tue 24/11/2020

The Secret History of My Library: Essay by Daniel Saldaña París | reviews, news & interviews

The Secret History of My Library: Essay by Daniel Saldaña París

The Secret History of My Library: Essay by Daniel Saldaña París

The eminent Mexican novelist on books and their ghosts

Ángel Valenzuela

Books lost, left in houses I never returned to; dictionaries mislaid during a move; seven boxes sold to a second-hand bookstore… The history of my library is the history of loss and an impossible collection, scattered around several countries, reconstructed little by little but forever incomplete.

Books lost, left in houses I never returned to; dictionaries mislaid during a move; seven boxes sold to a second-hand bookstore… The history of my library is the history of loss and an impossible collection, scattered around several countries, reconstructed little by little but forever incomplete.

I don’t possess one of those personal libraries consisting of 20,000 volumes that writers of past generations could boast of by their early thirties. I live in a 68 square-metre apartment and that fact obliges me to be extremely selective in my curatorship. My parents have moved house dozens of times in the last decade so I can never leave my books in the basement or attic of a family home, with the promise of returning to collect them.

What I have is a phantom library: the memory of the books that would now belong to me if I’d kept them. Writing about my library is, therefore, an archaeological exercise based on traces and memories – like assembling a model of a razed city. A genealogy.

*

When I was a child, I had a twofold library: the books in my mom’s home and the ones in my dad’s. It was a library split between two cities, which I travelled to and from twice a week. My books – by Jules Verne, about vampires or the Choose Your Own Adventure series – inhabited a limbo between those two poles. The book I loved most was always in the other house, with the other family, ninety kilometres away.

The Pullman de Morelos buses very quickly became my reading space. My father used to put me on the bus in Cuernavaca and my mother met me at the terminal in Mexico City. There were no movies on buses in those days and so I spent the whole journey reading, or at least flicking distractedly through the pages of a book.

At around the age of ten, on one of those buses, I read The Call of the Wild by Jack London. Just about all I remember of the novel is that there was a dog called Buck, and that the story had a great impact on me. As soon as I’d finished it, I begged my father to adopt a dog and call it after the one in the novel. But I didn’t speak English and mispronounced the name: what I said was, “book.” For me, the dog was the book and the book was the dog. My first pet had come from a novel, had the name of a book, and stroking it was like stroking a fantasy character, a mythological beast, half fiction, half Irish terrier.

The residential block where my dad and I lived wasn’t ready for a creature like that. A few months after we’d adopted him, a neighbour fed my dog poison and Buck – or Book – died, foaming at the mouth.

*

Shortly afterwards, an aunt who lived in Mexico City moved to Spain and left me two boxes of books that became the nucleus of my library for some years. The first box contained the complete collection of the Great Masters of Crime and Mystery series, published by Orbis: black, red and gold hardbacks.

I’d like to be able to say that I began the collection reading Patricia Highsmith or Georges Simenon – possibly, in literary terms, the most prestigious authors in the series – but the truth is that those readings came later. At twelve or thirteen, the writers who captivated me and made me an avid reader were Agatha Christie, Chester Himes and, most of all, Rex Stout.

Stout’s detective, Nero Wolfe, is an obese, sybaritic man who rarely leaves his home. His insistence on not moving is extreme, even radical, bordering on the absurd. From the armchair of his study, Wolfe solves intricate murders by pure thought, while his assistant (the narrator) does the legwork and interviews suspects.

Nero Wolfe was the first immobile character to fascinate me; the first of a long line that would later include, among others, Herman Melville’s Bartleby, Estragon and Vladimir from Waiting for Godot and Proust – who remembers the past from his bed.

The second box of books that I inherited from my aunt contained a complete set of encyclopaedias of the history of art. If I remember correctly, there were twenty large-format volumes with colour plates. Except for a couple on Asiatic and pre-Columbian art, the focus was on Europe, and they were in French: I didn’t understand the first thing, but spent many hours looking at the images and pretending to read the entries. My favourite volumes were on the Italian Renaissance and Surrealism, and I succeeded in memorising all the paintings in the latter. The cover of the Surrealism volume had a reproduction of Dorothea Tanning’s oil painting “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” which, many years later, I went to see – as if on a pilgrimage that was also a return to my childhood – in London’s Tate Modern.

