Jorge Carrión: “A horizon of Bookshops that will keep changing over the years”: A Conversation with Claudia Cavallín
Jorge Carrión, in Bookshops, explains the historical existence of the city and its books, whose topography can be embodied in the streets inserted within a library and the spaces where these streets also exist on the shelves, the shop windows, and even the most hidden places. When we read Borges, especially in “The Library of Babel,” we approach a construction of the universe built upon those regular hexagons that multiply toward infinity. Taking both texts into account, we converse with Carrión to determine if, in the future, we will be able to coexist without streets that resemble bookshelves or bookshops that register our existence. From those places where we always remain as readers, from the new narrative that goes beyond the linear, the comics that establish new connections with the author, and the stories that surpass any spatial limit, Carrión carries us to the power of images and words.
Claudia Cavallín: I have always gone to bookshops—we are in Barcelona’s Altäir bookshop now—and I discovered them through my love of books. Now that I think of it, it seems that there is a similar connection between these spaces and the ideas of Marc Augé, when he references non-places or spaces of anonymity, like airports, shopping malls, those spaces where you don’t need to say who you are. When we walk into a bookshop, are we the protagonists of an anonymous experience? Are our internal links with books disappearing and is the bookshop becoming, now, a sort of museum?
Jorge Carrión: The route is very complex. We go step by step. Indeed, I would say that bookshops can be seen as non-places in the sense that they all look alike. Just like airports, or bus stations, or shopping malls; bookshops have a common horizon of shelves, a human scale, an ordering by subject, by newness or by alphabetical order, and you often enter into them with a coffee. This means you feel you’re in a familiar, domesticated, and recognizable space, but, when Marc Augé mentions non-places, he is talking about the space of anonymity and non-memory, and in reality I’d say that a bookshop, although it has a dimension identifiable with the places of the world, also has a very strong dimension of history, of the archive and of absolute identity. That is, there is a part of the bookshop that you recognize automatically and that makes you feel safe, in a friendly space. At the same time, there is another dimension that invites you to discovery, something particular. For example, we are in the Altäir bookshop in Barcelona, which has several peculiarities: one is that it is a center of conversation and a meeting place for travelers, and has been for decades; another is that it forms an oasis in the center of Barcelona, which has been invaded by franchises, Zara, H&M, etc.; but it is still a personal, traditional space, a space of its own. When you look around, you realize that the brown wooden shelves look unlike any others in almost any other bookshop in Barcelona, where the most useful and economic option has settled in with time: Ikea bookshelves. If you go into bookshops now, observing the details, you see that, on one hand, they are spaces of anonymity and standardization, with many common characteristics throughout the world, and, on the other, they have a dimension of great particularity.
CC: And if we move to a context that is not so urban… Is virtual reality transforming bookshops into an online Library of Babel?
JC: In the context of Amazon it is true that, as an abstraction, this page can be read as a Library of Babel, containing every book ever written and every book still to be written. There is even something linked to that moment when Borges speaks of the library’s books, which are partially legible and partially not. In Amazon there are self-published books which are also partially legible and partially not, and the screen still has very concrete limits. For this reason, we have not yet found the way to allow someone, with a simple glance, to take in a full panorama like those we can still find on new release tables or on bookshop shelves.
CC: In any case, that “Universe that others call Library” that Borges mentions in “The Library of Babel” also loses its limits, even if they are not Borgesian hexagons…
JC: Of course, because the screen is now the place where we can find the bibliography that used to form a mountain. That being said, the screen is generally a surface, and in it we lose levels, we lose depth. In the book as a physical object, something happens similar to what happened in the clash between the traditional clock and the digital clock. The traditional clock tells you what time it is and all the times it’s not. All the numbers are on the circle such that, essentially, all the times are there. On the digital clock, we only see the numbers of the time it is. I would say the same thing takes place in a book, or in a paper periodical, and in a traditional clock. You are learning of a piece of news, but you are touching all the news, or you are reading a page and you’re in tactile contact with the whole set. On the Internet you have no consciousness of levels, of layers, of depth, of this text on top of another text.
CC: That’s right. That digital clock that becomes ever lighter and easier to check is like Twitter. This time the brevity is not of numbers and times, but of words. There is no before, no after, no deep context. So is this knowing, but without knowing?
