A Tale of Two Cities
In the last few weeks I've been to two European Book Fairs, one in Helsinki and one in Bucharest. I'm published by small presses in Finnish and Romanian, and I was very happy to go along to help promote the books - and to visit cities I'd never previously visited. The fairs were public events, with author talks and lots of discounted books, and in both exhibitions the crowds turned out big style. It was great to sense the excitement of readers, the passion for reading.
A friend recently gave me a book called 'Debatable Lands' about the shifting border between England and Scotland and it seemed to me that both these cities were in debatable lands too. Over the centuries they've been part of different empires and alliances. In Helsinki road signs are in Swedish and Finnish, both national languages, and united Romania celebrates its centenary only this year. Of course there are differences: Helsinki seems an efficient, affluent city with great public transport. Romania is still blighted by the excesses of the Ceausescu era - he was overthrown during the 1989 revolution - and there are huge and rather ugly monuments to his vanity. The traffic is, apparently, the worst in Europe. But there is a similar spirit, I felt, especially in the young people. They don't feel so weighed down by tradition as we are, so complacent. The people have had to be adaptable and defiant to survive. They understand the need to forge links with neighbours.
While Scandinavia has a tradition of crime fiction, in Romania it isn't considered real literature. There is an intellectual tradition of philosophy and ideas and in the book fair, most titles were non-fiction or literary fiction. Very worthy. But crime has been discovered by young people as something new and interesting and perhaps a little subversive. At the fair and at the private launch party for The Seagull (Pescarusul) I was delighted that it was young bloggers and journalists and students who turned out. They still take their literature seriously though - I've never been asked in the UK if my title referred to the Chekhov play, but the question turned up a number of times in Bucharest...
Thanks to my publishers Crime Scene Press in Romania and Karisto in Finland. I received a magnificent welcome in both places. There was wonderful hospitality - I ate local food, drank too much and listened to many stories. In both cases, I returned to the UK having made new friends.