Desperately Seeking Mishima as the Cheap Dollars Dry Up

For book lovers like me, Cadivi is like a completely arbitrary censor with unchecked power to decide which books will be dirt cheap, which will be mad expensive, and which just won't be available at all.

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Every time I go to the shopping center nearby my home, I check out its three bookstores. I like to thumb through the same books that were there in my recent visits, chuckle at some of the prices, marvel at the empty shelves, resent how books have lost ground to office supplies, and – just for fun – ask for books that I know they likely don’t have. I’m a book junkie, I’m always looking for a book. What book? Any book will do, it’s just an excuse to go into bookstores. And due to the exchange controls the target of my hunt doesn’t change frequently, because it can be very difficult to find – or afford – that book.

My last excuse book was Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow. Mishima is not well known in the Spanish-speaking world, but he’s one of the four or five most famous Japanese writers of the last hundred years: far from obscure. His books have been in print in Spanish for decades, and are easily found in Latin America.

The book hunting experience varies across bookstores. My search began at Tecniciencia – the largest bookstore chain in the country – where shelves are mostly empty, something they try to disguise by arranging books with the covers facing out. It’s a sad place. They seem to have depleted their stock of imported books, and the don’t seem to be getting new ones.

After being told they don’t have any books by Mishima in their stores or website, I asked out of curiosity for some Latin American classics. In none of their 24 locations will you find a copy of García Márquez’ Cien años de soledad, or Vargas Llosa’s La ciudad y los perros. Ok then!

In Muchoslibros, a smaller chain and better stocked than Tecniciencia, another consequence of the exchange controls is on full display.  Until recently they had a decent selection of imported books at low prices by today’s standards, with some priced at VEF 300. In the same shelf, others cost up to sixty times as much.

It’s one of the distortions engendered by the controls: books imported with the low-rate dollars of official markets can be very cheap, while books imported with black market or SIMADI dollars cost dozens of times more.

The independent bookstores that have survived until today seem to be weathering the storm better than the chains, at least in terms of stock. But even in those, options have been dwindling fast. Rummaging through the shelves is like going to a restaurant with a set menu, where you have to eat whatever the chef felt like cooking that day. It’s a menu that lasts for several months.

It’s like Los Amigos Invisibles once said: esto es lo que hay.

Imported books come in lots of limited titles. In the past couple of months, for example, bookstores seem awash with copies of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. A few months ago it would have been hard to find. Today, it’s everywhere. And just like that book reappears, others disappear.

Because I’m a weirdo, I’ve been asking in bookstores for a book I already own, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. It was a sort of test, to see how bad things were in Venezuelan bookstores. 2666, published in 2004, it’s a critically acclaimed, posthumous novel of one of the most celebrated Latin American writers of recent times. It should be reasonably easy to find in any Latin American country.

But not in Venezuela. Bookstore chains don’t have any copies of 2666. After asking in about a dozen independent bookstores I finally found one – just one. I took all of its thousand pages to the till to ask for the price, thinking it was going to be expensive but reasonable. “Hmm, that’s, hmm, twelve thousand”, said the bookseller, apologetically and embarrassed. That’s 25% more than a monthly minimum wage.

Book prices are riding the hyperinflation wave, up front. The government is not allocating dollars for imports not deemed essential, such as books. The large price gap between cheap and expensive books has mostly evaporated. Cheap books are disappearing and only the expensive remain. Even paperbacks of copyright-free classics, such as Jane Austen’s, can go for a full monthly minimum wage.

I have been trying to read more Venezuelan authors, but books printed here are not cheap either. Paper is not considered an essential import, so printing anything – books, magazines, or newspapers – is now ridiculously difficult and expensive. I balked at the price of some Venezuelan books a year ago, and ended buying them recently at a price three times higher. Patria o muerte, the latest choice of the Caracas Chronicles’ book club, retails for around Bs.4,500.

My search for Spring Snow ended in disappointment, and I didn’t find any other book by Mishima. The problem is not limited to Japanese authors who committed harakiri. Some of the better stocked bookstores don’t have a single book by Bolaño, Dickens or García Márquez, to name a few, and even the über-popular Harry Potter books can be hard to find.

Publishers of books in Spanish – and especially Venezuelan publishers – have been slow to offer ebooks. Still, ebooks have become the last recourse of Venezuelan book junkies. The Kindle ebook reader that I bought four years ago remains the best hundred dollars I’ve ever spent.

Unfortunately for Venezuelans, ebooks are very rarely sold in bolivares. You have to buy them from foreign websites in dollars or euros, to which most Venezuelans don’t have access to thanks – again – to the controls. And the measly USD 300 per person yearly allocation for online purchases was eliminated.

