Last week, the 2018 Colombo International Book Fair was held at the Sri Lankan capital’s Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, or the BMICH as it’s known for short – an impressively glassy, airy-looking building whose shape has always reminded me of a graduating student’s mortarboard, although the slab of roofing that extends over it is eight-sided rather than four-sided.
The avenue that leads from nearby Bauddhaloka Mawatha to the steps of the conference building was picturesquely lined with flags advertising the fair, but the event wasn’t held in the building itself. Instead, visitors were directed towards a hodgepodge of smaller exhibition buildings and pavilions around to the side of and behind the main structure, paying an entrance fee of 20 rupees along the way. Crammed into these buildings and pavilions were stalls and compartments representing more than 250 bookshops, booksellers, publishers and book-related institutions (ranging from the British Council to the Iran Cultural Centre), plus stationers, arts-and-crafts suppliers and anyone else who thought they had a product they could profitably sell to Sri Lanka’s reading public.
My partner and I went on the first day of the fair, a Sunday. Because many Colombo-ites were unable to make it there on a weekday, the event that day was extremely busy. The spaces outside the buildings were mobbed. And the interiors were packed – the many narrow, twisting passageways between the stalls, and the even narrower passageways between the tables and shelves inside the stalls, were jammed with bodies. A couple of times when the congestion became uncomfortable, we wondered what would happen if a fire alarm suddenly went off. There’d be carnage, surely. Western notions of Health and Safety seemed not to apply here.
Still, in an era when the media never seems to stop peddling horror stories about children not reading books anymore and spending all their leisure time online or playing computer games, it was heartening to see how many kids were in the crowds here (most of them, admittedly, being herded along by their beleaguered-looking parents).
As we explored the fair, we’d find tucked away among the multitudinous stalls an occasional second-hand bookshop trying to sell some of its yellowy wares. I was especially happy to discover the Dehiwala-based Priyankara Bookshop, which was flogging hundreds of old, battered, liver-spotted paperbacks from yesteryear. These included fat bestsellers by the likes of once wildly-popular authors like Arthur Hailey, Hammond Innes, Thomas Tryon, Dick Francis and Wilbur Smith (well, those last two still are popular, I suppose); more so-called ‘literary’ stuff by such scribblers as Anthony Burgess, J.B. Priestly, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Graham Greene; and sci-fi and fantasy novels by the likes of Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg and William F. Nolan. I was delighted to pick up a 1974 paperback edition of M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City, which has this wonderfully evocative cover by the artist Bruce Pennington.
© New English Library / Bruce Pennington
Needless to say, I walked away from the Priyankara Bookshop stall with an armful of stuff.
Lastly, I saw these three books, written in Sinhala, on display outside a stall. One book sported a portrait of Kim Jong-Il, another sported one of Vladimir Putin and a third sported one of Donald Trump. What were these? Three political biographies or three horror novels – a Trilogy of Terror?