Anyone Have Any Idea What Jesus Wrote Here?
In her story of an expatriate author in Peru whose book gets resold in a bowdlerized version, Sophie Hardach attempts to reconcile her appreciation for protections against intellectual piracy with her sympathy for readers in poorer countries who buy pirated books at cut-rate prices.
The maracuya juice sold on the corner of Calle 22 de Noviembre with Calle Simon Bolivar gave most foreigners a stomachache, so Isabel made a point of drinking one every morning. She had lived in Huaraz for five years and no longer suffered from altitude sickness or indigestion, spoke Spanish with the vaguely plaintive lilt of the Andes, ate guinea pig without once thinking of a pet called Mr. Stubbs. Yet taxi drivers and street vendors saw her thin brown hair, her blue eyes, and treated her like a backpacker. It was to them, and anyone else who thought she was a tourist, that she dedicated this daily glass of juice, this inner baptism. For how foreign could she really be when her entire system was peacefully inhabited by millions of Andean microorganisms?
On a Monday in June when the rainy season should have long dried up, Isabel arrived at the stall to find there were no maracuyas left. The owner suggested a little juice of little oranges. Isabel asked whether she could have a little juice of little papayas instead. The owner replied that there were no little papayas left, only little oranges, and after a further exchange of diminutives, Isabel accepted the orange juice with some disappointment. It tasted familiar and ordinary, the taste of toast and margarine for breakfast, of her mother turning the radio down, her father turning it up.
Over the rim of the glass she could see the high white mountains with clouds at their feet. Their glaciers melted into lakes, the lakes filtered down into streams, the streams flowed into taps and from the taps into jugs for maracuya juice.
Next to the juice stall was a trestle table with pirated books laid out in rows. Isabel picked up a study of the Shining Path with a guerrillero in a balaclava on its cover. The stacks were messy and underneath the Shining Path book was a paperback with a plain white cover. No author name, just one line of slender black letters:
Con el dedo escribia en la tierra.
It took Isabel a moment to recognize this old friend in an unfamiliar costume. When she did, she felt slightly guilty, as if she had failed to spot her own child at a fancy dress party.
With His Finger He Wrote on the Ground.
Spanish suits you well, Isabel thought, and slid her finger under the cover.
In the shadow of the temple stood a rickety old lean-to. An old couple lived there and an old cat, and a very young woman ...
The lines unspooled in her mind, slow and lovely. The translator had turned the lean-to into a cabana, but why not. Was there even a Spanish word for lean-to? She flicked to the final page.
Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
Pero Jesus, inclinado hacia el suelo, escribia en tierra con el dedo, como si no les oyera.
Oh, it was very satisfying.
A mound of layered woollen skirts, cardigans, blouses, and shawls emerged from behind the trestle table, topped by a high black hat. The hat tilted back to reveal a lined brown face and a pair of small black eyes.
"... usted desea?"
On a mischievous whim, Isabel smiled at the wool-swaddled lady and said in Quechua:
"This one looks nice. Is it any good?"
"It's very good," the woman replied in Spanish without hesitating. "It's about the Shining Path."
Isabel waved the book.
"I mean this one. Con el dedo escribia en la tierra."
"Yes," the woman said, unperturbed. "It's a book about the Shining Path."
Isabel turned the book around and pretended to read the blurb.
"Are you sure? It says something here about a retelling of that famous Bible story. The one about the stoning of the adulteress."
"It may be difficult to read for you because it's in Spanish. We can get you an English book if you like. Come back tomorrow."
Isabel let out a little laugh. She placed her empty glass on the counter of the juice stall.
"No, I'll take this one. My Spanish is pretty good."
Isabel paid without haggling, checked the time, and hurried toward the shabby fifth-floor flat that housed the Andean Observer.
The flat on 22 de Noviembre was only a studio, really, a room with a sofa and a desk and a corner where they kept an electrical hot plate for making coffee and heating up soup. From the window they could see the street and the corner of Simon Bolivar.
Cheryl sat at the desk with the phone cord wrapped around her arm. The receiver was wedged tightly between ear and raised shoulder. It was the change in tone that gave her away, the relaxed murmur heard through the door turning loud and stilted as soon as Isabel entered the room, "Well, thank you very much for your time and I'll get back to you about the ad."
A boyfriend back in Australia, Isabel assumed.
The next day brought another orange juice. "It's because of the climate change," the juice lady said. "The rainy season should be over by now. They're running out of maracuyas."
"Perhaps they just had a bad harvest."
"The rainy season should have stopped about two weeks ago."
"I know," Isabel said tetchily. "I live here. I know."
"Well, there you go." The juice lady fished a rag from her metal bucket and wiped the black street soot off her metal counter. She dropped the rag back into the water and it slowly sank below the grey suds.
Glass in hand, Isabel turned to the book table. The old woman had been replaced by a man. He was stacking up paperbacks, his face half-hidden by a baseball cap.
"Your wife sold me a book yesterday," Isabel said with forced joviality. "Con el dedo escribia en la tierra. She said it was about the Shining Path, but it turned out to be the story of a woman accused of adultery."
"That would have been my mother," the man said. "She's illiterate."
The man shrugged and continued to stack his books.
"Well, I just wanted to say that I enjoyed it," Isabel said, determined to win his attention. "It's a retelling of that Bible story, the one about casting the first stone."
"If you're interested in books about the Shining Path ..." He held up the book with the guerrillero on the cover. "This one is good. El Sendero Luminoso." He switched to halting
English: "El Sendero Luminoso mean ... de Chinin' Patt."
