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Guest Post: Report from the Salon du Livre


NBCC member Lauren Elkin sends this report from Paris:

Boycotts, bomb threats, falling panels and fisticuffs: it’s time for another Salon du Livre de Paris.

Every year, the Salon du Livre honors the literature of a different country; past years have included India, Russia, the US and the Netherlands, but not since China (in 2004) has there been so much controversy around the organizers’ choice. The hype machine went round the way it always does: first came the announcement that Israel had been chosen; then the response from a number of publishers from Arab and Muslim countries that they would boycott the event, then came the announcement of a couple of Israeli writers that they too would boycott the Salon, then the response from the organizers of the Salon that they had offered to make a separate salon for Arab publishers and had been rejected, and the response from the 39 Israeli writers who would attend that boycotts were pointless and achieved, in the words of Etgar Keret, “the exact opposite of what they were intended to.”

And so it went, round and round, and still, the special issues of Le Point and Le Magazine Littéraire and Lire and Le Monde des Livres all went to press, and attendees started boning up on Israeli literature and culture, from Amos Gitai to Amos Oz.

The Salon itself opened with a hitch. Israeli President Shimon Peres attended the opening of the fair on Thursday evening, and was preparing to give a speech on the stage of the Pavillon d’honneur when a large panel came apart from the scaffolding overhead and fell on top of him. Peres escaped unscathed, thanks to the eight or so burly men who caught the thing.

After that, things seemed to calm down a bit. After all, there were prizes to give out: the Grand Prix RTL-Lire to Algerian writer Boualem Sansal for his fifth novel, “Le Village de l’Allemand ou le Journal des frères Schiller” (Gallimard), the Prix Chronos des Lycéens to Tatiana de Rosnay for “Elle S’appelait Sarah” (“Sarah’s Key,” Editions d’Heloise d’Ormesson), the Prix Méditerranée Etrangère was given to the Italian writer Sandro Veronesi for his novel “Chaos calme” (Grasset), and a new prize, given by the Franco-Israel Foundation, went to Eshkol Nevo for his novel “Quatre Maisons et un exil” (Homesick, Gallimard). The Israeli writer Avraham Yehoshua was made Commandeur dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Books were signed, events were held, and everyone seemed to be getting along just fine.  By Sunday afternoon around 3 pm the place was packed. There’s supposed to be a boycott going on, I thought, making my rounds for the second day in a row, but it looks like Paris didn’t get the memo.

That’s right around when the tensions rose to the surface. I was listening in on a panel discussion on Israel and geopolitics with Gilles Kepel, Théo Klein, and Charles Enderlin, when a man in the crowd became enraged and had to be escorted out. I had just been thinking, moments before, of how rational and avuncular Théo Klein sounded, talking about how one day he hoped Israel could take down its walls, and the importance of seeing the Palestinians as “voisins—neighbors, not enemies.” But the environment was so loud you could barely hear Klein, soft-spoken even with a microphone in his hand, and there were so many people, that it was like listening to a philosopher speaking in the corner of a rock concert. I couldn’t get close enough to really listen, so I began to move away.

And just as I turned away, the shouts broke out. A man in the audience began to yell at the panelists. “Monsieur, there will be time for debate at the end, please calm down,” the panelists said. He yelled louder. A woman off to the side shouted too, and everyone else started looking at each other out of the corners of their eyes. “This is getting good,” some glances said. “This is a shame,” others said. The security guards took him out, yelling all the way.

I really wanted to stick around to see Alain Finkielkraut interview Aharon Appelfeld at 5 pm but was exhausted from fighting the crowd. Good thing I didn’t wait—a bomb threat forced an evacuation shortly before 5. Luckily it turned out to be nothing (or at least that’s the official story), but it didn’t do much for anyone’s morale—for the authors who had their events cancelled; the publishers who spent inordinate sums of money on their stands who hardly break even at the end of the Salon; the attendees, who had traipsed out in the rain and pushed through the crowds. Most people left once the fair was evacuated.

Le Monde, in an editorial published Thursday, called the boycott a “hostage-taking of literature.” And it’s true that controversies and technical difficulties seem to have overshadowed the literature itself, which is a shame. That’s why we’ll be blogging again later this week: to talk more about the books.—Lauren Elkin