Published in PN Review No. 240, April 2018
‘The Infinite Bookshop’, my guide , the gracious journalist, calls it – a converted cinema on a square in the old part of Montevideo, capital of Uruguay. On the entrance level, where giddy children and young spruced-up lovers used once queue for movie tickets, the walls are lined with fine, leather-bound volumes. We are warmly greeted by the bookseller, Roberto Cataldo. He is genial, stocky, with longish grey hair. The slim, mildly worried-looking woman at the desk might be his wife. Having admired the neatly arrayed antiquarian books, we are led down an angled staircase to the next floor, where the books are a little less ordered, mainly cloth-bound hardbacks and paperbacks. There are also odd pieces of old photographic and cinema ephemera at the bottom of the stairs. Here we are shown a first edition of Onetti, one of Uruguay’s great writers. Cataldo also has first editions of Jorge Luis Borges, a letter from the Peruvian poet Caesar Vallejo, a manuscript poem by the Spanish film director Luis Buñuel and a poster for the World Football Cup from 1930.
We are led down a little further and we look down into the cinema proper – the inside-out galleon, the structure of the cinema virtually intact, the blank screen sagging, the back and side galleries lined, not with film-goers impatiently waiting for the hum and flicker which promised to transport them to worlds of glamour and daring, but with silent bookcase after bookcase, each over-filled with books, the floors in front of them virtually impassible due to stacks of books and sheaves of paper. Far below us the parterre is empty of seats but completely covered by a jumble of upended cardboard boxes with more books, sheaves of paper and rolled up documents piled beside them.
We descend again and are guided all the way to the back of the cinema, to a space behind the screen where, again, bookcases jostle for space. There are several neatly bound series editions of European classics in translation, Dickens, Flaubert, Gide. The bookseller laments the floods of a recent winter when so much of his stock was destroyed or damaged. He unlocks a door and we descend a metal staircase bringing us down to the fifth storey, where, through the darkness below us, we glimpse the black water of a built-over stream silently making its way to the nearby southern Atlantic.
Then back up again to the musty treasures of European literature behind the movie screen on the lower floor — so hard to believe that in all of this literary jetsam, each individual book may once have been a cherished treasure or, as the Polish poet put it, ‘a new shining chestnut’ a joy to its author, a wager to its publisher, an adventure to its reader. Much of it is work ‘translated’ in both senses of the word. As we Europeans conquered the world we brought our founding myths and our literature and with us as part of the ballast of conquest.
I wonder what my grandfather, a young Monaghan man of twenty-two, who had trained as a grocer, brought with him in his trunk when he sailed to Central America in 1902 — possibly the volume of Robert Burns, now on a shelf beside me, which a young nurse had given him when he lay critically ill in a Belfast hospital, or a volume of Irish patriotic verse which he was to leaf through during the seven years which he spent managing a coffee plantation in Guatemala — verse which he was to recite years later in his farm kitchen in east Co. Tyrone. His favourite recitation was an exile’s lament ‘Dawn on the White Hills of Ireland’ and another favourite may have been a verse which his daughter, my ninety-year old mother, abruptly dredged up from obscurity and through a haze of Alzheimer’s disease on her last St. Patrick’s Day on this earth,
Oh! How she ploughed the ocean the good ship Castle Down
the day we hung our colours out, the harp without the crown.
So many ships, imaginary and real, so much muddled cultural ballast listing to and fro in the hold. And among them, Shakespeare’s storm-blighted ships and the raft pushed off one of them, carrying Miranda, her father, Prospero, and his chest of books of magic, the raft which was to wash ashore on Caliban’s island, Caliban who first welcomed Prospero as a guest:—
‘And then I loved thee
And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.’
and who was then tricked, enslaved and brutalised by Prospero – so much cruelty justified in the name of European civility and prosperity. And in the Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta what books were stowed? In the cabin of stout Cortes’s galleon? Among the sea-charts and star-charts there were bibles surely, with their doctrine of of peace and love, a doctrine to be enlisted soon in the service of plunder and genocide.
And long before that, there were Homer’s fleets of narrow ships, massing at Aulis, their eyes turned eastwards and fixed on Troy – ships which possibly carried rudimentary maps but which carried no books at all because stories and myths were still sung or chanted, held together with rhyme, rhythm and rhetoric, as were the epics and the myths of the Charrúa, Chaná and Guaraní, the native people of what is now Uruguay, who were virtually eradicated two centuries ago, their songs and stories almost as obscure as the black waters flowing through the basement of El Galeón.
And before that again – how little we know of interior human life before the birth of books, before vellum manuscripts, papyrus scrolls, clay tablets, oracle bones – those many thousands of years of human life and intelligence of which only wisps of evidence have survived. Humanity is old and literacy is young, barely five thousand years old. Before that, almost all we know of human hopes and longings is surmise. Of our distant ancestors, we know little more of their inner lives than that they lamented their dead, turned towards the life-nourishing light and worshipped the arbitrary elemental powers which threatened and sustained them.
But when human intelligence made the enormous leap into abstraction, into literacy, a rush light was lit. By its glow we can read the carved inscriptions on turtle shells or ox scapulae which tell us of the genealogy of the Shang dynasty of China and of their hopes for good crops and successful military adventures; cuniform script on clay cylinders which gives the rations allocated to the imprisoned king of Judah during his captivity in Babylon; hieroglyphics which give us the autobiographies of the great and good of Egypt and guidance into their country of the dead. For the Egyptians, writing was ‘The Language of the Gods’.
For many, perhaps most, early peoples, writing, the preserve of a learned elite of druids and priests, was magic itself. For us, literacy is a listing galleon in which we travel, weighed down with laptops, kindles, mobile phones, novels, slim volumes of verse, newspapers, with power and with responsibility, the sails of our imaginations furled or set.