FRANKFURT — The most engaging story circulating at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year was about a Chinese soldier, Hua Linshan, a fervent Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, who left China because he felt it was becoming too capitalistic and made his way to Paris, having heard that the French Revolution had "recently" brought about truly radical changes in that country.
The story is emblematic of this year's fair (Oct. 7-12), dominated as it was by political and economic concerns. The biggest--in fact the only--important international book of the fair was Mikhail Gorbachev's " Perestroika " ("Restructuring"), which began to make news weeks before the fair opened and more as a strategic and a diplomatic event than as an intellectual one.
Gorbachev invited arrangements for translation into many languages with simultaneous, almost instant publication to follow by the middle of November. His invitation was accepted. " Perestroika ," subtitled "Our Hopes for Our Country and the World," is to become a Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book at Harper & Row.
Meanwhile, the same Harper & Row is undergoing its own perestroika at the hands of its new owner, Rupert Murdoch, even as numerous corporate takeovers in British publishing create an atmosphere of anxiety in the entire Anglo-American publishing sphere.
As one renowned English editor put it: "When I started out 30 years ago, there were a hundred excellent publishing houses in London at any one of which I could have learned the trade. There aren't more than two dozen left today. Notice that, here at the fair, small publishers list the names of their authors on the walls of their stands; giant publishers list the names of their subsidiary companies."
There is more than a little irony involved in the Soviets easing up on their censorship for social and political reasons at the same time that British and American publishers are narrowing the range of their publications for economic and financial reasons.
Still, how can it be that Gorbachev's was the only world - class book at this fair and that no other work, of fiction or nonfiction, was "discovered," praised and fought over, moving along a circuit of sudden fame like a jolt of electricity? The answer: There were no previously unknown "big books" to be found at the fair because, thanks to 20th-Century technology, they had all been sold. Technology has superseded much of the purpose of the fair: the exchange of information among competing colleagues.
Air travel, telex, telephone and telefax keep the network of the major publishers busy at all times throughout the year. And what they keep in closest touch about is the business of publishing bigness, just those "big books" that were no longer for sale by the time the fair opened.
This is why there wasn't a single large-scale surprise at this year's fair. Happily, the focus could and did shift to small discoveries, to the serious business of evaluating the enormous range of books for every taste and judgment and deciding, as publishers say, which books will "travel."
Among the books Americans can expect to be reading soon is a novel by the Moroccan Ben Jelloun, " La Nuit sacre " ("Sacred Night"), the story of a girl brought up as a boy, who decides to become the woman she should have been and undertakes to re-make her life. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, licensed by the French publisher Seuil, will bring the book out in English--one of the 15 languages for which rights were sold at the fair.
Another success of the fair was "The Readability of the World" by Hans Blumenberg. Blumenberg's German publisher, Suhrkamp, speaks of him as second in importance only to Martin Heidegger in 20th-Century philosophy. His American publisher is to be the MIT Press. And to enrich our understanding of art and architecture, there will be "The Gardens of Paradise," a British book on Islamic gardens such as those of Granada, which will appear with one of the newest imprints in New York, Meredith Press.
The book fair ended impressively with the presentation of a prize little known in the United States but highly esteemed on the Continent. Called simply "The Peace Prize," it was established by the German Booksellers' Assn. more than a decade ago and is awarded to the author of a work that contributes to the betterment of mankind. All previous winners have been German, but this year's winner is a Jewish refugee, now an American citizen, Hans Jonas.
Born in 1903, Jonas emigrated from Germany in 1933 (after his first scholarly book had been published), going first to England and then to Palestine. From 1955 to 1976, he was professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, New York.
Writing in 1979--in German again for the first time in 50 years--he published "The Imperative of Responsibility." That work--in print in English at the University of Chicago Press--was the occasion for this year's prize.