FRANKFURT, Germany -- As this country celebrated life as one nation for the first time in 45 years, a few of its citizens got together with the Japanese here to discuss "a new world order." It was a suggestive coincidence that did not go unnoticed.

"Someone said that if anyone hears the Italians are doing something, we should all check our flight reservations," joked Howard Kaminsky, chief executive of the Hearst Trade Book Group.

"German unification is not an unmixed blessing, and the thought of a German-Japanese collaboration is not an attractive proposition," said Andrew Franklin, publishing director of the British house Hamish Hamilton.

But, Franklin added, the idea of celebrating a different country at the Frankfurt Book Fair each year -- this time, it was Japan's turn, with symposiums titled "In Search of a New World Order" and "A World Turning Point and Literary Expression" and all sorts of special exhibits -- "is just meant to add a cultural gloss to the solid, squalid commerce of buying and selling rights."

For the 42nd time, publishers got together here to make an international market in books -- 381,702 was the official total for the number exhibited. Like everything else these days, publishing moves faster than it used to, and faxes have replaced Frankfurt as the tool to nail down a hot new novelist or a celebrity autobiography. But people still come, in larger droves than ever, to conduct routine business, to check the pulse of other markets (Spain is hot, Britain shaky), to seek out news and compare notes, and above all to do something, anything, to make publishing less of a crap shoot.

Case in point: Last September, Asuka Shinsha brought out the Japanese edition of former Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski's The Grand Failure. The disaster referred to in the title was communism, and when the Berlin Wall fell shortly after publication, the author seemed like a prophet.

"There weren't any other books available on this subject," explained Naomichi Doi, president of Asuka Shinsha. "We started off with 20,000 copies and sold 100,000 -- more than Macmillan did in the United States."

It was all a matter of timing -- and a good thing, too, since those 100,000 copies barely covered the amount Doi had to pay to publish the book in the first place. Such are the uncertainties of the book business.

Most of the book fair action takes place in downtown Frankfurt on a spread of land that resembles an urban college campus. Publishing houses, grouped roughly by nationality, are assigned booths in certain areas. This year, however, the fair administrators decided to reorganize things a bit, putting all the stands "interested in attracting the general public" on the ground floors of the festival buildings.

Since most of the fair's nearly quarter-million visitors are German, this meant that it was the 2,274 German publishers who got the choice ground-level booths. "Deutschland unter Alles" it was quickly dubbed.

Among those who were not pleased were the French, who found themselves in the equivalent of Siberia. Indeed, the French had been so upset as to discuss a boycott, a movement that collapsed when a major French publisher said it had decided to go to Frankfurt no matter what. Fair attendees who managed to find the French stands this year reported that they seemed quiet.

All of this seemed to bode ill for European unity. The fair as a whole had 90 participating countries, down from 93 in '89, as Bangladesh, Barbados and Cameroon bowed out. As might be expected, the former Eastern bloc countries were resurgent. There was a 34 percent rise from what used to be East Germany, and while the number of Hungarian publishers stayed the same and the Czechoslovakian total actually fell, a fair official pointed out that this was a natural result of attendance no longer being sponsored by the state. There was one Romanian publisher, the International Beekeeping Technology Institute of Bucharest. FOR THOSE getting foggy from so much buying and selling, there were events like the "Discussion About Literature" held between Germany's most famous writer, Gunter Grass, and one of Japan's big guns, Kenzaburo Oe, best known in the United States for a short novel, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness.

These were two gloomy guys. "Half my generation was killed in the war," said the impeccably attired Oe. "I am alive because of an accident." Grass, who characteristically looked like he had just wandered in from raking leaves, slammed the just-completed merger of the two German states, calling it "a superimposed unification without unity . . . a sort of Anschluss." He noted that "German military factories have sold poison gas to Iraq, and if this comes hurtling toward Israel, the genocide of the Jews by the Germans will continue."

Not to be outdone, Oe said, "What's lacking in Japan is a concept of tolerance. It's a European concept." Like Grass who has probed the moral dilemma of being a German writer after Auschwitz, Oe asked: "Are the Japanese able to write after what they did to China and Korea {during the war}? I don't think the Japanese people have dealt with this issue."

This went on for two hours, both writers labeling their homelands despoilers of the environment, militaristic and xenophobic (anti-Semitic in Germany's case, anti-everything non-Japanese in Japan's). SPEAKING of xenophobia, this is something the English-speaking world is often accused of with regard to its lack of interest in translated material. Several initiatives to overcome this were unveiled at the fair.

First came the Publishing News/Minerva European Novel of the Year Award. Max Eilenberg, editorial director of the British house Minerva, characterized the prize, which consists of publication as a paperback original in Britain, "as making Europe as much an exciting backyard for finding books as Bloomsbury" -- the traditional headquarters of English publishing.

"There is tremendous inertia to overcome, but even the most devoted Little Englander will soon recognize that the Channel doesn't have to be a barrier," said Eilenberg. The winner was Claude Delarue, a Swiss musicologist, for his novel Attendant la Guerre ("Waiting for War"), set in a nuclear shelter 15 times the size of Amiens cathedral.

A much more elaborate spectacle was offered by Kodansha, a powerhouse of Japanese publishing that also issues a small number of books in English translation. As part of its 80th birthday celebration, Kodansha has instituted the $10,000 Noma Award for the Translation of Japanese Literature.

Completely by coincidence, the first award was won by a Kodansha book, Yukio Mishima's Acts of Worship. John Bester was the translator; in a heartfelt speech during an awards ceremony at a Frankfurt hotel, he remarked that translators were used to working behind the scenes. By being the center of attention at this ceremony, he said, he felt "rather like a mole who had broken out unexpectedly onto the front lawn."

After the half-hour award presentation, everyone moved over into the ballroom, where the thousand or so people who hadn't made it into the first room got to hear a whole new set of speeches. When they heard the line "We hope you'll all get a bit smashed," everyone fell upon the food and drink -- endless tables of sushi, teriyaki, salmon, shrimp, champagne, sake. The consensus was that you could translate a half-dozen books on the basis of what this one evening cost.

The affair did provide for one unexpected insight into Japanese culture. A large banner proclaimed KODANSHA 80TH ANNIVERSARY, but the press material clearly stated the company was founded in November 1909. The explanations for this ranged from, "As we say in Japan, 'Because this is Japan,' " to a Kodansha official's "We knew we wanted to have a party this year, so we decided to save our 80th birthday." THE MOST auspicious trend in evidence: biographies of 20th century writers. Admittedly, biographies are a prime Frankfurt item, being signed up years in advance of publication and relatively easy to translate. Still, you couldn't help being struck by the sheer number of volumes, including those devoted to James Baldwin, Henry Miller (two of them), Colette, Daphne du Maurier, Stephen Spender, William Saroyan, Mikhail Bulgakov, Georges Simenon, Naomi Mitchison, Jean Rhys, Wilfred Thesiger, Giuseppi Tomas di Lampedusa, Sacheverall Sitwell and undoubtedly many others. For topical books, the flavor of the month is Eastern Europe. Every journalist who has ever covered the region seems to have a book; the speedy ones will see print this fall. On the other hand, if there's yet another round of reconsiderations of the Middle East on the way, there wasn't much evidence of it here.

The most worrisome trend is how much books cost. They seem expensive in the United States, but in Britain they're an average of 50 percent higher, with a roughly equivalent tariff in France. Since reviewers and many others in publishing get all the new books they want for free, it's easy for all concerned to forget that real people are being asked to spend $18.95 for a 200-page first novel.

One factor driving up costs is that books of all types are getting bigger. "Walk in a bookstore and look at the front tables. They're using 2-by-4's to shore them up," said Bantam Executive Editor Jeff Stone. "It's the curse of the word processor. It's just too easy to keep on adding material. From one paragraph, it's on to the next."

In the end, for all the talk of money and deals, Frankfurt remains a matter of authors, and, as often as not, serious ones. There's a vague and somewhat spurious tradition of a Big Book by a celebrity sweeping the fair. Previous examples of such "authors" in attendance range from Muhammad Ali to the Mayflower Madam; this season it was Ivana Trump. Yet such glitz is heavily outweighed by the percentage of real writers, including this year the likes of John Irving, Oscar Hijuelos, Oliver Sacks and Julian Barnes.

Paul Auster, an ascending American star who has a fashionable following in Britain, France and Germany, came to Frankfurt with a measure of trepidation. "When I first was invited, I refused," he said before leaving New York. "I've heard rather gruesome stories of this event. Then I realized I was being peevish."

Once he arrived, he found himself warming up. Not so much to the event itself -- he kept having to leave his position at his German publisher's stand every 40 minutes or so to get some fresh air -- but to the people he met, especially those who are issuing his books all around the world.

"Viking did a little gathering of all my publishers who were here," he said. "They all came, and were all so nice, and enthusiastic, and friendly. I met my Japanese editor, discovered I have a Bulgarian publisher. There was a level of purity to the whole thing. No one was talking deals. It was all just books."