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War of words plays out between Geneva and Basel

Geneva's Salon du Livre has competition from within Switzerland.


Simultaneous book fairs opened in Basel and Geneva this week - in a tale of two cities that has pitted the country's French- and German-speaking regions against each other.

Geneva's 17th annual event started on Wednesday, while Basel's first-ever international book fair opened on Friday.

The president of the Geneva fair, Pierre-Marcel Favre, described Basel's decision to host its own event as "provocative".

"It's not very friendly to hold a fair at the same time," he told swissinfo. "It's already unfortunate to have two fairs in a tiny little country, but to choose the same date is scandalous."

Stephan Lips, the director of Basel's fair, has shrugged off the criticism, saying that the dates were based on a survey of German-language editors and publishers.

"When we started evaluating the project a year and a half ago, the majority of editors wished that a new exhibition would take place at the end of April or the beginning of May," he told swissinfo.

"This is also the time when a lot of new publications come out on the market."

Pulling power

Lips also argues that the Basel fair won't affect attendance figures in Geneva, because the francophone event no longer attracts visitors from Switzerland's German-speaking region.

"The Geneva fair has tried for 17 years to win over the German-speaking public and language editors," he said. "They have not managed to make Geneva a national platform for all languages."

"All of their efforts were in vain... because when an audience goes to a book fair, they expect to find books in their mother tongue," he added.

Of the more than 260 publishers attending the Basel fair, about 97 per cent of them are from Switzerland and Germany, making the event an almost completely German-language one.

The organisers in Geneva disagree that their exhibition holds little appeal for non-French speakers and in an effort to prove their point they have made the German-speaking canton of Zurich a guest of honour at this year's fair.

Cultural diversity

According to head of the Zurich organising committee, Myriam Lang, the decision to invite the canton to Geneva was taken before Basel announced it was hosting its own event.

But she agrees that Swiss German interest in the Geneva exhibition has waned in recent years.

"French speakers and German speakers do not share the same way of life... so it's difficult to transport one culture to another," she told swissinfo. "In the last years, it was not so good so I hope that Zurich's presence will provide a chance for Geneva to bring Swiss Germans back to the city."

Zurich cantonal spokesman, Urs Rüegg, also hopes that this year's event in Geneva will provide a good opportunity for cross-cultural exchange.

"Our main motivation in coming to Geneva is to show the diversity of our literature," he told swissinfo, "and to prove that Zurich not only has banks but also an interesting literary culture."

International flavour

Around 30 Zurich publishers are expected to make the trip to Geneva, but the president of the event is quick to point out that English, Arabic and Greek authors will also be widely represented.

"We have a lot of special events planned this year and we expect more than 300 authors to come, as well as a lot of visitors," said Favre. "The programme is probably the richest we've ever had."

Greece has been chosen as the guest country at the five-day exhibition, which will feature a wide range of contemporary Greek authors, including Nikos Kazantzaki, Alexakis Vassilis and Costas Hadziaryiris.

An exhibition of more than 200 works by the renowned 19th century French artist, Toulouse Lautrec, will also be on show.

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva

Book fair row

Basel's first-ever book show begins on Friday, two days after the start of Geneva's annual event.

The simultaneous exhibitions have sparked off a war of words between the organisers of the two events.

Geneva claims that the country is too small for two shows at the same time, while Basel insists that the Geneva fair no longer attracts German-language visitors and publishers.

The Salon du Livre in Geneva runs from April 30 to May 4 and BuchBasel runs from May 2-4.

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