Books matter in the Baltic: in Latvia, publishing is the largest creative industry (by turnover and employment). In Estonia last year, almost 4,000 titles were published - an impressive figure given its population of just 1.3m. In Lithuania, the Vilnius Book Fair with is considered one of the most significant cultural events in the country, with 65,000 visitors every year.[i]
The three Baltic states will be the market focus for the 2018 London Book Fair, just one part of a year-long programme to commemorate a century of independence for each country. This focus brings an opportunity to delve into the tangles of literary history, and to appreciate the contemporary cultural landscapes of these lesser-known countries.In 2017, I visited the Vilnius Book Fair as part of a trade mission to Lithuania’s capital. The largest book fair in the Baltic, it offers something for everyone who loves books (and music and cinema, art, TV, and radio), connecting writers with their readers, and welcoming everyone from school children to scientists, families, academics, and, of course, curious publishers. The opening ceremony has an address from the president of Lithuania – in 2017, Dalia Grybauskaitė - and the fair itself takes place over four days and 18,500 square metres, exhibiting the best writing, design and creative thinking from Lithuania and beyond. The high aesthetic value of the trade is unmistakable throughout the enormous site and demonstrates Lithuania’s clear commitment to producing beautiful, innovative and brilliant books.
I met writers, translators, and publishers, was taken on a bracing tour of Vilnius Old Town (where much of the 2016 BBC adaptation of War and Peace was filmed) and learned something of the rich history of Lithuania and the rocky road its writers and readers have navigated to keep their words alive (for example, about the knygnešys or book-smugglers who, in the late nineteenth century, transported and distributed millions of Lithuanian language books across the border during a total ban on printing in the Latin alphabet). I was overwhelmed by the culture, the fascinating and generous people I met, and the grand architecture, all framed by a pink February sky, heavy with snow. At the same time, I was also forced to confront my ignorance of a place I’d only before considered when it was presented to me (the unengaged and invincible nineties teenager) by the media as just another far-off country dealing with devastation and loss.
It was a memorable visit and from it, Parthian Baltic began to take shape. The series comprises seven poetry titles – six individual collections and one anthology – plus a novel and has evolved over the past twelve months to include an impressive diversity of Baltic writing talent in terms of age, gender and experience. Translated into English, in many cases for the first time, the words in Parthian Baltic are threaded through with common themes but are also a celebration of the distinct characteristics and strengths which have grown from each nation’s experiences to shape and inspire its people.
The task of choosing and publishing literature in translation is an enjoyable one, but also a job that comes with responsibility. Any book in translation will go some way to create, confirm or contradict its readers’ impressions about the book’s country of origin; it’s not just a language that’s been interpreted on to a page, but a sense of a place, and an awareness of those who inhabit it. But, with the guidance and support of some talented translators, dedicated cultural reps, and a great bunch of writers, Parthian is privileged to be publishing poetry and prose which showcases the best writing talent in the Baltic today. I believe it’s an honest representation and a solid introduction to the creative spirit of three intriguing and utterly cool countries. And, by introduction, I mean that I sincerely hope that this series, along with the many other books and cultural events happening as part of the LBF market focus, are just the start of a stronger relationship between the UK and the Baltic countries. I hope that after reading these books, people are curious to find out more about the cultures, landscapes, and people of the Baltic. I can’t recommend enough that you get curious about this not-too-far-off part of the world and, what better way in than through the exquisitely chosen words of a group of people who know it best.
The Parthian Baltic poetry titles will be published in March 2018 and are available to pre-order now. The novel, Insomnia by Alberts Bels is due for publication summer 2018.
Parthian Baltic has been made possible by the support of the Lithuanian Cultural Institute, the Latvian Writers Union, Latvian Literature and the Cultural Endowment of Estonia.