Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 January - 3 February 2010
Issue No. 983
Front Page
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Russian razzmatazz

The 2010 Cairo International Book Fair promises more than Pushkin -- with Pelevin, Prigov and Petrushevskaya, notes Gamal Nkrumah

President Hosni Mubarak officially inaugurates the 42nd Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF) today. CIBF 2010 is one of the largest international book fairs and in 2006, the CIBF was the largest book fair after Germany's Frankfurt International Book Fair. It is one of the paradoxes of CIBF, Africa and the Arab world's premiere book fair, that it never ceases to spring surprises.

There is a revered ritual at the start of every reputable international book fair. Every year, a specific country is selected as special guest of honour. The title confers special prestige and signals political messages coded in cultural terms. It is a rite of passage that has become intrinsic to CIBF.

CIBF draws in hundreds of publishers and booksellers from around the globe, and not just the Arab and Muslim worlds. The books on display range from fiction, religion, children's books, CD ROM Multimedia and teaching aides. CIBF also draws a distinguished array of scholars, novelists, newspapermen and publishers from around the world. In recent years online networking in connection with CIBF has added a new and timely dimension to boot.

In spite of the international financial meltdown, the number of participating publishers has risen by an unprecedented 50 per cent. Moreover, some 31 countries are participating in the fair for the first time. Russia is guest of honour, and as such it will display, among other treasures, an illustrious pure golden Holy Quran taking pride of place at the Russian stand. Russia's triumphant return tilts to timeless and priceless pieces. This magnificent Quran is complete with carpet pages on the opening folio, gold and azure palmettes, and gold rosettes between the holy verses. Stylistically composed on two-toned golden decoration, the Quran on display is artistically scripted in striking black Kufic Arabic with the manuscript itself on vellum and the vocalisation with crimson dots. The priceless Golden Quran has been housed at Russia's State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Saint Petersburg's Institute of Oriental Manuscripts and the Institute of Oriental Studies Academy of Sciences.

CIBF 2010 intends to attract attention to the rich cultural heritage and literary tradition of Russia, a country that has historically had close cultural and political ties with the Arab world and which has a large Muslim minority of more than 20 million people. CIBF 2010 is poised to highlight the current cultural renaissance gripping Russia.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the closing years of the 20th century proved particularly austere for Russian literature. Political turmoil and the economic meltdown contributed to this desolate period of Russian literary output. However, literary outpourings have expanded in the past decade. New names hit the headlines and among the most prolific and talented writers of the post-Soviet era have been Viktor Pelevin, whose engaging short stories and novels wowed readers in Russia and the West. Novelist and playwright Vladimir Sorokin, too, has made his mark on the contemporary Russian literary scene.

Novelist and playwright Vladimir Sorokin's works, too, have influenced Arab readers. Then there are the rhythmic outpourings and renditions of the outrageous and profane verses of poet Dmitri Prigov -- poetry being a favourite literary genre of Russian literature and generally held in much the same way as it is in the Arab world. Indeed, poetry recital evenings promise to be the highlight of a series of sideline events connected with CIBF. On 31 January a spectacular Russian cultural festival will take place at the Cairo Opera House. Seminars related to the traditionally close cultural relationship between Russia, Egypt and the Arab world as well as the latest trends in the Russian literary scene will also come to pass during CIBF 2010.

Special attention is paid to the science fiction genre in contemporary Russian literature. Pelevin's multi-layered post- modernist masterpieces with his characteristic fusion of provocative elements of popular culture and esoteric philosophies stand poised to be a star attraction.

The New Sincerity and New Realism literary movements which have taken Russia by storm in the post-Soviet era have had a tremendous influence on modern Russian literature and are making important inroads into contemporary Arab writings.

Among the Russian literary luminaries and academicians scheduled to attend CIBF 2010 is Edvard Radzinsky, author of the celebrated Stalin: The First In- Depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents From Russia's Secret Archives and his popular series Mysteries of History. Also in attendance is science fiction writer Sergei Lukyanenko whose bombshell Where the Mean Enemy Lurks epitomises this particular genre of contemporary Russian literature. Among the visiting academics are Professor Vladimir Poliakoff of Moscow's renowned Academy of Sciences and the youthful lyrical poet Sergei Yesenin.

Far from the rigours of the former Soviet intellectual elite and their doctrinaire rhetoric is the prose of Tatyana Tolstaya, born into a family of rich literary tradition. Her paternal grandfather was none other than the "Red Count" Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi, a notable Russian-Soviet writer and author of Peter I. Tolstaya's novel The Slynx/Kys (2000) is a dystopian novel filled with literary allusions -- which caters to the tastes of post-Soviet Russia. How well her works will go down with Cairene audiences is still a mystery. Several collections of short stories by Tatyana Tolstaya are popular all over Russia. Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, another post-Soviet Russian author will no doubt leave an indelible imprint on CIBF 2010.

Detective thrillers have proven such an alluring genre of contemporary Russian writing that the 1990s serial detective novels by Alexandra Marinina, Polina Dashkova and Darya Dontsova were instant bestsellers. The surreptitious joys of the ordinarily Russian adversarial literary symbiosis that grows ever more rancorous as the post-Communist period progresses, may prove to be the pull of CIBF 2010.

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