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Marx does better than Herta Müller

In India, modern German writers have a hard time establishing themselves.

india Updated: Dec 16, 2011 19:00 IST
Danijel Majic

Delhi is the city of commerce. There is hardly a spot in the metropolis where something is not being sold. Starting with food and ranging to entirely useless bric-a-brac to high quality, artisan made crafts. And, of course, Delhi is a city of books. Whether they are spread out in the middle of the street like on central Connaught Place, stacked high to the ceilings of little shops in Khan Market or in the three-storey literary department store in Lajpat Nagar, the printed word is provided to the public everywhere one goes. Last year, the Indian book market recorded about 15 percent growth.

"We have a large middle class here now that is buying more and more books," explains Akshay Pathak. As the director of the German Book Office, a branch of the Frankfurt Book Fair, he is familiar with the particularities of the Indian book market. Every year, about 16,000 publishing houses release up to 60,000 new books. Of these, almost half are printed in English, the rest in Hindi or one of the many regional languages. Twice, in 1986 and 2006, India was the guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Even if it were still in the focus of the book show, it can only scratch the surface of the literature business. The bestsellers on the subcontinent are the same as everywhere else in the world: romantic vampires, fantasy epics and crime thrillers from Scandinavia. "Naturally, the Indian market, especially the translations, are strongly oriented to the USA and Great Britain," says Pathak. "These are old alliances."

Just as in English-speaking countries, German writers have a hard time establishing themselves in India. Ilya Troyanov sells comparatively well. Hertha Müller too, since she received the Nobel Prize. Daniel Kehlmann enjoys certain popularity in southern India and classics like Grass and Kafka remain in demand. Yet even these big names cannot be found in most of the bookshops in Delhi. The choice of German authors is limited mainly to two names: Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler.

Since 2008, the German Book Office has undertaken the task of making German publishers and writers known on the Indian market and mediating contacts with possible business partners. The office's merely four staff members also organize conferences and cultural events. "We do not seek to sell literature that is decidedly German," stresses Pathak, "the people don't buy 'German literature,' but novels." And they just have to be brought to the people, like almost everything in Delhi.

Danijel Majic is an FR intern who has swapped workplaces with a journalist from the Hindustan Times for four weeks.