Dates are the most common reference point when discussing historical events. For Taiwan, one such point in contemporary history begins in 1987 with the lifting of Martial Law and the subsequent liberalization of the press. For good or for bad, this date marks the point when Taiwan's political system began to change towards a freer more democratic system.
For many of the Russian writers attending this year's Taipei International Book Festival, the theme of which is Russian literature and culture, a significant year must surely be 1985, the year of perestroika, when the Soviet Union began its economic and political reforms. And though dates do little to explain the significance of the events when they occur, the late 1980s and early 1990s were a period of euphoria for many of the banned or censured writers during the Soviet era as they were finally free to express themselves without the fear of government reprisals or a KGB "accident."
Russian — or Soviet — literature has only become available in Taiwan in the past few decades as the Martial Law era ensured that anything that even resembled a work of communism — whether fiction or otherwise — was left off the syllabus and out of the bookstores. And though many of the best authors writing during the Soviet period directly or indirectly criticized the government, Taiwan's political environment of the time ensured that readers wanting a taste of Russian's great canon of writers were left to wait for the island's political liberalization.
According to Huang Pao-ping (黃寶萍), executive director of the Taipei Book Fair Foundation, the primary reason for inviting Russian writers and making Russian culture the main theme is to expose Taiwanese to contemporary Russian literature.
"There aren't a lot of publishers in Taiwan translating work from Russian to Chinese," she said. By inviting some of the bigger names in Russian literature to these shores, Huang hopes to change this and open the reading public in Taiwan to the great tradition of Russian literature.
And while no group of writers from any country can hope to account for the broad range of experiences of a particular culture, the writers assembled for this year's Book Fair were chosen because of their vast knowledge and experience of the Soviet era and their ability to articulate the changes that have occurred since the break up of the Soviet Union.
The foundation has succeeded by incorporating a variety of genres such as children's literature and fairy tales, to criticism, the novel and poetry into the readings of the writers invited.
The acknowledged master of modern and contemporary Russia fiction, Andrei Bitov's novels deal with the recent Stalinist past. Known as an experimenter with literary forms, many of his works are subtle parodies of the conformity of the Russian intelligentsia. In addition to his literary output, Bitov has done travel reportage in Armenia and Georgia and were both published together in English as A Captive of the Caucasus.
He co-founded the literary magazine Metropol in 1979, which soon gained the attention of the authorities and was promptly shut down with many of its writers banned or censored because of its criticism of the Soviet state.
If Bitov wrote subtle stories with allusions to Russian literature and literary figures, Victor Erofeyev — another founder and writer for Metropol — wrote angry and often scatological stories such as "Shit-sucker" or "How we murdered the Frenchman," both of which are included in Life With an Idiot, a book of short stories published in Russia in 1990.