My Opening Day at Havana’s Book Fair

Daisy Valera

Entrance to the book fair.
Entrance to the book fair.

HAVANA TIMES — This year, I went to Havana’s International Book Fair like someone who believes in miracles: with my fingers crossed behind my back, hoping something had changed. I thought it a good sign that, this time around, the entrance tickets weren’t made of newsprint.

At the information booth, however, I again ran into pretty boys who wrap scarves around their necks and hold cigarettes, posing for a friend’s camera, and I had to work a little too much to get their attention and have one of them hand me the day’s program.

On the lawns of the fair grounds they have again set up those plastic tents that resemble makeshift saunas or Red Cross field infirmaries (I can’t help think someone will eventually die of heat exhaustion in one of those).

Again, Nestle is everywhere, and the Book Fair looks more like an ice-cream fair. A new flavor is being announced: “Coco Sensation” (“with plenty of natural coconut”).

Everything at the fair was in a state of disorder this first day: many Cuban publishers had not yet finished setting up their stands and one saw books in packages or heaped up at a corner somewhere. By comparison, the fried chicken and beer venders who set up camp on the moat of the Cabaña fortress struck me as more organized and efficient.

The one changing element in this immutable stage is the background music. Since the guest country this year is Ecuador, fair goers have to adjust their ears to the odd melodies of a sanjuanito or cumbia.

Line to leave bags before entering the book stands.
Line to leave bags before entering the book stands.

There was no shortage of people lining up in front of the coat and bag lockers. The books are cheap, but not cheap enough. Fair goers are asked to check their bags at the entrance to prevent thefts – this is a distinctive characteristic of Havana’s Book Fair.

By the looks of it, book prices in Cuba are rather favorable in comparison to the rest of the world, as attested to by the Chinese and Latin American students about to topple over from the weight of the book-filled bags they carry.

We also get a lesson in prices at Ecuador’s exhibition space, where not one book is sold. The books are put on display so that we may smell and touch the splendid editions and to find out that the volumes that Cuban publishers have decided to re-print are the least interesting of the lot. Cuba’s Casa de las Americas has published Rafael Correa’s Ecuador: de Banana Republic a la no republica (“Ecuador: From Banana Republic to No Republic”).

At the fair:

A Mexican publishing house is selling Justin Bieber’s biography and the horoscope for 2014.

At the stand set up by the Japanese embassy, young Cubans wearing hanfus make origami figures.

The space alloted to the ALBA (“Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas”) cultural fund was empty.

Gigantic 3D books and posters of Cristiano Ronaldo and Eminem are sold.

Inside a stand.
Inside a stand.

At the Chinese literature stand, the representative explains to me that “corporation” means the same thing as “exhibition.”

Argentina’s Biblioteca Universitaria (“University Library”) surprises us once again announced it will donate some of its books when the fair is over.

I left the fair feeling a bit distressed and missing the good old times I didn’t get to experience personally:

The 1940s, when individual book sellers displayed amazing books on shelves set up around Havana’s Parque Central, sold at prices everyone could afford.

The years immediately following 1959, when Editorial Revolucionaria published literary classics and the latest science volumes without asking anyone permission.

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One thought on “My Opening Day at Havana’s Book Fair

  • Ummmm, maybe it’s only me but I don’t see many books for sale in most of the pictures. Isn’t a book fair supposed to have books?

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