The many names of Chernivtsi in Ukraine attest to the tumultuous military and political history of Europe, borne out in cultural and linguistic competition, conflict and compromise in literature, music and art. What traces of this past can still be seen in the city today?
The death of the book fair
Once again I write about the city which in four years is to be a European Capital of Culture. The euphoria and enthusiasm expressed by the local media over this future promise overlooks a number of current problems with the state of culture in our town. For example, practically no one has noticed the absolute fiasco of this spring’s Slovenian Book Days, a traditional week-long event in Maribor. (No one, that is, apart from Vecer’s editor of culture Petra Vidali, who cannot be considered a real indicator since she is the only journalist in town whose job it is to write about books). But in fact the open-air book fair, which is at the heart of this event, sang its swan song last year, at the tenth festival.
The Aristej publishing house, which I head and which will celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of its existence and perseverance in this city this coming fall, has taken part in the fair from the very beginning. And at the beginning the fair was quite lively. In the pleasant ambience of Grajski trg (Castle Square), numerous Slovenian publishing houses put a great deal of thought and effort into promoting their books. The largest of them even set up several booths. Although it seemed that only a few passers-by stopped to listen to the poets reading their works on the stage among the booths, we all said, “They will, we just need to persevere, things will pick up eventually.” But things just slowly worsened, year by year. Odd things happened, one after another. Thus it was that someone in a position of responsibility in the municipality gave permission for a fashion show one evening in the middle of the fair: you could hear the clicking of high heels and smell the clouds of perfume, and a crowd of curious folks came out to watch, all the while turning their backs on the booksellers. The wooden booths provided by the city became more rickety each year, and were lacking shelves for books. The largest publishing house soon abandoned its several outdoor booths for its nearest bookstore, until that, too, disappeared. Each year one of the publishing houses from the capital which publish scientific and specialist literature would come and try to sell its products in the nation’s second university town. None returned the following year.
Business at Aristej’s booth was okay. Mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers would buy books for the children – most often those older editions, most heavily discounted, which cost about the same as a few scoops of ice cream. We noticed that each year people would hesitate longer before deciding on a purchase (they did not experience these same dilemmas when buying ice cream), but even so we came out all right. We covered the costs of renting the booth and hiring vendors, and we were happy with this, since after all it was meant to serve as a promotion.
Ten years ago at Aristej we began publishing in the humanities and social sciences. We established the first book series of this type in Maribor. Each year we sold only a few copies from this literature, but we said: “It takes time, we have to establish a university tradition,” and the sales of children’s books kept us satisfied. Meanwhile, the city acquired a Faculty of Arts, university professors and students, yet even so sales of inexpensive specialist literature still never happened. And worst of all: at last year’s fair all of a sudden the grandmothers and grandfathers also disappeared. They cheerfully rushed about buying fresh fruit and vegetables from the nearby “bio” market, but never even glanced at the booths selling books. For the first time we had a loss. For a nonprofit publishing house, any financial loss is a catastrophe, but even worse was the feeling of humiliation that comes from being ignored. There was no going back on the decision, and this year we did not take part in the fair. It turned out to be the right move. No one listened to the poet onstage, and books were offered for sale by, in addition to a few local professionals and amateurs, just a handful of the most heavily commercialized publishing houses, two shops selling secondhand books, and a flock of birds which herald the crisis: religious publishers, from Catholic to New Age. The books on offer are in the same class as all the other sundry wares being peddled, with the permission of the city authorities, in the space between Grajski trg (Castle Square) and Trg svobode (Freedom Square), from plastic handbags to cheap socks. The book fair, which was once a bright star and happening in the heart of the city, has, under the weight of supply and demand, sunk into a state of bland mediocrity.
This unfortunate story reveals two types of problems with culture in our city. The first is the poverty and low purchasing power of the potential audience. The other is the absence of university life in city culture: the University of Maribor has provided from within its ranks of professors barely a handful of public intellectuals, and students are virtually nowhere to be seen in culture. This revelation is not just the consequence of subjective observation of the student population. That the students who enrol at the University of Maribor are less ambitious and desirous of knowledge is shown by empirical data on the relatively low scores required for admission. The student population hails mainly from the surrounding rural areas, and returns home each weekend for village parties and local football games, never immersing itself in the urban culture of the city in which they study.
In her commentary, Petra Vidali, mentioned above, criticized the organizers of the Book Days and pointed out that due to the record number of events (60) in one week, even those with the most eminent guests saw an embarrassingly low turnout. Since admission to these types of events is free, we can dismiss the problem of purchasing power in this case, and turn our focus on the passivity and low critical mass of the educated public in the city on the one hand, and on the enormity of production by artists and organizers on the other. Megalomania is a typical sign of underdevelopment and the syndrome has accompanied Maribor culture for a long time. I can remember as far back as Gombac’s Borstnik Meeting; its populist successor today is the Festival Lent, and the organizers of the Book Days have also fallen under this influence. And clearly not even the planners for the European Capital of Culture 2012 have been able to avoid the perils of megalomania, since they were required to make changes to the planning for the project by the Brussels commission for this very reason. Megalomania functions as a means of disguising reality. It’s as if the organizers want to show at all costs how active, ever-present, and indispensable they are, yet at the same time they close their eyes to the actual effects and results of their actions. They are similar to the new manhole covers with “Maribor – university town” written on them, which recently appeared in the city centre. The covers are attractive, but the writing is absurdly megalomaniac. It conceals the fact that the university in truth does not provide any colour or tempo to city life. If it did, curiosity, the thirst for knowledge, and dynamism would be felt at every step, and no signs stating that we are in a university town would be necessary. If residents of Maribor felt the urge to buy needed and wanted inexpensively priced books at the book fair, then it would flourish. As things stand now, the fair has become an integral part of the city centre’s offerings, where, beneath the mighty arches of the castle, renovated with European and local public funds, kitsch and dross accumulate. A contradiction which needs to be thoroughly rethought.
Published 14 August 2008
Original in Slovenian
First published by Dialogi
© Emica Antončič / Dialogi / EurozinePDF/PRINT
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