An Excerpt from The Wild Book
Since its founding in 2013, Brooklyn-based independent publisher Restless Books has established itself as one of the most cutting-edge publishers of translated literature in the U.S. In the four years since its founding, its catalogue has grown to include some of the most important names in contemporary Latin American literature, both emerging and established, among them Andrés Neuman, Juan Villoro, Ricardo Piglia, Yoss, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Fernanda Torres, and Carlos Fonseca, and such notable translators as Nick Caistor, Alfred MacAdam, Lawrence Schimel, Megan McDowell, and Achy Obejas. Latin American Literature Today is excited to partner with Restless Books, via Editor and Marketing Director Nathan Rostron, to bring readers previews of forthcoming translations, beginning with Lawrence Schimel’s translation of Juan Villoro’s The Wild Book, which is scheduled to be published in October 2017 as part its new YA imprint Yonder.
My confidence to explore the library increased, but as I didn't find what I was looking for my mood changed. I scanned the shelves differently. First with curiosity, then with desperation, finally with urgency.
My feet hurt and I was starving when I discovered that I was lost. What I had most feared had happened. My bravery had led me to carelessness. Uncle Tito had cautioned me to learn to manage my strength, but I understood too late.
I shook the bell for a long time, but in vain.
I was in a room with an arched ceiling. High above me I thought I saw a dove painted, or perhaps it was a whitish stain from the saltpeter. The room had four doors and I didn't recognize any of them.
I had already gotten lost on other occasions without this being a problem, since I had not gone very far from the living room and the kitchen.
"Uncle Tito!" I shouted.
The books absorbed my words. There were so many of them and they were so thick that they ate up any sound.
"Eufrosia!" that shout wasn't heard either.
It was no use wasting my strength shouting. What would Ernesto and Marina have done in a similar situation? They oriented themselves easily in the forest and in a certain way the library was a forest: the pages of the books came from trees. How would my heroes have gotten out of a written forest?
If I were the character of a story and I was on page 83, what would I do to reach the next chapter?
These ideas helped me to not feel desperate. Since there were four doors, I thought that they represented the directions of a map: North, South, East and West.
I went to the door that represented West for me. I peeked into a large salon. Astonishingly, it contained no books but instead dried animal heads. One of my uncles had been a famous hunter.
There were deer, rams, boars, coyotes, wolves, and a bear. I would have preferred to see those animals in the forest of the stories (except for the bear and the wolves, who had enormous fangs). In any event, I admired the beauty of those savage animals. Some of the deer had enormous antlers. Uncle Tito had told me that the importance of an antler was measured by the number of points it had. I counted all of them and saw that there was one with fourteen points. Who would have dared to kill that king of the deer? I was ashamed that someone of my own family might have once done so. The deer had black glass eyes. Its gray pelt darkened under its eyes, following a track that looked like a tear or perhaps a question mark. This gave the animal a sad aspect, as if it had cried. I didn't think that the exit could be in that direction and decided to try another room.
This time I went to the door that represented East for me. Once again I entered a room that held no books. An empty room. I approached one of the walls. It was covered in damp spots. Saltpeter covered the service with enormous bubbles. Books would have been destroyed in this place. Why hadn't they called a plumber? The house was stranger than I had imagined.
In this room there were statues of people reading. From their clothes, I understood that they were ancient people. At the base of each one I found inscriptions in unknown languages.
For a moment I thought that they were men who had become petrified in the library. Perhaps it was a strange museum of readers.
The dust made me sneeze and I preferred to leave.
I peeked through the South door but I didn't dare enter that room, full of diminutive books, as if the library had shrunk. I was agitated to see so many tiny books, printed with text the size of an ant's eye. What a terrible effort it would be to read all those volumes! If there was a copy of one of the stories of The Heart-Shaped River there, it would have stood out like a giant among elves. I had to look elsewhere.
I decided to try the North door, the last one left. This time I didn't know what lay on the other side because everything was dark. I had never experienced a greater darkness. My eyes filled with black air. I held a finger before my eyelashes and I couldn't see it.
I took one step, and a second, and I was afraid of getting lost. I turned around, I had made the mistake of closing the door and now I couldn't see it! I tried to walk toward it. I touched the wall, feeling all along it, but my hands didn't manage to find any trace of the door nor the jamb. That wall was despairingly smooth.
