Tuesday, June 7, 2011
'93 years. This is the very last stage. The end is not far away any more.' This is my own translation of the opening sentences of a little booklet that has taken France by storm during the past few months. The author is 93-year-old Stéphane Hessel, concentration camp survivor, former French Resistance fighter, diplomat and ambassador, and the publisher is a two-person outfit run from a house in the south of France by a former correspondent of Le Monde, Sylvie Crossman.
Indigène Editions usually publish rather obscure books on Native Americans or Australian Aborigines, rarely selling more than a couple of thousand copies. But Hessel's pamphlet, Indignez-vous!, has become a word-of-mouth publishing phenomenon, selling 1.5 million copies in about six months in France alone, with versions in many other languages already published or in the pipeline.
Literally translated the title would be a command, something imperative like 'get indignant' or 'get angry', but the recently published British version bears a more polite (more British?) title: Time for Outrage.
Hessel urges younger readers (and at his advanced age, just about every reader is a younger reader) to revive the ideals of wartime resistance to the Nazis by protesting against modern social and political ills such as the growing gap between the very rich and the very poor, the state of the planet, the way illegal immigrants are treated, the way the media is influenced by the rich and powerful - to name but a few causes for outrage. It ends with a heart-felt message:
'To those who will be forming the 21st century, we say with all our affection: To create is to resist. To resist is to create.'
In other words the pamphlet of less than 30 pages (bound by two staples and sold for 3 euros) is full of praiseworthy sentiments, forcefully expressed, but it doesn't contain anything truly original. Or in any case not original enough to explain the astonishing sales figures. Hessel himself admits gallantly that had it been written by a younger person, it would probably not have sold nearly as well.
But then Hessel is not just any old guy preaching to the young. His entire personal history places him on a moral pedestal. Here is a real-life self-sacrificing hero in an era where such heroes have become a rare phenomenon - almost as rare as well-meaning political pamphlets becoming bestsellers. If further proof of heroism is needed, it might be mentioned that his royalties are all donated to his favourite charity causes.
Hessel also has rather unique cultural credentials. His parents, Franz Hessel and Helen Grund, inspired two of the three main characters in Henri-Pierre Roche's novel Jules et Jim, on which François Truffaut based his cult film starring a magnificent Jeanne Moreau. These autobiographical details might have something to do with the runaway success of Indignez-vous! in France, and maybe even in Germany where Hessel was born and where the German translation, Empört euch!, sold nearly 100 000 copies in a month or two.
But how does one explain the impressive sales in Spain or Italy? Or the fact that translation rights have been sold in more than twenty countries, from Croatia to Korea and from Australia to Argentinia?
Well, I guess if we'd been able to explain publishing phenomenons, we'd be able to predict them too - and then they wouldn't be phenomenons any more, they'd become simple marketing strategies. This is exactly what I love about the world of books: the marvellous unpredictability of an indignant sermon by an angry young man of 93 becoming an international hit. Outrageous, isn't it?