Author shrugs off $5.5m cost and says New Zealand should have spent much more
"When you leave New Zealand, New Zealand vanishes," author Bill Manhire told a lively crowd in Germany yesterday as the world of literature toasted Downunder at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Manhire, one of the heavyweights at the opening ceremony of the world's biggest, and most important, book fair in Germany's fifth-largest city, reminded the audience that New Zealand was "never in the news or the newspapers".
Yet with its role as Guest of Honour at the fair, the opportunity had more potential than last year's Rugby World Cup.
"This is much bigger," Manhire remarked. "We should have spent much more money on this - two or three times more," he argued, in reference to criticism from some corners that too much had been spent - an estimated $5.5 million - on setting up the pavilion and getting around 60 New Zealand authors over to Europe.
"The Book Fair opens a door - through which not just Germany, but the whole of Europe, will see the astonishing writers that are standing on the other side of it."
Deputy Prime Minister Bill English echoed the sentiment.
"Last year nothing was more important than the Rugby World Cup," Mr English replied, when asked at the opening of the event just how significant this was to the nation.
"This year, this is more important."
English emphasised connections between the two countries, noting that about 65,000 German tourists came to New Zealand every year.
Afterwards, at a reception hosted in the specially constructed 2500sq m New Zealand pavilion - which, besides New Zealand beer and wine, also featured opera singers, culture groups and a video presentation - English said this was just a very good way for a small country to get attention from one of its major trading partners and one of the biggest economies in the world.
"We sell billions of dollars worth of products here but of course, they [the Germans] are quite preoccupied with their own problems," English said, making reference to the current economic crisis in Europe.
In his speech before English's, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle made this clear by concluding his welcome with an emphasis on Germany's commitment to the European Union and its common currency, on the same day German Chancellor Angela Merkel was braving protesters in financially crippled Greece.
"[The Book Fair] makes it easier for us to get their attention, which makes it easier for our businesspeople to make connections," English said.
"When you're a small country at the end of the world, you have to keep working at that - otherwise you disappear."
So what did the locals in attendance make of it all? "I didn't know it was so far away," said Serbian-German poet Ljubisa Simic, who was there with his wife, Olga, and who has written a children's poem about New Zealand sheep.
"For us it would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip."
"It was very interesting," said Thomas Ludewig from Berlin, who specialises in public relations work in the publishing industry. I watched the dancers but I admit I don't know enough about the culture. I know New Zealand is very beautiful though."
So it seems the complexity and the multiplicity of New Zealand's culture may not have sunk in quite yet. Then again, the book fair is only just starting.
By around 9pm in Frankfurt, the reception hall was emptying out, the doors to the New Zealand pavilion were closed and staff were tidying away the empty bottles of Monteith's.
The serious business of the book fair now begins as authors talk about and tout their works, publishers will make deals and the twin focal points of the 63rd Frankfurt Book Fair - digital publishing and children's books - will be fully considered.
Berlin-based Cathrin Schaer is reporting from the fair for the Herald and nzherald.co.nz