Heartwood 10:3 – The Literary Sphere

The impetus for today’s post is the similarities between books by two writers from two different continents; one young and living in Paris, the other an Argentine, recently deceased. Things kind of snowball from there.

Our Riches by Algerian author Kaouther Adimi, now living in Paris, is a love letter of a novel to the real-life Algiers bookseller and publisher Edmond Charlot who opened Les Vraies Richesses (Our True Wealth) in 1935. The multi-award-winning book jumps backward and forward in time from the 1930s to the present day. It interweaves Charlot’s journal entries about the bookstore and his publishing projects, historic footnotes to WWII and French-Algerian postwar tensions, and chapters about a young man sent by the bookstore’s new owner to clear it out so he can convert it into a bakery.

There’s an almost documentary feel to much of the writing, and indeed Adimi provides a list of sources and a note of thanks to several of Charlot’s literary friends for sharing stories (the Wikipedia page on Charlot confirms the factual nature of many of the elements found in the novel). Charlot’s journal entries offer up a lot of detail about the world of the publisher/bookseller, and a treasure trove of encounters with famous authors such as Albert Camus, André Gide, Philippe Soupault, and many others. These very short notes about his everyday projects and challenges resonate with a trilogy of books by Ricardo Piglia in which he also chronicles his book-world pursuits (I’ve written about Piglia previously here).
The Diaries of Emilio Renzi include the occasional lengthier piece of creative writing, but mostly they are composed of brief journal entries that begin with the alter-ego narrator’s first encounter with books, and his ongoing obsessions with reading and writing, including his long-term involvement in the bustling Buenos Aires publishing world in the mid-20th century (he mentions “temples of used bookstores,” but did not appear to work in one). In the course of these entries he engages with such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Manuel Puig, and notes the influence of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Raymond Chandler on his own writing. He also provides insights into writers such as Tolstoy, Cervantes, and Kafka, and many, many others. In a style similar to Adimi’s novel, Piglia’s books also record the pressures, frenzy, intellectual stimulation, and financial challenges of working in literary publishing while also recording details of the frequent political strife in Argentina at that time. The third volume of the trilogy is scheduled to be released this October.

These books will have the most appeal for world-literature bibliophiles but they have also caused me to reflect on the interrelated spheres of writing, publishing, bookselling, and libraries. A number of well-known authors have opened bookstores, which strikes me as a very generous way of embracing the literary community. Sylvia Beach, founder of the Paris bookstore and lending library, Shakespeare and Co., famously brought James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses into the world, and Lawrence Ferlighetti’s publishing/bookselling enterprise, City Lights, made waves when it published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956, and went on to publish the work of other Beat writers along with many other authors up to the present day. More recently, in the book-saturated sliver of the internet where I tend to lurk, there was quite a bit of enthusiasm when Deep Vellum opened its Dallas-based bookstore and started publishing some phenomenal literature in translation (including the Trilogy of Memory by Sergio Pitol which shares similar literary enthusiasms as those found in Piglia’s Diaries and Adimi’s book). In Adimi’s novel, Charlot’s bookstore, Les Vraies Richesses, also served as a lending library to students who didn’t have enough money to buy books; for a local lending library example, check out Seattle’s own Folio (though you won’t be able to visit while we’re in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic). And now a number of bookstores offer print-on-demand publishing options for local authors, including Bellingham’s Village Books, and at least one public library is doing the same.

Are you aware of other real-world literary bookstore/publishing ventures or related hybrids? Share them in the comments. In the meantime, as a lover of good books, why not rub elbows with Charlot or Renzi or Pitol, and reflect upon the riches of world literature?

(And if you love bookstores, now would be a good time to show your support. Find local independent bookstores in your community at IndieBound, or consider making a purchase at a Black-owned, independent bookstore.)

Heartwood 7:2 – Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia

target-in-the-nightTarget in the Night by feted, recently deceased, Argentinian author Ricardo Piglia is a beautifully constructed novel featuring a number of interrelated stories, distinctly individualized characters, and stylish storytelling.

On its surface we have the murder of Tony Durán who came from the U.S. to a provincial town outside of Buenos Aires with lots of cash and a connection to the twin Belladona sisters. Attempting to solve Durán’s murder is Croce, the quixotic, Holmesian detective who has a long history of butting heads with local prosecutor Cueto.

The murder involved a knifing and the apparent use of a defunct dumbwaiter to lower down cash from the victim’s hotel room. The latter may also have provided the means of escape for a small person. Indeed the chief suspect is a Japanese jockey by the name of Yoshio, and his alleged act is being called a crime of passion. Other suspects include various members of the Belladona family, and a different jockey, who may have been paid to make the hit as he was in need of cash to buy a beloved, injured horse.

Woven into the story are scenes at the racetrack, the Belladona brothers and their fortress-like factory for cutting-edge automotive prototypes on the outskirts of town, a reporter (Renzi) from the city who has come to report on the murder, and a slowly unfolding history of the town and life on the Argentinian pampas that brings to mind García Márquez’s mythical town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The Belladona family are prominent citizens in the community but are described as being currently at war with each other. We learn of their family history in ways that are fascinating and add layers of intrigue. For example, Renzi has a long talk with the twin, Sophia (eventually leading to intimacy), which unfolds episodically throughout the novel. And Renzi discovers more details about the Belladonna family with the help of the town’s efficient archivist, Rosa, revealing a family schism and the attempt to appropriate the Belladona factory and surrounding lands through a corporate takeover.

In addition to all this, Piglia’s various characters have peculiar interests that include a fascination with language and syntax, dreams and the work of Carl Jung, literature and philosophy, quasi-mysticism, rationalism, madness, perception and the idée fixe. Target in the Night is a wonderful amalgam of detective story and classical tragedy told in voices that vary from Chandler to Pynchon to Bolaño. Readers in need of cleanly wrapped up narratives should probably look elsewhere, but for those who are open to ambiguity and enjoy finely realized characters, myriad subject matter, and punchy yet graceful writing — definitely give this book a look.

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Blanco nocturno (Target in the Night) was awarded the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize in 2011. For more about the author see the Piglia Dossier in the first issue of the new journal, Latin American Literature Today.