Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (tr. by Chris Andrews)

Rodrigo Rey Rosa is a Guatemalan writer of significant acclaim. I haven’t read any of his other works, but Severina with its bookish theme appealed to me. So when I saw a copy in the LRB bookshop, I picked it up with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month in mind.

Bookshops are infested with ideas. Books are quivering, murmuring creatures. That’s what one of my business partners used to say. (pg.9, Yale University Press)

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Severina is narrated by an unnamed bookseller, a man who has recently split up with the latest love of his life. One day, he notices a new customer in the bookstore; there’s just something about this young woman, and right from the start he has her down as a thief, even though she doesn’t steal anything that day. From one day to the next, the bookseller waits for this mysterious girl to return – somehow he knows she’ll be back. Finally, on the afternoon of a poetry reading, she reappears:

She stood by the curtains that separated the main part of the store from the little space where the readings were held. This time she was wearing a rather loose-fitting dress made from a single piece of blue cotton, which came to down to her knees (perfectly rounded knees they were, shaped with evident care), a broad silver-plated belt, and black leather sandals. She was carrying a sequined handbag. She stayed until the end. She went to get a drink at the bar, exchanged glances and greetings, and, before leaving, slipped two little books from the Japanese literature section into her bag. The speed of it was impressive. Then she walked out straight through the door in no hurry at all. The alarm didn’t go off; I wondered how she’d done it. I let her go: again, I was sure she’d be back. (pg. 4, Yale University Press)

And sure enough, two or three weeks later, she’s back again; this time a copy of The Thousand and One Nights makes its way into her bag. On the girl’s next visit to the store, the bookseller finds himself alone with the girl and decides to take action:

She didn’t hear me. I came up behind her so close I could smell the scent of her hair.

“Where have you hidden them this time?” I asked. She started, spun around, and bumped into me. “What!” she cried. “You frightened me! What do you want? Are you crazy?” When she saw that I was smiling, she laughed.

“Sorry.”

She put her hand on her chest, covering her neckline. “You really scared me.”

“I really want to know where you’ve hidden them.”

Now she was cross; a fine line appeared between her thick, dark, shapely eyebrows. She pushed me aside and started walking hurriedly toward the door. I reached out, pressed a button, and although she ran the last few steps the security grille came down just in time to block her exit. She stopped and shoved at it.

“This is outrageous,” she said and turned to look at me. She took a cell phone from the pocket of her trousers and dialled a number. “Either you let me out or I’m calling for help.”

“Calm down.” A spotlight was shining in her eyes; without turning away. I reached out and switched it off. She was very beautiful. Corned like that, I found her irresistible. I smiled. “Easy now, easy.” (pgs. 6-7)

And so the bookseller falls in love with this young woman who seems attracted to him, too. And yet, try as he might to get close to her, she remains somewhat elusive and evasive. Her reasons for stealing books remain a mystery; she hints at complications in her life, but seems reluctant to reveal much more. Even her name might be an alias – the young woman says her name is Ana, but once again, the bookseller wonders if this is true.

Ana lives with an older gentleman, a man she claims to be her father. Intrigued to discover more about this mysterious girl and her companion, the bookseller rents a room in the pensión where they are lodging. But as soon as our narrator moves into the pensión, the couple disappear, leaving the bookseller somewhat confused and frustrated. At first our narrator thinks he should forget all about this woman, but several unanswered questions linger in his mind:

I kept going over the books that she had taken from me and trying to imagine the complete list of every title she had ever stolen. It was as if I thought this would help solve the mystery of a life that seemed bizarre and fantastic to me. (pg. 37)

And so begins the search for this girl for whom stealing books seems to be ‘a mode of existence.’

Severina is a beguiling novella, best experienced as a one-sitting read. On the surface, Rey Rosa’s prose appears clear and lucid, but dig a little deeper and the narrative seems to have an almost dreamlike quality. The young woman haunts our narrator’s days and nights, and at one point he wonders whether he has imagined the whole episode. There is an air of ambiguity about this story with its themes of identity, love and lives lived exclusively through and for books. And I’m sure a second reading – the story runs to just under 85 pages – would reveal additional insights.

Severina gives us a very literary story containing many references to books, and at one point the woman tells of how she once took a volume from Borges’s library – a book that comes complete with handwritten notes in the margins.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Severina; it’s an ideal story for a spare hour or two. Guy at His Futile Preoccupations and Scott at seraillon have also reviewed this book – just click on the links to read their reviews.

Severina is published in the UK by Yale University Press. Source: personal copy.

24 thoughts on “Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (tr. by Chris Andrews)

  1. Tony Messenger

    Sounds wonderful Jacqui. American writer, translator, composer Paul Bowles said of Rey Rosa (after a creative writing workshop) “His texts were very short, often mere scenes or prose-poems of atmosphere, rather than tales, but all of them showed a power of invention capable of creating truly original situations.” – this quote is in the recently published “The African Shore:” by Rey Rosa, looks like it is relevant for the work you read too.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It is a rather wonderful book, Tony, and I think you’d like it. What a fantastic quote from Paul Bowles – Severina is very much a prose-poem of atmosphere, and it’s quite unlike anything else I’ve read recently.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, that’s great – I find it hard to resist any novel (or novella in this case) with a bookshop setting! I hope you enjoy it if you do read it.

      Reply
  2. Bellezza

    I first saw this reviewed at seraillon, and now your review makes me all the more eager to read it. Here’s the only problem: I’ve just received Binocular Vision which I bought after reading your review and have yet to open. With school starting soon, and therefore going back to work, my time is running out to freely read. Still, I love what you read and review, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Haha, thanks Bellezza. One good thing about Severina, should you decide to go for it, is its brevity; it’s a quick read, a couple of hours, tops!

      Reply
  3. Scott W.

    On the surface, Rey Rosa’s prose appears clear and lucid, but dig a little deeper and the narrative seems to have an almost dreamlike quality.

    So true. Rodrigo Rosa’s narrative style is so remarkably clear, and yet there something off, something elusive. Those characters – Severina and her older companion – come off almost as phantoms once you start to look more closely at them.

    I look forward to re-reading this too. Just that passage you quote above where the narrator confronts Severina about her thefts has so much going on: the weird spotlight, the narrator’s slightly condescending language, as though he’s calming an animal, the controlling, mechanical properties of his movements in his ability to close the door and shut off the light without moving a step…quite a writer.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Scott. I completely agree about the elusive, almost ghostly nature of theses two characters, and at one stage, I think the bookseller wonders if they are a figment of his imagination. I’ve just re-read Guy’s review, and it’s interesting to see we’ve both commented on a dreamlike quality to certain aspects of the story.

      Great point about the confrontation passage and it does sound as if the bookseller is trapping an animal – it’s the word ‘cornered’ that does it for me. Yes, that strange spotlight, and his movements, too; I can almost see it in my mind. And there’s also the frisson of excitement he seems to get from being close to her, so close he can pick up the scent of her hair.

      As you say, he’s quite a writer.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    Between your review as well as Guy’s and Scott’s I really want to read this one.

    I love the idea of literary connections in the plot. I am also intrigued by the dreamlike narrative.

    Insightful review as always Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Brian – it’s nice to hear we’ve piqued your interest in this one. Yes, the bookish theme and literary connections certainly appealed to me. I’ve just re-read Guy’s review, and we’ve both picked up on a dreamlike quality to certain elements of the story.

      Reply
  5. Guy Savage

    I’m hoping that someone picks this up for film with Ricardo Darin in the role of the bookseller. A film could really give a punch to the visual clues hinted at in the book.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh yes, there’s a terrific little film in here, and Darin would be perfect for the role of the bookseller! And now I’m thinking about who could play Ana…

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    This sounds very intriguing. I’d only heard of The African Shore before. At least, short as it is, I might manage to fit it in somewhere!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Intriguing is a good word for it, and it does have brevity in its favour! Severina is definitely worth a look; I would read another by Rey Rosa.

      Reply
  7. Richard

    Glad to hear another voice in support of this “beguiling novella.” Having read two other works by Rey Rosa but not this one, I’m hopeful that his newfound popularity in English will lead to more translations. I really enjoyed what I’ve read by him so far, and it’s clearly time for a follow-up encounter with his prose. Cheers!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I hope you like this one, Richard; I would read another by Rey Rosa, for sure! Thanks for dropping by, and for co-hosting Spanish Lit Month with Stu – I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

      Reply
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