In the past, London Book Fair has been a place to get excited about books. I remember my visits to it in pre-COVID years: publishers welcoming visitors into their stalls; multiple copies of books exhibited on stands, waiting to be leafed through by enthusiastic readers; meetings and hand-shaking happening spontaneously. In 2022, it is all about booking your appointments with literary agents and publishers online, and meeting them in restricted-access areas for appointments only. This can be partially explained by a COVID trauma: publishers are human and are spooked by the idea of a random visitor approaching them in a mask-free environment. But the main reason seems to be a shift towards risk-less communications—towards signing contracts only between giant, market-controlling publishing houses, and promoting books that are a guaranteed sell. The biggest stalls at LBF 2022 belonged to the monopolists such as Penguin Random House and publishers of cook books and celebrity biographies. Other big stands included those organised by cultural attachés of different countries: France and Italy were represented particularly lavishly this year. Sharjah as the third-most populous city in the UAE was LBF’s focus this year: in fact, books in Arabic were one of the largest segments of the exhibition. Cyrillic was poignantly absent: Read Russia stand, traditionally run by the organisation Academia Rossica, founded by Svetlana Adjubei, understandably did not take part. Since my purpose originally was to write about Russian-speaking authors, I entered the Olympia Exhibition Centre on a quest to find what had survived the geopolitical crisis of 2022.

London Book Fair 2022, photo by Darya Protopopova

First thing that catches my eye is the Armenian pavilion. I do not dare to strike a conversation with fellow former-Soviets, but happily note a vast array of titles on Armenian history available to English readers—editions of Gomidas Institute, London.

London Book Fair 2022, photo by Darya Protopopova

Next stop—a cute colourful stand titled “Tiny books from Baltic authors: diversity and human rights literature for children”. Right next to it I see a stand with books by Baltic authors on Ukrainian themes, along with some other titles under hashtag #standwithukraine, e.g. Donbaso džiazas (Donbas Jazz) by Jonas Öhman.

London Book Fair 2022, photo by Darya Protopopova

From there I proceed to the Georgian stand, featuring titles in original Georgian as well as translations. A book titled “The dictatorship of poetry” catches my eye—poems in Georgian by Zurab Rtveliashvili, translated by Natalia Bukia-Peters and Victoria Field.

London Book Fair 2022, photo by Darya Protopopova

London Book Fair 2022, photo by Darya Protopopova

I start thinking, if only the dictatorships in this world had been by poetry, and glance at another book. Aka Mortschiladse, Liebe und Tod in Tiflis, Love and Death in Tiflis, 2020. Mogela and Lewiko – two young men in Tbilisi and friends since childhood: Mogela lives on the left bank of the river in the house of the thousand books left by his bibliomaniac grandfather, Lewiko in the richer quarter on the right bank. I mentally add this novel to my “to read” list.

London Book Fair 2022, photo by Darya Protopopova

I push on, lamenting the (temporary) death of Russian culture. Where are you, stands featuring Russian writers? Some of them spent their lives in opposition to the regime, some perished in GULAG, many emigrated. Pasternak, expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers for receiving the Nobel Prize and for anti-revolutionary elements in his novels. Akhmatova, whose first husband Nikolai Gumilev was executed by the Soviet secret police, and whose son spent 1949-1956 in prison. Bulgakov, who was banned and whose Master and Margarita was published in his home country 33 years after his death. Solzhenitsyn, deported from the USSR in 1974. The list goes on—the names of Russia’s victims.

What do I suddenly see? A face of the katorga martyr, converted by hard labour into a supporter of the monarchy—Dostoevsky. On the Hungarian stand I see a book titled, in Cyrillic, Достоевский читает в Сибири Гегеля и плачет, Ласло Фёлдени—Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears, by László F. Földényi. The Hungarian stand where this book appeared, is advertising a new periodical:

London Book Fair 2022, photo by Darya Protopopova

“The Continental Literary Magazine is a quarterly English-language literary magazine launched by the Petőfi Cultural Agency. The magazine focuses on the literature of Central Europe with the aim of creating a platform for contemporary Hungarian and Central European fiction writers to stake out their place in the English-reading world and, in particular, the North American literary market.”

London Book Fair 2022, photo by Darya Protopopova

At the next stand I am greeted by another familiar face: despite the unspoken ban on Russian culture, Chekhov is gazing at me from Michael C. Finke’s book “Freedom from violence and lies: Anton Chekhov’s life and writings” (Reaktion Press, 2011). In this new biography, Finke, Professor Emeritus of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Illinois, “analyses Chekhov’s major stories, plays, and non-fiction in the context of his life, fleshing out the key features of Chekhov’s poetics of prose and drama, and revealing key continuities across genres as well as between the lesser-known early writings and the later works” (Reaktion Press).

Chekhov is the last soothing title I see. The next exhibit to tug on my expat heartstrings is Writing Underground: Reflections on Samizdat Literature in Totalitarian Czechoslovakia, by Martin Machovec. A poignant quote by Paul Wilson reminds us of the current importance of this study: “Under the surface of that bleak landscape, what Václav Havel called ‘the secret life of society’ continued. People who were not beaten down by ‘real socialism’ produced books, music, art, and philosophy that have stood the test of time. Machovec has made it his life’s work to ensure that the era of samizdat and underground culture will not only not be forgotten”.

London Book Fair 2022, photo by Darya Protopopova

From the crowded ground floor I go up onto the gallery, and find myself next to an elegant and tranquil cluster of publishers from Poland. My Polish grandmother would have loved their books.

London Book Fair 2022, photo by Darya Protopopova

My nostalgic memories of her are interrupted by Putin’s face on the book cover. “Szalona miłość. Chcę takiego jak Putin. Reportaże z Rosji”—“Crazy Love. I want one like Putin. Reports from Russia”, by Barbara Włodarczyk.  “From her fascinating, light and seductive reportages, a complex image of Russian society and the Russian soul emerges”, notes the publisher, Wydawnictvo Literackie. The book is the text version of Włodarczyk’s documentary film, Rosjanie i Putin, made for Polish television in 2014. From Poland I go directly to Ukraine.

London Book Fair 2022, photo by Darya Protopopova

A large stand in blue and yellow colours. Sunflowers in a vase. Managing the stand is Daisy Gibbons, literary translator, graduate of Cambridge University’s Slavonic Department. Recently she translated Tamara Duda’s novel ‘Daughter’, winner of the BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year 2019.

London Book Fair 2022, photo by Darya Protopopova

 

In 2021 Gibbons won 2nd place in the Ukrainian Institute London’s ‘Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize’, for her translation of Lesia Ukrainka’s letters to Olha Kobylianska. Lesia Ukrainka (pen name of Larysa Kosach-Kvitka) was the modernist Ukrainian writer who “pioneered a new feminist literature at the forefront of European trends of the time. Her dramas, poetry and prose address concerns from gender and race to feminism and environmentalism” (quote from Ukrainian Institute London). Among highlights of the Ukrainian stand are English-language books on Ukrainian art, and a 2014 book on the group of Ukrainian poets in New York, active in 1950-1970s.

London Book Fair 2022, photo by Darya Protopopova

I will conclude my overview of LBF 2022 with the list of these titles:

  • Maria G. Rewakowicz. Literature, Exile, Alterity: The New York Group of Ukrainian Poets. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2014;
  • Myroslav Shkandrij. Avant-Garde Art in Ukraine, 1910–1930: Contested Memory, 2019;
  • Irena Makaryk and Virlana Tkacz. Modernism in Kyiv: Jubilant Experimentation, 2015.

London Book Fair 2022. Photo by Darya Protopopova

Art and literature continue to give me hope.