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Wednesday, 28 June 2006

The philosopher Fernando Savater on the fate of the printed page, from La Stampa, 28 June. According to the Wikipedia he is a “Spanish philosopher and essayist most famous for his popular books on ethics and his newspaper articles. Presently he is Philosophy professor at the Complutense University of Madrid.”

Books don’t die if they run, travel and cross the seas

Walking down the main street of Hay-on-Wye I started thinking about the strange, vagabond destiny of books. “Fata sunt belli” said — if my clumsy Latin doesn’t deceive me — the classics, before the birth of our language: minor and even great books have, each one, their own destiny, their idiosyncratic coming and going, written in the fatal twinkling of certain stars. They are the ones to determine (I still use metaphor, but I’m not superstitious yet) the direct or collateral feelings that these pages will engender, their marginalisation or their success — sometimes both, in different times — and also the multiplication of their interpretations. Or oblivion, pious and atrocious.

Hay-on-Wye is a small town in the English county of Herefordshire, in that green and pleasantly ordered border land next to Wales. A community of less than 1,500 inhabitants that boasts the amazing existence of around 50 bookshops, which are almost exclusively dedicated to antique and used books, at second- or third-hand.

It’s not a cemetery of literary elephants because books well looked-after don’t die even if they pass through many hands but, on the contrary, become richer and grow: like lovers who have loved too much… For over 10 years Hay has been home to a literary festival at which writers speak openly with their readers, poets declaim and scientists explain their theories, you can meet Nobel Prize-winners next to politicians or authors of bestsellers, and books, the most vigorous and technically advanced tool invented by humans, are celebrated in all possible ways. How many subjects can you write something about! Because a bookshop (or a library) is like a pharmacy: you can find legible remedies to all the ills of mankind, from ignorance to sorrow, and also magic potions that provide knowledge, happiness or erotic stimulation. And we must admit that there are also poisons…

I walked, therefore, along the main street of Hay on that sunny, balmy June morning thinking of the books that run, travel, fly and cross the seas. And the last occurrence of the show, that took place in January in Cartagena delle Indie, occurred to me. I forgot to say that, now, the literary event at Hay has “branches” in other cities, like the one in this Columbian town or, in the near future, in Segovia in Spain. During the festival of Cartagena I didn’t restrict myself to enjoying the justly famous tourist attractions of the place, but I also went to visit a school in the Nelson Mandela colony, a very poor sector that the tourist in search of beaches or colonial beauty has scarce interest in visiting. The heat was tremendous, but there was no running water: two or three times a week a water-truck arrived.

My guides showed me the shanties people live in, constructed from precarious and unmatched materials, and said: “See? These houses are made from ‘paroy’.” I could not understand what material they were referring to and, then, they explained: “We call them that because they’re “of today” (‘para hoy,’ in Spanish — ed.): tomorrow, perhaps, they’ll no longer be standing.” There were no macadam roads, no footpaths: they got to school in any way they could. The teachers hadn’t been paid for six months, but they overflowed with enthusiasm: they reminded me of those medieval monks who, on land sacked by barbarians, copied and watched their manuscripts in which was enshrined a defeated culture but one that would one day return to flower.

And here are the children: with dark skin or light, rippling with laughter, free, curious. They asked me about everything, with laughter and without cease: where I lived, what time I usually prefer to write, how I came up with ideas and whether I was engaged. Then they started dancing to show me how happy they were to be there. I was hardly able to utter a few words because I was overcome with emotion and — I have to say it — admiration. How exultant it was, that happiness, able to throw down walls of egotism and blindness! They needed everything, but they deserved much more. I noticed, at a certain point, that they had some copies of my books on their desks, tortured by long use but raised, even, to unmerited glory thanks to the benediction of so many little black hands. And I felt ridiculously proud.

For once it seemed to me that not everything was vanity or habit, that I could give something, offer a service where it was needed. A feeling that I had felt, at another time, in Guatemala while visiting a small bus that had been transformed into a movable library and I came across one of my works. Or when a colleague at the university showed me the photograph of the very modest house of a student in Guinea in which I had stayed one night: I glimpsed, on a shelf, the back of another of my works.

Launched on the ocean of uncertainty all these books whose limitations I know too well — a mixture of perplexity, ideas and dreams — had finally arrived home. I wish that you, brother readers, and also that I — seeing that our destiny is to be travellers and to never know the place that only occasionally we occupy — obtain, on the last day, a comfortable and useful corner in the great library of the universe.

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