I would undoubtedly have been a rather amateur reader of detective novels and adventure stories if I hadn’t, at the age of twelve, come across Federico García Lorca, whose poetry felt to me like a literary translation of Tanning’s painting. At school, we were set the task of learning a poem by heart; on my mother’s bookshelves, I found a small red volume of the Spanish poet’s work, published by Aguilar. I chose “El niño mudo” (The Mute Child) and for days recited it in the spirit of a ritual, like a mantra: “The child sought his voice. / (The cricket king had it.) / In a droplet of water / the child sought his voice.” I became obsessed by the musicality of the poem and, overnight, abandoned the detective novels and the encyclopaedia of art for Lorca, Girondo and soon afterwards the Mexican Strident poets, a fact which is worthy of its own mention in relation to my first incursion into the world of publishing.

When I was fourteen, studying the avant-garde in my high-school Spanish literature class, the teacher had a marvellous idea: he divided the group into teams of four students and each team had to choose an avant-garde movement. I convinced the members of my team to pick Stridentism, which was much less popular than Surrealism or Futurism. The assignment consisted of editing an anthology of works by the poets of our chosen avant-garde, directly relating the design of the collection to the aesthetic project of the movement. So, for example, those who chose Futurism made a sort of cardboard car with the poems written on the bodywork. The Dadaists, I seem to remember, made a collage for the front cover of their book. And we, the Stridentists, decided that we had to create some form of commotion worthy of Manuel Maples Arce and Germán List Arzubide: we bought a pig’s head in a butcher’s shop and, using the animal’s own blood, pasted the strident poems onto the skin, tongue and ears. Spanish was the first class of the school day, so we were able to bring in the pig’s head before it started to stink. The teacher saw it lying on his desk and, in a horrified tone, read out the phrase on the animal’s brow: “Viva turkey in mole sauce!” His only comment was to inform us that we’d get top marks if we immediately removed the pig.

My phantom library also contains the books I’ve edited, and that one – the Strident pig’s head – was the first: an ephemeral book that only existed until the flesh decomposed; a print-run of a single copy that was awarded the highest grade on my report card (on which As were scarce) and gained me a problematic form of fame.

Although I’ve worked as an editor since I was in my mid-teens, and have published quite a few books during that time, I believe that I’ve never again had such an authentic spark of editorial genius as came to me at the age of fourteen.

*

The adolescence of my library has two paradigmatic books that I read at the same time, although they are completely unconnected. One was Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, in the edition published by Minotauro. The other was Anarchy’s Brief Summer by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. I read both books during a trip to the jungle when I was seventeen, the year I also first tried magic mushrooms. Sturgeon’s science-fiction classic initiated a thread in my life as a reader that led to Olaf Stapledon and Bradbury, a thread that, when I suffer a bout of nostalgia, I sometimes revisit in the parody of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s work inspired me with anarchist heroism for months. The book – a sort on non-fiction novel – recounts the exploits of Buenaventura Durruti at the head of his column during the Spanish Civil War. From June to September 1936, the President of the Generalitat, Luis Companys, handed over power in Catalonia to the anarcho-syndicalists, who were the de facto government on the streets. My grandfather, a Spanish child trapped by the war, was in Barcelona at that moment, and to this day he loves to boast that he lived under the only anarchist government in history. On her flight across the Pyrenees to escape the war, my great-grandmother – his mother – had gradually gathered around her the orphaned children of Republican families. My grandfather, suddenly surrounded by a herd of half-wild kids, roamed the chaotic streets of the city in search of spent bullet casings to sell to junk dealers. Those stories were told to me by my grandfather when he saw me reading Enzensberger’s book about Durruti.

But I also have a memory related to my grandmother that has significance for my library. She, María Teresa, became interested in psychoanalysis during her years as a medical student in post-war Madrid, and ended by practising that profession for over forty years in Geneva, where she fled with her husband in the fifties to escape the reactionary attitudes of the Franco dictatorship.

As a wedding present, someone gave my grandmother the first three volumes of the complete works of Sigmund Freud in López Ballesteros’s translation, the only Spanish edition in existence at that time. Over the decades, my grandmother underlined numerous passages of those books before giving them to my mother, who also read them and underlined passages before giving them to me.

I treasure those three volumes more deeply than any other book in my library. In the various layers of that palimpsest of the women readers who preceded me, in that female lineage of marginal notes – glosses and comments on the founder of psychoanalysis – lies, I believe, the origin of my vocation as a storyteller.

*

With my entry into adulthood, while studying philosophy in Spain, my personal library became completely independent of my parents’ and began to grow at a steadier rate, nourished by obligatory university texts. But in addition to being dazzled by Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, and spending several nights creasing the pages of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus in exalted incomprehension, those four years that I spent in Madrid formed – to the detriment of my university studies – my true literary education. I read Neruda’s Residence on Earth and then lost my copy at an Iggy Pop concert, during which I also lost consciousness. I read Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Peter Handke and Robert Musil, borrowing copies from the public library and stealing them from the Casa del Libro on the Gran Via.

