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Spain book festival wins over readers with fun fair

* "Mystic River" author to attend
/ Source: Reuters

* "Mystic River" author to attend

* Knocks down walls between high- and low-brow

* May change venue to Woody Allen film scene

By Martin Roberts

One of Europe's biggest literary festivals convenes for the 24th time in Spain on Friday in its annual bid to convince all comers that books are fun by mixing literary events with a fun fair.

A million people a year visit ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds at the week-long "Semana Negra" (Noir Week), but they also buy 50,000 books and rub shoulders with scores of writers from Europe, Latin America and North America.

"It is not a sin to read a book with one hand and eat candy floss with the other," said organiser and author Paco Ignacio Taibo II, on board a train from Madrid to festival venue Gijon, in northern Spain.

"It is not that hard to draw to draw in converted book-lovers. The hard part is winning over the rest. The battle for literature has to get out on the street, it cannot be closed in."

Amongst the 150-odd authors taking part this year is U.S. writer Dennis Lehane, whose novel "Mystic River" was turned into a the film of the same name for which Sean Penn won the Oscar for Best Actor in 2004.

As well as readings and book launches, the Semana Negra also stages concerts, a photo-journalism exhibition and awards prizes for poetry, crime writing, science fiction, reporting, historical and fantasy novels.

The festivals varied activities begin with news conferences held on board the chartered "Noir Train" from Madrid and organisers print a free daily newspaper to help visitors keep up with events called "A Quemarropa" (At Point-Blank Range).

One of the passengers was French-domiciled Nairi Nahapetian, who has written a crime novel about the travails of reporting in her native Iran.


The festival began life in 1989 with a focus on crime writing and has ever since knocked down the walls between high- and low-brow books in its campaign to win over new readers.

This year the Semana Negra will focus on horror fiction by inviting Ramsey Campbell, described by the Oxford Companion to English Literature as "Britain's most respected living horror writer."

"It's all about getting back to our irrational fears, of zombies and vampires," Taibo II said. "There has to be an underlying explanation and we will examine it through literature."


The festival has in recent years battled recession and technological changes threatening the very existence of books, but the Semana Negra's biggest challenge this year was going ahead at all.

Adjacent to the site for this year's festival is a university, which went to the courts twice to try and stop the "non-cultural" aspect of the fair from going ahead.

"Its the most absurd thing I have seen in my life. The Semana Negra has had 24 editions and nothing has ever happened," Taibo II said.

The festival has also faced an uncertain future following a recent change in the Gijon city council, and officials have already offered to host the 2012 version in nearby Aviles, which featured in the Woody Allen film "Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona."