Excerpt: The Wild Book by Juan Villoro

Uncle Tito introduces Juan to his library, which proves to be an enormous place one can easily get lost in. He uses this opportunity to hint at the existence of The Wild Book, as well as Juan’s true nature as a “Lector Princeps”. Juan receives a postcard from his estranged father; this new adventure therefore serves as an opportunity to both distance himself from the situation as well as find out who he really is.

———————————————————————————

Afterwards, Uncle Tito showed me some of the sections of his enormous library. As we wandered the house, Ivory and Obsidian followed us at a discreet distance. Domino, on the other hand, climbed up onto the shelves and sometimes knocked down a book. Perhaps he was responsible for the books’ changing location.

Uncle oriented himself without difficulty in those rooms whose sizes were impossible to calculate. From one room you moved into another, and suddenly you found yourself in an inner courtyard with a glass roof. The books didn’t merely occupy all the walls, they also formed a labyrinth inside each room, making movement through them even more difficult. From one wall you could never see the wall across from it—there were too many books in the way!

The library had been ordered into sections, following a rather strange system. Signs with red lettering indicated what the books in that area were about, but the subjects were quite random. On that first exploration, I copied down the following signs into a notebook: “Cheeses That Stink But Taste Delicious,” “Small Dogs,” “The Bengal Tiger,” “Maps of the Ancient World,” “The Teeth of Grandmothers,” “Swords, Knives, and Lances,” “Foolish Atoms,” “Motors That Make No Noise,” “Orange Juice,” “Things That Look Like Mice,” “Black Books,” “How to Exit the Labyrinth,” “Marmalade Is Not Money,” “Carnivorous Flowers,” “The Fisherman and His Hook,” “Aviation Accidents,” “Rockets That Don’t Return,” “Explorers Who Never Set Out,” “The Meaning of Silence,” “Attack Soccer,” “1001 Spaghetti Sauces,” and “How to Govern Without Being President.”

Those sounded like the titles of random books; however, they were the names of sections which, in a very strange way, brought together different books. For example, the section “Explorers Who Never Set Out” contained seventy-two volumes related to this curious subject.

It seemed my relative had books about the most diverse topics. I asked him if he had bought any books that dealt with koalas.

“They should be among the books about bears,” he answered. “I don’t know how many there are. I stopped counting when I reached the number five hundred.”

“And have you read all of them?”

“Of course not. A library is not to be read completely, but to be consulted. Here there are books which are around just in case. I have read all my life, but there are many things about which I know nothing. What’s important is not to have everything in one’s head but to know where to find it. The difference between someone who’s vain and someone who’s wise is that the vain man only appreciates what he already knows, and the wise man searches for what he doesn’t yet know.”

That afternoon, someone called at the front door. Uncle paid for a package he had been sent and made a muddle of the addition and subtraction. Suddenly he said to me, “I need your brains, Nephew . . . How much is one hundred less fifty-eight?”

“Forty-two.”

“Excellent idea!”

“It’s not an idea, Uncle, it’s a result.”

“Sorry, I am a bit befuddled.”

Uncle had received something that left him quite overwrought.

“My nerves make me forget the things I learned when I was your age,” he said.

“Why are you nervous?”

“You don’t know how difficult it is to get ahold of this book.”

We went into the kitchen, where he took a knife, cut the cord that bound the package, tore away the brown wrapping paper, and showed me a very old book with a dark blue cover. It looked as if it were bound in whale skin. Uncle opened it. It was written in a language I didn’t understand.

“What’s it about?” I asked.

“Actually, it’s not about anything. This book serves to find other books. It’s an explorer book.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Let me go urinate, then I’ll brew a pot of my smoky tea and I’ll tell you everything,” Uncle said.

After he had done all these things, he placed a hand upon the book with the blue cover and explained, “Some centuries ago a science was invented for everything that has to do with books.”

“Is it a science to find lost books?”

“To a certain degree, my dear detective, but not exactly.”

“What is it, then?”

“It’s a science to understand how books behave and where they might go. Nobody has so much character as a book. A library is a collection of souls, Nephew. Books move like the souls in cemeteries, to approach someone or to flee before them.”

“Your library has ghosts?”

