Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Solitude and the City - An Ibero-American Book Festival at Foyles

Foyles, as I recollect, used to be a pretty forbidding place. Books piled high and organised by publisher seemed to be arranged expressly to prevent frivolous activities like browsing. And the payment system (acquired, as events manager Andy Quinn reminds me, from Romania) entailed obtaining a ticket at one counter which you took to a cash desk to hand over your money before collecting your book.

It’s all very different now. A few years ago, when they stripped out the old shelves, they found piles of unsold books. An entire room of books was discovered, boarded up and forgotten, like a bibliophile’s tomb of Tutankhamen. The whole place is now light and airy, with chairs dotted about where you can sit and read a few pages before deciding to buy. There is a funky little café. And on the top floor is the Gallery, venue for the free early evening events that now run throughout the year.

I was there for the second night of the annual Ibero-American book festival, to hear Mexican writer Chloe Aridjis discuss her award-winning debut novel, The Book of Clouds.

Her protagonist, Tatiana is a Mexican Jewish girl, youngest of a family of five. Having won a year in Berlin as a prize for coming top in her German course, she has stayed on, largely solitary, drifting from one odd job to another. As we meet her, she is starting a job with an eccentric elderly historian, transcribing endless tapes into which he has poured his thoughts on the ‘phenomenology of space’ – the way that the history of Berlin has seeped into the fabric of the city.

Berlin is very much a parallel protagonist in the book – mysterious, troubled, still trying to come to terms with its own divided past. There is a recurring theme too about the disorienting effects of artificial light.

It is significant that Aridjis has chosen to write, not about Mexico, but about a city where she lived for five years. She believes that illumination comes from some sort of dislocation. This is echoed in the book, where the three turning points for Tatiana are three moment of profound dislocation – one in a decaying basement once used as a bowling alley by the Stasi (or was it the Gestapo?), one by moonlight amongst the 2711 concrete slabs of the Holocaust Memorial, and one in a dense and mysterious fog that descends on the city at a critical moment.

Aridjis has a Mexican father and an American mother and grew up fluently bilingual. She admits to feeling uncomfortable, at times, being identified as a Mexican writer. After all, here she is, writing in English, setting her books in European cities. Yet she feels Mexican. For her, the strangest thing about The Book of Clouds was to find herself writing the interior monologues of a Mexican character in English.

Aridjis is currently living in London and working on a London-based book, to be called Assunder. Here she addresses a different form of disassociation. Set in the National Gallery, her protagonists are museum guards - invisible by profession, by and large impervious to their surroundings.

After that, she says, she would like to write a book set in Mexico. By then she will have achieved the necessary detachment to write about her own country. And yes, one day she would like to try writing something in Spanish. Some short stories, perhaps.

It is going to be interesting to see how this cosmopolitan writer with a coolly detached eye portrays London. Assunder is a book to look out for.

And I shall be keeping an eye, too, on Foyles’ event list, now I know what an intriguing (and welcoming) place it has become.

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