I started reading my book today, Mediodía de Frontera by Claudia Hernández, a collection of magic realist short stories set in the aftermath of the Salvadoran civil war. I first heard of the book in Chicago, while searching information online about the little country in which I’d been waiting not many hours before; waiting in San Salvador airport, looking into the dark glass of my departure gate because there was nothing else to do, just my own reflection to look at, this thinker’s face, the same face a Czech stripper had once described as a nice face, looking and waiting and not really believing that it was all over.
I saw the book, a brief summary of it buried in an article somewhere, and I thought I’ve got to have that book.
I just get this hunger sometimes, this hunger to have or do something, and when I get it it is almost all-consuming, like tunnel vision, and nothing is going to get in my way. I will have or do whatever it is the object of my hunger. Like when I said three years ago that I was going to make this trip. Everybody says something of a similar manner; oooooh I want to go travelling; I’m going to go travelling; I’ve always wanted to do that! But it’s all just a ritual of talk. Nobody does it, nobody takes a chance.
My point is the book was in trouble.
I Googled the book right away. It gave me a few hits, not many. It was only available in Spanish and from small-time sellers on Amazon. The book has won international awards. I couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been translated or why it was so difficult to find. Or why it was so goddamn expensive. All of the copies available to me were upwards of $100, some as much as $200. Being a frugal man, I wasn’t about to pay $100 for a book despite my hunger.
However, I noticed that it was available from one seller for $60. I followed the link. The seller was a foreign language book store based in Illinois.
Oh my god.
I was in Illinois.
The store was in Evanston.
“How far away is Evanston?” I asked my cousin-in-law
“It’s not far, about twenty minutes from downtown Chicago”
So excited, I had fallen off the couch beside them.
I couldn’t believe it. I hurriedly explained the miracle situation to my cousin and his wife. They didn’t seem to care or recognise the sheer improbability of the thing, but then he was having trouble passing a maths test for work, and I mean, what were the chances! Some men are just lucky I guess.
“…and it’s about El Salvador!”
“Where’s El Salvador?” they asked.
“Oh jesus”, I said.
A quick phone call confirmed that it was in stock and into the phone I said that I’d be there the following morning to collect a copy.
So the next day I went back into the city. I left early, early, beating the rush of the morning commute even. The train with its double-decks rolled smoothly through the empty white space of the Midwest and soon I fell asleep where I sat.
I remember dreaming that I was in a hostel somewhere, and all of the walls of the hostel were the same colour as those of my room in Santa Ana, pale blue, cold, and so sad… I was walking about the hostel and outside I could hear the rain and the wind beating against the windows. All of the other guests were in their rooms and I was alone. I walked toward one window to look through the glass. The window was next to a private room. I’d seen an old, really old man, and a young girl leaving and entering the room. A large jalousie window ran the length of one of its walls, a style of window you see a lot of in tropical climates, adjustable angled slats on top of a window screen, and through the open slats I could hear uuuuh uuung uuuuuuuhhh. It must have been obvious to them that I was outside and could hear it all, but he carried on stoking it home anyway. I didn’t ever see out of the other window, the one against which the storm was throwing itself.
I remember it because I wrote it down.
When I awoke, I could see those buildings so big and so high they seem to have been built for giants.
The first time I’d gone into the city, I’d gone blind, choosing instead to rely on my instincts (…). I walked out of the main station into the ice wind and realised that I had no idea in which direction to walk. I had an idea of what I wanted to do but I didn’t know where any of it was. Inside the station there was a bookstore. I went in to find a Chicago guidebook. God, I’m clever, I thought.
They didn’t have a Chicago guidebook, so I just headed in the direction of the enormous towers. Within five minutes I was doubting those instincts and I’d ducked into a Starbucks to try and get on the wifi, but the wifi didn’t work and so I simply sat there, unhappily sipping the coffee that I hadn’t really wanted in the first place.
Eventually I did blunder my way to Millennium Park (which is pretty much exactly where I wanted to be). I went along through those great man-made canyons of downtown Chicago with my eyes as wide as saucers and the wind feeling as if somebody was blasting liquid nitrogen into my face and my nose streaming from the cold like a faucet had bust. All the important city folk with their suitable winter clothing blowing past me like water around a stone, meanwhile clutching their Starbucks (how did Starbucks take over the world?). I had never felt like such a country bumpkin. Along the way I ignored something called Willis Tower, because nobody had told me that the Sears Tower had changed its name (it looked vaguely familiar to me, but I thought ‘What the **** is Willis Tower?’).
This time I didn’t even have to leave the station, just hop a train to Evanston.
The first chapter of the book is the story of a one-armed man and a tiny bothersome rhinoceros that has followed him since the day that he lost his arm. The rhinoceros is bothersome because people keep stopping the man in the street and asking about it. He keeps repeating that the little animal is not his and he is always trying to give it away but nobody will take it from him. It continues to give him its company, always touching him with its little horn that seems to point toward the future.
More annoyed than ever before, he leaves it in a place dominated by night, then walking away he is yet more annoyed because he realises that he misses the sound of its footsteps behind him; it had followed him in spite of his missing arm when it could have chosen anybody normal.
Then he begins to hear its steps again; it is still following him. However, this time he is happy to see it and he permits it to follow him and he doesn’t mind people looking anymore. But still he denies that it belongs to him and he doesn’t give it a name, and he continues to offer the rhino to anybody that stops him, but now he is afraid that they’ll accept his offer and the little rhino will leave him.
The rhinoceros is obviously a metaphor for the missing arm and the narrator’s coming to terms with it.
One day I’m going to write something as good as that.
And maybe I’ll write about the school master in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador, that rapes his pupils with impunity because of his alliance with the local maras and although it has already been reported several times, UNICEF and the Ministry of Education and all of the other institutions are too busy or impotent or bureaucratic to do anything about it, and so it goes on.
The train rolled into Evanston. I knew where I was going. I had taken screenshots of its location on Google maps and I walked there. So this was Evanston? Quiet and low and pleasant and safe. Those snow-piled streets. Already I was missing the passion and intensity that make Latin America so compelling. For the first time in months I was walking about with my watch, camera, phone and bank card on me all at once. It didn’t feel good.
I arrived at the shop. What the hell. I’ll do them a solid because they helped me win the war. A bit of free advertising. Adler’s Foreign Books. I walked in, approached the counter, told the man my name, then there it was, the slim volume that had become my purpose, that would enable me to live in that little country a little while longer, and only $30 – what luck! My Western nature was satisfied again, and outside the snowflakes continued falling, falling.