Country Focus: Guatemala
By Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Translated by Chris Andrews
Introduction by Chris Andrews
Originally published in Spanish as Severina, 2011
My edition: The Margellos World Republic of Letters, 2014
Time period: Contemporary
About the author: Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa was mentored by renowned American writer Paul Bowles, who translated a few of his student’s books—Dust on Her Tongue; The Beggar’s Knife; The Pelcari Project—into English. Rey Rosa’s more recent works include The Good Cripple and The African Shore.
Severina is one of the names of a beautiful and mysterious book thief. She and her equally enigmatic male companion, Otto Blanco, travel around the world stealing overlooked literary masterpieces. They claim to “live for and by books.” Their lives as biblio-fugitives fascinates the narrator, a bookstore owner who falls for Severina and finds himself willing to give up everything to join her.
Rey Rosa’s novel has an underlying current of suspense, a dab of magical realism, and strong pacing, but its characters don’t resonate. The narrator is obsessed with Severina, Severina is obsessed with books, and there’s not that much else to them. Rey Rosa is known for his understated prose, but I didn’t expect one-dimensional characters to be a part of the deal. Maybe the fault lies with translator Chris Andrews, who also authored Severina‘s overly long and tedious introduction. Whatever the case, this biblio-fantasy disappointed.
Let me tell you something. One of my uncles—he was crazy, it’s true, but he also had moments of genius—believed, or said he believed, that books, the objects we call books, are animated by a kind of collective spirit. Like machines and computers in science-fiction fantasies, and the plants from which drugs are extracted, and even certain metals, like gold and iron. He talked about how books struggle for domination in certain regions of the planet, a phenomenon whose trends and flows could be tracked using one of the maps with colored arrows to indicate things like the spreading of ethnic groups or languages over the course of history. Migrations, invasions, outbreaks, extinctions. There are wars between different kinds or genres of books, he said. And, as in real wars, the best don’t always win; but for us, in the end, there are no losers, although they all fade away.
Guatemalan writers need to be translated! Of the books below, only I, Rigoberta Menchú and The Polish Boxer are written by native Guatemalans.