JC: I think it’s another form of knowing. It is the form of knowing of the collage. It is pulling out of context, de-contextualizing in order to reach a moment of transition in which one type of context, which has a logic, a sequentiality, and which was distributed and ordered in a recognizable way, becomes another type of context, very similar to the classic collage of Cubism or the Windows system. In fact, channel surfing has many years of history, since the first TV remote control was invented in order to jump between programs, and the Windows system also has a new tradition of windows within windows.
CC: Returning to the subject of bookshops, we were talking about the cities where they represent added value, and we ended up mentioning Internet networks. Now we might think about libraries, those places where books are not sold, but they can be acquired on loan. This acquisition, again, is taking place much more often online than in spaces or places. There is a fragmentation of the places where we formerly established a direct connection with books. Does this happen in Barcelona?
JC: Not here. In Barcelona, particularly, the network of public libraries is very solid, with many users who have enjoyed books since childhood. Besides books there is music, videos. There is a lot of traffic and a large audience. In fact, in my opinion, the greatest club in this city is not FC Barcelona but the libraries where, for one euro, you can become a member and go to any of them, and you can check out up to eighteen items at a time. And when I say items I’m talking about films, books, comics.
CC: Speaking of comics, let’s touch on another relationship that also exists between the then and the now: the power of the image. Amid the Catalan gothic we find fantastic creatures like manga or the superhero comic. Do you think comics will be recognized as a valuable part of contemporary literature, where words are put forth along with images?
JC: I believe so. We’ve seen this while making our latest comic, Gótico [Gothic], with Sagar. Images had great strength in Europe, which was political, social, and religious, before the coming of the printing press. With printing, access to the written word and reading was gradually democratized, and so images found another path of circulation and another type of power, of impact. Long after that, the emergence of the screen, the television, and later the Internet in the twentieth century had made images central once again in our age. Under this new paradigm, it seems reasonable to me that the comic should take a predominant, essential place; the comic can combine, harmoniously, text and image. If we are living in an age of substitution, in which it seems that the image takes over the place traditionally occupied by the word, it is the comic that can negotiate a happy marriage between images and words. I think comics can now justly occupy a central place. On the other hand, I think we are becoming very mistrustful of the image’s capacity to communicate “truth.”
CC: Exactly. If we think of Roland Barthes and Camera Lucida, the power of images and memory, and the way we remember and assign value to what exists through them, is restricted in certain photographic interpretations, since there are certain realities that exist outside of what we see. When we draw a comic, we connect ourselves to all the power of memory that is transformed into the power of drawn images, a little like what happens when memory is transformed into written texts, right?
JC: Yes, with photograph we have to talk about the collage. That’s it, we already doubt the documentary image, photographs as much as videos; on the other hand, the drawing is honest by nature because it recalls our childhood, when we didn’t know lies or evil. The language of the drawing in comics connects us to our emotional memory, and I think it can communicate truths in a different way, alternative to that of news programs or photojournalism.
CC: Since we’re talking about this way of communicating truths by connecting to emotional memory, let’s return to writing. If we want to keep transmitting a sense of certainty linked to our times, would we have to incorporate a certain quantity of images and illustrations into new media of diffusion, media of communication, and new literary works?
JC: I have ever less trust in generalizations when deciding what are the best strategies to communicate facts, realities, or possible truths. I would say that every human consciousness, every individual reader, in every moment of their life, has a different relationship with media of communication and the way in which present-day reality is consumed. We now live in a moment of rejection of social media, many people are leaving Facebook, for example, a symptom of surfeit, but, at the same time, many people are discovering Facebook. Each individual has their own autonomy as a reader, and it’s best not to generalize about it. For many readers, now is the moment to return to “a single text,” for many others it is only the moment to read images, since every person has their circumstances. What is certain is that we live in a moment when it seems to me that even journalism in comic form is yielding extraordinary fruits, and is moving down a very interesting and valuable path. There is another path, that of computer graphics, and that of the translation of graphics into images; that is, there are many diverse tendencies that I don’t think are mutually exclusive. Each reader is a spectator, a consumer, a user, who finds their own channels and languages and traverses them all.
CC: And are those channels between journalism and literature also being connected? These days, I remember Tom Wolfe with sadness, and the use of personal experiences as ways of seeing what happens, what actually nourishes social networks, along with the power of intrinsic images, like caricatures or comics. Isn’t a third path being opened based on a new channel that compiled all genres of writing? One that brings together both reality and fiction?
