Newsletter

Amsterdam, December 2004, Number 16
Editor: Hella Rottenberg

CONTENTS

Ukrainian and Russian books: a special relationship

News from the Book Trade - Slovakia and Slovenia
Grants
Books Recently Published
Funding


UKRAINIAN AND RUSSIAN BOOKS: a special relationship

Some time ago, the outgoing Ukrainian President Kuchma wrote a book – or rather had it written for him - titled “Ukraine is not Russia”. The route this book has travelled illustrates quite well the irony in Ukraine’s relationship with Russia. Written in Russian, printed in Russia by a Russian publisher, then translated into Ukrainian by a Ukrainian living in Russia, “Ukraine is not Russia” was finally put on the Ukrainian market. Both, it should be added, in the Ukrainian and Russian language.

The Ukrainian book market is rather special. It is almost totally dominated by Russian books. In 2003, 70 million Russian books –imported from Russia- were put on the Ukrainian market. Ukrainian publishers produced fewer than 13 million books –and out of those only 4.5 million in Ukrainian, whereas almost twice as many were in Russian. According to these figures, Ukrainian publishers thus control a mere 15 percent of the total book market. Books in Ukrainian constitute an even smaller part of the market, just 5.5 percent.

This is possible, due to the fact that 90 percent of the Ukrainian population (48 million total) effortlessly reads Russian and 60 percent always speaks Russian, at home and in public. In the Soviet period, Russian had been both the first language as well as the colloquial language of Ukraine. Since Ukraine gained independence 13 years ago, the Ukrainian language has been compulsory in schools, universities and in official communications, but education is still in Russian in the Crimea and in the southern parts of the country.

The dominance of the Russian publishing houses has been strengthened by government policy. While Russia  has stimulated the book industry since 1995 by means of tax exemptions (no VAT, low profit taxation), the Ukrainian policy has been unstable and caused insecurity. VAT and income tax for book trade and printed matter were cancelled from 1997 till the end of 2003. Then they were reinstated. As of July 2004, Ukrainian publishers, printers and booksellers are exempted again from both VAT and income tax until December 2008.

No wonder then, that Ukraine has become a huge market – dumping ground according to many people - for cheap Russian publications. In Russia, book publishing is a flourishing  and very profitable sector; in Ukraine it is a poor and undeveloped market.

Russian publishers are quick to buy the rights for foreign bestsellers, and export the Russian translations to the Ukrainian market. They often buy simultaneously the Ukrainian rights, sometimes selling them to Ukrainian publishing houses, but only after the Russian translation has reached the Ukrainian market. This does not leave   many buyers for the Ukrainian publisher. For the Ukrainian consumer a small difference in price is the decisive factor in his choice of both book and language. Due to the enormous print runs issued by Russian publishers, and lower production costs (paper and printing), the price usually works to the advantage of books imported from Russia.

Ukrainian publishing houses are heavily subsidized by the government and various foreign funds, while a minor part (some 20 to 25 percent) of Ukrainian books is published without financial aid. Only 200 to 250 new literary titles in Ukrainian come out per year, including translations, in limited editions (up to 1.000 - 1.500 copies).

Besides, the Ukrainian book market is characterised by the improvised distribution and sale (book stands and open air markets), lack of information for publishers, booksellers, and readers alike about what has been published and is available. All in all, there are only a few bookstores per oblast capital, while most of the 40 cities that function as important economic, educational and cultural centres lack bookstores.

In order to improve the situation of the Ukrainian book market, an initiative has been taken by the International Renaissance Foundation (an offshoot of Soros’ Open Society Institute), together with the Ukrainian Publishers and Booksellers Association (UPBA), and two local publishers and book distributors. CEEBP will act as the Dutch partner. The project is very ambitious; it entails the creation of an elaborate book trade portal on the Internet, the establishment of twenty regional book distribution and book promotion centres across the country and a series of seminars for publishers and booksellers, aimed at improving their professional skills. As soon as the funding is guaranteed, the project will start and run for the next three years. Hopefully the project can be launched already by spring 2005.

Hella Rottenberg


NEWS FROM THE BOOK TRADE

The Slovak Index Association of Independent Publishers has set up an interest-free loan programme for publishers to help them overcome the lack of investment capital. Eligible are publishers who have been functioning on the book market for at least two years, who have regular monthly income from book sales that would enable them to return the loan in down payments within four months. The loan is offered for the publication of a specific book title (poetry, belles lettres, non-fiction, children’s books, humanities, and philosophy) on the basis of the printer’s invoice. Publishers can request a new loan after having paid back the previous one. The programme is financed from the Slovak reproduction rights fund.

The Slovenian Publishers Association has adopted a gentleman’s agreement about steady book prices with the aim of regulating the book market, strengthen bookshops, ensure the availability of a wide book variety, boost sales, and lower the price of books. The agreement, officially adopted as a regulation of the Chamber of Commerce in June, has the strong support of the Slovenian Ministry of Culture, which cooperates with the Association in transforming the agreement into a law.

In September, CEEBP invited the president of the Slovenian Publishers Association, Tanja Tuma, to present the book price agreement and the law initiative at a well-attended meeting of publishers and booksellers in Zagreb. Many of them hope Croatia will follow suit. Their colleagues in Bosnia have already introduced a book price agreement.


GRANTS

In October 2004, the CEEBP awarded grants for nineteen books, one journal, and two other grants. The grants for books were awarded for sixteen West – East translations and four East – East translations. A Byelorussian publisher received a grant for translations of journal articles, and two grants were awarded for book trade portals.

