Books (In Translation) About Books [BTBA 2016]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Amanda Nelson, managing editor of Book Riot. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

Jose Alberto Gutierrez is a garbage truck driver in Bogota. His route takes him through wealthy neighborhoods in the middle of the night, and if he spots a book in the trash as he’s doing his job, he saves it. His home is now full of over 20,000 volumes, all of which he lends out to the low income kids in his neighborhood. He’s known in Colombia as the “Lord of the Books” (if you’re going to be lord of something, that’s quite a nice thing, I’d say). Mr. Gutierrez is my people.

In fact, millions of people are my people: readers, whether casual or constant, lovers of the literary or genre (separations which are increasingly useless), English-speaking or not. Readers love to encounter one another out in the world, which easily explains the rise of bookish social networking like Goodreads and LibraryThing, BookTube, and the communities around book blogs. If we can’t find our kind in our families or circle of friends, we’ll find them online. But there’s a special pleasure in encountering another bibliophile in the place most fitting for them to dwell: a book.

When you read a book about books, it’s like luxuriating in the most comforting of comfort foods: these are feelings I know, these are smells I know, these are situations in which I’ve found myself. The book is knowable, the hero becomes obvious (it’s the character who loves books), characterization becomes almost unnecessary. The protagonist is a reader! I know her already.

Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude most is probably the closest thing to Jose Alberto Gutierrez’s story that you’ll find in fiction: a wastepaper processor saves books from being destroyed and fills his home with them, spending page after page meditating on the fleeting nature of ideas, the beauty of the book as a physical thing, and the limits of how many of those physical things we can take into our lives before the pressure becomes unbearable (in a literal sense if you, like Hanta, sleep with an actual ton of books hanging over your bed). Hanta is mostly a loner and a book hoarder who shares his saves with no one, while Mr. Gutierrez is evangelizing for his finds in his community. I recognize myself in the compulsions of both men, and I suspect most of us do.

Perhaps the most fun I’ve had reading a book about books is with the famous The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, a globe-trotting adventure following the shenanigans of a shady antiquarian book dealer on a quest to authenticate an Inquisition-era book about the devil. There’s an Alexandre Dumas subplot, a woman who may or may not be a demon/Lucifer/fallen angel/whatever, book forgery, symbol analysis—if you’re looking for a Dan Brown novel with a literary bent, your search is over. Corso, our shady book dealer and protagonist, is odd in the genre of books-about-books because he doesn’t actually care about books. He’s a mercenary, in it for the coin, good at his job but not interested in fetishizing Books, capital B. I actually find him quite refreshing—I sometimes feel like even my own adoration for ink on dead, mashed-up tree fibers glued between pieces of cardboard can be a little tiresome.1

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s The Rabbit Back Literature Society (which I read for BTBA 2016 consideration) also has elements of the supernatural, but without the Christian overtones. Think fairy tales, odd games, viruses that change the contents of library books, gnomes. The Devil doesn’t live in Rabbit Back, but that doesn’t take away from the ominous and slightly creepy undertones flowing through an otherwise charming and quirky book about a small town and its society of writers, headed up by a famous children’s author. As the society is inaugurating its tenth member, a local school teacher, the famous children’s author disappears during the middle of a party, eaten up (sort of) by a swirl of snow. Ella, the school teacher and newest member of the society, tries to piece together where their leader has gone, and she gets caught up in playing an odd and dangerous game with the other society members—a game that tries to explain where writers get their ideas. Are writers born imaginative and fanciful, or are they practicing a sort of vampirism, sucking ideas and stories out of the marrow of their family and friends’ real lives? Or maybe it’s both?

If you’re in the mood for a literary fanfare but aren’t in the mood to pick up a novel, give Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Lecture “In Praise of Reading and Fiction” a once-over and find you’re not the only person who thinks “. . . living is worth the effort if only because without life we could not read or imagine stories.” Arm yourself against cynics who think you’re wasting your time reading fiction with lines like “But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, to the desires and longings it inspires, and to our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables.” A Nobel laureate believes fiction makes us more humane. Who are we to argue?

1 If you’ve made it to 2015 without seeing this book’s adaptation, The Ninth Gate starring Johnny Depp, consider yourself blessed beyond measure. You’d think Johnny Depp playing a book dealer would equal instant success, but the movie is painfully bad.

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