Frankfurt Book Fair President: Nokia closure not responsible for Finland rejection
Ambassador also sceptical about Bochum connection
According to Juergen Boos, the President of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the coveted guest of honour spot at the fair will not be a possibility for the Finns before 2013 at the earliest.
Finland had sought the limelight role in 2011, and for some time it was even believed it was a done deal, but in the end the prize went to Iceland, amidst suggestions in some quarters that “extra-literary considerations” might have played a part.
Boos, however, vehemently denies the claims that the sudden change in the weather might have been connected with Nokia’s recent decision to close down its manufacturing plant in Bochum, with the potential loss of more than 2,000 German jobs.
“The Nokia case had no impact on the choice. None whatsoever”, Juergen Boos told Helsingin Sanomat on Friday of last week.
Helsingin Sanomat ran a story last October (see link below ) suggesting that Finland was likely to get guest of honour status when the 2011 Book Fair came around.
This front-and-centre position at the continent’s premier publishing branch trade fair is a highly sought-after one, as it guarantees colossal media coverage in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
There was talk of the largest-ever Finnish cultural exports push in prospect, with a planned investment of as much as EUR 5 million.
But two weeks ago, the news was rather more bleak: Iris Schwank of the Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) reported that Finland’s place had been taken instead by Iceland.
“The situation was that there were two good applicants. The decision to choose Iceland is not a decision against Finland”, says Boos.
He notes that he has indeed spoken with Schwank over the closure of the Nokia plant in Bochum, and about the public outcry and anti-Nokia, anti-Finnish sentiment that ensued in Germany.
The discussion nevertheless did not concern the selection process.
“We talked about the fact that the newspapers here were full of Finland. My comments were misunderstood.”
Boos also remarked that he had requested the conversations remained confidential, as the selection procedure was in progress. A formal decision has not been taken on the matter even now. “I just wanted to inform the Finns in advance.”
According to Boos, the process of choosing a guest of honour or theme-country for 2011 was exceptionally difficult in the sense that the selection panel split into two camps, one advocating Iceland and the other pleading Finland’s cause.
“The two countries are very even in many respects. In both cases the book branch has strong links to Germany, and books from both Iceland and Finland are translated in German.”
“In practice, I had to take the final decision by myself”, says Boos.
So what was it that tipped the scales in Iceland’s favour?
Boos states that much had to do with the fact that the Icelanders had been lobbying on behalf of getting the place for more than a decade.
He regards it as awkward and embarrassing that the whole issue has since been given a political dimension by the media, with some dark hints of government influence.
“The discussion that is now going on from the nationalist perspective does nobody any good. The primary purpose of the Book Fair is to bring together the media branch, booksellers, and publishers, and a second major consideration is to promote culture.”
“Culture is always political to some extent, but to associate this choice with a separate event in the economic sphere is quite absurd.”
Boos’s remarks come against a background in which some German newspapers have even claimed that the country’s foreign ministry had a hand in levering the decision-making process.
“That’s nonsense. The Foreign Ministry supports our operations abroad, and we work hand in hand with the Goethe Institut, but decisions relating to the Fair itself are made purely in-house.”
Boos believes Finland could still become the guest of honour in Frankfurt not too far in the future, though not immediately after Iceland.
“A suitable target would be 2013 or 2014.”
This year’s Frankfurt guest of honour will be Turkey, and in 2009 and 2010 the position goes to China and Argentina respectively.
The Finnish Ambassador to Berlin René Nyberg does not believe the failure to secure the coveted slot in Frankfurt can be laid at the door of Nokia.
Nyberg says that the Finnish Embassy staff were surprised at the Helsingin Sanomat piece in October of last year that hinted Finland was bound to get the plum position - nobody in the building had had a whisper of this, he claims.
Helsingin Sanomat was not alone in its confidence: Finland’s Minister of Culture Stefan Wallin (Swedish People’s Party) had commented at the time that “the organisers of the fair have practically demanded that Finland apply for the guest of honour position”.
Nyberg had himself taken part in a lobbying trip to Frankfurt in November, some two months before the Nokia decision to shut down the handset plant in Bochum.
He says the impression gained at that time was of deep divisions among the Book Fair organisers over whom should get the prize.
The Embassy was also well aware that Iceland had staked its claim a good deal earlier, and Finland was rather late out of the blocks.
The difficulty of the choice was in Nyberg’s view also the reason why the decision was held up past the original deadline of December, which would again rule out any connection with the negative fall-out from the Nokia move from Germany to Romania.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finland now not to take pride of place at 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair (21.2.2008)
Anti-Nokia sentiment unites Ruhr region in massive protest (23.1.2008)
Finland guest of honour at Frankfurt Book Fair 2011 (11.10.2007)
Phone row edges Finland off the shelf (The Guardian, March 7, 2008)
Frankfurt Book Fair statement 7.3.2008