I Went to a Book Fair During the Pandemic…In Lisbon

Portugal’s annual literary event, Feira do Livro, carries on as others fold

The venue isn’t London, or Paris, or Frankfurt, or New York. Organizers of the book fairs in all the other great cities of the world have canceled their events. But not in Lisbon. The Feira do Livro is on, and I am here, pandemic be damned.

Boy, is it on. All around me in the brilliant light are new books, old books, rare books, novels, histories, memoirs, collections, children’s books, unclassifiable books, publishers, agents, vendors, and bibliophiles of all ages, races, and walks of life. People wear masks, and cops and park staff make sure the masks stay on at all times, but no one seems too annoyed. It’s pretty astounding that a book fair is taking place in public at all during a time when some folks fear they’re taking their lives into their hands if they go outside, let alone shop or fly or use public transportation. For a bibliophile like me, who traveled to Lisbon during a global pandemic to catch up with my publisher, assist with PR, and report on a cultural event, it’s like living in a book-saturated dream.

A socially-distanced reading in Lisbon. (photos by Michael Washburn)

Some people are too proud of their traditions to cancel them in the face of hysterical and sanctimonious rhetoric. Admittedly, it helps if the event you’re planning to hold takes place every year in a gigantic park with lots of space to walk around under a cobalt sky, and minor precautions can lessen the COVID-19 threat for hundreds or thousands of guests. It’s awesome if the park is in Lisbon, a place whose beauty and charm writers and poets have waxed lyrical about for millennia. Traveling to Portugal is tricky but not impossible, and the Portuguese are famously welcoming.

Lisbon’s annual Feira do Livro, which has taken place since 1931 under myriad types of regimes and political conditions, happens in Parque Eduardo VII, a twenty-six-hectare public place at the summit of the long and sloping Avenida da Liberdade, where the façades of ritzy stores and fancy restaurants and hotels stare out at the visitor from either side. This year, they pushed the event back from its usual June dates to August 27 through September 13. Better late than never.

How on Earth did I get here?

Getting to Lisbon was tricky. The first thing I did was email Portugal’s consulate here in New York and ask what the requirements were. To my surprise, I got back a courteous answer not in hours or days, but minutes. I’d have to show proof that I was an essential traveler, not a tourist, along with the results of a negative COVID-19 test taken within seventy-two hours prior to my flight. My publisher kindly prepared a letter, in both English and Portuguese, explaining to whom it might concern that I was going to Lisbon to do signings, meet foreign reps, and generally assist in publicity-related duties at the fair. This was the easy part.

What made things harder is that the type of COVID-19 test required isn’t the antigen test, for which results can be available in one hour, but the RT-PCR test, where the turnaround can take up to five business days. I reached out to Medical Offices of Manhattan to schedule a test. Given how busy they are, it’s pretty much impossible to get an appointment at a time of your choosing. Although the staff were impeccably professional and helpful, they couldn’t promise a specific turnaround from the lab. To make things trickier, flights from New York to Lisbon leave only once or twice per day.

I went in for my test at 4:00 p.m. on a Monday. They stuck a rod so far up my nose that a pain I’d never known before shot through my whole system, but it was over in a flash. Then I hoped for results not just within seventy-two hours but before the 8:30 p.m. flight on Wednesday. The whole thing was hugely unpredictable. If the results came back, say, at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, then that would be within seventy-two hours, but I’d have missed the morning flight to Lisbon and the results would no longer be valid by the time 8:30 p.m. rolled around. More than seventy-hours would have passed and I’d be right back at square one. I waited anxiously, and waited some more.

And then, good news! Results came back negative on Wednesday afternoon, roughly forty-four hours after the test. I was off to Newark Liberty International that evening.

Lisbon stands out

One of the crowning indignities of 2020 has been the cancellation of events that normally draw tens of thousands of people from all over and help keep literary culture going strong. The list seems endless. The London Book Fair, the Paris Book Fair, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the Leipzig Book Fair, the Greater St. Louis Book Fair, BookExpo, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Brooklyn Book Festival, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and smaller literary events and trade shows around the world have been called off amid concern for the health and safety of exhibitors and guests.

