in Venice, 2010
that I remember best are the ones I stole in Mexico City, between the
sixteen and nineteen, and the ones I bought in Chile when I was twenty,
the first few months of the coup. In Mexico there was an incredible
It was called the Glass Bookstore and it was on the Alameda. Its walls,
the ceiling, were glass. Glass and iron beams. From the outside, it
impossible place to steal from. And yet prudence was overcome by the
to try and after a while I made the attempt.
book to fall into my hands was a small volume by [the nineteenth
poet] Pierre Louÿs, with pages as thin as Bible paper, I can’t remember
whether it was Aphrodite or Songs of Bilitis. I know that I was sixteen
that for a while Louÿs became my guide. Then I stole books by Max
Happy Hypocrite), Champfleury, Samuel Pepys, the Goncourt brothers,
Daudet, and Rulfo and Areola, Mexican writers who at the time were
or less practicing, and whom I might therefore meet some morning on
Niño Perdido, a teeming street that my maps of Mexico City hide from me
as if Niño Perdido could only have existed in my imagination, or as if
street, with its underground stores and street performers had really
just as I got lost at the age of sixteen.
mists of that era, from those stealthy assaults, I remember many books
poetry. Books by Amado Nervo, Alfonso Reyes, Renato Leduc, Gilberto
Heruta and Tablada, and by American poets, like General William Booth
Into Heaven, by the great Vachel Lindsay. But it was a novel that saved
hell and plummeted me straight back down again. The novel was The Fall,
Camus, and everything that has to do with it I remember as if frozen in
ghostly light, the still light of evening, although I read it, devoured
the light of those exceptional Mexico City mornings that shine—or
red and green radiance ringed by noise, on a bench in the Alameda, with
money and the whole day ahead of me, in fact my whole life ahead of me.
Camus, everything changed.
the edition: it was a book with very large print, like a primary school
slim, cloth-covered, with a horrendous drawing on the jacket, a hard
steal and one that I didn’t know whether to hide under my arm or in my
because it showed under my truant student blazer, and in the end I
out in plain sight of all the clerks at the Glass Bookstore, which is
the best ways to steal and which I had learned from an Edgar Allan Poe
after I stole that book and read it, I went from being a prudent reader
being a voracious reader and from being a book thief to being a book
I wanted to read everything, which in my innocence was the same as
uncover or trying to uncover the hidden workings of chance that had
Camus’s character to accept his hideous fate. Despite what might have
predicted, my career as a book hijacker was long and fruitful, but one
was caught. Luckily, it wasn’t at the Glass Bookstore but at the Cellar
Bookstore, which is—or was—across from the Alameda, on Avenida Juárez,
which, as its name indicates, was a big cellar where the latest books
Buenos Aires and Barcelona sat piled in gleaming stacks. My arrest was
It was as if the bookstore samurais had put a price on my head. They
to have me thrown out of the country, to give me a beating in the
cellar of the
Cellar Bookstore, which to me sounded like a discussion among
about the destruction of destruction, and in the end, after lengthy
deliberations, they let me go, though not before confiscating all the
had on me, among them The Fall, none of which I’d stolen there.
afterwards I left for Chile. If in Mexico I might have bumped into
Arreola, in Chile the same was true of Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn,
think the only writer I saw was Rodrigo Lira, walking fast on a night
smelled of tear gas. Then came the coup and after that I spent my time
the bookstores of Santiago as a cheap way of staving off boredom and
Unlike the Mexican bookstores, the bookstores of Santiago had no clerks
were run by a single person, almost always the owner. There I bought
Parra’s Obra gruesa [Complete Works] and the Artefactos, and books by
Lihn and Jorge Teillier that I would soon lose and that were essential
for me; although essential isn’t the word: those books helped me
breathe isn’t the right word either.
remember best about my visits to those bookstores are the eyes of the
booksellers, which sometimes looked like the eyes of a hanged man and
were veiled by a kind of film of sleep, which I now know was something
don’t remember ever seeing lonelier bookstores. I didn’t steal any
Santiago. They were cheap and I bought them. At the last bookstore I
as I was going through a row of old French novels, the bookseller, a
man of about forty, suddenly asked whether I thought it was right for
to recommend his own works to a man who’s been sentenced to death.
bookseller was standing in a corner, wearing a white shirt with the
rolled up to the elbows and he had a prominent Adam’s apple that
quivered as he
spoke. I said it didn’t seem right. What condemned men are we talking
asked. The bookseller looked at me and said that he knew for certain of
than one novelist capable of recommending his own books to a man on the
of death. Then he said that we were talking about desperate readers.
qualified to judge, he said, but if I don’t, no one will.
would you give to a condemned man? he asked me. I don’t know, I said. I
know either, said the bookseller, and I think it’s terrible. What books
desperate men read? What books do they like? How do you imagine the
room of a condemned man? he asked. I have no idea, I said. You’re
not surprised, he said. And then: it’s like Antarctica. Not like the
Pole, but like Antarctica. I was reminded of the last days of [Edgar
Poe’s] Arthur Gordon Pym, but I decided not to say anything. Let’s see,
the bookseller, what brave man would drop this novel on the lap of a
sentenced to death? He picked up a book that had done fairly well and
tossed it on a pile. I paid him and left. When I turned to leave, the
bookseller might have laughed or sobbed. As I stepped out I heard him
kind of arrogant bastard would dare to do such a thing? And then he
something else, but I couldn’t hear what it was.
is drawn from Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches
Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer, forthcoming from New
on May 30.
2011 12:15 p.m.