Different From the Others

Author: Boris Dežulović

About a decade ago, we were sitting in the famous Press(ure) Room on the floor of The Home of the Croatian Homeland War Veterans smoking and drinking Demian's biska, when a nice lady approached me, introducing herself as the editor of the cultural program of a prestigious local television station, asking for a bit of my time and willingness. I politely asked how much time and willingness exactly, to which Mrs editor, apologizing for interrupting an interesting cultural-anthropological debate about the difference between Istrian and Dalmatian prosciutto, explained that she only needs a short statement, two or three words in general about the Pula Book Fair.  

We went out onto the terrace, a former smoking spot that the diligent organizers had transformed into the place for giving brief statements about the Pula Book Fair. We took place in the corner, the cameraman leaned me against the stone railing and adjusted me slightly to the right, so that the Uljanik shipyard crane could be seen in the background. The lady stood next to the camera and instructed me to look at it, and I asked if it was okay to smoke while giving a short statement about the Pula Book Fair. She said I'd better not and I exhaled. I was afraid she would say it was not allowed.

The cameraman gave me a hand signal and the editor, obviously well-prepared, began to chirp into the microphone that carried the logo of the prestigious local television station.

Boris Dežulović, the journalist and writer from Split and a regular guest of the Pula Book Fair is with us today. Mr. Dežulović, you have been visiting this fair practically since it was founded. Tell us, what attracts you to Pula every year? In your opinion, how does this fair stand out compared to other similar events in Croatia and in this region, in general? What makes the Pula Book Fair so unique and different from the others? I took a puff of my cigarette and said, "Nothing at all." 

I kept looking at Mrs. editor – and, for a moment, it seemed to me that a shadow of mild confusion passed over her face - and then she smiled and nodded gently. I understood this as a sign for the end of my statement and thought that she was satisfied with my brief and effective two or three words about the Pula Book Fair, so I responded with a conspiratorial nod and took another puff. She, however, continued to hold the microphone under my chin, while the cameraman, completely focused on the shot, waved his hand. After a minute or two of complete silence, I started to feel a bit uncomfortable, but Mrs. editor - with a barely noticeable grimace on her face - only extended her right arm while propping it up with her left. 

It's been about a decade since then, I said, and in the meantime, we got used to her. No one even bothers to ask who the lady with the cold perm in the corner of the terrace is, holding a cold beer and a microphone in her extended right hand. Everyone here knows her; we call her Maja because she looks just like Maja Šuput when she hands the microphone over to the drunk wedding guests to continue singing the chorus. So Maja patiently waits for me to continue talking on the terrace of the Home of the Croatian Homeland War Veterans in Pula, and only nods from time to time.

On beautiful, sunny days, when we step outside from the smoky Press(ure) Room to get a breath of fresh air, we politely greet Mrs. Maja, the considerate young woman from the press occasionally bring her coffee or hot tea, and when a local writer has had a bit too much to drink inside, he stumbles up to the microphone, greets his mother and promises to leave his heart on the field. On rainy days, however, Aljoša and I, as true gentlemen, bring that enormous umbrella and set it up so that Mrs. Maja and her journalist colleagues don't get wet on the terrace. 

In these past ten years, you see – I didn't tell you – I've given a brief interview to practically every television, every radio, and every newspaper in this region and on the terrace of the Veterans' Home, they've gathered now, almost like in the Madame Tussaud's Museum: Mišo, Thompson, Colonia, Madonna, Stavros, the famous Jole, and several other less known correspondents, all in the same pose as Maja, with a microphone in their extended right hand. They've been standing there for years, nodding their heads, only shaking their numbed right hand once or twice a month, while switching to the other. 

The only person that is no longer here is Freddie: the good, old Freddie passed away last year – he just fell silently, his stiff right hand holding the microphone, and he crashed onto the terrace floor like a lead soldier with a drawn bayonet, so we put him in the basement, among the old plastic chairs.

So what sets the Pula Book Fair apart from other similar events in Croatia and in this region in general, what makes it so unique, distinct, and different from the others? If I had a penny for every time the cultural program and arts section journalists asked me what makes the Pula Book Fair so unique, different, and distinct from the others in this mythical Region, today I'd be richer than Ante Tomić. And if I had a penny for every time they asked me the same question at other book fairs, I might have had over a thousand by now. 