“Not so fast, Nephew. Over the course of many happy years, I’ve learned that every book has a spirit. That spirit searches for its reader—its favorite, ideal, absolute reader.” His eyes shone with a rare delight.

I looked at the hairs that poked out from my uncle’s nostrils and the white mane of hair that fell all disordered down his back. His bulging eyes stared at me intensely, as if I were an insect under a magnifying glass. I am ashamed to say it, but right then I thought he was quite mad.

“The books move around by themselves?” I asked him.

“I thought we had already clarified that point. Haven’t you ever had it happen that you put a notebook down in one place and then you find it somewhere else?”

“That happens because you forget where you put it down.”

“Secrets are not that simple. I’ve lived long enough to know that books change their location of their own volition. The question is, why do they do so? That’s what this book is about, written in Latin in the fifteenth century, when only the wise and a few monks spoke that dead tongue.”

At that moment, Eufrosia arrived with a cake that smelled delicious.

“Newton pie!” Uncle exclaimed, happy with life. “Look, Nephew, it’s covered in crunchy bumps, in memory of the apple that fell on Newton’s head and thanks to which he discovered the law of gravity. I suppose you already know that, since you’re so clever and already know the number forty-two so well. The pie is filled with apples, which help in one’s digestion and prove the law of gravity; everything winds up dropping down, my dear Nephew. First you eat, then you go to the bathroom.”

It seemed terrible to me that someone so interested in books would make scatological jokes like a little child. Uncle Tito really acted like a loon.

While we ate the delicious pie, my relative scattered crumbs everywhere. I had never seen anyone eat with such enthusiasm and such clumsiness. Eufrosia returned a short while later with a vacuum cleaner.

Since Uncle hates noise, except for that which he makes himself when he chews, he covered his ears for a while and we couldn’t keep chatting.

###

Unlike Uncle, Eufrosia loved to hear sounds. For example, the noise of the vacuum didn’t stop her from hearing the front doorbell. She went to see who it was and returned with a letter.

“Express mail,” she announced, and, to my surprise, added, “and it’s for you.”

When the mail arrived at home, I always hoped there was a letter for me, but the letters were always for my father. Now, for the first time, I received a letter. It had a stamp that showed Napoleon from the times when he was a young soldier and had long hair.

The envelope contained a postcard. One side had an image of the Eiffel Tower and on the back, my father’s chicken-scratch writing and his signature like twisted wires.

The postcard read:

Beloved son,

I know that these are difficult times for you, but

I will always love you. I am in the middle of constructing a very big

bridge. When I’m through, I’ll come back and we’ll go

to the zoo and to a soccer match.

I love you,

Papa

Right then I didn’t want to go to the zoo or to watch a soccer match.

I was about to tear up the postcard. The Eiffel Tower reminded me of the iron that I should take, which tasted terrible. Eufrosia had turned off the vacuum and Uncle was looking at me curiously. I was ashamed to be upset. I couldn’t just tear up the postcard as if I were a lunatic in some film. To calm down, I asked Uncle to keep talking about the books that change location on their own.

“That’s precisely the subject I wished to return to,” he said, with much enthusiasm. “There are two ways that a book might come to you: the normal way and the secret way. The normal way is that you purchase it, or someone lends it to you or gives it to you. The secret way is much more important; in that case, it is the book that chooses its reader. Sometimes the two ways get mixed up together. You think you decided to buy a book, but in reality, the book put itself there for you to see it and be drawn to it. Books don’t want to be read by just anyone, they want to be read by the best people—that’s why they search out their readers. Let’s go get a breath of fresh air.”

I thought we would go out into the garden that surrounded the house, but that’s not what we did. For my uncle, “fresh air” meant moving to a place with fewer books than usual. We went to one of the many large rooms that made the house strange, which I couldn’t have found without getting lost. It was a room full of rugs with complicated designs (like intertwined serpents) and potted ferns, which got sun from a skylight. There were only books on a desk and on the coffee table.

I had the strange sensation of having been here before. That’s why I was so surprised when Uncle Tito said, “Ten years ago, when you were barely two years old, you were in here. Your parents left you with me for a few hours because they had to take care of some things in this part of town. You behaved well, I won’t say you didn’t. You played for a while with a little fire engine and then fell asleep. Your parents came for you and everything seemed like an ordinary, everyday visit. I’m very distracted, as you know, and it took me a while to realize that something had happened.”

