Letter from Jerusalem: Life swapping in Israel

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The Independent Culture
AT THE annual Frankfurt Bookfair, publishers from the world over glide around the endlessly repeating halls as if in a deoxygenised spaceship. The biennial Jerusalem equivalent, sited on a hill at the Binyaney Ha'ooma conference hall, is like a garden-centre on a busy bank holiday. Few expect to buy (or sell) much in the way of rights - except, perhaps, the Germans. Indeed, this year the fair had a distinctly Germanic flavour. In Frankfurt, they are the hosts; in Jerusalem, they are guests. With the remarkable city outside baking under hot spring sun, they were here to meet the world.

The fair has as a whole has its irritations. Being asked by a security boy at the exhibitors' entrance whether you have a gun is a most surprising question at a bookfair. Then there is the lack of phones and watering holes; the Hilton next door for such necessities is a ghastly alternative. And why, at the 'Israel Discount Bank Stand', does the corridor narrow to 2ft, so that in a hurry all you do is trip over a jam of baby prams brought in in vast quantities by the worthy Israeli public?

But this is Israel and, lest we forget, Israel is a Mediterranean country of pedantic security, teeming family life, and as much chaos as any Latin nation. For which reasons, you might think, book-business must be low on the agenda.

Not for the Germans, it isn't. Israel in spring seems to offer respite from the problems of their reunified recession-hit country. Certainly, for publishers, the pneumatic trade fair in Germany's financial centre in October has become an overblown babel encouraging Europeans and Americans to yell at one another for a week, then party on conglomerate expenses. You're German and you want to talk books? Go to Israel every two years.

As many as 165 German publishers were represented at this year's Jerusalem fair, a high number when compared to those from Britain, France or the United States. Why so many? Zev Birger, the Lithuanian-born chairman of the fair, who spent a year in Dachau before illegally emigrating to Eretz Israel, says: 'First, the Germans were losing ground in Israel in the sales of their own books, and from the point of view of translation from German to Hebrew. Second, there are more and more Israeli authors getting known in Germany.'

Fair enough, though this might be more symptomatic of modern German business acumen in the trading of foreign rights than of any special fix on Israel. Compared to Britain, German publishers' flair for works in translation in general is very impressive. But there are deep ties, in any case, between German and Yiddish, and this should not be forgotten in any monitoring of the German-Israeli coupling. Modern history has, of course, seen Yiddish firetorched from its origins and left the relationship pitted with apocalyptic fall-out. Though it would be churlish to suggest that beneath the German eagerness to do bookish business in the land of the Jews lies a drive towards conscience-salving for the Holocaust, this year's fair opened, pertinently, at the end of Holocaust Day.

At the inaugural ceremony, Gerhard Kurtze, chairman of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, reminded the audience that the Nazis had driven Jewish literary culture out of Germany, that the past 'cannot be forgotten'. During another speech, we stood in silence in memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, whose 50th anniversary fell the following day.

As if this weren't enough, the Jerusalem Prize, a literary honour bestowed under the auspices of the fair, went to novelist Stefan Heym - the first German to win. He is also Jewish, and from the East, and had reached 80 a few days before, so could safely be said to carry around with him the burden of the 20th-century Germano-Jewish conundrum better than any speech or textbook. However, among some of the German publishers at the fair it was suggested seditiously that Heym wasn't up to the mark. He's written a lot (his The Wandering Jew and The King David Report are great books), but is not well known outside Germany. Moreover, Heym barely matches the calibre of previous prizewinners such as V S Naipaul and Sir Isaiah Berlin.

I put this carping down to traditional German tactlessness. Just before the prizegiving, on the balcony of the King David Hotel two young men strolled over and asked me where I was from. London, I said. And you? Bavaria, they said, adding, 'We, the best of Bavaria here, in the best of Israel.'

Still, wherever you're from, Jerusalem somehow reminds you of who you are. If you're one of the young European or American editors sent to the fair on the now much-acclaimed fellowship programme (sponsored this year by the Holtzbrinck Group - um, German again), there is more to be had than Frankfurt-style rights-swapping. You mix at all levels, and learn about one another.

Take Fink's, Jerusalem's most renowned after-hours dive. Late one night, in the middle of bookfair week, you could find a loud group of foreigners swallowing scotch and the most lethal whisky sours this side of the Jordan River. In their midst were the voluble head of Penguin, Peter Mayer (not German, though his father was), four chiefs of major European publishing houses (all right, two were German), and various other nationalities - whose common purpose was books. Literature was not necessarily the subject, but as the same Herr Kurtze had pointed out to Mr Birger, 'Books make a nice exhibit, people make a fair'.

This is the great virtue of Jerusalem. At Frankfurt, publishers do deals. In Jerusalem, under banner of books, publishers - and with them non-publishers - swap cultures.