Down the rabbit-hole the publishing world of istros books

the son Andrej Nikolaidis

I was so pleased that Susan from Istros books had agreed to do a piece on being a publisher in the modern world of publishing books in Translation .I agree with her on the point about scope for a new Book Prize .

A few weeks ago – more than I care to remember(!) – Stu asked me if I would like to write a guest post on his blog. As he has written so many posts in honour of Istros’ titles, I could hardly refuse, but the title made my heart sink a little – ‘The Experiences of a Small Publisher’. Well, my first thought was that ‘Trails & Tribulations’ or simply ‘Frustrations’ might have been better, but then I stopped myself: ‘Don’t be negative!’

missioon London Cover Alek Popov

So maybe I should begin at the beginning, as Lewis Carroll’s king advised, and tell you how I came to be a small publisher championing the cause of the people of the Balkan wonderlands….. Well, after living for some years in Croatia and Slovenia, and travelling extensively in Bosnia and Romania, and quite apart from all the friendships and contacts I have across the region….well, there came a point where all these strands of my eclectic life seemed to be wanting to draw together and make some kind of pattern; something of substance. As a writer and lover of literature, that thing of substance turned out to be Istros Books: a small voice in the land of publishing giants.

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Now into its third year, the successes of Istros for me have been the following: working with some of the region’s most accomplished and interesting authors; building relationships with some dedicated and talented translators; being supported by an informal network of enthusiasts in the form of literary bloggers; being invited to take part in festivals and fellowships programmes and therefore being introduced to many others who share the same passions.

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As things are, and very probably because of the way I am too, my greatest successes have been the quiet ones – the grant application approved, a regional prize awarded to one of the authors, a translation sold to another interested world publisher… The clanging sounds of PR and marketing have not been ringing around Istros, and this has to do with lack of funding as well as lack of aptitude, and seems to be a constant issue. Small publishers really have to struggle to get the word out about their books, and having no budget for such activities simply means that the effects are very limited. Add to this the huge competition to gain reviews from the handful of reviewers who are interested in translated fiction, and you end up with a constant fight on your hands.

And so this raises the inevitable question ‘What is to be done?’. I have reached the point where I don’t think I can do much more on my own: I need the help of others, in one way or the other. Could we do with the instigation of a new literary prize for European Literature in English in order to profile and publicize works which are now neglected? A prize that bubbles up from the bloggers and the publishers at the grassroots level and serves to promote good writing from a continent which we are – and will always be – intimately connected to? Should small publishers band together and work out a strategy for marketing that means we can do a whole lot more for less, simply because we share the financial burden? One way or the other, we have to fight for our place on the market, or we shall loose it.

As someone who has worked in refugee collective centres, wartime Bosnia and teenage cancer units, I have been witness to the cry of of despair. That is why I try to remain positive and focus on my mission of bringing the forgotten voices of S E Europe to the British public, and not too much on the frustrations of marketing, distribution and the garnering of reviews – all of which can easily become bywords for ‘frustration’. But just sometimes (mostly when surveying the sales figures at the end of the month), I have been known to let out the odd squeal of desperation.

Can I also add that as of today most of Istros books are now available a e books for the first time  here 

Jacqui reviews Brief loves that live forever IFFP 2014

Brief loves that live forever

Brief Loves That Live Forever by Andrei Makine
Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan

When the IFFP longlist was announced in early March I was excited to see this novel amongst the contenders. While I haven’t read any of Andrei Makine’s previous books, I know Stu rates this author very highly, so I was eager to get to this one.

Brief Loves That Live Forever comprises of a series of eight episodes set within the context of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union; each of these vignettes could be considered a short story in itself, yet they are connected by the same narrator looking back on specific moments in his life.

The book opens as our unnamed narrator recalls walking home with friend, a dissident by the name of Dimitri Ress. Ress, a dying man in his mid-forties, has experienced a sequence of imprisonments primarily for attacking the totalitarian regime and railing against the charade of National parades. During the walk Ress seems keen to steer our narrator towards a particular route; by so doing they encounter a woman and young boy as they emerge from an official car. Ress turns away and it seems as if there may be some connection between him and the couple. As our narrator recalls this encounter with Ress it seems to spark memories of other days in his youth — moments of tenderness, fleeting glimpses of beauty and love — and it is these transient moments that endure and resonate most strongly in his life:

What remains is the pale patch of a dress, on the front steps of a little wooden house. The gesture of a hand waving me goodbye. I walk on, drawing further away, turning back after every five paces, and the hand is still visible in the mauve, luminous spring light.

What remains is a fleeting paradise that lives on for all time, having no need of doctrines. (p. 91)

From this point onwards Makine uses this theme to lead us through a series of experiences in the narrator’s life, all of which touch upon brief snatches of love, compassion or grace. We see a young girl desperately searching for a grandmother whom she has never met; a grief-stricken young woman mourning the passing of her husband; an elderly couple of seeking shelter from a storm; a lover immersing her face in a bouquet of flowers. Here’s our narrator recalling this moment in their affair:

She comes in, kisses me, sees the bouquet. And asks no questions. She quite simply leans forward, buries her face in the subtly scented halo of flowers, closes her eyes. And when she stands up, her eyes are misty with tears. “They smell of winter,” she says. “We met in December, didn’t we…”

That night there is an unaccustomed gentleness in the way we make love, as if we had found one another again after a very long separation, having suffered greatly and grown old. (p 131-132)

These moments also offer glimmers of light in our protagonist’s world, forming the greatest defence against the grim reality and hollow emptiness of the Soviet system. The encounters are played out against the backdrop of the political development of The Soviet Union from the 1960s to the 1980s and representations of the totalitarian regime are never very far away. Early in the novel we see our narrator when, as a young boy, he becomes trapped within the imposing entrails of a grandstand used for parades:

Sunk in the torpor of a condemned man, I saw I was in a vast spider’s web spun from iron. This three-dimensional trellis was everywhere…My terror was so profound that, within this prison-like captivity, I must have glimpsed a more immense reality concerning the country I lived in, whose political character I was just beginning to grasp, thanks to snatches of conversation here and there… (p.36)

There are other symbols of the Brezhnev-era regime too; the leader’s imposing face, an authoritarian gaze beneath bushy eyebrows on a vast hoarding on the façade on a railway station (p. 98) and an enormous sterile apple orchard, an example of a Potemkin village, Soviet style (p. 139).

Brief Loves That Live Forever is a wonderful novel studded with beautifully haunting images, many of which are almost certainly set to drift through my mind in the days to come. Stu, in his review, likened the experience of reading this book to looking through a collection of old sepia-tinged photographs and how these can evoke memories of the past…and that’s very much how it feels for me, too. While each episode could work as a short story in its own right, they build and come together to form a more powerful, more resonant whole. And at the end of the book we come full circle and return to our narrator’s memories of Dimitri Ress, where we learn a little more about his past, causing us to reflect on our impressions of events and themes introduced in the first chapter.

There’s a melancholy, almost meditative quality to Makine’s writing, and in this respect I feel it shares something with Javier Marias’s The Infatuations (also longlisted for the IFFP). Such elegant writing, too; everything seems to flow effortlessly, from Makine’s prose through to Geoffrey Strachan’s sensitive translation.

While I’m only halfway through the IFFP longlist this is one of my favourites thus far; a strong bet for the shortlist, I feel.

Brief Loves That Live Forever is published in the UK by MacLehose Press.
Source: personal copy.#

Many thanks Jacqui here is my review of this book 

August 2017
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