Latin American Book Fairs: Hope for Civilization amidst the Torment of Crime

Two weeks ago, I attended the 4th Annual Book Fair of Chacao (4t0 Festival de La Lectura Chacao) in Caracas, Venezuela. [Click on that previous link for a lovely view of a main Caracas plaza lit up at night.]

This was the first book fair I’ve ever attended in my hometown, and despite the fact that it was raining the day I went, I was thrilled.

Located in Altamira Plaza, Caracas

It was lovely to see Venezuelans casually exploring the book fair, momentarily forgetting the perils of modern life in Caracas. This is a city whose crime rates have made it among the most dangerous cities in the world. In fact, my parents didn’t dare pick me up from the Maiquetía airport when I flew in. Considering the story I heard just a few days after I landed, of a 25 year old guy being shot to death in the airport parking lot while waiting to pick up his girlfriend (as reported in El Universal), I was thrilled they decided not to take the risk (a trusted driver was sent to pick me up).

And yet there I was, perusing books in a public space, like I was back in Boston. Among my spoils of the day was a Larousse English/Spanish dictionary, a Batman: Barcelona graphic novel with cover art done by Jim Lee (too intriguing to pass up), and copies of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and José Sarramago’s Death with Interruptions, both translated into Spanish, which I gave to my mom as early Mother’s Day gifts.

Last month, I heard Marjane Satrapi explain how culture does not protect humanity from atrocities, “if there is inequality in society.” And while I agree, it’s still so hard for me to reconcile how my home, a city seemingly disintegrating from unhindered crime, could also house something as lovely and civilized as this large book fair. Thankfully, I don’t have to reconcile the depressing and horrifying with the inspiring and hopeful: Mario Vargas Llosa, Peruvian Nobel Laureate, has already done it for me.

I read his article, “Books and Corpses” (Libros y Cadáveres, published in the Spanish newspaper EL PAíS) back in December, 2011. In this piece, Vargas Llosa skillfully portrays how barbarism can exist quite easily alongside enlightened thought. But no matter how bleak things can become, we must cling to the latter in moral defiance of the former. Here is the article (with rights reserved to Ediciones El País), translated by yours truly into English:

Books and Corpses

Mario Vargas Llosa

Between the 21st and 23rd of November, there were kidnappings in the poor slums of Guadalajara (Jalisco), or what Mexicans refer to as “abductions” [levantones]. Almost all the victims were young laborers–deliverymen, electricians, mechanics, stall owners, junk dealers, bakers–and some of them had police records for misdemeanors like street muggings or car thefts.

One day later, on the 24th, all of them–26 total–reappeared dead, with their hands and feet bound, with bullet wounds to the head and some showing signs that they had been tortured. The murderers stuffed the 26 corpses into three stolen trucks which they abandoned near the Millennium Arches, right in the center of the city and only a few blocks from the site where, two days later, the inauguration of the 25th International Book Fair [Feria Internacional del Libro de Guadalajara] would take place, no doubt the most important of the many book fairs celebrated in the Spanish-speaking world.

Who committed this horrible crime, and why? According to a chilling report which appeared in the weekly Proceso, on November 27th, the killers where hit men for one of the most powerful drug cartels, the Zeta-Milenio, which used the massacre simply to warn a rival cartel, the Pacífico, of what awaited them if they continued to extend their network into Jalisco grounds, which the zetas consider exclusively their territory. What’s particularly hair-raising about this story isn’t just the horrendous excess of cruelty committed by these outlaws on this occasion, but rather that atrocities of this nature are frequent in various parts of Mexico, where nearly 50,000 people have perished since the government of president Felipe Calderón decided to militarily engage the drug cartels which had begun to infiltrate the winding paths of the State like a hydra, beginning with the police forces.

It was an act of courage to declare this war, which undoubtedly has served to shine a light on and display the enormous economic and military power of this monster dwelling in the bowels of Mexican society, but it also has proved how chimeric it is in this day and age to believe that one can eradicate drug trafficking and the delinquency and crime it generates through mere repression. The beast has grown too large and has too many resources at its disposal to be able to be completely defeated by force. It breeds like the serpents from Medusa’s head, and the violence it unleashes may soon dismantle the functioning of all institutions and turn democracy into its own caricature.

