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from the September 2007 issue

The Best Seller

He described himself down the phone as a young writer who was keen to meet with a representative of Ilhéu Publishing, and in the absence of anyone else at that moment I agreed to receive him. Shortly afterwards a man of indeterminate years was announced. Rather formal, modest, weighing every word, almost fearful, he held his hand out to me hesitantly. (I wondered whether all authors behaved like this when meeting a publisher for the first time?) He had brought with him a crumpled plastic bag which, having sat down, he held between his knees.

Timidly he introduced himself as coming from Sierra Leone, but he had been living in Cabo Verde for eight years, more or less in exile. And indeed he was already able to get by reasonably in Creole; but I could see that he hadn't the first clue about Portuguese. When asked about this cultural failing, he said that he had only recently decided to take a few classes at the Mindelo Portuguese Cultural Centre, but it was still very early days, he could still barely decipher a couple of lines from a newspaper and that only with great effort.

But getting down to the matter in hand, he said with a uncertain smile that he'd come to me because he had a book that he wanted published and someone had told him about Ilhéu, a distinguished publisher that . . . And he went on to offer the customary praise that I listened to in silence and then thanked him for with the careless cordiality of a representative of a 'great publishing house' that has the luxury of cherry-picking the authors who want to get themselves published. There's just one small problem, he went on as he pulled a ream of loose pages from the bag, most of what I write is still in English!

Suddenly I was alert: so the book's in English? I asked him, because such a possibility had never occurred to me. Yes, he explained, embarrassed, all in English. But this isn't a small problem, I told him quite frankly, this is a very big problem indeed. You realise that if we publish this book it's going to be read by about twenty people at most? But this is a good book, he said. And he explained the plot to me: the story of a young Muslim, polygamous, with four wives, a revolutionary and a terrorist, but who one day finds himself calling into question the Koran and its teachings and ends up converting to Christianity and casting off three of his wives. Except that some time later he's assassinated by a conspiracy of the abandoned women who subsequently roll dice to decide which of them should keep his penis that they'd severed at the base . . .

Thing is, he went on, I thought about having it translated but it turns out that's really expensive and I haven't got any money. And after a brief pause: but this is something Ilhéu Publishing could invest in--in getting it translated. It's a book that'll be really successful, that'll bring in a lot of money.

I smiled sympathetically: Look, between you and me, you shouldn't let yourself be too impressed by the name; the truth is that Ilhéu Publishing exists more on paper than in reality. It's a poor publishing house. We've published a few books, but it's always hand-to-mouth. It's just enough to cover the costs of the design.

But how come, he asked, then, how can it be that publishing a book doesn't make money? Oh, very little, I assured him sombrely, that is, no more than 10%. An edition might run between 750 and 1500 copies. So selling the book at 500$00 a copy you'd bring in, say, between 37,500$00 and . . .

But he had already stopped listening: That little! he exclaimed, so it's not worth people here writing at all. Where I come from it's not like that, people read a lot, there are writers who sell 5000 copies, sometimes even more! So it's like nobody here reads . . .

I didn't like what he was suggesting. How many of you are there? I asked, rather tartly. Between four and five million, he replied. Well, there you are then, I said triumphantly, here we're only about 350,000. If you do the sums you'll see that . . .

But he wasn't interested in my sums: 750 copies, he repeated in astonishment, as though the actual smallness of the number was only just beginning to get through to him, only 37,500? So, writing doesn't make any money then?

I smiled at him again. You won't get anything for it, no, not any money. If anyone thought they could make a living in Cabo Verde just by writing books, they'd be dead of hunger within the day . . . But his mind was fixed: But I took more than two years writing this book, he said, how can I only make 37,500? Being as broke as I am, I was sure I could make something this way . . . And then despair gave him another idea.

But say, he suggested, fearful, you could invest in this book, edit it and send it to sell in America, they love all these sorts of subjects there! That could be one way of doing it, I said to him with a certain amount of affection, but the thing is, Ilhéu is the least suitable for something like that, as we don't know anyone there, we don't have anyone to send it to. If we just wrote on it 'To America', you'd think that'd be enough to get it there?

But I had started to feel sorry for him: Look, I summed up decisively for him, your only possibility is to learn Portuguese! And as he looked doubtful I encouraged him by telling him about the example of Fernando Pessoa who'd passed from speaking English to a perfect command of Portuguese and who had done so well for himself as a writer that he earned himself the honour of seeing his mortal remains transported to the Monastery of St Jerome where they are worshipped every day by a significant number of tourists . . .

But he was already on his feet and making his farewells, the manuscript now rolled up higgledy-piggledy in his hands: This really isn't worth anything, he said, that is, writing isn't worth it, a man could starve to death . . .

Still I shouted after him: With incendiary subject-matter like that you should at least get it printed it privately. If you're lucky enough to be condemned to death for blasphemy, you could even find your books being fought for at auction, just look at Salman Rushdie . . . But he couldn't hear me. Out of the window I saw him throw the manuscript in a rubbish bin, and put the crumpled bag away.

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

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