All book fairs, you see – feel free to check if you don't believe me – are different and distinct from one another, each unique in the world, or at least in those spaces we call mythical. The iconic International Book Fair in Belgrade, for example, has been held since 1957 and is the largest of its kind in the former Yugoslavia but the first one under the patronage of Comrade Tito was actually held a year earlier in Zagreb, so one could say that the famous Zagreb Interliber – by the way, the only one in Europe where entrance tickets are not charged – is the oldest one in this mythical Region.

The International Book Fair in Sarajevo and the International Book Fair in Skopje had been arguing for years about which one of them was the youngest until the International Book Fair in Podgorica was founded about five or six years ago, however, the Book Fair in Ljubljana, the only one among all metropolitan fairs in these parts, is not international but - as one would expect from the forever different Slovenes - Slovenian. 

The Book Fair in Kosovo, in Pristina, for instance, is the only book fair in one language, the Vidovdan Book Fair in Kosovo's Gračanica is the only forbidden one, the Children's Book Fair in Šibenik is the only one specialized for the youngest readers, and the one in Konjic is the only Christian Book Fair. 

The Mediterranean Book Festival in Split, for instance, is considered to be a unique combination of a book fair and a literary festival, the traditional VBZ Autumn Fair is a unique mixture of a book fair and Pevec garden center, the Rijeka vRIsak Book Fair is the only one held in spring, the Osijek Knjigos Book Fair was only held once, in 2014, and the Zadar Look A Book Book Fair, established earlier this year and postponed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is the only one that hasn't been held yet. 

Believe me, I know all about it. I've been a visitor or guest at most of these fairs, and at each one, without fail, I was approached by some nice lady with a cold perm, the editor of the cultural program of a respected local television station, and asked for a brief, general statement about the fair. For twenty years, I've been sweating profusely in front of the cameras, coming up with an answer to why this fair is so unique and different, and I've ran out of them all. A few years ago, in desperation, at an International Book Fair, I stated that, to the best of my knowledge, it was the only international book fair in the city starting with the letter Z. 

Every book fair in this region, as you have seen, is unique in its own way - one is the oldest, the other the most massive, the third the largest small fair, the fourth the smallest big one, the fifth unique as a fair for publishers and literary agents, the sixth as a fair for writers and translators, the seventh is 'more than just a book fair,' the eighth is 'more than that fair which is more than just a book fair,' the ninth is the only one that starts in the middle of summer, and the tenth is the only one that begins with the letter Z - each one is distinct and different from the other.

Every one of them, except for Pula's. It's like in that famous scene from the brilliant Monty Python's The Life of Brian when the would-be New Testament prophet, let's say a cunning Minister of Culture or a book wholesaler, addresses his loyal followers, cultural managers, and fair directors from the window of his chamber. The wise wholesaler then proceeds to explain that there are no two identical people or two identical book fairs in the world - that each one is unique and different, and that each of them is an individual unto itself, the director of their own fair, unique and one of a kind in the whole world - and from the crowd of male and female directors, one female voice shyly speaks up and says, 'I'm not.'

'Magdalena?' says the New Testament prophet caught by surprise. 'What are you doing here?'

This is our Magdalena - the patron of dry humor writers, delicate poets, and self-effacing moderators of literary evenings - and her fair is just like her: dedicated solely to books, writers, and their readers, with no pretensions to be global, no ambition to be national, without vast, cold exhibition halls, without the red carpet, without major corporate sponsors, without national bards, without pampered stars. Just ordinary writers, who sign books for ordinary readers and explain to ordinary journalists why this fair is unique. So ordinary that even a celebrated Nobel laureate, if he happens to be on the program, might apologize at the end for not attending the fair because his old mother is ill. As if he were the writer of native prose from the protruding branch of Matica hrvatska, a guest of the only book fair for thin books in the world. 

Such, I said, is the Book Fair in Pula: even among the cities with book fairs that start with the letter P - if we exclude Beijing as a variation of Peking and Philadelphia because it starts with an F - there are, let me count, seven. Moreover, since BOOKtiga in Poreč, Pula as a literary fair city starting with the letter P is not the only one in Istria.

Not the only one starting with P, not the only one in Istria, not the oldest, not the youngest, not the largest, not the smallest, not the most average; the Book Fair in Pula is simply, as its name says, a book fair. Among all the unique, different, and distinct fairs in this region, in short, the Pula Book Fair is unique, different, and distinct only in the sense that it's the only one that isn't.

That's how I would have, you see, finished my inspired soliloquy if only I had the time, will and the opportunity and if I had a couple of thousand words to say instead of just a few.