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La Paz Book Fair

By Arnon Grunberg

In the middle of the summer, I traveled to the capital of Bolivia, La Paz—where it was winter—for a literary festival.

The festival was part of the La Paz Book Fair. Even La Paz has a book fair. It's small compared to the book fair of, let's say, Thessaloníki, Greece. The fair takes place in tents, but besides that, it's more or less a book fair like all other book fairs.

The festival featured a Bolivian novelist who had recently won an important literary award in Bolivia—his name is Wilmer Urrelo, and the name of the award is Premio Nacional de Novela—and I.

Mr. Urrelo didn't speak a word of English, and my Spanish is limited to the words corázon (heart), cerveza (beer), rico (tasty) and huevo (egg).

Nevertheless, I tend to be less cynical about cultural rendezvous between Bolivia and the Netherlands, or let's say Venezuela and Germany, than I used to be. The main reason is that there are so many better things to be cynical about.

The other reason is that I often participate in these cultural rendezvous, and you have to assume a certain responsibility for your acts. Beside that, the authors I meet are often congenial. Even when the conversation is limited to the question of whether the beer is tasty and if eggs will be served at breakfast.

Finally our public appearance was on. For the event, an interpreter had been invited, so at last we could have a real conversation.

Mr. Urrelo spoke about the difficulties of being a writer in Bolivia, how hard it is to make a living there as an author, and how much time is needed to survive economically.

I pooh-poohed this monologue slightly, I referred to Kafka, mentioned that he worked as a clerk for most of his life and that his literary work didn't suffer from it.

But very soon I realized that my position was easy, maybe too easy.

First of all, I have managed to make a living as an author. Second, I come from a country where the government subsidizes most of the authors who are not able to make a decent living as a novelist. That I decided to leave that country is beside the point.

I wanted to say something like this to Mr. Urrelo, but the event was already over and the interpreter had left.

Once again, we had to limit our conversation to the existential question of whether the beer was tasty or not.

Published Sep 11, 2007   Copyright 2007 Arnon Grunberg

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