Empty rooms, empty bookshelves

Marianne's apartment has that fresh emptiness and forlorn sense of detachment common to the homes of Venezuelans getting ready to move out, even with no boxes around.

“Sorry for the mess,” Marianne apologizes as I walk into her apartment in downtown Valencia.

There’s no need:, her “messy” living room looks better than my place in most days. Still, it has that fresh emptiness and forlorn sense of detachment common to the homes of Venezuelans getting ready to move out even with no boxes around. It’s not the first soon-to-be-empty room I’ve seen recently.

Marianne tells me I shouldn’t have called her via WhatsApp. Her internet connection has been down all day. I tell her my connection was unstable for a whole month, making working online excruciating. We go to a small L-shaped space set off by a desk and a drawing board on one side and a tall, square bookshelf on the other.

“I figured that since so many of my friends are having a hard time finding books, it’s better if I give them away.”

“The destiny of a country without reading comprehension is tragic,” she once wrote. No wonder some people say she’s Luis Carlos’s valenciana twin.

I’ve always admired her. On top of her work as a lawyer, writer, and book editor Marianne Díaz is an activist for digital rights and online privacy. Though we’ve only met in person a handful of times, I try to keep up withon her on social media.

“The destiny of a country without reading comprehension is tragic,” she once wrote. No wonder some people say she’s Luis Carlos’s valenciana twin.

I sit on a small stool and we chat as I start browsing her books. My eyes jump straight to El Enigma SAC by María Teresa Romero. I’ve wanted to read it for ages now but it always seemed so expensive. It brings me back to browsing through books at Tecniciencia in C.C. Las Américas for hours, seldom buying anything but enjoying what a book promises.

“The two or three main bookstores in Maracay seem to have nothing but row after row of empty shelves these days,” I complain. “A handful of unsold books from better times. Copy after copy of Paulo Coelho, Hunger Games knock-offs, that kind of thing. Or else dusty paperbacks that seem to have been left in warehouses for years, if not decades.”

“We had branches of Tecniciencia and Nacho here,” she replies, “but they quickly went from having very few books to closing down for good.”

Tecniciencia actually closed in Maracay years ago, same deal with Nacho.

“What barely remains is the Tecniciencia branch in Prebo and some small places.”

And the Librerías del Sur? The roja, rojita alternative to Tecniciencia and Nacho? Bien, gracias. I can’t speak for other cities but every time I used to pass by la Casa de la Cultura —Maracay’s main cultural complex— I would try to stop by the local branch of Librería del Sur only to find it closed.

The bookstore is still stacked with books from Monte Ávila and Biblioteca Ayacucho and DVDs of Cuban movies, but they’re all ensconced behind a greasy windowpane and a locked door. Nobody ever goes there. A few years ago they tried to re-launch it, without much success.

“As you can imagine, I used to be a regular at local bookstores but since their demise,” she tells me, “I’ve started to go for digital or used books, which already had a place among what I read.”

That leaves used books, the never-ending treasure-hunt.

eBooks won’t work for me because, my eyes get tired very fast. Worse: a lot of the books I most want to read belong to the vast category of those books about Venezuela that nobody’s ever bothered to upload.

That leaves used books, the never-ending treasure-hunt. From humble street vendors sitting on plastic stools next to a pile of old Reader’s Digest and high school textbooks from the 80’s on the sidewalk to Instagram accounts solely dedicated to buying and selling books, through trendy book-swapping events, used books have become the only way for many.

Like so much in Venezuela these last few years, the disappearance of the bookstores as an institution has been a gradual process. I browsed fewer and fewer books from an ever declining selection until I didn’t bother going anymore. It wasn’t worth it to run into the same old empty shelves, overstocked 50 Shades of Grey sequels and tons of Walter Riso.

I’ve asked people in the rest of the country if it’s as bad for them as it is here. There’s David in Mérida. On Facebook chats that can go on until the early hours of the morning, he tells me he thinks up to 70% of the books on offer are second-hand, with the rest being mostly international best sellers, and together they barely keep the businesses afloat.

I confess I’m having second thoughts about writing this piece. “Isn’t fretting about books while people starve just so shallow?”

He disagrees.

“If you say books aren’t important, they win.” Just because culture, education, and progress happen to be unfashionable right now that’s no reason to give them up.

I call Susana in Caracas. For many, she’s the hub of the speculative fiction community in the capital, editing Los Forjadores, a webzine and organizing Solsticios, an annual science fiction and fantasy short story contest. She’s also a struggling mother who battles mightily to make it to quince y último each month.

“The day working as hard as I can and not making is no longer enough to eat, isthat’s the day books stop being a priority to me,” Susana tells me.

“I haven’t set foot in a bookstore, a shoe store or a clothing store over two years now,” she says. “I just read what I already have, the same way I wear what I already have.”

I didn’t talk to Marianne that afternoon as much as I’d have liked to. In our brief talk, we keep coming back to how difficult it’s become to write about Venezuela. Not Venezuelan characters or locations, but to write stories dealing withabout what’s happening to the country.

It hurts too much. The conversation falters. There’s nothing you can say, really. A facile “keep trying” just to lift the burden of silence from the air.

Are books a simple commodity, an intelectualoide status symbol in our ever-precarious national reality?

Do books have a place in a dystopian society? Does literature? Isn’t that just escapism?

No, that’s simplistic.

It would be like saying all books are disconnected from reality. Are books a simple commodity, an intelectualoide status symbol in our ever-precarious national reality? I guess they could be, for some.

For me, books are mostly about stories and ideas and how we setlet them free into the world, let them reach other people. People have fought for books, people have died for books and today, people continue to learn, to speak up, in to their their own personal stories and ideas, giving their own contribution to literature, even if this is not exclusively printed on paper..

Marjane Satrapi’s childhood in the middle of a revolution that promised change but brought dismay, Junot Díaz’s Óscar Wao, with one foot in the violent heat of the Caribbean and another in the cold, merciless waters of the North Atlantic seaboard or the perpetual patience withto life’s woes beyond our reach inof García Márquez’s Macondo.

They all found solace for their own personal struggles by putting into words their concerns, their frustrations, their own view on life and by doing so, they have taught me how to deal with writing about things that hurt too much.


José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.