“What happened?”

“I need to go to the bathroom.”

“Hold it in, Uncle, you can’t stop the story here.”

“I’ll tell you everything very quickly. After your visit, many books moved around. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. You woke up the souls of the library. You have a rare power. You are a Lector Princeps.”

“A Lector Princeps?”

“A unique reader. In normal life you’re my nephew Juan, friendly and with a bit of a belly. For the books you are a prince. That’s why I needed you here. Now I am going to the bathroom.”

Uncle left the room quite hurriedly. I looked at the ferns and they seemed like fabulous plants to me, like a miniature jungle. Were there spiders in there? The ambience suggested something strange. Uncle returned a few minutes later.

“This library needs you, Nephew,” he said, emphatically. “You don’t know how difficult it was for me to convince your mother for you to come here. I’ve been begging her for years. She thinks I am half-crazy.” He paused, as if carefully calculating what he wanted to say. “The truth is that I’m not normal, but who wants to be as common as a dishrag? Worthwhile people are distinguished for something special or unique.”

I realized all the coincidences that had made it possible for me to be there. After my father left, my mother needed to be alone in order to take care of things and finally gave in to Uncle’s begging for me to visit him.

His eyes shone more than ever when he said, “Every time you’ve visited this house, the books have felt your presence.” That made me feel a bit afraid, until he added, “I don’t know what kind of Lector Princeps you are. We’ll have to discover that.”

“Have the books moved since I’ve arrived?”

“That’s what’s strange. On this occasion, they’re extremely quiet, as if they’ve been preparing something. I guess they know that you live here, and they don’t wish to act rashly.”

“You speak of them as if they were people.”

“They’re more than that—they’re superpeople. They live forever, searching for readers.”

I didn’t want to disillusion my uncle, but I also didn’t want to give him false hope, so I suggested, “Perhaps I no longer attract the books.”

“That could happen, of course. There are wonderful children who grow up to be idiots and the books stop being interested in them. I don’t mean you, of course. I think that the books are studying you.”

“I like to read, but not too much,” I added. “I prefer to watch television, to ride my bike, or to play with my dog, Pinta, or with my friend Pablo.”

“It doesn’t matter; the books feel that you can read them better than other people can. A Lector Princeps isn’t someone who reads more books but a person who finds more in what they do read.”

“Am I really a Lector Princeps?”

 

“You have all the characteristics, starting with your ears, because they get hot when you read. That’s a sign of concentration.”

“How do you know my ears get hot?”

“I took the precaution of touching them while you read your book about spiders. To a certain degree, I am glad that your mother has delayed in accepting my invitation. Now you’re thirteen years old and you better understand what you read. We’ll see if the books still consider you to be one of theirs. Sometimes there are Lector Princeps Interruptus. Occasionally, someone is born with enormous capacity for reading, but life turns them into cretins. There are famous imbeciles who were very refined babies.”

“Are there various kinds of Lector Princeps?”

“Yes, many. I’d be content if you were a Princeps Continuum.”

“Which kind is that?”

Uncle seemed a bit desperate. “As its name indicates, Nephew of mine with cork for brains, the Princeps Continuum is the kind that keeps the talent for reading over the course of their lifetime.”

“And there are other kinds of readers?”

“Yes, there are others, but let’s not be too ambitious—it won’t do for you to know too much. It’s enough for you to help me to find the book that I have never been able to read.”

“Is it here in your house?”

“Yes. I had it in my hands and I’ve not been able to recover it.”

“And did you already read it?”

“No one has read it. It is a unique case.”

“Not even its author read it?”

“It doesn’t seem to have an author. I tell you, it’s unique.”

“Do you know at least what it’s about?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“What’s it called?”

“I don’t want to tell you.”

“Why? That could help me find it.”

“That would help you find it in a normal way. I want you to find it in a secret way. If you deserve the book, it will come to you. That’s what I want you to help me with during your two months of summer vacation.”

The Wild Book
Juan Villoro
Translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel
Publication date: October 31, 2017
Restless Books
ISBN: 9781632061478

 

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