Walking, Eating… and Reading

By Yusimi Rodriguez (photos: Daisy Valera)

HAVANA TIMES — “Next week I’m going there with my old lady to hang out a little, eat some chicken and look at a few books.” That was what I heard a man saying to his friend recently on the bus. We were en route to downtown Havana and passed by the Morro Cabaña Complex, the main site of the Havana International Book Fair.

I didn’t know whether to feel sad or bust out laughing. I thought about the official triumphalism that’s reflected in the astronomical figures citing how many visitors attend the annual “book fiesta,” as they call the fair.

What would happen if they did a survey of the interests of those visitors? While this man was thinking about the chicken he was going to eat along with his “old lady,” I calculated the number of books I could buy on my salary.

There wouldn’t be many. Even the ones sold in national currency prices are expensive, especially if you consider that the average wage here is between three 300 and 400 pesos a month [$12 and $16 USD] – less in many cases. What percent of one’s salary is represented by a book that costs ten, fifteen or twenty dollars? And how many volumes can a retiree buy?

But five or six years ago, apart from the price of the books, we were complaning about the lack of food sold in national currency at the fair. People would spend hours in line to buy books and then come out with their bags overflowing – but their stomachs (and their pockets) would be empty.

The foods offered here in recent years have been becoming more attractive: they offer pizza, fried or grilled chicken with rice, salad, pork, candy, soda and ice cream. Plus, all of this is sold in national currency. It’s expensive, but it’s sold in local currency none the less.

There are other affordable things for sale (small pies, cookies or soda, ham sandwiches and popcorn), and all of these too are sold in local currency.

The food sold there has become so attractive that this year I saw more people in the food court than at the book fair itself.

A neighbor told me that her niece had gone to the fair but had returned without any books. She told me that the young woman had gone there and looked around but she ended up spending her money on something to eat. What’s curious is that the niece is a medical student.

Given the lack of recreational alternatives, ones affordable to people’s pockets, visiting the La Cabaña, taking a walk, getting together with friends, looking at the attractive editions of foreign publishers, checking out the crafts, and then sitting down to eat something tasty in national currency isn’t a bad choice.

On top of this, if you took home some book (whether on cooking or a work of international or national literature) you would have had a profitable day.

Still, many people regarded this twenty second annual International Book Fair with a certain degree of sadness. “It doesn’t have that fair…ambiance,” they said. The sales areas in national currency had lots of books published in previous years, but very few new ones.

Also, we saw fewer people this year compared to other fairs. On Tuesday, February 19, four days after the event opened its doors to the public, at 2:00 in the afternoon I saw more people in a line to get tattoos (temporary ones) in the Arab pavilion, than in the national currency book sales area.

This could be attributed to the fact that it was a weekday, but the booths dedicated to selling cards with the zodiac signs, the world’s smallest books (true gems) and other souvenirs were full and people were buying those items. Those trinkets are sold in hard currency (we Cubans aren’t paid in that currency directly – we have to go to money exchanges to get it).

Nonetheless, the lovers of literature also had the opportunity to attend books presentations, seminars, awards, and launchings by national and international magazines – where some fo the materials are distributed for free.

Even without money, one can leave La Cabaña with some interesting books. At the Arab Pavilion they were giving away books on Islam, as well as ones on poetry and story books.

I think books are beginning to lose their prominence at the book fairs. The fairs are becoming additional places for consumption, not just culture. But I also think that everyone has the right to attend the event with their own goals and expectations.

There are products for almost every taste and interest. I even saw the DVD of a Mexican telenovela for sale.

In any case, there’s no lack of those who drain their savings to buy a book or try to cultivate their children’s interest in reading. Maybe they can’t buy anything else except popcorn and peanuts at the fair, perhaps they are or will become the minority, but they’re the ones who give the most meaning to the Havana Book Fair.

NOTE: The International Book Fair concluded its segment in the capital on February 24. Now, for the next two weeks, it will open in the various provinces of the country.

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