Friday, August 7, 2009

"Context for Understanding Desperation" by Lourdes González Herrero

Readers and authors are equally desperate. Today I went to a bookstore in which two book vendors were having a bitter argument that caught my interest, it was about a recently published book, but neither of the two mentioned its title.

I feigned distraction, walking from one shelf to the other. One of them contested: it’s not readable, it’s not even clear what it’s about, if you read it and liked it, you should check out a psychiatrist.

The other looked at him defiantly, seeming ready to take action.

I would have liked to watch the two readers come to blows over a book, but the attacker controlled himself, the other let down his physical guard, the apparent calm settled in when the female clerk set off the argument again by pointing out that the book is a real piece of shit, putting herself on the side of the first vendor that now, supported by another opinion, straightened up to make very clear that lowlifes and troublemakers aren’t signs of quality in a book. To this followed the noise of the door slamming as the second vendor went out to the sidewalk to get some air, clearly trying not to let himself be provoked by a woman.
I took from the stand the first book I encountered to complete the disguise. Out of the corner of my eye I followed the steps of the clerk who joined the first vendor to tell him easy to see why he got mad, apparently he has no culture. The vendor nodded, amazed, because he knows that the other has no culture.

At any rate, I came to feel in the bookstore that typical quiet of spaces filled with art. The same as one perceives in museums and theaters. But it was only a recess, back came the infuriated vendor, this time to say in a very loud voice that neither of you two know how to really read, because you’re a pair of mediocre people that don’t look beyond things. So the nucleus formed right at my side, and I had no choice but to look at them so as not to seem deaf. The clerk shook her limp long hair, defending her right to read whatever I feel like, who are you to categorize me if you’re not even a licensed bookseller. It seems that intellectual discourse had no place there, as the unlicensed vendor turned his rage against her, making faces and mocking her, saying that in her house there’s no kind of order and that her husband is going to leave her because she’s a know-it-all that doesn’t know shit. In that moment it seemed like an opportune time to leave the bookstore, but in my haste to leave that cultural battleground, I dropped the book that had served as my cover and it fell to the floor with a dull noise and lay there with its covers on the ground and its pages open. The clerk bent and picked it up, closing it to place it on the shelves. That was the weirdest moment of the morning, her looking at me with dubious cordiality and the vendors stopped dead on both sides of her. I observed for the first time the book with the red cover and twentieth-century-style abstractions, without even daring to ask them: What? Because I hated to think that I had chosen the exact same title over which they had been fighting, although my intuition told me over and over that it was indeed the one to blame.

The clerk coughed, straightening a bit. The first vendor that spoke was the same that went out for some air. He said something to me that I can’t remember in its totality, but I’m sure that it included the words my critic partner, who knows how to read, who doesn’t let herself be influenced by bad opinions. All of it in smooth and tender diction. The other vendor started to roar with big and noisy laughter that made him lose his balance and double over the promotional table. The clerk laughed, but with total control over her forced happiness. The minute came in which, seemingly, both realized that laughter wouldn’t be enough and they led me to the seats, they sat me down, they sat down, we initiated a dialogue that I count among the most absurd of my life and that in its supreme instant of hilarity reached these sentences:

Vendor 1: You are here, supporting me in silence, and that is something I greatly appreciate. Please tell these two folks that that book marks a new mode of storytelling, that when it is necessary to write, and forgive the word, pinga, you write it, because the important thing is to save the character from false directives. Tell them it to see if they’ll finally understand that literature is life.
Vendor 2: Don’t waste your time with us, as we value books according to our tastes, not like other people (harsh tone) that just want to be fashionable. If you like the book, buy it; if it seems that you might like it, buy it, if they’ve told you that it’s good, buy it; we’re here to sell them. On the other hand, if you want to listen to us, don’t waste fifteen pesos on a few poorly arranged and expressly vulgar words that only say how you can stop thinking beautifully. You decide.

Clerk: Look, I know that all this seems unnecessary to you, and it is if at the end you take the book, but if to the contrary you leave it on the shelf, we can say that we have avoided the divulgation of a title that never should have been published, because listen! You’ve got to know what to say and what to leave unsaid, those two things are important.

To me, of course, they never allowed a single word. But, little by little, I had become interested in the book, and I watched them trying to see the possible sincerity in those moved faces. The three of them seemed like spectators. The three of them seemed exaggerated. I thought then of the terrible search of writers and readers and of that bearing of uncertainty that so often I’ve had to experience. That was when I decided to pose to them three basic questions: What bothered them about the book? Why did they complete it if they didn’t like it? How can they sell it if they had such an aversion to it?

The responses were emphatic, at first my supposed adversaries answered that what bothered them was that new wave of writing any kind of filth and calling it a book. The second response was very professional: To know what we were complaining about. The third annulled the question: We don’t sell it, we leave it to him. Indicating, of course, to vendor 1.

There was nothing to do. Nothing to add. Their mission in the bookstore was pretty clear, and although I considered their reactions not as natural but as those of a salesperson’s mindset, they had learned it all from writers. Reading them, they arrived at the conclusion that they had to have a public catharsis for the issues that might produce unease. Cause and effect were clear as day. It’s a shame that I succumbed to the face of the vendor that believed in the book with the red covers. Illusions always form from compassion and attachment to the weakest. So I left the bookstore with my acquisition between my arms, eager to be able to vote definitively for one of the two judgments, and here I am, prisoner of the most absolute boredom and fury for having detached myself from a good portion of my revenue.

At my side, with its pages closed, rests the book that starred in one clear August morning, waiting its turn to reintroduce itself in another bookstore that accepts used, and abused, books. It is the desperate situation that readers offer as resistance to the words with which authors keep their desperation amused.

- Translated by David Iaconangelo. Photo by Bagheia (flickr).

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