Books

Other grants


BOOKS RECENTLY PUBLISHED

Leo Strauss’ influential book Persecution and the Art of Writing has been published in Croatian by the Zagreb based publishing house Disput. The original was published in English in 1952.

In four brilliant and insightful essays, Strauss reveals how the Jewish philosophers Maimonides, Halevi and Spinoza found a way of communicating  their more controversial thoughts, intended for a select readership, in their public writings without having to worry about reprisal or persecution from various authorities or upsetting ‘the average reader’ by exposing him to opinions which would not be publicly acceptable. Strauss calls this “the art of writing between the lines”.

Persecution does not necessarily mean corporal punishment or social ostracism; it could also stand for the philosopher’s moral dilemma of wishing to live by the rules of his religion, which (in Maimonides’ case) forbid him to write about certain religious topics (such as the secrets of the Torah). The philosopher, then, is faced with his own (moral) persecution.

Writing between the lines makes clever use of ambiguity, hints, secret words, motto’s, (incorrect) citations and so forth. This particular technique is only noticed by the most careful reader and was in fact meant to reach only him. Such writing has ‘all the advantages of private communication without having its greatest disadvantage - that is reaches only the writer’s acquaintances. It has all the advantages of public communication’ but is only accessible to those who are ‘worth’ the authors attention; those who are knowledgeable enough to pick up the hints that are set out for him.

Strauss argues that the art of writing between the lines has been more or less forgotten since approximately the second half of the seventeenth century. The reason for this, according to Strauss, is that premodern philosophers had a different attitude toward freedom of public discussion than their modern counterparts. Modern philosophers, in general, have the desire to enlighten as many people as possible.

The attitude of an earlier type of writers was fundamentally different because ‘they believed the gulf separating “the wise” and “the vulgar” was a basic fact of human nature which could not be influenced by any progress of popular education: philosophy, or science, was essentially a privilege of “the few”.’ In fact, they believed the ‘masses’ should not be privy to opinions outside the popular; it was undesirable and impossible to enlighten them with the truth. Because of this perceived difference, they felt it was necessary to conceal their opinions from all but the truly wise; other philosophers, or more accurately: would-be philosophers - those who are capable of ordering their own lives in line with moral commands and outside the ‘leading public opinion’. They were, by writing between the lines, in fact educating the future generation of the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop of rookie philosophers.

The publishing house Sefer has published the Czech translation of Mihail Sebastian’s Journal 1935-1944. Born in Braila (Romania) in 1907, Mihail Sebastian (pen name of Iosif Hechter) was a well-known and talented Jewish playwright, novelist, poet, and journalist living in pre-war Bucharest. His diary was edited and published in its original language only in 1996 –long after Sebastian’s death in a traffic accident in 1945. His brother Benu secretly shipped the journals out of the country via the diplomatic pouch of the Israeli embassy when he emigrated to Israel in 1961. A smart move on Benu’s part, since many manuscripts met a less fortunate fate as they were confiscated by Securitate, the Romanian communist secret police.

Mihail Sebastian’s Journal gives an extraordinary account both of his day-to-day life, with his sexual liaisons, friendships and love of music (Sebastian had a particular passion for Bach and Beethoven), and of the gradually changing atmosphere in a Romania increasingly mesmerized by the Nazi and fascist ideology. Initially, Sebastian describes his numerous encounters with friends, such as Mircea Eliade and E.M. Cioran and many other leading intellectuals, liberal aristocrats and artists. He tells of his skirmishes at work and his ‘foolish nowhere-leading’ love affairs. He leads the pleasant life of someone belonging to the high society of pre-war ‘Little Paris’, as Bucharest was then known.

Gradually, however, imperceptibly at first, the reader becomes witness to a change in the climate. The fact that Romanian authorities willingly and happily cooperated with the Nazis, is vividly revealed in Sebastian’s diary as he describes how this particular Romanian-flavoured anti-Semitism both affects him on a personal level and the Jewish community in general. Sebastian tells of his Romanian friends, who, one by one, get caught in a fascist delirium, ‘won over’ by the fantastic lure of Nazism (although they did not need much convincing) and how these friends shun him from their lives because he is Jewish. Increasingly Sebastian is excluded from his former life filled with social events. The progression of antisemitic measures taken by successive governments is further restricts his life. The shocking fact is that Romania needed little help from the Nazis. Antisemitism had been a long consistent element in Romanian life, but World War II gave it a legal status that fuelled it to unprecedented heights.

Stripped of his rights and work, Sebastian finds himself worrying about money to pay the rent, his mother’s health, and the progression of the war. Having nowhere to go, but sit in his little room on his lice-ridden bed, he comments on the pogroms, the heavy taxes for Jews and the forced labour. Once having more parties to attend than time, he now has nothing except for his life (which he in fact owes to Romania’s opportunistic treatment of Jews in the war-years, using them as ‘bargaining chips’ with the Nazis).  

Mihail Sebastian’s Journal 1935-44 gives a beautiful description of high society pre-war Bucharest. Furthermore, it is a harrowing account of Romanian antisemitic delirium seen from the inside. It is like an X-ray of an era: with fascinating accuracy, reflecting the mind of a great observer, it captures the horrors (and the effects) of brutal Romanian antisemitism both on a personal level, as well as on a society as a whole.

By Bronja Prazdny


FUNDING


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