Diary of a Book Collector in South America
This is a list of the books I bought in South America this summer. For the month of June, I travelled to San Telmo, a trendy, somewhat bohemian neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. During the month of July and the beginning of August, I also travelled to Valparaiso, Chile; a coastal, art-filled, labyrinthine city. The reason I went to South America was to learn Spanish with the hopes that someday I might be able to read and analyze Spanish literature. I took Spanish lessons at private schools (Rayuela in Buenos Aires and Natalislang in Valparaiso) for the entire trip. For each of the books I purchased during my trip, I describe how I found it and the reason I chose to buy it.
Yo Era Una Nina de Siete Anos by Cesar Aira (Interzona, 2005): In Buenos Aires, I wanted to find books like the ones I had been reading in translation that hadn’t already been translated into English yet. I had been reading lots of Borgés, Cortázar, Bolaño, Aíra, and others. I went into a bookstore on Calle Peru in named Asunto Impreso. They had a bookstore art gallery that I glanced at briefly before searching through their shelves of books. While they had a large selection of literature, the description of the store online suggests that its primary focus is the arts and that it is run by a graphic designer. In terrible Spanish (I was only about a week into my Spanish lessons), I asked the attractive young man working there if they had any books ‘similar’ to Cesar Aira’s work that had not been translated into English (as if they knew which ones were translated into English). For any bookseller in any language, this request probably sounded odd, considering there are no other writers quite like Cesar Aira. The man began to make suggestions, pulling books off the shelf, along with the help of another person working there. I then asked them to write me a list of books and authors worth reading. He wrote down Juan Jose Saer, Martin Caparros, Alan Pauls, and Fogwill. I decided that while I was doing this ‘research,’ since the store had a host of Aira’s books that I’d never seen translated into English, I would buy one of them for a friend. Cesar Aira is an Argentine writer. So far, I’ve read about five of his books in English. Most of his writing amounts to novellas of roughly 100 pages. His books are small and easy to read quickly. He is notorious for his unruly imagination which follows whatever strange path that arises during the process of writing. He seems to write for the sake of celebrating unfettered imagination and for quick execution. Aira does not edit and his plot lines mold to the contours of a highly imaginative, unreserved wit that polarizes his readership. Some people love him and others hate him. The woman working at the counter of Asunto Impreso, presumably the owner, happened to be one of the people who hated his work. I was introduced to his writing by a friend who loves the book he wrote entitled, “How I Became a Nun.” The theme of that book surrounds the slippery inventiveness of identity because the status of the narrator continues to change. The narration flexibly morphs between character and author throughout the text so that at one point, the narration identifies as the interior monologue of a young girl. My friend thought that Aira had captured something quintessential about the mentality of a young girl. For that reason, I decided to buy this other book with the title, “I was a Seven Year-Old Girl.” Judging by the title, I assumed that perhaps Aira would indulge in similar themes as his previous book, “How I Became a Nun.”
Runa by Fogwill (Interzona, 2003): The other book I decided to purchase at that bookstore (Asunto Impreso) is a book entitled, “Runa,” by Fogwill. This particular recommendation made by the bookstore staff stuck with me. I liked the promise of a strange tale about ancient things. I actually had no idea what the book would be about, but the boy working at the bookstore assured me that Interzona was a good publisher and since they published a lot of Aira’s work, I decided to take a gamble with purchasing Fogwill’s book. It also happened to be somewhat slender, which was important to me, since I would need to pack it in my luggage for the remainder of the trip (another 2.5 months). Now that I’ve looked up some of the details about this book, I can say a few things about it: Runa is a novel about neolithic myth making with chapters that don’t necessarily need to be read in order. Fogwill died in Buenos Aires in 2010 and has a cult following in Argentina.
I want to say a little bit more about Interzona, San Telmo, etc.: San Telmo is a neighborhood in Buenos Aires that has a lot of boutique bookstores. These are the types of stores that carry independent publishers. If you go to Avenida Corrientes, you’ll find tons of discounted books in warehouse like bookstores, but I preferred the small, careful selections of the bookstores in San Telmo. This also meant that I had to pay higher prices, similar to book prices in the United States. Interzona is one of the independent publishers that I fell in love with. Founded in 2002, Interzona publishes work they describe as modern, innovative, and critical contemporary works of literature and essays by Argentine and international authors. They maintain a commitment to good book design and a playful, intellectual approach to publishing.