Technically, Frankfurt will still happen as an online-only event from October 14 to 18, but the in-person meetings, socializing, parties, and readings that make the experience what it is are off.

Jenny Martin, event manager for BookExpo, expressed the prevailing view of book fair organizers when she told Publishers Weekly, “As the pandemic has continued to escalate in the United States and we see the challenges it has brought for the book industry, it is clear that 2020 is no longer a viable option for this community.”

The problems with BookExpo weren’t too much of a surprise, since its traditional site, the Javits Center, earlier this year abruptly became a makeshift hospital filled with beds for COVID-19 patients, and in the absence of a backup plan, people were bound to cancel. But Frankfurt is much later in the year, Germany has done a great job of keeping COVID-19 cases down, and some of us thought the event wasn’t in danger.

In the case of Frankfurt, a registrant can get a refund and take part for free in the online events, but it’s still a shame that the fair as we’ve always known it won’t happen. In fairness, the organizers of the largest and most hyped event of its kind in the world can’t be accused of simply caving to politically correct rhetoric from the commissars of public health.

In the weeks before the September 8 announcement that there’d be no in-person show, reports said the number of exhibitors who’d registered for Frankfurt was roughly a tenth of the approximately 7,500 who usually do so every year. Local COVID-related restrictions kept some exhibitors from booking travel to Germany, and some clearly didn’t want to risk their lives, or face potential liability for endangering their staff, even if they could go. With the number of attendees far lower than usual, it probably didn’t look like a winning investment anyway.

Still, one wonders whether all the cancellations would have happened if the organizers of these events had been smart. If the issue was too many people packed into one exhibition hall (or, in the case of Frankfurt, adjoining halls), one might ask why organizers didn’t move everything outside and limit the number of guests who could be at a given booth or in a given meeting or reading space. With some work, the book fairs could have happened in full compliance with guidelines widely in use in public places throughout the world. Exhibitors and guests might have felt much less pressure to pull out. We’ll never know.

In Another World

Upon arriving in Lisbon, I downed some pastel de nata and coffee and hit the fairgrounds. Traipsing the long aisles on either side of the dense meadow comprising the middle of the park, it was hard not to admire the breadth of titles on display. Here were books for just about everyone. If you wanted to read Woody Allen’s controversial tell-all memoir in Portuguese, the publisher Almedina was selling copies of A Propósito de Nada. In case Allen’s book didn’t quite satisfy your appetite for the quirky and cerebral, Almedina offered fascinating works of history, political philosophy, and cultural criticism, including a number of books by the late Bulgarian-French intellectual, Tzvetan Todorov.

The booth of Livros do Brasil and Sextante Editora. (photo by Michael Washburn)

Livros do Brasil offered an international selection of great writers in translation, notably Franz Kafka and Yukio Mishima. Sharing booth space with them was Sextante Editora, which is also global in scope and has published Portuguese translations of contemporaries like French writer Philippe Besson and Albania’s most famous man of letters, Ismail Kadare. In an adjacent booth was Porta Editora, the largest Portuguese publisher and one with a distinctive multimedia approach and a focus on educational works. Another visionary publisher, Livros Horizonte, offered an intriguing mix of art history, political science, and children’s books.

On the other side of the same aisle stood the booth of Gradiva, a publisher known equally for its nonfiction and fiction lists. It’s published in translation such scientific names as Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, and Carl Sagan, along with literary figures such as Kazuo Ishiguro, David Lodge, and Ian McEwan. The art on the side of the Gradiva booth promoted a work on the disturbing, and politically incorrect, topic of Arab trade in black slaves.

Nearby, Guerra e Paz Editores offered a range of titles on political and economic theory and history, running the full gamut from mainstream works on the history of Portugal to Marxist works and some truly eyebrow-raising titles. (I’m against censorship and believe you have to understand evil to combat evil, but it was still pretty appalling to see Mein Kampf among the book covers displayed on the side of their booth. Really, what was up with that? A new translation that captures Hitler’s polemical style better than earlier ones? There’s one book I hope no one bought.)

The fair’s inauguration in 1931. Presidente General Óscar Carmona established the objective of instructing and educating through books. (photos by Michael Washburn).