The publisher of Spring Snow has not released it as an ebook, so there’s no way for someone in Venezuela to get that book, or thousands of others.

Well, no legal way. There’s a pirated ebook available online for free, transcribed from the print edition. Unless you have access to foreign currency to order books in print from abroad, here’s the quandary: don’t read the books you want, or download an illegal ebook or copy. This applies to academic textbooks as well.

Wherever you turn, as much as you try, you can’t escape the exchange controls. It’s there with you in bookstores, waving its wand and disappearing books by the thousands. At the till, it decides which books costs 200 and which cost 12,000, with neither rhyme nor reason. It stands beside you laughing when you’re looking for legal ebooks.

As for my quandary, all I can say is that – feeling neither proud nor guilty about it – I’m loving Spring Snow.

 

17 COMMENTS

  1. Great story, Pedro. On the plip side, a while ago, when Cadivi was still around, one could take advantage of it in the opposite way. For those of us living abroad, books were incredibly cheap in Venezuela if you bought them with bolivares changed at the black market rate.

    Katy, my wife, uses children’s literature for her research. One of our mandatory trips when we go to Venezuela is going to the Librería Europa in Maracaibo and fishing in the piles of books, marked in old prices, and buying just about everything in sight. They have (had) tons of titles, and they were too bored to change the price on them, so you could get amazing deals. In fact, I once told Katy she should buy up boxes of them and ship them to Chile to sell – bachaqueo de libros, pues.

    • ¿La Libería Europa en Costa Verde? That place is a gold mine! Holy shit they’ve got mountains upon mountains of extremely cheap books. It’s just such a pain in the ass to go through them without toppling the stacks.

  2. Yes, I too took advantage of the old prices. Two anecdotes that didn’t made the cut: Not that long ago I bought the new grammar handbooks published by RAE, for Bs 80. It was a fresh hardcover copy, recently arrived, obviously imported under 6,30. The can of Pepsi I was holding at the time cost around Bs 100. I bought two copies – channelling my inner 80’s Venezuelan – and gave one to my mother. Same happened around the same time in Mucholibros. They had tables full of really great, usually hard to find books, going for 200, 300. People like me cleared those tables pretty fast.

    • I bought that same grammar handbook 4 months ago for 2 thousand Bs. in a small bookstore. I wanted to buy the big one (el “manual”) but it was impossible to buy. I couldn’t afford it.

  3. I really liked the article. The same happens with music. I used to buy CD’s (original ones) a lot. But everytime I go to a record store, I cry. No new releases, no reissues, nothing. Empty shelves everywhere. Not even CD’s imported from Colombia. It just saddens me.

  4. Imagine the case of a university professor: you may buy the latest book in your field (if you are lucky enough to have some $$ to expend in an ebook), but how can you discuss it with your students? You can’t ask them to buy an ebook in foreing currency!!!

    • Since my particular subfield deals with classics, I have an easier time. But I’ve never asked my students for printed books. Ever.

      I scan or type critical introductions and textbooks. Others I grab through websites, as needed, and I’ve asked foreign colleagues for journal PDFs and book chapters.

      I have most of that on a drive, in the Cloud, may GBs worth. I share it wholeheartedly.

  5. Does anyone miss Libroria? That small Las Mercedes bookstore that used to sell new and used books? Once I found there Alfred Marshal’s Principles of Economics for a dime.

    Damn, I used to go there almost twice a week during 2008 – 2012. Then it closed and I had to rely on shitty Centro Plaza bookstores until I left the country.

  6. Ah my friend… I’ve long since forgotten about buying physical books. I don’t even bother to check out my local book stores because it’s filled to the brim with self help bullshit. And adding to the fact that I’m more into English originated science fiction and historical European literature. Where the hell would I find a copy of With Fire and Sword in Venezuela? Or the Silmarillion? What about The Brothers Karamazov?
    (I’m not even In Caracas btw)

    Venezuela’s never been a literately inclined society.The common man, middle class high or poor doesn’t read books. I personally just keep an ebook reader on my phone and just read my books from there.

  7. The dwindling selection of books and bookstores in Caracas has been long in the making. As a university student in the 80s it was possible to purchase the latest textbooks in English without waiting for the Spansih translations. There were at least 5 bookstores where one could buy current academic texts in Caracas. Tecniciencias occupied a cavernous locale in Plaza Venezuela that offered myriads of science texts. Outside of nerdness one of my favourites was a bookstore called Soberbia, attended by two elderly Frenchwomen, with had an awesome collection of antique natural history books. There was just so many possibilities …. The Lutheran Church in La Castellana has its used bookstore, and it was possible to find jewels like a limited and numbered edition of poems by R.M. Rilke bound in leather. Libreria La France, the German Bookstore, el Libro Italiano. It was in Caracas that I discovered the art of Druillet, Moebius, and Crepax. Even the booksellers under the bridge close to El Universal had interesting things to show. It is all gone now. The Chavernment put into overdrive that descent into oblivion. Even the bookstores (Libreria del Sur if I remember correctly) they set up all over the country eventually closed their doors. Too much propaganda I suppose but hell, even the PCV use to have a decent bookstore that besides the communist prayerbooks has a great academic text section. There are still a few establishments grimly hanging on. I wish them the best.

