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from the September 2007 issue

The Best Seller

On the phone he said he was a young writer who wished to speak with a representative of Ilhéu Publishing and, for lack of anyone else at the time, I made myself available to see him. Shortly afterward a man of indeterminate age introduced himself. Ceremonious, humble, weighing each word, he extended almost fearfully a timid hand. (I wondered whether that was the attitude of all authors when they approach a publisher for the first time.) He was carrying a crumpled plastic bag that, once seated, he kept clutched tightly between his knees.

He shyly identified himself as coming from Sierra Leone, more or less exiled in Cabo Verde for going on eight years. And he did in fact get along reasonably well in Creole, but in Portuguese I saw he didn't have a clue. When I asked him about this cultural lacuna, he said that he had just now signed up for classes at the Portuguese Cultural Center in Mindelo, but the thing was still very much in its early stages and at present he can barely decipher two lines per page, and even then with great effort.

But, getting to the heart of the matter, he said with a perplexed smile that he had come to me because he had a book he wanted to publish and someone had mentioned Ilhéu, a prestigious press that . . . And he went on to offer the usual flattery that I listened to in silence and then thanked him with the casual cordiality of the representative of a "great publishing house" that handpicks the authors whose works it issues. "There's just one small problem," he said as he took from the bag a ream of loose pages, "most of what I write is still in English!"

That caught my attention: "The book is still in English?" I asked, as the possibility had never entered my mind.

"Yes," he explained, abashed.

"That's not a small problem," I told him candidly, "it's a huge problem. Don't you see that if we were to publish your book, it would be read by twenty people at most?"

"But it's a good book," he said, and outlined the plot: the story of a young Muslim, polygamous, owner of four wives, a revolutionary and terrorist who one day comes to question the Koran and its teachings until he finally converts to Christianity and repudiates three of his wives. Except that, some time later, he's assassinated in a conspiracy of the abandoned women who then cast dice to see which of them will keep his penis, which has been cut off at the root . . .

"You see," he continued, "I thought about having it translated, but that's very expensive and I don't have any money." Then after a brief hesitation: "Ilhéu Publishing could invest in this and have it translated. The book's going to be very successful and make lots of money."

I smiled sympathetically. "Look, between you and me, don't be impressed by the name. Actually, Ilhéu Publishing exists more on paper than in reality. It's a poor publishing house. We've published a few books, but it's money in, money out. It's barely enough to pay the printers."

"You mean," he asked, "publishing a book doesn't make any money?"

"Very little," I assured him gravely, "at most 10%. Look, a printing runs from 750 to 1500 copies. So, selling the book for $5 each, you'd receive between $3750 and–"

But he wasn't listening. "So little!" he exclaimed. "But that means that here it's not worth it to write. In my country it's not like that, people read a lot, there are authors who sell 5000 copies or even more. It seems that here no one reads . . ."

I wasn't happy with the remark. "How many people do you have there?" I asked somewhat caustically.

"Between four and five million," he replied.

"There you are," I said triumphantly, "here we're around 350,000. If you do the math you can see that–"

But he wasn't interested in my figures: "Seven hundred and fifty copies," he repeated, astonished, as if only gradually was the smallness of the number hitting him, "only $3750? I'm so short of money that I was sure I could get some this way . . ." And in his desperation he came up with another idea.

"For example," he proposed timidly, "you could invest in the book, publish it, and have it sold in America. There these themes are very popular!"

"That could be another approach," I told him with a degree of affection, "but the truth is that Ilhéu is the wrong place for such things because we don't know anyone there and have nowhere to send it. Should we just address it 'To America' and hope it gets there?"

I was beginning to feel sorry for him. "Look," I concluded decisively, "your only chance is to learn Portuguese!" Seeing his doubt, I encouraged him by citing the example of Fernando Pessoa, who had gone from the English language to a perfect mastery of Portuguese and ended up writing it so well that he had been honored by seeing his mortal remains taken to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos where he was revered every day by an appreciable number of visitors . . .

But he was already on his feet and leaving, with the manuscript rolled up helter-skelter in his hand. "This is worthless," he said, "I mean, writing doesn't pay, you can starve to death . . ."

I shouted after him: "With that hot subject matter you could bring out an author's edition. If you get lucky, you could be sentenced to death for blasphemy, maybe even see your books fought over at auction, look at what happened with Salman Rushdie–"

But he couldn't hear me anymore. From the window I saw him toss the manuscript into the trash can and keep the crumpled plastic bag.

Translation of "O best-seller." First published in Estorias (Lisbon: El Caminho, 1998). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2007 by Clifford E. Landers. All rights reserved.

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