot in the arm.

"Any country that gets the Nobel prize will be stimulated. It's a fabulous example that if you write about something valuable, you can achieve fame. It allows young witers to dream," Greta Foeth told swissinfo.

The themes of this new literary wave are as varied as its members, but two influences stand out. One is immigration - three of the German authors at the Salon du Livre are of Turkish origin. The other is reunification.

"The fall of the Berlin Wall gave a new tempo to the development of East and West," Sabine Kaldonek says. "Many of the younger writers come from Eastern Germany, and they have a wonderfully humourous way of looking at their past. It's a whole new approach."

Among the German writers in Geneva are veterans like Martin Walser. But most represent the younger generation. These include Jakob Arjouni, Maxim Biller, Karen Duve, Axel Hacker, Tanja Kinkel, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar, Birgit Vanderbecke and Matthias Zschokke. They will be taking part in a series of public discussions about German literature.

Geneva is also playing host to a major exhibition of expressionism, Germany's biggest contribution to the world of art. Works by the likes of Vassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Müller will be on display.

The Geneva International Book Fair, at the Palexpo exhibition centre, last until Sunday May 7.

by Roy Probert


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