“A real book–because there are also impostors–is something as material and vital as a loaf of bread, or a jug of water,” Antonio Muñoz Molina wrote. “Like water and bread, friendship and love, literature is an attribute of life and a weapon of intelligence and joy.”
Beyond the shadow of a doubt, this phrase can be read as a portrait of Jorge Herralde. He has experienced his passion for books as something as vital as water and bread. Moreover, he has shared this passion with us all, making “real books” for our own enjoyment, for our own happiness. That’s why I am so glad to be able to thank him today, as a reader. Many of his books haven’t only enriched me, they’ve made me angry and sad, hurt and happy. And there are even a few that have changed my life. Herralde once said that an editor’s autobiography is his catalogue. What’s surprising is that his catalogue is, to a large degree, our autobiography as well. And I swear, the Spanish-language publishing houses this can be said of can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And so, this tribute we pay him today is, above all, an expression of gratitude by his devoted readers and fans. Who hasn’t dared explore new literary territories simply because “if Herralde published it, it must be good”? Thus, many writers have fallen into our hands who are Japanese, Iranian, Finnish, Italian, Russian, Polish… authors whom, otherwise, we surely would never have been able to read in Spanish.
“When Barça wins, there is a god, and he’s both garnet and blue,” Joaquín Sabina sings. Allow me to mention another of Jorge Herralde’s passions, because the last of the Mohicans now publishing in our language is also a soccer fan–a “pambolero,” as we Argentineans would say–of pure stock. But the passion is mutual: Pepe Guardiola, for example, confessed that he fi nished reading Albert Cohen’s Belle du Seigneur, one of Anagrama’s hits and number 100 in the collection “Narrative Panorama,” ten minutes before going out onto Wembley Field, where Barcelona won the Europe Cup. “Cómo no te voy a querer…”
Anagrama was born as a space, fi rst and foremost, for the voices of counterculture well into the Franco dictatorship. The protests of ’68 were still going strong, and young Jordi, determined to abandon engineering in favor of books, thought the time was ripe to embark on his publishing adventure. Perhaps because he kept in mind, having experienced it in the flesh, that, as Steiner says, when the going gets rough, literature becomes essential. Like parachuting, Juan Villoro would add with characteristically playful accumen: “Reading is an activity that only a few practice for pleasure in normal situations, and that everyone requires in an emergency.”
This year, the fantastic “parachute” Herralde created turns 40, and he’s celebrating with three thousand titles in his possession. Three thousand titles that form part of that river-of-novels that swells day by day. Or city-of-novels, to use another of the metaphors he likes to fall back on. A city built “like a dog house than can be expanded into a one-family home and even a row of condominiums, while at the same time, over the decades, expanding through its collections in the manner of broad avenues, until reaching others that are like dead-end alleyways.”
That in this forgetful era–despite the fact that the so-called “memoir industry” is one of the main enterprises of this, the clumsiest of “cultural industries”–that in this “use it, then throw it away” era, where books last only a couple of weeks on the table of new releases and from there are sent off to die in warehouses; that in an era of disposable narrators and poets, where it is only too easy to press the “delete” key, so that nothing marks us, nothing harms us, “so that no trace remains, no, none at all,” as Bronco sings; that an editor today should claim his real successes are not his best-sellers, but his “long-sellers,” speaks to us of a vision of literature and books that is surprising, to say the least. And can a successful business be built this way? Quite a lesson for all those who nourish the ferocity of trends, and the frivolization of thought. Herralde defends a complicit gaze at literature, one rather close to the magic, the mystery, of those butterflies we felt in our stomachs at age seven or eight when we’d open a book–in my case, among the branches of a damask tree, submerging myself in the adventures of Sandokan or Prince Valiant, two heroes I’d welcomed directly from my father’s childhood found inside marvelous yellow books from the Robin Hood collection. Or I’d cry alongside the March sisters at the funeral of Peep, the canary. Perhaps that’s why I am especially fond of Jorge Herralde, although he may not know it: because he’s accompanied me for so many years that I’ve lost count, and he’s made butterflies flutter in my stomach at the slightest bookish provocation. The latest ones invaded me not long ago together with two gems from his catalogue: The Rain Before It Falls, by Jonathan Coe, and The Sea, by John Banville. I still carry their salty trace on my skin, as well as the melancholy mourning of both narrators. And to this list, I could add so many, many more books and authors with whom I’ve conversed throughout my life, at times animatedly, at times nostalgically or furiously. I know that each of us could make his or her own list.