JC: Yes, for example, journalism in comic form has a great capacity to bind together distinct languages. A nonfiction comic, or a caricature, makes even the very author represent himself. You eliminate, from the outset, the need to be objective because you are there showing yourself subjectively. After that, you incorporate cartography, maps, the portrait, the sequential narrative. You return to the mechanisms of film in the images, like zoom, traveling shots, etc., and you stick to the capacity to choose the best in every form of expression that takes on strength. For example, with Sagar, when I was writing the script and he was drawing, we would always do the research together, and this dialogue allowed us to show the reality of the poor people who pick up rubbish on the streets of Barcelona and, at the same time, to reflect on this reality. It’s a very old resource, it goes back to the Quixote, but it puts many tools within reach of the comic, allowing it to enrich the narrative of a reality. In the same way, Tom Wolfe, for example, incorporated onomatopoeia into his narrations. Compared with what we’re doing, the comic would be another laboratory, like that of New Journalism, but one that is linked to our age.
CC: So, if reality leads us to interpret certain texts through images, images are even more involved in texts. Have these connections led us to lose originality in certain stories?
JC: During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the canonical TV series were all original, like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, for example. On the other hand, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the majority of these canonical series are literary adaptations. Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and many others have now gone beyond what looked, at first, like the imposition of an autonomous language. Now we have seen what I called a Teleshakespeare, since today we can no longer speak of a pure origin of anything. Narrative purity is now totally nonexistent. What interests me now are the mutations that take place between diverse texts: for example, Gomorra, a book by Roberto Saviano, has since become a stage play with an element of fiction that was like a character writing the scenes as an alter ego of Saviano. Then it became a fiction film, but with nonprofessional authors, since reality and fiction were connected in the same story. I’m very interested in these metamorphoses of narrative materials that circulate in the atmosphere of an age.
CC: Getting back to Librerías, in your writing there is also a connection to the collateral stories of books, like a sort of rhizomes where multiplicity can lead to any point, where the rhizome therefore lacks a center...
JC: That interests me a great deal, especially in relation to what I’ve published. Librerías and Barcelona: Libro de los pasajes [Barcelona: the arcades project] are two works that lack centers. That is, it would have been very easy to transform the book into an autobiography in which I appeared constantly, in the center, but I opted for a structure in which many nodes have as much importance as my own: bookshops, passages, and even certain very interesting inhabitants of these passages, who are more important than I. As there is no protagonist, what’s more, we live in an age in which hierarchies have been fused. There are no more really protagonistic structures, there are rhizomatic connections in which other types of stories and realities of the twenty-first century are inserted. There is a certain horizontality, in the scale of values, of all narratives.
CC: We have horizontality, but we’ve lost linearity. Hypertextual narrative, the new temporal dimension of narration...
JC: That’s right. I try to give my books the structure of a network. Even though I don’t speak directly about hyperlinks in Librerías or Barcelona: Libro de los pasajes, it’s clear that neither book could exist without Google, virtual libraries, and it’s obvious that if Walter Benjamin were writing his Arcades Project today he would do it with Google, where he would have been able to connect to all kinds of roles.
CC: So bookshops would now be places of passage, they could be anywhere, while networks have changed our system of reading and connect us to the brevity of words, but at the same time, to words themselves, by connecting us to them and through them. Are we now seeing a return to writing and reading?
JC: I think we are living in a postdigital moment. We have spent a few years falling in love with the virtual and now we are reconnecting to the material, the artisanal, the tactile. That’s why I think bookshops will have a long future, because we are going to “dance a tango” with the physical, with books, that is going to last a long time. The war might be lost, but for years we will still adore the physical dimension of the world and all that which cannot be represented virtually. We are at the fascinating moment of transition between anthropocentrism and codigocentrism. Until the transition we have mentioned is completed in some future moment, the dialogue between the material and the virtual will continue to characterize us as human beings.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Claudia Cavallin is a writer, journalist, and university professor, and she serves as Media Manager of Latin American Literature Today. She is the author of the books Ciudades de película: Ficciones urbanas del cine, la literatura y la música (Editorial Académica Española, 2012) and Espectros de la palabra. La metáfora en Borges: los juegos del lenguage que hacen posible la configuración de un universo de imágenes recursivas (Editorial Académica Española, 2012).
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
The seventh issue of Latin American Literature Today highlights indigenous voices with dossiers dedicated to three Wayuu writers from Colombia and Zapotec poetry and prose. We also pay homage to renowned Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo with a special dossier, as well as returning to the strange worlds of Latin American science fiction and opening a new space for Brazilian literature in Portuguese and English.