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)
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.
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.