The far-reaching light of books

Staying In

PURVEYORS OF PAGES Bríd Conroy with fellow booksellers at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany.


Book review

Bríd Conroy

The 74th Frankfurt Book Fair took place the week before last, and I was lucky enough to attend as part of the RISE Bookselling (European Commission) initiative to raise the profile of booksellers across Europe. And what a privilege it was to see how the whole of the industry works. I was in a group with 20 booksellers from anywhere from Iran and India to Kyrgyzstan, Mexico and New Zealand. All were amazing people doing incredibly innovative things to continue their passion for books and expound the beauty and importance of writing, publishing and selling books.
What astonished me was the resilience of the industry. Direct selling, like Amazon for example, should have wiped bookshops off the face of the earth – but it didn’t. Electronic devices equally should have had the same effect, but they didn’t.
I discovered there was no one model for how to do what we do, yet somehow the cumulative effect of what everyone does together makes up a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Like Katerina from ‘Booktalks’ in Athens, who runs her pharmacy to keep the bookshop going and has 100,000 followers on Facebook talking and writing about books.
Joao and Cecilia set up a small publishing house, Banca Tutai in São Paulo and later set up a shop in a newsstand to sell their books when the rents became too extortionate and inflation too high. Now they are expanding their business against the odds.
Aidai, a beautiful young woman from Kyrgyzstan is determined to sell English books as a way to promote human rights and freedom of speech in her region.
Also while we were there, the prestigious German Book Prize (Deutscher Buchpreis) winner was announced. We got to meet one of the judges who explained the whole process and talked us through the books that were longlisted and why. The winner ultimately was Kim de L’Horizon’s ‘Blutbuch’ (‘Blood Book’), published by DuMont Buchverlag (but not yet available in English).
De L’Horizon writes in the style of auto-fiction, telling the story of a non-binary narrator who lives in Zurich having moved there from their small conservative home town. When their grandmother falls ill with dementia, a space opens up to freely express what was never said before, particularly in relation to gender identity and their grandmother’s racism. The judge commented that he delighted in the beauty of being able to stand in the narrator’s shoes and see the many perspectives offered in the book.
Closer to home, the winner of the Booker Prize for the Best Book in the English Language was also announced that same week – ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’, by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka (published by independent publisher Sort of Books).
It is set in the 1990s, during the Sri Lankan Civil war that was fought between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and the mostly Hindu minority Tamils. The brutality of the war is conveyed through a comic ghost story. The narrator wakes up not realising he is dead and seems to have to make his way to a registration point. He has seven moons to get there.
Along his journey, he meets many characters who have themselves died in the war. He is able to tell their story and the story of the war through these characters and why they have ended up in the same place as him. Karunatilaka has managed skillfully to create a safe space from which to tell of the brutality of both sides. His characters are funny and almost nonchalant about what happened to them. There is an element of suspense as we are taken through the seven moons and await the finish.
By the end of my week, I can affirmatively say that books are like little lights being shone around the world. I’ll will finish with the moto of the Fair this year. ‘Translate words, Transfer ideas, Transform minds’.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia  – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.