Librería El Lector, Calle San Francisco 213, Arequipa, Peru
This is the Matilda Project’s farthest-flung entry to date, taking us all the way to a quiet street in Arequipa, Peru, in early evening as the temperature is plummeting and the white buildings, made of volcanic sillar rock, are tinged pink by the waning light. Between the foreboding El Misti volcano in the backdrop and the stunning colours of the sky, the city dares you not to stop in your tracks to respect and admire the show it’s putting on.
And so I did, and when I looked up again, I was delighted that it was at the Librería El Lector (The Reader Bookshop) on the other side of the road. It was about twenty minutes to closing time, but with a smile and a promise not to be long, the bookseller graciously agreed to let us in to take a peek.
Librería El Lector sells Spanish and English language books, as well as many works in translation and a small selection books in European languages. Its selection includes works by Peruvian writers (Peru is more than just Vargas Llosa!), as well as books from around the globe, with many of the international works in a section appealingly marked ‘Literatura Universal’.
Now, my own Spanish is quite rudimentary so I’ve had a little look in a thesaurus and it seems that a lovely quirk of the language is that ‘universal’, whilst it primarily just translates as, well, ‘universal’, also has a secondary meaning of ‘worldwide’. So I don’t know whether the double-meaning is there in Spanish or whether it’s only gained in the translation, but I find it heart-warming that international literature could also be called ‘universal’; it suggests that these are the books we should all read, that should be able to speak to all of us across cultural chasms.
The bookshop is split over two floors, and up in the mezzanine you can get far away from the street and other customers. Right before closing time, it was quiet up there and felt as safe and pleasing as being hidden under the covers on the top bunk.With a little couch tucked in the corner, I only wished I had more time to sit and look at some of the interesting books I found there. There were also advertisements for the many author visits and other events the bookshop hosts, making me wish I had another few months to spend in Arequipa.
I hadn’t been planning on buying anything, but couldn’t walk away from one book that caught my eye: Stories from Quechan Oral Literature. We had been travelling in Peru for a couple of weeks and heard a lot of the indigenous languages that are spoken in different parts of the country. Quechua and Aymara are the two most common and I love folk and fairy tales so I thought it would be learn more about the literature in Quechua. I bought the book, got it home and promptly realised that I’d completely misread the title. I had assume that in a country where Quechua is an official language, this would be a book in Quechua. Turns out there’s one extra ‘u’ in there which is quite important; I’d bought a book of Quechan, not Quechuan, oral stories. Quechan, according to Wikipedia, is ‘the native language of the Quechan people of southeastern California and southwestern Arizona in the Lower Colorado River Valley and Sonoran Desert.’ Wrong language, wrong people, wrong continent.
But je ne regrette rien. I’ve since learned a bit about the Quechan people and about the World Oral Literature Project, and the book is on my shelf at home, reminding my each time I see it that sometimes we find interesting things when we don’t know we’re looking for them, and that words matter, so it’s worth double-checking you’ve got the right one.
We left as the bookshop was shutting for the evening. Back in the street, the sunlight was almost gone but as I looked back, a few lights were still on in El Lector, and I could see the books in the window, the bookseller tidying up and the faces of ‘universal’ authors whose photographs decorated one wall. I thought of all those authors and their words in languages I speak and languages I don’t, whose books I may or may not have time enough to read. Knowing I’d probably never be back there again, I was comforted to know that wherever I find myself in the world, so long as there’s a good bookshop, I can catch up with them there.