GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Retired schoolteacher Carlos Garces beamed with rapture after emerging from consecutive talks by authors at the Guadalajara International Book Fair.
"This is an intellectual celebration where we all mix happily: authors, readers, students and those who want to know new things," he said. "It's an oasis here."
Mexico may have more than its share of troubles, but for a 10-day period that ends Monday, the world's largest fair for Spanish-language books has provided a refuge, bringing together Nobel laureates, luminaries, politicians, scientists and authors galore to provoke and entertain.
More than a book fair, it's a cultural event that includes concerts and scores of debates and forums that draw at least 600,000 people. For this provincial capital, perennially No. 2 to Mexico City, it's a chance to stand in the international spotlight.
"For anyone involved in Spanish-language books, it is an indispensable stop," said Santos Rodriguez, a Spaniard who's the editor of Nowtilus, a Madrid publishing house.
In a nation where indirect speech is an art form, the blunt talk of some authors — particularly Colombian-born Fernando Vallejo, who won the fair's $150,000 prize for literature in a Romance language — has elicited gasps, raucous laughter and even moments of indignation from audiences.
Vallejo, who's lived in Mexico for more than four decades, called Christianity a "criminal enterprise," lambasted President Felipe Calderon and his predecessor Vicente Fox as "pimps," urged Mexicans not to vote in next year's election and described the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party as a "breeding ground for all the cartels."
Vallejo's irreverent remarks led one government official to suggest that he stick to writing.
Other authors came to the defense of the 69-year-old Vallejo, who became a Mexican citizen four years ago.
"No Mexican or foreign prizewinning writer has ever made such a declaration of love for Mexico," said Alberto Ruy Sanchez, a novelist and essayist from Mexico City. "No one has ever said with such passion . . . how marvelous this country is but that it sometimes has leaders who are unworthy."
Like many writers, Sanchez has watched the annual fair grow over two and a half decades as his own fan base expanded.
"I started coming here when I only had a few published short stories," he said. "I would read them to children in the children's area. With the passage of time, those children grew up to become my readers."
Some 1,900 publishing houses from 43 countries have a presence at the sprawling exhibition center, and some 470 book presentations and scores of other academic forums and artistic events pack the calendar.
Guadalajara's book fair, which brings together agents, writers, publishers and marketers, long ago surpassed fairs in other Spanish-speaking countries, and trails only the annual Frankfurt, Germany, book fair in any language. Sponsors say it's the showcase event for Spanish, one of the world's most widely used languages, with more than 450 million speakers.
A literary editor, Andres Ramirez, attired in a rumpled white shirt and tweed jacket, ruminated on the impact of the long-running fair as one of his writers, Rosa Beltran, signed copies of her latest novel, "Efectos Secundarios" ("Side Effects").
"The effect of having so many books here and bringing so many writers here has changed the ecosystem of Guadalajara. I can't prove this, of course, but it has changed the way people here conceive of the world," Ramirez said.
With an entrance fee of less than $1.50, the fair draws people of all ages and classes, from lovers of pulp fiction to poets and heavyweight intellectuals. At least three politicians with presidential aspirations are showing up for talks, seeing the fair as a useful platform.
"It's such a great joy, such good fellowship, to come here to meet the authors, get to know them and enrich our own existence," said Leobardo Serrano Garcia, the owner of an independent bookshop, El Arbolito, in the coastal city of Mazatlan. "While here, we can forget about the country in which we live."
Among the stars this year were Nobel laureates Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian novelist who won the fair's Romance language prize last year, and Romanian-born ethnic German writer Herta Muller, given the prize a year earlier. Some 1,500 people turned out to hear them speak about the power of the written word to help people resist tyranny.
"I have been to the Guadalajara book fair several times, and it always surprises me what a stimulating spectacle it is to see such a large crowd," Vargas Llosa said, reveling in the throng.
Muller said she'd rather be alone and unrecognized.
The two agreed, however, that literature gives readers tools that help them overcome dictatorship and authoritarian government.
Muller said she'd recited poems to herself when communist authorities in Romania summoned her for interrogations, and Vargas Llosa asserted that good writing "creates a restlessness in us that makes us less susceptible to manipulation and trickery by totalitarian regimes."
Several authors rejected the notion that they should tackle the political and social circumstances in which they write, such as the violence in Mexico, saying such strictures are limiting. They said writers should opt to do so as their own choice.
"Latin American literature shows vigor," said Almudena Grandes, a Spanish writer, noting that the so-called "boom" in the 1960s and '70s of writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Colombian, and Carlos Fuentes of Mexico, saddled younger authors with high expectations.
"Writers and novelists who are around 40 are free of this complex now. They write without consideration that they are Latin American," said Grandes, who's 51.
Looking down from her platform above the exhibition space for Grupo Planeta, a publishing and multimedia company based in Barcelona, Spain, Tatiana Nogueira said the book fair had become "a nerve center of ideas . . . a space of freedom. "
"People leave here full of dreams, of new things that they have encountered. You can discuss and debate things here, and people listen. Opinions are heard without being judged," she said.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011