Day one (or, to be precise, day minus one – this was press day) of the Frankfurt Book Fair began with an inspiring speech from fair director Juergen Boos, much of which you’ll find in this related blog. Boos is the sort of man whose words - and moreover the thinking behind those words - could not only make those in the book business think again about fleeing for sunnier climes, but make people outside the book business think it might be a pretty exciting place to head for, all appearances to the contrary. No mean feat that, no mean feat at all.
The focus for this year’s fair is writing for children and young adults (which should leave an even more bitter taste in the mouth Kyle Mewburn - if it’s any solace for him, he does appear in passing in the film presentation about New Zealand writing in the New Zealand Pavilion, about which more below).
Unfortunately, the man speaking on this subject, Scholastic CEO Richard Robinson, lacked Boos’s energy and imagination, offering for the most part bland bromides.
However, one of the more interesting things he said was: “Children’s publishing, always an important but somewhat under-recognised part of the book industry, may likely become the leader in pioneering new forms of reading, because as we all know from watching babies with iPads, children are intuitively digital readers connected to pictures and images. As schools and families adopt e-readers and tablets, children’s books, with its history of graphics innovation, will quickly develop new forms of storytelling and informational publishing, led by the children themselves, who will easily embrace the digital formats.”
I’m not sure I’d let a baby anywhere near my iPad, but otherwise wouldn’t argue with that.
The press conference at which Robinson and Boos were talking was – for Kiwis – merely the preamble to the event that mattered: the press tour and blessing for the New Zealand Pavilion.
In fact, the TV3 reporter couldn’t wait and attempted to divert all this high falutin’ discussion of “roadmaps” for publishing’s future around to what the panellists thought of the pavilion. Not the time and not the place, as Boos delicately explained. I suppose it was better than asking them what they thought of New Zealand itself.
In the absence of Boos’s views on the pavilion – although I don’t doubt TV3 has gathered them by now – I’ll give you mine.
Argentine’s 2010 pavilion was by all account too didactic with too much going on; Iceland’s pavilion of 2011 was delightfully playful, with breakout reading lounges full of books and secondhand furniture to read them on.
Architect Andrew Patterson’s design for the New Zealand pavilion is more abstract, built around a series of small lakes reflecting a starry sky and a large white moon, with clusters of hanging books alongside screens showing a film about New Zealand literature, made by Mike Mizrahi of Inside Out Productions. Narrating the film is an actor in one of the lakes. (Or rather two actors, alternating, to alleviate wetness, tiredness and hoarseness of mouth.)
At the opening night ceremony, security guards ushered wine-wielding guests away from the water’s edge, concerned about mishaps.”We wanted people to roll up their trousers and wade in the water in a typical New Zealand way looking for pipis,” joked Patterson when I raised the subject, ”but it hasn’t happened so far.”
Explaining his concept for the pavilion, he said: “The thinking was to do a model of New Zealand in a contemporary way. So it’s an island in an ocean under a starry sky. It’s also a model of New Zealand storytelling and the oral tradition.”
A few concerns have been expressed about having the film and actor on one side of the pavilion at the same time as the author activities on the other, divided by just a curtain, but Paterson reckoned: “You can’t have a vibrant active place without sound. I think people have just got to cope with that. It’s better than having an empty silent pavilion.”
We’ll see. Or hear.
The pavilion should certainly be respite from the frantic activity of the fair elsewhere – and satisfies the main criteria of a pavilion according to at least one fair regular I spoke to: there is lots of seating so people can rest their weary legs.
While they do so, if they’re not watching author events on the other side of the curtain, the film in front of them traverses New Zealand literary history from founding Maori myths to the present day, with different screens often featuring different visuals and readings, creating a most affecting soundscape.
The visuals are impressive, too – especially the opening particles of letters swirling in water and cohering into quotations, the use of the New Zealand Book Council’s Going West film, the gauzy figures reading extracts from books, and the shots of everyone from children to a security guard ensconsed in a book – one of Bill Manhire poetry in the latter case.
Manhire gave the first New Zealand speech at the evening’s overall opening ceremony, which you can listen to below. (A lovely plug for our Brothers Grimm story-writing winner at the end.)
He was followed by Joy Cowley, to whom you can also listen.
Culture and heritage minister Christopher Finlayson was also good earlier in the day at the press tour, saying: “Here visitors will learn something about our literature, but also, and importantly, about the context from where it springs. The blessing and the song [just heard] are all part of that context … In the early 20th century, one of our most famous writers, Katherine Mansfield, set herself the task of making the New Zealand imagination visible here in Europe. And she said, and I quote, “I want for one moment to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the old world. It must be mysterious, as though floating, it must take the breath.” Being the country guest of honour here at the Frankfurt Book Fair has enabled us to realise her dream in a way that I doubt she could ever have imagined. And it’s inspired a pavilion experience that we can be truly proud of, where visitors will be immersed in the mysterious and the floating world that she wrote about.
“What we hope, of course, is that New Zealand and New Zealand culture willl be less mysterious as a result of our presence in so many cultural events in Germany this year, including this fair. Were she alive today, I imagine Katherine Mansfield would be astonished and delighted to see it all, and to witness the tremendous range of New Zealand literature that we now have. The pavilion anchors this literature in New Zealand’s story. It conveys our strong sense of space, our attachment to mountains, to coastlines and to wilderness. It locates us as a remote island nation, uniquely defined by our rich Maori heritage and culture, but also as a young and resourceful nation with so many stories to tell. As a small country, we are always looking outwards, bringing back new ideas, and creating new stories that are our own. Stories that are astonishing in their quality and in their diversity.”
Right, it’s gone 1.30am. To bed. Day two awaits.