Rubbing my hands with antibacterial soap while entering and leaving the expo center has now become a ritual for me. Not that I am a germophobe by any means, but the big tubs filled with gelatinous germ destroying agents is prominently displayed on a table before you go in the fair. I partook in the ersatz holy water before entering the church of books. This was a telling sign. In Mexico, religion plays into the culture as if it were the lungs and Mexico the body – it pumps the air into the body of culture. No matter how much a part of the counterculture any writer might claim to be, when it comes to the fair, Catholicism reigns. From the religious presses to the stands that sell Jesus decorated bracelets, magnets and bookmarks, it is difficult to ignore it’s one of the major veins in Mexican culture. There are people working the fair with rosaries hanging around their necks. And it’s not just Catholicism, the L. Ron Hubbard booth bustled from morning to night with a book weary public more than ready to watch their movies and take their physical tests that will indeed verify their future greatness just as soon as L. Ron provides them with the answers.
In light of the Catholic overtones, it is somewhat disturbing to notice the frequency of scantily clad pretty ladies, wearing publisher sponsored sashes and handing out pamphlets, standing in front of various book booths like the e-book booth or LaRousse. This is still a patriarchal society and it shows in much of the way the fair is presented. Perhaps it is serving the general public, but as a woman visiting the fair I do not find the women in three inch heels and short skirts helpful or necessary when it comes to discovering what the company has to offer. Maybe men would disagree, but that’s the point. Assuming I ascribe to the general predilection of sexuality that pairs men with women, I was surprised that there were no buff men with sashes hanging on their toned bodies handing out literature for a particular publishing company. Even as I write this, it sounds ridiculous. Of course I wouldn’t expect that. Which makes it even more surprising that a woman dressed provocatively goes unnoticed as pandering tripe but merely a innocuous ploy to lure potential customers into the booth.
Religion and sex aside, it is interesting to note what exactly gets displayed at the fair. As political as Mexico is and it’s history is, it seems specifically relegated to the male perspective, save perhaps Hannah Arendt and Elena Poniatowska. Because this is a fair that serves the public, maybe that is why there is not the gamut of political or social representation. I was hoping to find the typical as well as the rare, the existence of counterculture not solely written by men but to have a fabric of voices woven through the contemporary socio-political culture of Mexico. That must include women, I presume. I found that Arlequin, a publisher that approached me, had a compendium of counterculture literature as well as experimental theater and fiction.
The last panel of the fair that I went to was the Tribute to Thomas Pynchon moderated by the inimitable David Kipen and featuring Richard Rayner and Mark Danielewksi. I really enjoyed this panel because it got the writers out of their own work and into the work of someone else. And if you’re going to get into some great work, it might as well be Pynchon. Richard Rayner said that The Crying of Lot 49 was a detective novel similar to the original detective novel Oedipus Rex. I also loved the analogy that Richard made about Pynchon being like a ball of wool unraveling – you don’t know where it’s going but only that you see repeating colors and patterns. Mark made some fantastic points about Pynchon’s work in general and that Pynchon as an author has writing that is so important and effective that it denies talking about him as “author” referring to the idea of celebrity. Also, that Gravity’s Rainbow is a monumental book that eludes identity because of its complexity. When the floor was open to questions, someone asked a question in Spanish that the rest of some of audience did not understand because they did not have the translation headphones. I asked them to repeat the question in English because they had already started to answer it. Scott Timberg (who? Oh yes, author of the blog, The Misread City) yelled from the back of the room “Are we in a bar? Who’s moderating this?”. Besides this inordinate response (Scott, we were not in a bar), the question was repeated and fueled some rich conversation about translating Pynchon. Rayner stated that Pynchon’s writing has an ‘Americaness of language’ and that The Crying of Lot 49 has a vibrancy and energy in its prose. I immediately thought of Pynchon or David Foster Wallace as our Gombrowicz – he purposely wrote Trans-Atlantyk so that it could not be translated. Although this was not the aim of DFW or of Pynchon, it does impart upon us how the culture of a particular language can make translation so difficult. Overall, the discussion was one of the most provocative of the fair. It could have gone on for at least another couple of hours, but I felt that way about all the panels I attended. Andale!
As with many fairs, trade and public, it stayed true to structure. The writers hung with the writers, the professionals drank wine together at lunch, the booksellers whispered on the floor while waiting till their shifts ended and the readers tried to find something to read, to inspire, to answer, to help. These groups may mix for fifty minutes at a time, but the barriers of art, commerce and propriety are still present. When they do mix, it is engaging, fun, spontaneous, and stimulating. And no matter what anyone may tell you, that’s why we all do it.