This week, I went to Pablo Helguera’s bookstore installation Librería Donceles at the Kent Gallery in Chelsea. During the gathering, surrounded by used books in Spanish and old editions that are not in print anymore, the audience was encouraged to find a passage in any of the Spanish-only used books and share it out loud. Looking for rare gems, forgotten treasures of paragraphs and images, we shared our findings. This gathering called Tertulia takes place every Tuesday from 6-8 until November 8.
Inside the librería there where antique editions that are not in print anymore, children’s books with characters that made me dream and shaped my heros as a child, and books with categories which escaped classification. Helguera’s “books from my youth,” for example, followed a different logic contained by the timeline of age. My mother found her own copy of Adan BuenosAyres, by Leopoldo Marechal, a book which shaped her own adolescence growing up in Argentina. I also saw rare editions of Jose Lezama Lima’s Paradiso, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Tres Tristes Tigres (both Cuban authors) along with some translated William Faulkner novels. I encourage you to walk in and find your gem, one copy per person, and leave a donation.
A used book carries the tensions between the book as object, the presence of a personal memory, and its rendering to what is absent: the progressive yellowing of the pages, that smell of wood and paper, the fading of colors as palpable snapshots of time passing. Maurice Blanchot argues in his essay How is Literature Possible that the literary word is an abstraction used to refer to objects no longer present. It cannot express itself in a manner free of all ambiguity and dissimulation. So, when the object, or subject dies, what is left is the sign, the word, language, and the sign is also what is left through generations.
In a public sphere such as New York City, where Latin American culture is represented mostly through food, dance, or music, Helguera wanted to give spanish language its proper space through the literary word. With the intensity of a language spoken by nearly 2 million speakers in NYC, this installation resists the hierarchy of one over compassing language to give spanish the space it deserves. The word as an encrypted, yet dynamic trace left through generations.
The factors that prevent native speakers from having access to literature in Spanish are broad: English only policies in classrooms, a public sphere that is not always inclusive of the diversity of languages and cultures, a socio-economic working class with restricted access to culture, to start with some examples. In this sense, Helguera’s work, by making space for a native language in the written tradition, is resisting a monolingual, stagnant public sphere that ignores the diversity of languages and cultures (such is the case of the banned books in Arizona) and opening a space needed for the securing of a more dynamic public sphere.
Latinos, Spanish speakers, immigrants are sometimes the invisible inhabitants of this city, why not have a space to reconnect to a side of their identity through their native language in the form of writing? Books not only have an important role connecting Spanish speakers to a history and a past, but also to the literary word, to memory, to language as it comes: stagnant and dynamic, changeable and unchanging. The literary word and what is left at the end of the day when the subject is long gone.
(Images courtesy of Teodelina Basavilbasso: http://www.revistaohlala.com/weblogs/instantaneas-urbanas/)