Guadalajara shines a light on the Andes

30th November 2007, Comments 0 comments

30 November 2007, Guadalajara / Madrid - The week-long Guadalajara International Book Fair in Mexico ends on Sunday and the undeniable star of the event has been guest of honor Colombia.

30 November 2007

Guadalajara / Madrid - The week-long Guadalajara International Book Fair in Mexico ends on Sunday and the undeniable star of the event has been guest of honor Colombia.

The 21st edition of the fair has put the Andean nation firmly at the center of activities, and this was reflected by the fact that Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, author of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude', attended the opening ceremony. Alongside him was fellow Colombian Álvaro Mutis, who has received a special tribute throughout the week (see sidebar).

Nonetheless, there is another less glamorous side to Colombia's literary scene. It is, after all, a country which has very low levels of literacy, despite its rich heritage.

To the surprise of many, the last Reading Habits 2007 survey showed that the 42 million Colombians have gone from reading an average of 2.4 books a year in 2000 to 1.6 in 2005. Strangely, there have never before been so many initiatives designed to encourage reading in this conflict-torn country. Theories put forward to explain the drop include the economic situation, the high price of books and reduced reading time due to long working hours.

Carmen Barvo, director of Fundalectura - a Colombian institution dedicated to the promotion of reading - thinks that the problem stems from a lack of reading habits.

"The idea of popularizing books and reading is a new one. For the first time in the history of this country, reading and libraries are part of a development plan and have a budget," says Barvo. For her, the most important thing is that this money does not only cover the building of spaces but that the government provides libraries with new books, films, television sets and computers. The different literary events which are hosted in Colombia - such as the Hay Festival of Cartagena and Bogotá 39, - have also helped to attract the attention of people who until now have not had a relationship with literature.

Although Colombia's literary market is small, publishers are striving to make books more accessible and to attract new audiences. But as yet, these efforts have not worked. The general director of Planeta Colombia, Gabriel Iriarte Núñez, has his own theory: "I'm convinced that there is a national attitude, an environment which is not conducive to reading. Schools do little to help the situation and universities are even worse at encouraging students to read. And the advent of photocopied sheets literally put an end to the university text."

As for publishing trends, the main change in recent times, explains Iriarte, has been that Colombian books and authors enjoy much more caché than in previous decades. Today, a debut novel by a Colombian novelist can sell between 1,000 and 1,500 copies, often more than those sold by a foreign author publishing for the first time in Colombia. But there are also exceptions, such as <i>El olvido que seremos</i> by Héctor Abad, which has sold 50,000 copies in the last year.

"In Colombia right now there's a boom of young authors which is great, but it's too early to draw any conclusions," says Marianna Ponsford, director of the culture journal <i>Arcadia</i>. Publishers practically fight over new literary talents as though they were competing to sign up young soccer stars. Moreover, this new generation of writers is receiving more media limelight than its predecessors.

Nubia Macías, director of the book fair, insists that Colombian literature amounts to much more than García Márquez - known by friends as <i>Gabo</i>. "You begin to go through the list of Colombian authors and you come up with lots of good ones, who have unshackled themselves from the literature of Gabo to present their own unique style," she says. The fair director also stresses "the cultural diversity of Colombia," which goes far beyond literature. "Sixty-two writers [are attending] as well as 45 academics, five great chefs, seven exhibitions from the Gold Museum to a local group which collects popular Colombian expressions, 14 music and theater groups... We've organized a cinema program which brings together the best productions from recent years. It's a powerful line-up."

Macías also stresses the multi-faceted nature of the event.

"We want to reach out to a lot of different audiences," she says, adding that "this is much more than a book fair, but rather a festival of culture, literature and thought, with 22 academic forums and a roundtable talk on the future of the Spanish language."

When she looks back at the history of the 21-year-old Guadalajara Book Fair, Macías recalls its origins as an event aimed solely at selling books to the US market.

"For four years now, we've been pushing the Spanish language publishing market. We are 22 countries, 400 million Spanish speakers and rights are normally sold for all Spanish speaking territories in one deal, something which the English-speaking market doesn't do."

She proudly explains that "prestigious writers who wouldn't normally come to Mexico come to Guadalajara. This year we're hosting Irish literature, Swedish literature, writers from Vietnam, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia... The idea is to widen the spectrum every time."

[Copyright EL PAÍS, SL. / C. GÓMEZ / F. RELEA / R. I. 2007]

Subject: Spanish news


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