What was I to do? My heart pounded in my chest. I stood in silence for a moment, listening to my agitated breathing.
Suddenly, a pleasant smell reached me, as if there were a slight current. If air moved that meant that there must be a window somewhere.
What did that current of air smell like? Like the sheets at home. A clean smell that made you feel happy.
I moved in that direction but then paid dearly for my daring. I banged heavily into something solid. I touched it carefully: it was a bookshelf. I caressed the spine of a book, a smooth spine, made from leather. Although I couldn't see anything, I opened it and ran my hands over its pages; I felt the raised bumps of writing for the blind. I touched dots and small dashes. These must be the books of my great uncle, Tito's father, who had become blind. That's why the room was so dark.
The darkness wasn't due to anything malign. For my grand uncle this was surely a quiet and pleasant place, where he could read books that transported him to brilliant worlds full of color.
This idea calmed me and let me keep moving between the bookcases.
From time to time I stopped to touch some pages, just for the pleasure of doing so. My fingers slid over the letters for the blind. I tried to imagine what those little points and lines meant for someone who knew how to read by touch: battles, desert crossings, dragons with mouths of flame, ships about to founder.
I was doing just this when I heard a sound. A book fell from somewhere. Immediately afterwards, other books fell to the floor. Was there someone there?
I shouted as loud as I could. The books swallowed my words and the room returned to silence. Not the slightest whisper could be heard.
I was overcome by a terrible fright, as if the wall from my nightmares lay at the end of the room. Had I finally fallen into my own dream? I wanted to run through all the rooms of the house to forget that scarlet room, but now I felt trapped there. At what moment did I believe myself to be so brave as to go this far? And if I suddenly heard a woman's cries? I covered my ears.
Then I sat down on the floor, unable to move. I spent a long while like that.
Suddenly, I felt something at the nape of my neck. A page from a book. The worst thing is that it wasn't a still page. It was a page that had moved. I could feel it like a caress.
I thought that someone was going to kill me and I thought of all the things I would never be able to do again. I thought of my sister Carmen and my mother's smile, of my father, of my curious and beloved uncle, of Pablo, my great friend, and then, with a strong trembling, I thought of Catalina and her honey-colored eyes, which made me feel like a better person when she looked at me. Seated there in the darkness, surrounded by an unknown danger, I knew that I had too many things to lose if I didn't get out of that room.
I stood up, a bit stiff from having sat so long. I thought I could make out a gust of fresh air to my right. I moved in that direction.
Another book fell right beside me, then a second. Who was throwing them? What the hell was going on?
I thought I was going crazy. Then I remembered something that uncle Tito has said: when the books know that they're not seen, they might cause a storm. This time they didn't slide discretely toward me, without my seeing them advance; they leaped and jumped from everywhere.
The books moved in any way they wanted to. They acted at whim, but not necessarily against me. Perhaps they were having fun. I calmed down a little and managed to move between them better.
I had to hurry to reach the exit before the books could block it.
I walked as fast as I could, leaping over books, stepping on some, and little by little I understood what was happening. Under my feet, the books were forming into a stairway. They didn't want to block my leaving, they were trying to help.
I climbed up and up, using the books as steps. I thought that my head must bang against the ceiling, but the room was very tall, perhaps the tallest in the entire house.
I was exhausted from climbing the books which kept creating new steps. Then I felt something delicious: fresh wind on my face. There had to be a window near there.
My hands managed to touch the wall. I carefully felt along the surface until I made out a hollow space. I peeked into it: it gave onto a narrow tunnel. At the end of it I saw a small pale, circle: the sky.
I climbed into the tunnel, barely bigger than my body, and crawled forward.
After a few minutes, I reached the end. I looked down and could see the garden. I had never been so high up in a house. I reached out and my hands touched something metallic. It was a ladder, like those in a ship. I could climb down it.
I went down into the garden. I was astonished by my adventure, my head full of roiling ideas, but I couldn't think of anything because I heard my uncle's voice.
"I've been waiting for you for five cups of tea, now," he said, smiling. "I see you discovered the room of the shadow books. My father liked to lock himself in there. He liked to be alone, in the dark, without anyone to bother him. Sometimes I joined him there, with a book and a flashlight. This one you've brought with you must come from that period."
"What book I've brought with me?" I asked, very surprised.
"The one sticking out of the pocket of your jacket."
I felt in all my pockets. With enormous surprise, I saw that a book had fallen into one of them.