While writing these pages, I noted the number of yellow or grey or black spines in my library (and now, red, thanks to the new collection “Another turn of the screw,” plus the pocket-sized multicolored ones, of course). And I recall that Herralde’s intention was for his titles to make a “stain.” Few things stand nearer to my image of the publishing house he has built than this chromatic memory. The color of book spines on the shelves of narrative and essays. Spines that exhibit a strange letter A. The start of their own alphabet. The aleph of books. The beginning of all possible worlds. And it is by no means gratuitous, that reference to an author whom Herralde would have “loved to edit,” in his own words. Because in a way, he has made real Borges’ dream of transforming the world into a library. Some say that the tongue and the library are the only astrolabes that remain for those of us in exile.
For us, Latin American readers, Anagrama has been a travel diary, a map to hidden treasure, and a lifesaver we’ve been able to cling to during the worst of times (the River Plate version of Villoro’s parachute); a lifesaver as surprising, but far more efficient, than the one Groucho Marx handed to Thelma Todd in that anthological scene (and by the way, parenthetically, let me say that Groucho is also in Anagrama’s catalogue). While on that side of the ocean, Franco and his dictatorship were dying, we were inaugurating several new ones over here. Few things remained to hold onto in the middle of the gale, and books were one of them. If and when they weren’t the sort that the military were after, of course. One day I’ll tell Jorge Herralde just how many of the titles he published with enormous precision, passion, and great difficulty over in Barcelona we tried to save from our own historical and personal shipwreck. How many we had to get rid of, throats tight, by burning them on the grill in the backyard. Or by throwing them into the river after someone came up and told my father, “Been grilling a lot lately, haven’t we, neighbor?” Many of us gradually learned through Herralde the trails blazed by literature at a time when we could hardly find anything to set our eyes on that wasn’t a “reminder of death,” as Quevedo wrote.
This completed, somehow, an almost too perfect example of what Herralde himself calls a “virtuous cycle”: “for the literary, political, and sentimental education of Spanish generations growing up in the post-war era, the existence of publishing houses like Losada, Sudamericana, and Emecé was fundamental.” All of them were backed or founded along the River Plate by Spanish exiles.
It was thanks to books, and the solidarity of many, of course, that we were able to feel once again that infectious “optimistic will;” a phrase Herralde chose for the title of the story of his editorial experiences in Latin America, recently published by the Fondo de Cultura Económica –another publishing house that is very dear to us and a key part of our history as inhabitants south of the Rio Grande.
Pessimistic intelligence, optimistic will, Gramsci wrote, and Jorge Herralde took up the implications of this phrase almost as the motto of his relationship to our countries. “The big groups,” he wrote, “employ pessimistic intelligence given the very real difficulty of publicizing new Latin American authors on the Spanish language circuit. We independent editors, on the other hand, continue betting until out body (or our business) holds out, on the optimism of the will.” And this, as we know very well in this part of the world, has also allowed us to become known amongst ourselves. There is a somewhat perverse circuit of publication and distribution enabling the authors of this continent to be read someplace other than their own country of origin (or sometimes other than their city of origin, or even the block where they were born) only if they go through Spain. Anagrama is turning the tables on this by fostering publication not only in its Barcelona headquarters, but also in various countries of Latin America–Mexico being one highly visible example–and distributing them across the entire Spanish-speaking world.
Independent editing is inherent to democracy, as André Schiffrin proposes and Jorge Herralde knows only too well. Given the advance of multimedia businesses and great publishing holding companies, we must protect the plurality and diversity of our voices. Because, in the end, to keep watch over the word as a space for dialogue, coexistence, learning, and above all, as a space for freedom is, in the end, to keep watch over that which truly makes us human beings.
And this is what has sustained Jorge Herralde’s labor of love over the course of forty years at the forefront of one of the most positive and prestigious publishing houses of the Spanish-speaking world–a world that proudly boasts the letter Ñ as one of its signs of identity. Something rare in a reality that seems to have become increasingly mired in noise and insignificance, not even attaining “sound and fury,” that tale told by an idiot imagined over four centuries ago.
In light of this, we return to the jug of water and the loaf of bread, to friendship and love–that is to say, to our indispensable salvation by words–as we tour the avenues and alleyways, the parks and also the odd marvelous shack, of the city Anagrama has built for us.