Libro de Manuel by Julio Cortazar (Editorial Sudamerica, 1973): I found a 1st edition of Cortazar’s “Libro de Manuel” at a used bookstore on the corner of Calles Chacabuco and Estados Unidos called Club Burton, half a block from where I lived in San Telmo for a month. The bookstore was a used bookstore run by a very old man and the shelves were towering with dusty volumes. I was tempted to purchase the complete works of Borges in Spanish, in three hard-bound volumes, but I knew it would weigh too much in my suitcase. Instead, I started searching for a book that would help me contine my studies on Cortázar, since I wrote an essay about his ideological shift from a pure aesthete with an emphasis on Metaphysics (exemplified by Hopscotch), to a politically engaged thinker who constantly sought to incorporate the artistic authenticity of his early works. This shift took place in part because of Cortázar’s support for the Cuban Revolution in 1959. I’m very excited to study this book (Libro de Manuel) once I get a better grip on reading in Spanish. It directly addresses the political challenges of the 1970s in Argentina. Cortazar himself described it as a book that challenged the bourgeois ideals by challenging the imperialism, multinational corporations, and the military regime that shaped the history of Argentina and Latin America in general in the 1970s in his essay, “Politics and the Intellectual,” translated by Mary E. Davies.
The Olympia Reader edited by Maurice Girodias (North Star Line, 1991): Towards the end of my stay in San Telmo, I finally decided to enter another bookstore very close to my apartment called Walrus Books. Walrus Books is a seller of used books in English. Since there are a lot of people who know how to read and speak English in Argentina (and presumably wish to read books in English), it seemed like a good enough idea for a bookstore to maintain this theme. Presumably it caters to the ex-pat population as well. I browsed the titles, not particularly impressed with the selection, until I came across a volume that contained excerpts from books that Olympia Press published in the 1940s-60s in Paris. I decided to buy this book because I had no idea that the history of a wide range of dissimilar books that fascinated me shared similar publishing histories in that they were supported by the Evergreen Magazine, Grove Press and Olympia Press triangle of publishers. Olympia Press published some of the most infamous, formerly censored books of the modern English literature canon including Lolita by Nabokov, Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, and Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. This spawned the inspiration for master’s thesis topic for my literature degree. I decided I would provide a Marxist-feminist reading of this era of publishing history (more to follow).
Region: Antologia de cuento politico latinoamericano edited by Juan Terranova and Enzo Maqueira (Interzona, 2011): Even closer to the tail-end of my stay in San Telmo, I decided to go into a bookstore that was recommended to me by a friend called Fedro Libros on Calle Carlos Calvo. This bookstore had another great selection of contemporary, critical literature. They had a different selection of Interzona books than I had seen at Asunto Impreso, and one of them happened to be this compilation. Because of my increasing interest in the intersection between politics and literature, I decided to purchase it for my studies. The collection is an assembly of texts from around most of Latin America, as well.
Incitation al Nixonicidio y alabanza de la revolucion Chilena by Pablo Neruda (Quimantu, 1973): I refrained from purchasing books in Valparaiso, Chile when I first arrived, because I was mostly interested in saving money instead of shopping. Nevertheless, after about a month, I caved in. I decided to buy some books at the outdoor flea market where the vendors supposedly charge very high prices to foreigners. I still think I got a good deal. The book dealer had an interesting selection of books. Since I had been immersed in the hero worship of Pablo Neruda since arriving to Chile, I decided to purchase his book, “Incitation al Nixonicidio y alabanza de la revolucion Chilena,” a first edition copy of the last collection of poems Neruda published during his lifetime. This book, of course, corresponds to my interest in the intersection between literature and politics, as well. Its title in translation is, “Incitement to Nixonicide and Praise for the Chilean Revolution.” When I decided to purchase this book, I was specifically interested in Neruda’s critical, leftist outlook towards Nixon just before the military coup aided by the U.S. put Pinochet in power. Some say it is one of his most political books ever written. It was published two years after Neruda was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1971. This is a volume I had never encountered in the U.S. thus far. The minimal book design attracted me as well. This is perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing book I purchased on my trip (for my taste). I also saw that the same edition is selling on e-bay for $100 and I gratefully purchased it for just $10.
Los versos mas populares by Pablo Neruda (1904-1954) (Austral, 1954): For the sake of contrast, I was specifically interested in this volume, which presents Pablo Neruda’s most popular poems in a format meant for a popular readership. The edicion del cincuentario celebrates the poet’s achievements at age 50. These poem’s of Neruda’s likely celebrate most clearly the mythos of Chile as a unique country in its own right in contrast with the rest of his poetry. These poems assemble into a portrait of Pablo Neruda as a national hero. I purchased it from the same book vendor as the previous Neruda volume.