But that impressed me much less than the title: A Discovery on the Heart-Shaped River.
I had never seen my uncle in the garden. He walked on the grass in a funny way, as if he were afraid of squishing it.
I wasn't surprised when he said, "Enough fresh air. Let's go back to the house."
He headed toward the door that led to the greenhouse.
Eufrasia had left there a thermos of tea, a glass of chocolate milk, and boar's ham sandwiches.
I asked my uncle what had happened.
"You need to recover your strength after your big adventure," he answered. "You're making great progress. You've already discovered the room with the stuffed animals and the room with the statues. You've reached them much sooner than I imagined. Did you see the photographs?"
"Of the family. They're hanging on the wall, in the room with the statues. They're in one corner."
"I didn't see them."
"I'm not surprised. The statues have much more presence. In any case, I recommend you pay more attention. Sometimes secrets are in the small details."
"And who hunted those animals?"
"Our ancestors were great hunters. They were rather primitive people who thought that killing could be a sport. I prefer adventures where nobody loses any blood."
"In the stories of the river, sometimes there is an accident and someone gets cut and they lose blood," I commented.
"And it's right that things should be that way; those adventures take place in a forest full of dangers. The blood that bothers me is the stuff that drips in real life. Luckily, there are people like your friend in the pharmacy who can bandage one up again."
I was surprised. I thought my visits to Catalina were a secret.
"Who told you that I have a friend in the pharmacy?" I asked.
"The fount of information in this house: Eufrosia."
"What a gossiper!"
"She is only looking out for your own good. She told me that the girl in question is named Catalina, that she is pretty and loves books. It seems that you've loaned her some from this library."
I thought that uncle Tito was going to reproach me for having done so, but he added in good humor, "You shouldn't feel bad. Books exist to be shared. Moreover, it's always good to have close at hand someone who can ease your pains with creams and pills. Speaking of which: how long as it been since you haven't taken your iron? Your mother instructed me to make sure you took it."
"I no longer need it," I answered. "I haven't had any cramps."
I thought he was going to force me to drink those disgusting spoonfuls of black syrup that tasted like nails. But instead he said, "You're maturing, my nephew. Besides, I don't like that they make syrups of things you can eat naturally. Whoever wants iron, should chew spinach or eat a nice liver steak. Or if they're very desperate, they can lick a knife. Sometimes science exaggerates and wants to five us pills and syrups for everything. In no time they're going to invent a syrup for books and concentrate all stories into a single spoonful."
Once more, Tito was wandering on a tangent. It was difficult for him to follow the thread of a conversation.
I took a delicious sip of chocolate and asked him, "Why do you have statues in the house?"
"For the same reason I keep those stuffed animals: they're lovely and I haven't dared to throw them out. My great-great grandfather ordered them made, in the Greek style. They are statues of great readers. Before, there was a statue in every room of the house, as a sort of guardian. But they were very scary. Just imagine if you wake up at night, needing to take a leak, you get out of bed and see an enormous man made from marble. Not everyone recovers from such a shock. That's why I sent them all to the Room of Readers. If someone is interested in the faces of the first people who read for pleasure, they can go and visit them. I also recommend you take a look at the photographs of the family. There you'll find people you know and, by the way, how did you get on with the shadow books?"
"They moved?! Why didn't you tell me before? And we're sitting here nattering about sucking on knives!"
My uncle brought his face up close to mine. He hadn't shaved in a few days and his bristles resembled porcupine spines. He smelled of worn sheets. It was a relief when he pulled back and asked more calmly, "Did they move a little or a lot?"
"Did they move like vipers do, without your seeing them in the grass, or did they move like a storm?"
"Neither of those two ways."
"Can you describe what happened?" He gave me a sandwich and said, "Boar's ham clears the mind. Chew and then swallow a bite. I am all aquiver to hear your response."
I liked the sandwich more than ever. It was lighter and tastier than the best salami.
"Go on," my uncle said.
"First I thought that the books were falling."
"Falling like rain or falling like a waterfall?"
"One by one."
"Rockfall!" uncle said, with full assurance.
"Then I thought they were going to squash me."
"Squash you like one squashes an ant or like you've been hit with a pillow?" Uncle had a non-stop curiosity for every last details.
"Squash as if everything were trembling and suddenly came crashing down."