Proceso reproduced the message that the authors of the massacre left scrawled on one of the trucks. It’s enough to try and read it to realize just what an indescribable mishmash of disgrace, cruelty, and stupidity guides these outlaws. They begin by warning that “this fight isn’t with the civilian population. It’s with el Chapo and Mayo Zambada who are itching for a fight and don’t even defend their land.” They accuse their enemies of being “American spies” and ask the people of Jalisco to “remove the blindfold from their eyes.” They add: “We leave you these dead guys. Yes, we ‘abducted’ them so you can see that without any fucker’s help we’re in all the way up to your kitchen.” They sign-off in this boastful way: “Sincerely, Group Z, the strong national cartel. The only cartel which doesn’t spy for the Americans. Loyalty, honor, Group Z, always loyal” (I’ve added the punctuation to make this synthetic mess of a message a bit more comprehensible). What they seem to want to say is very simple: “We killed these 26 just to prove that we can.” They had no grudges against any of their victims. They wiped them out just so that the enemy would know that they have the means to take anyone out who dares dispute the monopoly they have won through money and bullets.

Does this mean that Mexico will continue to sink into barbarism, irreversibly?

Not at all. I arrived at the city of Guadalajara two days after that massacre, stayed in that city for four days, and didn’t see a single corpse or a single scene of violence. Rather, morning, noon, and night I was surrounded by books and cultured people, passionate about art, ideas, music, poetry, novels, men and women who attended en masse to listen to presentations on literary novelties, dialogues and debates between writers, philosophers, political scientists, critics, and masses of people who exited the endless stands of the Fair with enormous bags full of the books they had just purchased. I had a public talk with Herta Muller about literary vocation, and I don’t think either of us had ever seen a more attentive or larger audience, some 1,800 spectators. Anybody who had only lived through that experience would have concluded that Mexico is quite far from barbarism and is one of the most civilized, free, and educated countries in the world.

The truth is, Mexico, like the rest of Latin America and a good part of the world, is now two things at once. If, in the old days, it seemed that civilization and barbarism had very clearly defined parameters and were antagonists, today we discover that that was yet another illusion we fabricated to feel less insecure in the world we live in. Thanks to religious and political fanaticism and its symbol–the suicide terrorist–and to the criminality which the drug industry generates everywhere, along with factors such as enormous economic inequalities, the collapse of spiritual and religious values, and general indifference for the law, barbarism is today an essential ingredient of civilization, one of its expressions. It isn’t a coincidence that in Norway, which seemed a mini paradise, the savior of humanity Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 innocent people last July 22nd, merely to send a message to the adversary, like the Mexican zetas do.

When he remembers that the Holocaust was the work of the same country from which came Goethe, Beethoven, Rilke, and Thomas Mann, George Steiner comes to this conclusion: “The humanities do not humanize.” Maybe he’s right, maybe it’s true that culture doesn’t defend us against the Thanatic instinct towards death and destruction that battles in our being against the constructive, supportive, and vital Eros.

But perhaps the proximity of danger and horror acts as a powerful incentive for the ongoing task of culture, imbues it with bewitching attraction and a magical force that we unconsciously gravitate towards in the search for comfort, help, safety, when the floor seems to be giving away beneath our feet. Does that explain the extraordinary audience of youths, from all the provinces of Mexico, that attended the Book Fair of Guadalajara? The three or four times I’ve been there, the outstanding presence of boys and girls has always drawn my attention. And this year there has been an infinitely greater number, including a large number of kids which populated the children’s literature stalls. Those thousands of boys and girls circulating every corner of the Fair, standing in long lines to attend the programmed events, thumbing through the books on the shelves or reading sprawled on the floor or crammed into the cafes and lounges, seemingly immune against the dangers which raze the streets of Mexico, out of reach of the half-literate gunmen, armed with the most modern weapons of the war industry, who “abduct” defenseless passerby and kill them only to show their rivals how ferocious and lethal they are.

The Book Fair of Guadalajara began a quarter of a century ago without putting on airs, but it has grown systematically, nonstop, and now it’s an international gathering attended by editors, agents, booksellers, writers, and readers from all the countries of the globe. It owes its notable success to the fact that it has known how to combine the industrial and commercial with the cultural, a market which is also a hotbed of creative activity in which intellectuals and writers from all cultures participate in. It no longer only exists in the State of Jalisco. Since last year, it is also celebrated in Los Angeles, and I believe it is the only fair in the United States exclusively devoted to books in Spanish.

No doubt, it’s a beautiful and gratifying show. It’s also an homage to 26 poor devils mercilessly sacrificed for the brother-hating, narcotrafficking wars. Because there is nothing further from death, cruelty, or brutality than the love of books.

Original article to be found here.

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One Response to Latin American Book Fairs: Hope for Civilization amidst the Torment of Crime

  1. Pingback: Desire to Translate Culture | The Educated Translator

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