  8. Excellent story, Pedro!
    Although I think there’s one more aspect of this that you didn’t talk about; government-run bookstores. Especially during Ferias del Libro.

    Prices there are ridiculous; imagine 6,30 VEF/$ costs plus irrational subsidies. Of course, a cool 80% of the literary offering is just crappy leftist ideology, and the remaining 20% is split between very mediocre local artists (I assume with good connections with the Ministry of Culture) and some of Latin America’s finest classics, as long as the writers aren’t named Mario Vargas Llosa.

    Since these book fairs are usually hosted at Teresa Carreño theater (very close to home), I don’t miss the chance to take a quick tour of them. Last time I bought five or six books for less than Bs 500.. Try beating that, burgeois TecniCiencia!

    In all seriousness, and despite a somewhat decent intention of bringing literature to the masses, the truth is that this is just a thinly-veiled mass brainwashing attempt,and that definitely blows.

  9. Back in the day, I did “locuras” with Tecniciencias. Locuras, you guys.

    I’d go in and come out with seven books. It was beautiful, particularly on imported books and those in English. I was building my Harry Potter collection at the time and a title in Spanish at Bs. 300, was in Bs. 80 on the American version.

    Most of my collection is from those years. Not only there was a great inventory with recent books (I was informed thanks to the internet), but I would trip to TC, usually the one on El Tolón or Sambil, find them and buy them on sight at these great prices. You could buy comics, magazines, whole collections of novels (I bought a collection of all the 007 books written by Fleming for something like Bs. 600).

    Around the end of that era I bought my kindle because chavismo is not going to get in the way of my addiction. It was a timely call. Today, well, this post is ultra accurate.

  10. I am a bookworm myself.
    In Germany you still see bookshops as full with people of all ages as in Venezuela you see…I don’t know, a supermarket on a Saturday?

    A European could buy over 1000 books with a normal monthly salary…with the minimum wage around 1300 litres of petrol.
    The average Venezuelan could buy, by using his whole salary, a couple of books or…how many litres of petrol? (never mind he won’t afford to buy a tyre for his car)

    Venezuela is complete madness.

    I am so sorry.

  11. I made a shop owner very nervous in El Tigre in 2012 by asking for Orwell’s Rebellion en la Granja. I was told I got the last two copies in the City (during Chavez last election campaign). Those copies have been circulating all over El Tigre/El Tigrito among school kids for 3 years now.

  12. Ok so for me this is one of the most depressing things I have read here. As a bookworm myself I find things here really sad. I live in Valencia and I remember that every time I went to Caracas it was a must for me to visit Librería La France in Chacaíto or El Libro Italiano en Sabana Grande to buy french and italian books to read, they are of course closed now. Like some of us here, I also bought a Kindle with my Cadivi dollars. I would love to buy books, but if you want to read something here, you must find the pirated version of it because you don’t even have the government’s authorization to buy it. Culture is always the first victim of this things right?

  13. Great article , perhaps because as a life long book worm it really resonates with me , I can identify with many of the glad and sad experiences you mention , my custom however was to buy abroad in english what was originally written in english and in Venezuela what had been written in Spanish , few translations can render the distinct shades and tones of the original language into another tongue …… Of course there are some authors you can read in either english or spanish because their prose is so pure, Auster or Murakami for example. Although I prefer reading ( actually re reading) Borges in the original spanish Ive discovered some translations which are so good that they can be read in English.

    I share your experience in trying to find the books I want to read in Venezuelan libraries , they are either missing or impossibly overpriced. Also sad is to see the marked decay of book shops in the US , shops I used to visit again and again have now disspeared or been turned into libraries of ‘garbage’ literature or silly novelties . Glad that at least in spain good book stores are still arround.

    Ive tried buying and reading internet books , and there are certain kinds of books which one can enjoy using this media , but there are others , perhaps more densely literary in content, which can only be truly enjoyed having it phisically in you hands.

    Ive always felt a bit lonely because few of my Venezuelan friends or relatives really enjoy reading as much as I do , some do read but prefer what to me are not the most bewitching topics . I feel somehow comforted that there are so many country man who share my love of reading. Hope that some day soon we can return to our old pleasures rumaging for books in well stocked libraries …in Venezuela!!

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