At the age of nineteen, I was offered an unpaid internship on a cultural magazine. Many publishing houses sent their new publications to the editors in the hope of getting a review, and my boss told me that I could take any of the books that were left lying around the office. (Since then, I’ve always tried to find jobs in places that give me free books, although there are times when I also lament not having chosen a profession that offers medical insurance and a pension instead.)

As well as learning how to edit texts, while working on that magazine I discovered that you could telephone editors to say that you needed a certain book for an article, and they normally sent a copy along without further questions. With that trick, my library grew in a whimsical way, without me having to spend a cent. Among the books I remember from that period are: Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy (in the Trotta edition); Man and the Sacred by Roger Caillois and Manhood by Michel Leiris.

During those years I also started my first bibliophile collection. In a second-hand bookstore in Calle San Bernado, I found a book of short stories by Witold Gombrowicz – Virginity – in an edition I really loved. It was part of the publishing house Tusquet’s Cuadernos Ínfimos (Infamous Notebooks) collection, but had a die cut of small holes in the form of an X on the front cover. That book belonged to a series named Los Heterodoxos, edited by Sergio Pitol, who lived in Barcelona in the seventies. Beatriz de Moura, editor in chief of the publishing house, put Pitol in charge of that small series of less-well-known classics and, among others, Pitol published Oscar Wilde, Tristan Tzara, Raymond Rousell and Macedonio Fernández. It took me ten leisurely years to find all nineteen titles in the second-hand bookstores of Mexico, Argentina and Spain. That series is one of the few parts of my library that remains intact, and it has accompanied me on every move. That’s not the case of the collection of dictionaries I amassed over a time, and of which I now only have Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana o Española by Sebastián de Covarrubias (the first Spanish monolingual dictionary), whose definition of “tiger” is one of my all-time favourite stories.

*

Returning to Gombrowicz’s Virginity: this was also the book that later led me to read the Polish author’s diaries, which in turn inaugurated my love of reading diaries, now my core interest. Two years ago, I began collecting personal diaries and returned to my own, which I started as a teenager and continued to write on and off for several years. Some of the authors in this small collection are Cesare Pavese, Alejandra Pizarnik, Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Sylvia Plath, Tolstoy, Katherine Mansfield, Salvador Elizondo, Anaïs Nin, Kafka, Susan Sontag, Gil de Biedma, Fernando Pessoa, Virginia Woolf, José Donoso, Jules Renard and André Gide. My library of diaries is growing more or less at a rate of two books per month; books I dip into, never reading in a single sitting, sometimes toying with the idea that they function as a kind of oracle: I read five or six different entries corresponding to the same date – 17th of October, for example – and pretend that act has some divinatory meaning.

*

Just over twelve months ago, I moved back to Mexico City after a three-year stay in Montreal. My library, or what was left of it, was divided between two main locations: some cardboard boxes went to my mother’s home in the south of the city, and a couple of crammed bookcases were left in the care of a friend in Colonia Roma.

My friend’s apartment was destroyed in the earthquake of 19th of September, 2007. The books – both his and mine – ended up on the floor among fragments of the wall, pieces of plaster, broken glass. My friend managed to rescue the library and took the books to another apartment in Colonia Narvarte, where, towards the end of that year, I arrived with two large suitcases to collect mine.

My library now shares its space with that of Ana, my partner, who is the daughter of exiles from the Argentinian military dictatorship, settled in Mexico. Our joint library is organised alphabetically by the author’s surname, without any distinction of genre. It starts in the living room bookcases – the largest – continues in the study, and the final letters of the alphabet are in the passage by the front door. That alphabetical array traces a route from the largest window to the entrance, following the air currents.

The more or less random co-existence of our books has united my history and that of my family with Ana’s and her family’s. Our shared library is the result of moves, exiles, journeys, and anecdotes that pass through Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Switzerland and Quebec. It doesn’t contain a lot of books, but somehow they manage to map out a genealogy: our genealogy.

Ana sometimes tells me about the origins of her books; for example Borges’s complete works, which her grandfather bought in instalments from a newspaper. At other times, I tell her the story of the first edition Raúl Zurita dedicated to me years ago, during a winter in Santiago de Chile. And so, we go on reading, coming to know each other more profoundly through the mediation of the books we have or have had.

  • Daniel Saldaña París is a poet, essayist and novelist born in Mexico City in 1984. He is considered to be one of the most important figures in contemporary Mexican literature. In 2017, he was chosen as one of the Hay Festival's Bogotá39, a selection of the best Latin American writers under forty He has lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico City, Madrid and Montreal.
  • Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters