Harare: Zimbabwe's international book fair, once Africa's proudest literary celebration, now has only one tale to tell the decline of a country brought to its knees by political and economic woes.

The cultural life of the southern African country books, music, film and theatre is being strangled by a severe economic crisis many critics blame on President Robert Mugabe's government.

Up until 2002, the Zimbabwe International Book Fair was one of the continent's biggest shows, attracting African, European, American and Asian publishers to exhibit their work, and Africa's top writers to attend conferences.

But the fair held in Zimbabwe's capital this week remains "international" in name only, shunned by foreign publishers and writers who see little mileage from travelling to a country the United States has branded an "outpost of tyranny".

"We have lost out to politics," mourned one man minding an exhibition of give-away pamphlets on rural development.

"There are very few people coming here because it's no longer the same," he said. "But I guess we have got to keep the idea alive so that when things get better we will not start from scratch."

During Zimbabwe's sunnier days, when Mugabe was still hailed as the man who ended white rule in the former Rhodesia in 1980, the Harare book fair drew Africa's literary giants.

Nigeria's legendary Chinua Achebe, who became famous with his first novel Things Fall Apart, and Kenyans Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Ali Mazrui were among those who graced the shows.

"It was Afro-centric ... people came for brainstorming sessions on African literature and lots of ideas emerged from these meetings. It was extremely fun and very laid-back," said Veronique Tadjo, an author from Ivory Coast.

But now the big writers and publishers are staying away and the fair resembles a small village show, its largely empty book stalls standing under thatch shades in a vacant, windswept park.

Although Zimbabwe has a 90 per cent literacy rate one of the highest in Africa its economic woes have left it almost unable to sustain a publishing industry as consumers struggle with inflation now well over 1,000 per cent.

Book lovers are not alone in bemoaning the slow death of Zimbabwe's cultural life.

The country which drew famous musicians in the 1980s and 1990s such as Bob Marley and The Wailers, UB40, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Osibisa and Sam Mangwana cannot afford to pay top profile foreign artists.

Even smaller pleasures, such as cinema outings and DVD rentals, are feeling the pinch.