Boyd Tonkin: Fill the book fair's empty chairs

The week in books

Boyd Tonkin
Thursday 12 April 2012 15:30
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Treasures for export, or bound to stay at home? Vendor at a street stall in Beijing
Treasures for export, or bound to stay at home? Vendor at a street stall in Beijing

"China belongs to everyone/ Of your own will/ It's time to choose what China shall be." What China is, as poet and long-time democracy campaigner Zhu Yufu found out again this February, is a paranoid authoritarian regime that still routinely sentences writers, journalists and bloggers to lengthy prison terms (seven years for Zhu Yufu; nine in other recent cases) for the entirely peaceable expression of opinions and ideas unacceptable to the state and ruling Party. Far from being a hangover from a fading era of clumsy repression, the incarceration of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo (see p.20) has proved the harbinger of a fresh crackdown. Party fears that the Arab Spring would blow a wave of sympathetic protests across China have made the persecutions more severe.

This weekend, the London Book Fair opens with China as its "market focus" and a touring party of 21 Chinese authors due to speak and read not only in London but around the country. They include some outstanding literary figures – Han Dong, Mo Yan, Geling Yan among others – as well as fêted authors whom I'm eager to discover, such as the internet fiction sensation Annie Baobei and Sheng Keyi, a leading voice of women's experience in today's China. All of them deserve the warmest of welcomes and the widest of audiences.

Questions arise not about any of the LBF visitors – joined at Earls Court by around 180 Chinese publishing houses – but about the process that resulted in this list. The British Council arranged the Fair's "cultural programme" in cooperation with China's general administration of press and publications, GAPP – in effect, the main state censorship authority.

Did the BC have any alternative? Almost certainly not. But, via its literature director, it has chosen to tell us, chillingly, that "There was no disagreement with the Chinese government about the final list of... writers who regularly appear on well-respected lists of the best novelists and poets in China." Indeed. But so do many other Chinese writers - who live not only in exile but also at home, where they may have a vexing relationship with the cultural authorities. That's not to mention the dozens brutally silenced in the courts. At Amnesty International, the Tiananmen Square veteran Shao Jiang has greeted the run-up to the Book Fair with an invaluable day-by-day log of imprisoned Chinese writers: learn their stories at amnesty.org.uk/ blogs/countdown-china.

The non-state Chinese Independent PEN Centre comments, with grave courtesy: "We cannot but ask: to understand Chinese literature, should the British people rely on... recommendations by the Chinese government alone?" The Centre has objected to the British Council's collaboration with the GAPP, saying that if it "wishes to promote an authentic cultural exchange in a free and civilised way, please do not disregard the independent writers whose works are dedicated to shaping Chinese civil society".

Perhaps we should take the LBF "China focus" as an opportunity to celebrate not only the guests endorsed by GAPP, and not only eminent democracy-movement émigrés – among London residents, that would include poet Yang Lian and novelist Ma Jian – but free thinkers back in China too. Bei Dao, the Nobel-tipped poet now teaching in Hong Kong after long years of exile; Yan Lianke, the formerly banned Beijing novelist and academic shortlisted this week for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (see p.21); Su Tong, the versatile and resourceful bestseller; Yu Hua, hard-hitting, controversial and divisive: these and many other China-based heavyweights ought to be present in spirit, if not in body, during the LBF debates.

I have sympathy for the British Council in its unenviable task of talking with the tigers in order to open channels of communication and bring benefits to both sides. It has done its diplomatic job as well as it possibly could. Mine – and that of every author who cherishes their liberties – is a rather different one. China's wholesale persecution and imprisonment of peaceful dissident voices remains an outrage. No writer, no publisher, no cultural official, who values freedom of expression should ever refrain from saying so – and especially not at the Book Fair. The Chinese state should halt every such prosecution and release all writers jailed for their views. At a global literary gathering, this demand cannot be a sideshow. It should take centre-stage.

From Penguins to Pushkins

A new chapter for Pushkin Press, the boutique publisher of global literature in elegant editions. Its recent triumphs include Anthea Bell's versions of Stefan Zweig (right) and, this month, Traveller of the Century by the Argentinian wunderkind Andrés Neuman. The imprint has been acquired by Adam Freudenheim, until now publisher of the great Penguin Classics list, and Stephanie Steegmuller, a former senior manager with the group. For all Freudenheim's achievements with the mighty dead, it's good to know that he plans a broader list of living authors. Melissa Ulfane, Pushkin's founder, made all her books as beautiful without as within. Long may that continue.

The snoopers shut my library

Despite the tenacity of local campaigners, culminating in a last-ditch sit-in, the library that enchanted my childhood - Friern Barnet in north London – shut its doors last week. Barnet Council, Tory-run and dismissive of a Labour-majority ward, behaved with stubborn arrogance. It has done next to nothing to back its claim that a new library within a local arts centre would replace the branch: a mere "temporary facility" is promised. Protestors feel "deceived, manipulated and mistreated". As for Barnet's abysmal leadership, don't take my word for it but listen to their political ally Eric Pickles. The Communities Secretary last year flayed Barnet for hiring private security to snoop on troublesome bloggers (at a cost of over £1m.) "without a tendering exercise, without a written contract, and no proper invoicing". Indeed, Pickles hailed Barnet bloggers' "microjournalism" as "the perfect counterblast to town hall Pravdas". Wasteful, secretive, borderline-illegal: just the kind of council that closes libraries.

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