Jonathan Safran Foer and the not-so-magical reality of books in Bogotá

“I mean, if you think about it, the New Testament is basically just magical realism. Unless you, er, take the whole thing literally…”

That was my favourite quote – a few words that made me glad I’d braved the afternoon rains to see the American author, Jonathan Safran Foer, speak at the famous Bogotá book fair.

Magical realism, if you didn’t already know, is a literary style where the supernatural is blurred with “real life” in a manner far cleverer and more evocative than that bald little explanation might suggest.

Colombia’s Nobel literature laureate Gabriel García Márquez famously cannot resist mixing a bit of wizardry into the everyday well of human shortcomings and ever since he did so liberally in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Colombians have claimed magical realism as their own.

They just don’t normally hear anyone claiming Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and co were doing the same thing almost two thousand years ago and not least when their stories would eventually end up in the Good Book. Luckily, Mr Safran Foer had the good grace to smile in the face of potentially dangerous territory.

“I better be careful now,” he grinned, a Jew from New York City speaking to an audience in an outwardly conservative Roman Catholic country. But his words passed apparently without offence, as well they should.

In fact, it was another “know your audience” moment that was far more telling – and gave a good insight into some of the misconceptions that exist about Colombians.

“I couldn’t imagine who would possibly come tonight,” Mr Safran Foer continued, explaining his surprise that Colombians – “who might not necessarily speak the same language as me or come from the same socio-economic background” – would want to know anything about his novels.

(These include Everything is Illuminated – which is drenched in magical realism – and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, both of which, incidentally, are mainstream enough to have become Hollywood movies. The latter stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock)

It may have surprised Mr Safran Foer, then, not only how many people braved Bogotá’s bastard weather to see him, but how many exciteable young Colombians were desperate to quiz him, in English, after the event – on everything from plots to inspiration.

I’ve lived here for almost two years now and it didn’t surprise me at all. One of the first Colombians I met, Eduardo, demonstrated to me the importance this society places on literature.

He didn’t like books at all – in fact, he hated reading – but he was so desperate to ‘fit in’ he lived in perpetual denial (his friends used to call him ‘Cliff notes’ and warned me that if he ever started waxing lyrical about a novel, I should just ask him how it finished)

Still, Eduardo would gleefully pretend to have read everything from Sherlock Holmes to The Count of Montecristo. Coming from England – where my old newspaper colleagues used to refer to my Book Club as ‘Lesbian Club’ – it was very strange indeed. Reading back home is just something some people enjoy. Carrying around a copy of Pride and Prejudice hardly makes you cool.

But this is Bogotá, the ‘Athens’ of Latin America, or rather it used to be – because nowadays the state of reading, or access to reading, in this city seems more like a Greek tragedy. Forget whether or not Bogotanos love books, the not-so-magical reality here is that most people can’t afford them.

Just look at Colombia’s most famous work. A paperback copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, new, will set you back something like 20,000 pesos (£7) Now while that might seem a reasonable price in England, this is Colombia. That kind of money could buy you three three-course lunches or 13 bus journeys. In English terms, it’s more like £20. Here, it’s a day’s work on the minimum wage. For a paperback book. Would you?

And if you consider the inability to buy new books just another misfortune of life in Latin America, consider this instead. The Colombian Government has even passed a law which appears specifically designed to make books cheaper.

The beautifully titled Law of the Book or Book Act (la Ley del Libro) exempts book publishers from having to pay tax on their profits. But if the savings enabled by this law aren’t passed onto consumers in the form of cheaper books, where exactly is the money going? Does it just disappear in a puff of smoke? I doubt even the magical realists would buy that one.

Worth a fortune?
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3 Comments

  1. lablogotana

    One of the things I miss most about the UK is the bookshops. Here there are so few! And when you do find one all the books are hideously expensive (I’ve been here long enough to think like a Colombian now!) *and* wrapped in clingfilm. Wtf?
    What happened to browsing while you wait for a friend?
    What happened to getting hooked after the first couple of pages and buying it to finish at home?
    Such an expensive object that we have no way of checking before we buy is too much of a risk.
    No wonder there are so many pirate/second hand books on market stalls 😀

  2. Tigre

    Interesting post, and it really does show that Safran Foer had no idea who his audience was. Tragic, but typical. And the Old Testament isn’t ripe with magical realism?

    La Ley del Libro is a very exciting and positive measure that will have great impact throughout Colombia.

    lablogotana there are over 100 bookshops in Bogota, including a vast district of book malls and stalls. I would hardly call that “so few!” Yes, it is frustrating that most volumes are sealed, but you can ask the attendant if they can unwrap it for you, much like sampling a CD before buying. Yes, the prices are high, but the rewards are priceless.

    You can review a comprehensive listing of booshops at http://www.bogotabrilliance.com/index.php?id=143

    Happy reading!

  3. bananaskinflipflops

    Wow, that is such a comprehensive list!

    I guess the book shops, like every shop here that sells something specific, are more or less concentrated in one place – and I guess the ones that sell new books have to be in places frequented by people who can afford them… La Blogotana, you’re going to have to learn to judge a book by its cover (hardly environmentally friendly though eh???)

    As for la Ley del Libro benefiting people, I guess that depends on whether publishers choose to follow the spirit or the letter of the law.

    Doesn’t trouble me though, I got a Kindle for Christmas. Good luck to the rest of you!!! Mwahahahahahaha!!! (I may be open to bribes and loans of said Kindle. Chocolate, as always, is a good place to start)

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