Guadalajara’s International Book Fair (FIL) is gargantuan and impressive, like the Death Star, and an object lesson on the deleterious effect an excess of options can have on the human nervous system.
In fact, unless you’re in the habit of reading, say, CIA intelligence briefings or homicide department police reports, browsing the limitless labyrinth of pressed wood pulp which occupies the Expo Guadalajara event center every year exerts an influence upon one’s sanity that is the polar opposite of that which exerts a book.
However, if you can accept the fact that book fairs of this sort have little to do with reading and everything to do with commerce - and if you can amicably submit to massive sensory overload - then Guadalajara’s annual book fair will prove entertaining and even instructive, especially when it comes to its many conferences, which you can scout out beforehand online to avoid option anxiety. They cover everything from politics to smell, and range from intimate talks on niche subjects to Klieg-lit happenings attended by hundreds of people.
The week’s blockbuster draw was Paul Auster, an acclaimed writer whose work is as inextricably tied to New York City as that of the Ramones.
Auster spent his first evening, Sunday, November 26, pontificating eloquently in his even, thoughtful baritone upon the relationship between French and American poetry and prose in the late-19th and early 20th Century, concentrating in particular on Baltimore master of the macabre Edgar Allen Poe. Loved by the French but dismissed by his fellow countrymen, Poe was essentially the Jerry Lewis of his day, to hear Auster tell it.
Later that evening, Iranian writer Azar Nafisi, author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” gave a talk in which she condemned the paranoia that drives regimes the world over to ban, censor, and otherwise suppress freedom of expression, and the absurd lengths they sometimes go to do so.
“When [Iranian] television showed the Russian version of Hamlet, they cut out Ophelia,” related Nafisi. “In children’s books, they put veils on the female chickens, so that the male chickens don’t go nuts and say, ‘Oh, I have to rape this female chicken!’”
And the current political zeitigeist being what it is, this Iranian firebrand couldn’t allow a chance to put Trump’s Italian loafers to the fire. Murmurs of approval could be heard throughout the auditorium as cameras flashed.
“No matter where you are, dictators are afraid of imagination,” said Nafisi, tapping the podium with her forefinger for emphasis. “Right now in America we have a man who calls himself president who lies almost everyday. He wants to censor [the press], he wants to destroy them!”
The T word – which particularly since the election results were announced a year ago has the ability to call up as many negative emotions, if not more, than the N, C or F words – also made more than one appearance during Auster’s presentation of his new novel the following day to a crowd double the size of the previous evening. But before the conversation took the inevitable turn into politics, the grey-pated author discussed his fresh-from-the-presses work of prose, still warm to the touch.
For those with a taste for unusual narrative forms, Auster’s 866-page novel “4321” will surely intrigue; each chapter is told in four different ways, taking the central character down four different “roads not taken.”
“This is not a biographical book,” assured Auster after his interviewer intimated as much. “I’ve stolen some things from my life, but every novelist does that. Essentially, though, Archie Ferguson [the novel’s protagonist] is not me and his story is not mine.”
Explanations of the novel over and done with, the irresistible gravitational pull of the current political morass in the United States quickly asserted itself upon the proceedings, as it had on Nafisi’s address the day before.
“[Trump] is probably the most frightening figure ever to set foot on the stage of American life,” said Auster with an air of weary resignation. “I believe Americans have always felt that our institutions are solid and that the rule of law prevails. They believe in the Constitution, the judicial system, etcetera. We’ve thought of these institutions as granite buildings, solid, to be there forever. But when I listened to what the future 45 was saying during his campaign, I began to think, what if these buildings are actually made out of soap?”
Clearly, heavy times call for statements of anxious foreboding. But, the yearly book fair in the “pearl of Jalisco” would scarcely be able to attract the aisle-clogging throngs it is famous for if all which was offered tasted of the same un-salted gruel of bleak pessimism. There was a conference, for example, on the role smell has played in Mexican history, and another about the fraught history of the letter x in the word “Mexico.”
However, some of the most compelling events programmed for the fair’s remaining three days (Friday-Sunday, December 1-3) are likely to be of the same somber tenor set by Auster and Nafisi. Those allergic to the word “Trump” are advised to keep themselves out of earshot for their duration. They include “#Mexicoespia, State Intelligence at the Service of Espionage,” Friday, December 1, 4-5:50 p.m. in Salon 6; “Iraq Today,” a pulse-taking of said war-ravaged country by Madrid-based, Baghdad-born writer Abdul Hadi Sadoun, who ran Spain’s only Arab literary magazine, Alwah, from 1997-2007; and “Assassins and Minstrels: Reflections on Narcocorrido [music about narco-traffickers] in Mexico,” Saturday, December 3, p.m. across the street in the Hotel Hilton’s Salon Mexico III.
In addition, a film series is ongoing at the University of Guadalajara’s Cine Foro until Sunday, December 3, live concerts entertain those rendered bibliophobic by the book fair’s relentless onslaught every evening at the Expo’s adjacent concert space until Sunday, and two art exhibits relating to FIL guest of honor, the city of Madrid, will be on offer until late February. Consult the full program at fil.com.mx for details of these and other offerings.