"Trembling books! That hasn't happened in a long time. They need a special shaking to act that way. And then what happened?"
"I walked and stumbled until the books began to fall into order."
"Do you mean to say, my dear nephew, that the books came to an agreement among themselves as to how they should move?"
My uncle's eyes looked like they would leap right off of his face.
"Are you sure?" he asked. His mouth was open so wide in shock, it looked as if he wanted to swallow up what I was about to say in a single gulp.
"Yes," I answered. And he snapped his lips shut like swallowing a pill.
"I want you to remember that I am your uncle Ernesto, known as Tito, and I've promised your mother to feed you and take care of you. It is important that you tell me the truth because this could have very special consequences."
"I am telling the truth."
"I believe you, nephew, I haven't doubted you. It's just that... there are things that are difficult to verify." He took a spit of tea but was so nervous that he spilled it onto his pants.
He was so interested in my story that he didn't get angry at staining himself with tea. He looked at me with utter focus, as if I were a fish that was difficult to locate at the bottom of an aquarium, and asked in a low but intense voice, "Do you know what I think?"
"The books have already read you."
"What is that?"
"There are people who think they understand a book just because they know how to read. I already told you that books are like mirrors: every person finds there what they have in their own head. The problem is that you only discover what you have inside you when you read the right book. Mirrors are indiscrete and risky mirrors: they make the most-original ideas leave your head, provoking ideas you never knew you had. When you don't read, those thoughts remain locked in your head. They're no use at all."
"I also learn things from books that don't occur to me," I said.
"Of course. A magic mirror is still a window: there you see your own ideas but also other things, you meet the ideas of others and visit different worlds. A book is the best form of transport: it carries you far, doesn't pollute, arrives on time, is inexpensive, and never gives you motion sickness."
"But what's special about me for the books? I'm not even a good student.
"My dear Juan, it's not necessary to be very diligent to become a great reader. My books feel that you could love them like nobody has loved them and that you can share them with someone who you love dearly, like the girl in the pharmacy, who has such lovely eyes."
"Eufrosia told you she has lovely eyes?"
"It's not always necessary to believe what the newscasters tell you. I had an urge for more aspirins so I went to the pharmacy myself. Catalina has lovely eyes. But she also has deep eyes. She improved the story you read, Travels Along the Heart-Shaped River, isn't that so?"
"An ideal reader! Now tell me something and don't make a mistake because this is getting serious. You said the books moved in order. Could you tell me exactly what they did?"
"They formed steps."
"Steps!" Uncle shouted the word with obvious admiration.
"In a staircase?"
"Is there another way for steps to be?"
"Of course. My emotion is making me silly. How many steps were there?"
"I didn't count them. I climbed up them until I'd reached the ceiling of the room."
"You reached the ceiling?"
"That's how I could get out through the window."
"Of course, of course..." Uncle began to walk in circles. He passed right beside a fern from the greenhouse. Without realizing it, he plucked a leaf from it. He held it as if it were a sword and crossed it over his breast. "Something has happened that has never before been seen in this library. You are very special."
"I feel the same as always."
"That just means that you're super-extra-special. People who give themselves airs of importance aren't special, they're just vain. Geniuses are simple: they don't think they're geniuses."
"I'm not a genius, uncle, I'm your nephew."
"I don't want to make your head swim with so many eulogies. You're good and simple and you like salami, just like those great readers who are now statues, although I don't know if they ate salami."
"I don't want to be a statue, uncle."
"Not do you need to be. You're going to be something much better."
"The tamer of The Wild Book."
Translated by Lawrence Schimel
Juan Villoro’s journalistic and literary work has been recognized with such international prizes as the Herralde de Novela, Premio Xavier Villaurrutia, Rey de España, Ciudad de Barcelona, and Vázquez Montalbán de Periodismo Deportivo, and Antonin Artaud. He has been a professor of literature at UNAM, Yale, and la Universidad Pompeu Fabra de Barcelona. He is a columnist for the newspapers Reforma and El Periódico de Catalunya.
Lawrence Schimel (New York, 1971) is a bilingual (Spanish/English) writer who has published over 120 books as author or anthologist. He has won the Lambda Literary Award (twice), a Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and numerous other honors. He is also a prolific literary translator, in both directions. Recent translations include: into English: Hatchet by Carmen Boullosa and Destruction of the Lover by Luis Panini; into Spanish: Bluets by Maggie Nelson.