Desolacion by Gabriela Mistral (Collection Premios Nobel, 2003, originally published in 1922): In order to capture something more of the national spirit of Chile, and since I had never read this female author, I decided to purchase this volume of Gabriela Mistral poems, one of the only used, academic-looking volumes I found of her work. This volume stems from her early period of writing. Gabriela Mistral was an early feminist and developer of public education systems and her face is printed on Chile’s 5000 peso bill. She was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945. I purchased this book from the same dealer who sold me the Neruda books. He gave me a discount on all three offering them for 10000 pesos ($24), for books that were listed to be sold for $18000 ($36).
De Bosque Coronado by Karina Garcia Albadiz (Edicionesuicidas, 2009): I found another international used book seller that specializes in books in English as well as other languages in Valparaiso, similar to Walrus Books in San Telmo. This book seller was called Cummings 1 Libros y Arte. The man working that day put up with my requests for books only in Spanish, although clearly I was an English speaker talking in Spanish. At first, I wanted to know if he had a used Spanish dictionary (just in Spanish), but he only had some Spanish/English dictionaries. Later, I spent some time culling through their Spanish books and saw that they had a number of smaller local poets’ books from the Valparaiso area. I became interested in this selection and decided that it was a good place to flesh out my Spanish book collection for the last time during my trip. I picked this book of poetry by Karina Garcia Albadiz mostly because it contained a list of female poets and authors whom she admires. I thought the list was rather compelling (I love lists) and I wanted to spend some time researching the poets that she revered because I only knew a few of the names. Clearly it was a revised canon for the feminist reader/author. Here are the names she includes in the list: Marta Traba, Francoise Sagan, Carolina Gunderrode, Griselda Gambaro, Maria Elena Walsh, Juana Borrero, Amy Lowell, Safo, Kate Chopin, Janet Frame, Karen Blixen, Helene Cixous, Gaspara Stampa, Marina Tsvietaieva, Enheduanna, Jane Austen, Etna St. Vincent Mi Llay, Hortense Plexner, Luce Irigaray, Djuna Barnes, Patricia Verdugo, Condesa de Noailles, Astrid Fuguelli, George Sand, Mercedes Acosta, Isadora Duncan, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Hiparquia, Ursula K. Le Guin, Fina Marria Marruz, Margueritte Duras, Emily Dickinson, Edith Sitwel, Marianne Moore, Wislawa Szymborska, Tarsila Do Amaral, Christa Wolf.
Movi un Dia by Sergio Pizarro Roberts (Preimero Edicion, 1991): Bought at Cummings 1, Movi Un Dia is a gorgeous book with a portrait of a woman covering a fine-crafted collection of poetry with soft, textured sheets of paper. I chose this book for its short Nicanor-Parra-length poems (poems of just a few lines or a paragraph) that were extremely visually appealing. I simply wanted to discover the meanings after indulging in the look and feel of this book. Roberts is a Chilean author who currently lives in Vina del Mar.
Apologias y Rechazos by Ernesto Sabato (La Nacion, 2006, originally published in 1979): Also purchased at Cummings 1, I purchased this collection of stories by Sabato because my Spanish teacher in Argentina recommended that I read Sabato, since I had not already read him. This collection is a volume of critical essays about education in opposition to the military dictatorship of the 1970s in Argentina. Sabato played an important part in exposing and holding the dictatorship responsible for the forced disappearances and murders of many leftist intellectuals during the time that regime was in power.
Cuentos Folkloricos de Chile, Tomo III edited by Yolando Pino Saavedra (Instituto de Investigaciones Folkloricas, 1963): This book was recommended to me by the soft-spoken, pleasant shop-attendant at Cummings 1, that day. I decided to buy it, in order to dig deeper into the narrative mythos of Chile. It is the last volume of three.
Arte Particular by Arturo Rojas (Edicion Original, 2005): Once I wrapped up my set of book selections after about an hour, I naturally asked for a discount. The bookstore attendant discounted my purchases heavily. He gave me what was listed for about 20000 pesos ($40) for 12000 pesos ($24) and threw in a copy of this Rojas poetry collection which includes poetry about Valparaiso, in particular. I asked the attendant if he was a friend of that poet, or if it was so bad that he needed to get rid of a copy. He laughed and said no to both of my guesses. It is still a mystery to me why he gave that book to me for free, or why he recommended the Folklore book, or any other suggestion he made that day. I’ll have to start reading them to understand.
Once I know more about these books, I’ll review them in a more developed fashion. Until then, they will remain on my bookshelf luring me to learn more about the Spanish language, Latin American literature, and South America.
Diccionario ilustrado de la Lengua Espanola: To help me with my language studies, I purchased a Spanish-only dictionary.
Diccionario Abreviado de Sinonimos: I also purchased a thesaurus. These were the last two books I purchased in South America.