The late Roberto Bolaño recounting a visit to a bookstore in Santiago, Chile, after the coup that brought Pinochet to power.
What I 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 sometimes were veiled by a kind of film of sleep, which I now know was something else. I don’t remember ever seeing lonelier bookstores. I didn’t steal any books in Santiago. They were cheap and I bought them. At the last bookstore I visited, as I was going through a row of old French novels, the bookseller, a tall, thin man of about forty, suddenly asked whether I thought it was right for an author to recommend his own works to a man who’s been sentenced to death.
The bookseller was standing in a corner, wearing a white shirt with the sleeves 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 about? I asked. The bookseller looked at me and said that he knew for certain of more than one novelist capable of recommending his own books to a man on the verge of death. Then he said that we were talking about desperate readers. I’m hardly qualified to judge, he said, but if I don’t, no one will.
What book would you give to a condemned man? he asked me. I don’t know, I said. I don’t know either, said the bookseller, and I think it’s terrible. What books do desperate men read? What books do theylike? How do you imagine the reading room of a condemned man? he asked. I have no idea, I said. You’re young, I’m not surprised, he said. And then: it’s like Antarctica. Not like the North Pole, but like Antarctica. I was reminded of the last days of [Edgar Allan Poe’s] Arthur Gordon Pym, but I decided not to say anything. Let’s see, said the bookseller, what brave man would drop this novel on the lap of a man sentenced to death? He picked up a book that had done fairly well and then he 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 say: What kind of arrogant bastard would dare to do such a thing? And then he said something else, but I couldn’t hear what it was.
I'm haunted by those questions.
What books do desperate men read?
What books do they like?
How do you imagine the reading room of a condemned man?
On the one hand, I know the answers. The condemned, those who can read, read what they can get. And they read as widely as anyone else. For some it's the Bible or the Koran. For some the classics. For some comic books. For some it's political tracts or pornography if they can get them. And their reading room is, of course, a cell with steel walls and door or bars.
Of course, the men I know who are condemned aren't political prisoners in the same way as those awaiting execution from Pinochet. But still.
The Bolaño is from the New York Review of Books blog which reports that the essay it posted and I excerpted "is drawn from Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches (1998–2003) by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer, forthcoming from New Directions on May 30."
Criminal defense lawyer, public defender, civil libertarian (former Legal Director of American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio), anti-death penalty activist, public speaker.
After many years in private practice, I'm now a public defender in the Cuyahoga County Public Defender's Office.
My first career was English Professor. I studied medieval and renaissance English Literature, taught literature, film, and composition. I've been a film critic.
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