Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s short novella, Severina, is almost ready-made to please admirers of contemporary literary fiction. For one thing, its principal characters are a book thief and a bookseller, and a love of books - or perhaps more accurately, a “bookish impulse” that carries the narrator “beyond the bounds of reason” - facilitates and mediates a love affair between these two strangers. For another, it’s brimming with references to literature, including several lists of books (stolen, shared, given away, accumulated) to send the literarily curious on a hunt for new potential treasures (Émile Laoust’s volume of Berber folktales, anyone?) as well as clues to possible resonances of these works within Rey Rosa’s own. Severina also references more easily traceable influences on Rey Rosa’s work, including his time in Morocco and tutelage under Paul Bowles, since works by both Bowles and his wife Jane show up on the lists, and Moroccan Arabic as well as an actual Moroccan also make appearances. Perhaps most conspicuous, though, is the influence of Jorge Luis Borges, who, off stage, even helps along the plot (or at least his personal library does – is your interest piqued now?)
The narrator, unnamed co-owner of a bookshop started by “eccentrics” “tired of paying through the nose for books chosen by and for others,” strikes a tone perhaps all too recognizable to those obsessed by literature:
Those were eventful days, or rather I heard that they’d been eventful (there was a rash of lynchings in the inland villages and a coup in a neighboring country, cocaine became the world’s number one illicit substance, stagnant water was discovered on Mars, and Pluto definitively lost its status as a planet), my life having shrunk once more to the ambit of books; I had become another specimen of that sad type, the bookseller with literary aspirations.
Into this “sad” life, a bit of color appears in the form of a book thief with exquisite taste in literature, an attractive woman (I should have said “colors” earlier in this sentence, since she always sports a different one) who quietly slips into the bookstore, filches books, and mysteriously manages to walk out without setting off the alarm, returning several times. The narrator’s curiosity about her – and her book choices, which “might help solve the mystery of a life that seemed bizarre and fantastic” – trumps any indignation he feels about her transgressions. He allows her petty larcenies to continue long enough for him to let her know that he knows what she’s doing, and for him to fall in love with her.
But from the beginning Ana Severina Bruguera (sharp readers may recognize that last name as the same of one of Borges’ publishers) is an enigma difficult to pin down and as chameleon-like as the colors she wears. An unidentifiable accent marks her as perhaps Italian, Honduran, Columbian or from elsewhere. She lives or doesn’t live with an older man who may be her father, husband, lover or grandfather (aptly named Señor Blanco, as though he’s a blank page). She has several false passports on which she appears to travel about, lifting books wherever she goes. Despite the novel’s Guatemalan setting, it possesses a tangible internationalist quality, one made especially appealing here by a suggestion that Severina and her companion seem almost fictions themselves, emissaries from a world of books rather than from a specific, identifiable country. The narrator’s sketchy knowledge about her arrives from multiple sources; hearsay and rumor, the clerk of the pension where Severina stays, Severina’s own cryptic and perhaps mendacious revelations, and even the narrator’s own fantasies, dreams and doubts. Very little is clear in Rey Rosa’s narrative, other than his extraordinarily crisp and lucid writing.
Severina could simply be an indulgent exercise in literary self-reflexivity were it not for elements that enrich and buoy it above that. Among them is the subtlety with which Rey Rosa incorporates his literary themes. For example, there’s a good deal in Severina concerning the mechanisms of exchange and consumption of literature, an implicit questioning of the role of writers and books in forging one’s identity, and even a hidden noir novel here, with a murder, clandestine disposal of a body, closed borders, and secret deals to buy silence and freedom. Also, the novel engenders a sense of ambiguity and open-endedness, especially regarding the slipperiness of identity, that is both disturbing and liberating, venturing well beyond its literary games. After all, this is also the story of a love affair and of the sins of commission and omission that permit that love to happen, as underscored by the book’s anchoring epigraph from William Carlos Williams: “What power has love but forgiveness?”
It’s unsurprising that Roberto Bolaño thought of Rey Rosa as “the best of [their] generation.” Both writers display an explicit fixation on books and writers to the extent that they become material for their own works, and both incorporate assertions about literature and books that raise questions but remain deliberately inconclusive, the centerpiece at Rey Rosa’s book banquet being a monologue by Señor Blanco (reminiscent of the “bookish pharmacists” passage in Bolaño’s 2666) concerning “the tides and currents of books,” their “migrations, invasions, outbreaks, extinctions.” One might be forgiven for loving this.
I’m pleased that Severina, after The African Shore, was the second of Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novels I read this year. I can’t say I was surprised by Severina’s more circumscribed world of writers and books, a focus with similarities to Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and almost sure to please fans of that book. But the wider divergence from this focus that is on display in The African Shore – and its meticulous, crystalline-clear writing, captivating storytelling, complexity of themes, unusual atmosphere combining a calm spaciousness with restive, colliding social tensions, and its unforgettable, almost instantly classic contribution to the genre of works in which an animal serves as a nexus for human interactions – reveal manifold different capacities of this writer. I greatly look forward to discovering his other works.
I read Severina (2011, English translation by Chris Andrews 2014, Yale University Press) for Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Richard and Stu. The African Shore, 1999, is translated by Jeffrey Gray and also published by Yale University Press (2013).