Over on the other side of the long meadow, sellers of used and rare books, including many hard-to-find titles of antiquarian interest, were more prevalent. There were works of literature and history in all the European languages and innumerable books in translation. In some cases, the translations of works into Portuguese included tweaking even the names of the authors—hence you’d stumble on a copy of Madame Bovary by “Gustavo” Flaubert.

The fair was an antiquarian bibliophile’s dream. Titles you’d expect to see in the rare book rooms of museums abounded. My publisher, Stevan Nikolic of Adelaide Books, found a French translation of Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly from 1762, still in pretty good shape.

At the booth of Frenesi Livros, I came across some of the most interesting books anywhere in the fair. I bought a critical study of existentialism and a Gallimard edition of the poems of Benjamin Péret for a few euros. The proprietor, Paulo da Costa Domingos, said he’d been taking part in the fair for seventeen years now and that, given the somewhat lower expectations amid the pandemic, this year’s event wasn’t a failure. The taste for great literature is as strong as ever and certain titles are in strong demand.

“Nabokov’s Lolita is an absolute success. And Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, and Huxley’s Brave New World. Camus, Zweig, and Jorge Amado sell very well. To be sure, Jose Saramago, António Lobo Antunes, Alves Redol, Ferreira de Castro, and others are a must in Portuguese,” Domingos told me.

I asked Domingos whether he thought Lobo Antunes had gotten a boost from the decision two years ago of France’s highly esteemed publishing house, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, to publish his work. Pléiade is a bit like our Library of America, with the critical difference that while Library of America canonizes only U.S. writers, Pléiade features non-French authors. Even so, Lobo Antunes is only the second Portuguese, after Fernando Pessoa, to win this honor.

Domingos said my guess was wrong. The average reader venerates Lobo Antunes regardless of what official recognition or prize the writer might receive. The public’s respect for Lobo Antunes may derive in part from his status as one of the few Portuguese authors to have had formative experiences in the cauldron of Portugal’s colonial war in Angola in the 1970s, Domingos said.

What might account for Orwell’s popularity with younger readers in Portugal? It may be a sense of growing authoritarianism in parts of the world—an awareness that is admirable but maybe doesn’t go as far as it could.

“At the moment, as we can see the return of the old demons inside the democratic system, though I think they [younger readers] don’t know the difference between democracy and authoritarianism. Truthfully, they ignore the pain under the authoritarian regimes, of which they have no idea or experience at all. Their horizons are pixels on a computer monitor, that’s what has cradled them for the last ten years. And that’s why they’re kind of a task force against their parents who lived and fought for Portuguese democracy,” Domingos said.

The Portuguese writer João Tordo was reportedly widely in demand at the fair, particularly his popular new memoir, whose title in English is A Writer’s Survival Manual, or the Little I Know About What I Do. And many vendors sold a work called Lisbon Poets in crisply produced bilingual editions, pairing the Portuguese texts of works by Fernando Pessoa, Luís de Camões, Cesário Verde, Florbela Espanca, Mário de Sá-Carneiro, and others with French, Italian, and English translations.

Fighting on

Let’s hope that 2021 will be a much better year in every way, and may Lisbon’s Feira do Livro set a bold example for organizers, exhibitors, publishers, and the reading public around the world. The cancellation of book fairs is not just an annoying offshoot of sensible and necessary lockdown policies. It’s a blow to the economic health and viability of independent publishers and booksellers and to the transmission of knowledge and culture worldwide. As the online titans, against which a few brave booksellers have begun to make a bold public stand, continue to gobble up more and more of the pie, book fairs are one corner of the  market that remain the province of traditional sellers relying on physical displays of books and face-to-face interactions with intellectually curious customers.

In the absence of these events, some of us may come to know a profound sense of cultural and spiritual deprivation that nothing can alleviate. Indeed, we may come to feel a bit like the Lisbon modernist poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro, who took his own life in 1916 at age twenty-five (translated here by Martin D’Evelin):

“I venture back inside myself,

but nothing speaks to me, nothing!

My soul feels enshrouded

and arid within myself.”

American author for sale!

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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