You're Blocking the Culture!
That’s the phrase that attendees of the Guadalajara Book Fair scream when they can’t get into overbooked events . . . Having attended Guadalajara a couple of times, I can attest to the passion for literature among those who go to the book fair. It’s pretty amazing to witness, and completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the States. I simply can’t imagine a pissed off crowd outside of a reading screaming “you’re blocking the culture!” . . .
Argentina was similar in that respect. The portenos we met with over the past week were truly passionate about their country’s literature. Despite the fact that a lot of books (any imported from Spain, the U.S., elsewhere) are quite expensive, the people of Argentina love to read.
One interesting example of this was the Estancia Los Talas that we visited on Friday. This was an opportunity to get out of the city, visit the pampas, and eat tons and tons of the best meat I’ve ever had. It was an incredibly relaxing and enjoyable time (if I haven’t mentioned this enough times yet, everyone on the trip was incredibly wonderful—smart, funny, kind, interesting), and we had a chance to see Jorge Furt’s library.
Here’s a description from Lugares Magazine:
A second house, dating from 1860, holds original opalines that hang from the high ceilings, daguerreotypes, an old piano and delicate porcelain. A library with 40 thousand volumes; a collection of historic letters: 7,200 sent to Juan Bautista Alberdi between 1824 and 1884, bought by Jorge Furt back in 1946, having to mortgage a farm for this purpose, to prevent the documents from leaving the country; 22 written by Mitre; 4.3 by Sarmiento; and 106 by Máximo Terrero, Manuelita Rosas’ husband; the complete collection of Nosotros Magazine; and a variety of Argentine, French, Cennan, Greek and Latin authors; apart from the first hook of Alcalá de Henares, dated 1502; three long corridors, ten metres long each, filled from floor to ceiling.
It was really incredible, but we weren’t allowed to take any pictures, otherwise I’d post some here.
Following this day in the pampas, we went to a milonga, which was also pretty amazing. I could write paragraph upon paragraph about the tango—everyone I’ve talked to since I got back has had to suffer through this already.
The tango is quite beautiful, and insanely complicated. Each couple functions as it they’re in their own little universe, somehow linked together, knowing exactly when to start dancing, where to step next, how to shift and circle in a way that they avoid all of the other dancers also operating in their own world. (It reminded me of the scene in Crying of Lot 49 with the blind—or deaf?—people waltzing and somehow avoiding one another.)
Beyond the dancing though was the mysterious process of how a man picked up the woman he was going to dance with. It was all done with a glance—the only time a couple conversed was when the woman was denying her suitor—but so subtly and quietly that it was almost impossible to fathom.
Patrizia and I were obsessed with a gorgeous woman in a trenchcoat, who seemed either pissed that no one was approaching her, or incredibly selective. We were sitting pretty close to her table, so we were able to keep tabs on her for quite some time, trying to figure out her story, while watching a couple of guys prowl in a sharklike fashion around the outside of the dancefloor. A guy we hadn’t even noticed walked up behind her, and as he approached her side she suddenly she stood up, flung off her coat, and they went off to dance without hardly exchanging a glance. . . . This made it clear to me that I would never fully understand the tango, and that I would’ve had a hell of a time picking up a girl in Argentina . . .
(It was interested to contrast the sort of restrained elegance and sensuality of the tango with the sort of exuberant sexuality and fervor of a club in the U.S.)
Tangoing aside, this was one of the best editors trips I’ve ever been on. The people on the trip, the people we met with, the people who organized it were all absolutely wonderful. And the rich literary history sure didn’t hurt.
One thing that Nick Caistor and I talked about a bit that was a bit disturbing was the proliferation of authors who sounded like imitations of the neo-realistic, “language of the common person” novels prevalent in American and England these days. It’s always struck me as weird when foreign publishers promote one of their authors as being the Ian McEwan of Spain, or the Jonathan Franzen of Italy. It’s as if they believe that since these particular authors sell really well, than imitations of these authors will also sell very well. Which is rarely ever true. And who wants an imitation of an author if you can have the real thing? And even if you’re all for this neo-realist sort of aesthetic (and I’m not), it still should seem a bit disturbing that authors from a country like Argentina are abandoning the lengthy tradition of writers like Borges and Cortazar and Saer and Piglia (all of who experimented with language in form in ways that advanced the possibility of what a short story/novel could be and do) to imitate mediocre, yet popular foreign authors. As if English writers are colonizing the world’s literature. This is the bad side of globalization . . .
And that’s why I think the story of the Guadalajara attendees is so fitting. One of the best things about publishing literature in translation is providing access to the unique aspects of another culture. I hope that all of the people who were able to go on this trip find interesting, unique authors to translate and promote in their countries—I’m sure that I did.