Book buying can be exquisite torture. Do we limit ourselves to a specific budget or a certain number of titles? If we can’t afford books, then with any luck there’s a well-stocked public library close, but borrowing a book is never the same as owning the book, is it?
The bookseller who narrates Severina is part owner of La Entretenida, a small, basement bookshop “recently opened with a group of friends” in a Guatemalan town. He’s just broken up with his “latest” girlfriend, a Colombian woman, and he describes the relationship as “both simple and impossibly complicated, a waste of time or a wonderful adventure, depending on your point of view.” That sentence is emblematic of this entire novella, for the author drops hints but leaves large, mysterious gaps for us to fill in.
One day he notes a female customer who arrives in a rainstorm during the middle of a poetry reading, She doesn’t buy anything, but the bookseller knows she will return, and in a sense he waits for that to happen. During her next visit to the bookshop, she steals two books from the Japanese literature section, but when she leaves the shop the alarm fails to sound. This leaves the bookseller wondering “how she’d done it.” He’s intrigued–not just by her skill as a shoplifter, but he’s also curious about which titles she steals and why. She returns and steals again…
A few days later we received a batch of books that included a collection of translations from Russian. They were small, sextodecimo-format volumes with engravings and gilded initials; beautifully crafted, a pleasure to read, perfect as jewels. I put them on a shelf quite close to the cash register, but made sure that some couldn’t be seen by the person who was serving. Those volumes were for her.
This is, of course, a trap set to catch the mystery woman.
The most difficulty I had with this novel came through the bookseller allowing the woman to steal books and not immediately confront her, but of course, the bookseller is already entranced with the woman and intrigued by her reading choices. (And the failure to confront the woman for her theft is addressed later by the actions of another character). The bookseller begins keeping a list of what the woman steals in order to gain insight into her mind. He also wonders why she’s stealing. Is she unable to buy books? Does she believe that books should be free? Is she a kleptomaniac? Or is she something much more dangerous….
A confrontation with the woman leads to a relationship of sorts but it’s difficult and fraught with inconsistencies (or lies). Who is the man she lives with? What exactly is their relationship? Where does she disappear to, and what sort of game is she playing with the booksellers? As the bookseller grows increasingly closer to the woman and the details of her life, a dream-like quality descends upon the bare facts he’s able to ascertain. Proximity only brings more mystery.
You have to read Severina closely to pick up the clues because our narrator is, at least for some of the story, blinded by love. He’s focused on the thief whose name may be Ana or may be Severina depending on who she’s talking to, and she lives with Senor Blanco, her husband or her father or her grandfather depending on which version of events you choose to believe. And why does the mystery man look different later in the story? Our bookseller doesn’t ask enough questions. Alternately passive and assertive at all the wrong times, he is not the master of his own fate.
Another intriguing aspect of this novella is that while it is ostensibly a love story, that’s only because our narrator fails to look beyond the surface of things. He doesn’t want to know the know the truth; deeply locked into his obsession, he chooses to ignore the many warning signs.
Underneath the love story, there are hints of a troubled society:
Bookshops are infested with ideas. Books are quivering, murmuring creatures. That’s what one of my business partners used to say. He was a poet, quite a clever guy (though not as clever as he thought), and likeable enough. There’s something to it: the three little Russian books stood there on the shelf next to the cash register for several days, murmuring, quivering, preserving her memory, but she didn’t return. Those were eventful days, or rather I heard that they’d been eventful (there was a rash of lynchings in the inland villages and a coup in a neighboring country, cocaine became the world’s number one illicit substance, stagnant water was discovered on Mars, and Pluto definitively lost its status as a planet), my life having shrunk once more to the ambit of books; I had become another specimen of that sad type, the book seller with literary aspirations.
There’s so much buried in the passage, and it’s a great example of how Guatemalan author Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s spare style contains many layers. Just what is he hinting at that when he mentions this friend of his in the past tense who was “not as clever as he thought” ? The past tense hints that the friendship has moved on or that the friend is dead, and the phrase that he wasn’t as clever as he thought hints at a dark fate. Then the bookseller describes events outside of his own mundane existence and the worlds of possibility that ripple out from the bookshop with increasing distance–the inland villages, the next country, the entire planet and then planets in outer space. This description places our vulnerable bookseller squarely in his miniscule life, a dull, tedious existence that he considers fairly meaningless while there’s some much else out there in the universe.
On a final note, the narrator lists the books that Severina steals and some of the titles were completely new to me. I knew that the books she stole had some sort of meaning, a message that is pertinent to her life and/or her actions, and the introduction to my Yale University Press edition (from the Margellos World Republic of Letters book series) offers a wonderful amount of information, but it also contains spoilers, so I’d recommend saving that for last.
Translated by Chris Andrews