2015 Gothenburg Book Fair: Focus on Hungary

September 26, 2015

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“You can debate the economics and politics of immigration, but you still have to treat these people like people and help them.” – Peter Karlsson, Swedish -Hungarian editor of Norstedts, Sweden’s oldest publishing house.

The 2015 Gothenburg Book Fair has drawn to a close, but Hungary’s participation as the official “country in focus” may very well go down as one of the Hungarian government’s most notable public relations blunders in recent history. If anything, the government learned that repressive policies at home have effects beyond Hungary’s own borders.

With the refugee crisis in full swing, Hungary’s Balassi Institute – a government institute tasked with representing Hungary’s culture abroad – inadvertently became the center of attention for many journalists, publishers and reading enthusiasts representing the wide spectrum of Swedish society.

In the days leading up to the book fair, news of the Hungarian government’s handling of the refugee crisis drew sharp criticism in Sweden.

“I’m worried about the authoritarian tendencies coming out of Hungary and general political rhetoric that ‘everyone is against us’,” said Peter Karlsson, a Swedish-Hungarian editor with Norstedts, Sweden’s oldest publishing house. “That is the most alarming thing. Nobody here hates Hungary. What we don’t understand is why Hungary can’t follow these democratic principles.”

Karlsson said Hungary’s controversial approach toward managing the refugee crisis sparked serious debate in the Swedish media. The book fair’s organizers were criticized for their decision to make Hungary this year’s “country in focus” and there were even calls to boycott Hungary’s participation.

Hungary’s controversial media law also drew criticism from the Swedish literary world in the run-up to the book fair.

Organizers had three themes for the book fair: Hungary (as the country in focus), Voices of Iceland and Freedom of Expression.

“Freedom of expression is in the Gothenburg Book Fair’s DNA, so to speak,” said Maria Källsson, director of the Gothenburg Book Fair. “That is an issue that is always with us and we have purposely chosen to make it one of the themes for this year’s book fair. And since we have Hungary in focus, we think that these two themes should work very well together. We have media legislation that differs quite a bit from the sort of media legislation which is being carried out in Hungary. This is an issue that has been debated in Sweden because it is legislation that is not similar to ours. Because of that, this area is of course an interesting point of discussion.

“We also have a quite tolerant way of looking at refugees and have accepted many of them. Hungary has an entirely different point of view with respect to these questions and that has raised quite an opinion in Sweden. That’s no secret….We would like to discuss human rights with Hungary to see how we, who both live in the European Union, can have such different views on such issues. But more importantly, we must realize that the book fair is about authors and books. The authors and writers who have been invited here from Hungary must be allowed to come and speak about literature and they mustn’t have to carry Hungary’s migration policies on their shoulders,” Källsson said.

Opening day

“We had a wonderful opening ceremony but it became a little heated,” she said.

“We started off by inviting the Balassi Institute to present the Hungarian theme….We opened up with Mrs. Hammerstein, director of the Balassi Institute. After that we had the Icelandic minister of culture introduce his country’s theme. Following that, we had a wonderful greeting speech from Péter Esterházy. Unfortunately, he was ill and couldn’t be here. He has been at the book fair many times but this year he could not come. He wrote an extremely nice and poetic speech that his Swedish publisher read aloud to the audience. His words were not at all meant to celebrate only the freedom of expression in books, he also delivered some criticism towards how Hungary is dealing with some questions now….After that, we went over to the freedom of expression part of the ceremony and there we had the Swedish minister of culture and democracy also deliver a speech. Following that, the minister introduced Masha Gessen”.

Gessen, a sharp critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, expressed her dissatisfaction with having to share the stage with representatives of a government, Hungary, that has undermined democracy and freedom of expression. She also expressed solidarity with Hungarians by echoing chants that have become all too familiar in Hungarian opposition circles.

“Not in my name are you building the fence. Not in my name are you passing the state of emergency laws,” Gessen told the members of the Hungarian official delegation.

“Masha Gessen didn’t just choose to be an author or journalist,” said Källsson. “She was more of an activist. She was extremely straightforward about Hungary. She spoke from her heart about what she thinks is happening in Hungary and how she sees it.

“I don’t think you could say that the Swedish audience was as shocked about Masha Gessen’s statements as the guests from Hungary were.”

Källsson told the Beacon that Gessen’s statements were indeed aggressive, but that freedom of expression guarantees her the right to make such statements.

The Hungarian delegation responded to Gessen’s remarks by rising from their seats and departing from the opening ceremony.

Balassi at the book fair: Books and photos by Jews and even a gypsy band!

The Hungarian section of the book fair was opened in the stand dedicated to Hungary. Mrs. Hammerstein, the Balassi Institute’s executive director, undersecretary for culture István  Íjgyártó, and the mayor of Balatonfüred delivered opening remarks.

Íjgyártó spoke of the Hungarian government’s commitment in the fight for the social inclusion of Hungary’s Roma community, calling it a “pressing domestic matter and national interest” that “represents a set of complex challenges”.

Hungary holds the 2015 chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, Íjgyártó said.  He pointed out that the Balassi Institute is debuting a newly translated book by acclaimed Jewish writer Imre Kértész and a photo exhibition by Jewish photographer Imre Kinszki.

He then invited a Roma band, Budapest Bar, to the stage to play for the Swedish audience.

Taking care not to interrupt the ceremony, Swedish activists appeared during the opening ceremony of the Hungary booth. They held signs that read “We turn our back on Hungarian refugee policies”.  They just stood outside the Hungary booth with their backs to the stage.

Later that day, a group consisting of around 250 people formed a human chain as a show of solidarity with refugees trying to cross through Hungary. The demonstration lasted only a few minutes and did not take place near Hungary’s booth.

Aside from the few isolated acts of criticism aimed at what many considered the Hungarian government’s repressive policies, book fair attendees also had the opportunity to acquaint themselves with Hungarian journalists and literary figures at roundtable discussions and seminars, such as poet Dénes Krusovszky, philosopher Ágnes Heller, writer Ádám Bodor, poet Endre Kukorelly and journalists András Stumpf and Attila Mong.

Organizations such as the Swedish Pen Club and the Balassi Institute hosted discussions on subjects ranging from the Hungarian media environment and government pressure on NGOs to how Fidesz has changed the cultural climate in Hungary.

Peter Karlsson says the book fair provided Swedish people an opportunity to see all sides of what is happening in Hungary, and gave them opportunity to meet some members of Hungary’s literary scene.

“No one hates Hungary,” he said. “Hungary is not the issue. It’s the government’s policies, especially in the refugee crisis, that cause concern among Swedish people. Sweden is a lot like America, there are so many immigrants here. I’m not even considered an immigrant because I had one parent who was born in Sweden. Twenty percent of the population is either born outside the country or had both of their parents born outside the country. We’re a huge immigrant country and we’ve had refugees after the Second World War, after 1956, and we had lots of Chileans come here after the coup in 1973. We had tens of thousands of Iranians come here in the 1980s and the same goes for the fallout of the Yugoslav war. Lots of people have come here from Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. I wouldn’t say that there’s no debate in Swedish society about the immigration issue. Even though Sweden does have an extreme right-wing, we are generally open to immigration. Of course, you can debate the economics and politics of immigration, but you still have to treat these people like people and help them.”