On the Paris Book Fair

An interview with Sára Vybíralová and Guillaume Basset


Sára Vybíralová a Guillaume Basset

Sára Vybíralová a Guillaume Basset

It’s not just local events which have been cancelled in connection with measures taken to limit the spread of coronavirus in Europe, but also major book fairs and festivals, including the one in Paris. The Czech Republic was supposed to be taking part in it for the first time in twelve years. What was planned, what does/did this mean for Czech involvement and what knock-on effect will the cancellation of the book fair have?

SV: Yes, along with other book fairs, the Czech Republic was supposed to be taking part in the Paris fair this year for the first time in years. We were only supposed to have a small stand, but we had lined up a packed programme: Guillaume Basset, who was in charge of the Czech Republic’s programme, had managed to arrange for several Czech authors who have recently had a book brought out in French to be included in discussions on the official book-fair stages. As well as the six authors involved in the main programme, we had also planned to introduce the French audience to several authors who have not yet been translated into French but who have the potential to appeal for various reasons; on top of that, there was going to be a discussion on the work of Milan Kundera with the participation of the Minister of Culture (to coincide with a newly published bibliography of Kundera’s work in translation) as well as a debate by Czech authors who write in French. The stand – where a collaboration with a local bookshop was to allow visitors to purchase books by Czech authors in French – was to be the venue for two book launches of new releases in French translation: the comic book The Dragon Never Sleeps and Josef Pánek’s novel Love in the Time of Global Climate Change.

Of course, all of this had been closely coordinated with the Czech Centre in Paris, which was also to host the accompanying programme focusing on themes such as the tradition of Czech book design and poetry in translation. As you might expect, a large number of people were involved in the preparations, whether as participants or as organizers, hosts, interpreters or volunteers. I can’t speak for all of them, but I think most of us are hoping that the Ministry of Culture will express an interest in participating in the Paris fair next year too, which will make it possible to proceed on the basis of what had been prepared for this year.

GB: We worked in close collaboration with programme planners from Paris to ensure higher attendance than is usual for Czech authors (Grus and Bellová were supposed to be taking part in panel discussions on the main stages, and the discussion about Milan Kundera was chosen as un temps fort, i.e. one of the main items given special prominence in the programme. We were one of the most active countries in terms of the festival programme, right after the guest of honour. We also tried to mobilize our contacts to enable the Czech Republic to become guest of honour at the 2022 Paris fair. The first step towards this achievement needs to be a higher number of translations and the presentation of Czech literature in France.

(The original Czech programme planned for Paris can be viewed HERE.)

That aside, how are the Czech Literary Centre and the organizers of the accompanying programmes for literary events in France going to postpone events or alter their line-up? What have you got planned?

SV: The epidemiological situation in Europe and the preventative measures have evolved very dynamically, so when the cancellation of the fair was announced (2nd March), we still thought we would at least be able to organize a pared-back replacement programme. A number of authors had bought non-refundable tickets for their flight or overland journey and were willing to come. The core was to be the accompanying programme at the Czech Centre, which would be supplemented with several events involving authors who were originally supposed to appear at the actual book fair. The whole of this programme was consolidated by the Czech Centre into a mini festival called The Czech Book, which was to see a pop-up bookshop springing up on the Czech Centre premises (with the books that had been prepared for the stand). However, on the evening of 10th March the Ministry of Culture, in accordance with a National Security Council ordinance, abolished all foreign travel and events abroad, and in the days that followed it became apparent that the plan for a replacement programme was actually wishful thinking.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Czech Literary Centre has abandoned its agenda in France – there were other events in the pipeline which we will attempt to preserve. The Czech Centre in Paris is at least starting up a virtual literary programme based largely on what was in store for the book fair.

GB: Despite the cancellation of book fairs and the accompanying programmes linked with them, our previous efforts were fruitful and effective. We will be having further discussions about the opportunities they have opened up for Czech literature in France as soon as circumstances becomes more favourable.


What kind of timescale now seems realistic given the current situation?

SV: I think that’s a mystery to everyone; nevertheless, we hope that it will be possible to hold events in the autumn and possibly even in the summer. For June we had arranged to collaborate with the international festival in Lyon – we were supposed to lend support to the participation of Vojtěch Mašek – and for the time being the festival has not been cancelled and who knows, it might still go ahead. But these are hopes rather than plans, and until the situation gets back to normal, it’s impossible to take any significant steps without the consent of the Moravian Library and the Czech Ministry of Culture.