Among the 7 500-odd exhibitors at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest trade event for publishers, literary agents and book scouts, was a stand exhibiting a half-dozen colour photographs made by the French documentary photographer Pascal Maitre. Shot on assignment in Africa over the past 30 years for magazines such as Paris Match, Stern and National Geographic, one particular photo caught my eye.
Five young men, all members of the Mai-Mai Kifuafua militia, are pictured on the march in North Kivu, a province on the far eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The gun-toting central figure in Maitre’s photo wears a blue cycling jersey, which sets him apart from his compatriots, who all wear military-issue green. His face is moist with sweat, his mouth open, teeth showing. It is a dramatic image and, in its own way, unsettling too.
Displayed adjacent to a portrait of young Somali boys queuing for a soup of corn and lentils at a Mogadishu feeding centre, Maitre’s photograph, which is collected in his new book Amazing Africa, achieved many things. For one, it accentuated a well-worn cliché traded at the fair: of sub-Saharan Africa as verdant, troubled, wild and perennially dangerous.
Titles from European publishers mining this version of Africa ranged from a well-known children’s comic written in pre-unification East Germany and set in 1924 Congo to a newly reissued collector’s edition of Tarzan, that hoary classic of colonial literature penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs, available from the hipster German publisher Walde & Graf.
Maitre’s photo also offered a visual summary of some of the concerns in the nearby Weltempfang. A discussion platform established by the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2010 and co-funded by the German Foreign Office, this year’s five-day programme focused on sub-Saharan Africa.
Participants included Egypt’s Khaled Alkhamissi, whose 2008 literary debut, Taxi, features 58 fictional monologues by Cairo taxi drivers, Zimbabwean poet Chirikure Chirikure and Ben Williams, the Johannesburg-based founder of the Books Live online community and a champion for e-books.
The DRC enjoyed particular prominence. Fiston Mwanza Mujila, an exiled poet and dramaturge now living in Graz, Austria, prefaced his interview by reading a selection of his French poetry.
“I am not the first to leave the continent,” read a line from his poem Solitude 41, projected on a screen. Mujila’s poetry struggled in translation. His discussion with Romance languages and literature scholar Elisa Fuchs was more engaging, with Mujila summoning the image of his birth country’s myth-inflected Congo River.
“They cannot take away the river from us,” he declared in response to the ongoing, ruthless extraction of the country’s natural resources.
According to Flemish journalist and playwright David van Reybrouck, whose award-winning book Congo: A History was snapped up by HarperCollins at the fair two years ago and is due out in translation in 2013, Mujila is a “very good poet”. Van Reybrouck also participated in the Weltempfang, speaking on a panel with German journalist Ute Schaeffer, whose book Afrikas Macher — Afrikas Entwickler focuses on the underreported “master plan for democracy” in Africa.
For Europeans, said Van Reybrouck, democracy in Africa had become “a new form of colonisation and evangelism”.
“We Europeans think democracy is like a piece of Ikea furniture that we have perfected and can export with all its components,” said Van Reybrouck, whose book eschews official narratives in favour of the ordinariness of citizen narratives.
After his presentation, Antjie Krog, another speaker at the Weltempfang and a first-time visitor to the fair, exchanged a warm hug with Van Reybrouck, whose engagements are handled by an agent. Krog is not represented by an agent, nor is Véronique Tadjo, an Ivorian poet and author based in Johannesburg.
Both writers, who each have a work listed on a 2002 poll of Africa’s 100 best books from the 20th century, were in Frankfurt to promote the locally published nonfiction book über(W)unden: Art in Troubled Times, a joint publishing initiative of the Goethe-Institut and Jacana.
Jacana reported an indifferent fair with few deals for rights concluded, but for first-time exhibitor Modjaji Books the responses were heartening. Publisher Colleen Higgs quickly had to polish up her “elevator pitch” when talking about her imprint, which focuses on female writers. Star acts include Yewande Omotoso, whose Bom Boy was shortlisted for South Africa’s Sunday Times fiction prize.
In the corporatised context of the fair, in which the delicacies of African history are largely overshadowed by blunt mercantile imperatives, Higgs had to learn the language of bookselling. Its keywords are “sexy and saleable and fabulous”.