"I know." Isabel handed the juice lady her glass, which joined the rag in the bucket with the grey suds. "I know, I know. I know that sendero luminoso means shining path."
"You ..." The bookseller fiddled with the visor of his baseball cap, took a deep breath, and continued bravely: "You want English book?"
The juice lady paused with her hands in the water. She was bending over the bucket and her apron dangled loosely from the waistband with the hem trailing in the dust.
Isabel squinted at the high white mountains in the distance. Into the expectant silence of the juice lady and the bookseller she said dramatically: "I don't want to buy anything. You see, I'm the author of this book."
She placed a proprietal hand on the stack of Con el dedo.
"This book. I'm the author. I wrote this book. I'm Isabel. This is my book."
The bookseller's eyes drifted from her hand to the cover.
"My book. I wrote it."
"I'm sorry it's pirated." The bookseller scratched his head. "We're poor."
"I don't mind," Isabel said, very dignified and generous now. "I hereby give you permission to reprint it. It's my gift to the people of the Andes."
When Isabel walked into her office ten min utes later, Cheryl was sitting at the desk with the phone cord wrapped around her arm.
Isabel did not mind.
She felt wonderful all day.
The next morning she raised her glass of orange juice to the bookseller in amused complicity. She winked. He laughed.
"I was up all night," he said. "We were scared you would tell the police."
"Why would I? I told you, it's my gift to ..."
"No need. We've changed it. Look."
Someone had replaced the plain white cover with an image of Jesus cupping his hands around his flaming heart. Above his long, blond curls were the words "Dios es Amor" picked out in gold.
Isabel opened the first page.
In the shadow of the church stood a humble cabana. An old teacher lived there and a cranky horse named Malgenio, and a very young woman who was as beautiful as the morning dew ...
She flicked to the last page.
Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not: God is Love.
After a pause, she said with the dazed deliberation of a victim staggering away from a crashed car: "That ... is ... wrong."
"We had to change it. You might have called the police."
"But ... it's wrong. Completely wrong. In so many ways. You can't do that."
"But I did."
"No. You can't. I mean, first of all, it's still pirated. It's still essentially the same book. You just made it worse."
"If it's worse then it can't be the same book."
"Listen, you put a church in there! For heaven's sake, a church! There were no churches when Jesus was around. Christianity came after Christ, right? Think about it. Right?"
"It's only a story. The poet must be free to fabulise."
With a cry of rage, Isabel flung the book across the table. The juice lady tutted and mumbled something under her breath.
"That's not a nice way to treat a book," the juice lady said in slow, loud Spanish.
That day Phone-Cheryl handed in her resignation. She had been offered a job at the Peruvian Times. The boyfriend back in Australia turned out to be a female editor in central Lima.
On her way home Isabel broke with habit and told the taxi driver to go via the corner of 22 de Noviembre and Simon Bolivar.
She noted with pleasure that the distinctive stack of garishly coloured books with golden letters had been removed from the trestle table.
In the night she dreamed she was an Andean eagle. She flew over glaciers that were silver in the sunlight and then she swooped down a ravine toward a river of liquid gold. It was a wonderful dream, but it soon dissolved into a common dreamy soup. Someone called her name. Friends from the past drifted in. When she awoke, all that remained of the eagle was an ache in her arms as if she had flapped a vast pair of wings all night.
"Sold out," the bookseller said and rubbed his hands. "The entire stack, the entire print run."
He paid for her orange juice.
"You should try maracuya juice sometime," he said with a firm smile. "It's very different from orange juice. I don't think they even have maracuyas in your country."
Over the next few days Isabel spotted God Is Love at five illegal bookstalls in Huaraz. The Saviour's lips simpered between the jolting hands of a woman on the bus, on a wicker table in the cafeteria where Isabel met her friend Ana every Saturday, on the laps of two students eating peanuts in the Plaza de Armas. When the students got up from of their bench, one of them stooped and wrote "Dios es Amor" in the dust with her finger. Isabel waited until they had left, then sat down on the bench and erased the words with her left foot.
On Monday, a French girl applying for Phone-Cheryl's job arrived with a paperback in her hand and casually put it down on Isabel's desk.
The smile, Isabel was quite certain of this, had been ever so slightly altered in the latest print run. The corners of the mouth had been dragged down a touch, pulled to one side a bit, so that the overall impression--Isabel was quite sure of this--yes, the overall impression was one of vague mockery, of a suppressed snigger, a thinly concealed sneer.
"What have I done to you?" Isabel interlaced her fingers and clenched them to stop herself from raising her voice. "I wasn't even complaining about the pirated copies. Why would you do this to me?"
"But I'm not doing anything!" The bookseller ordered two orange juices. He paid with a big note and held out one of the glasses for Isabel to take. "Come, sit down."
He used the calm, gentle voice that people in the town reserved for horses and the insane. Isabel relaxed her fingers and shook her head. He patted the seat of a red plastic stool, but she shook her head again. The plastic trestle table now bore hundreds of copies of the wretched book. Hundreds of thousands of words pressed down on the wobbly plastic legs. She counted five stacks by six. Thirty Jesuses sneered at her. They had pushed out the cookbooks, the hospital romances, the Shining Path.
She emptied her glass in four gulps.
"The point was the mystery," she said. "The point was that no one would ever know what Jesus wrote on the ground. But you took my book and killed the mystery and then you ... you ... replaced the mystery with a slogan painted on the windscreen of every bus in Latin America. It's as if you'd taken me and turned me into a windscreen, you know, a windscreen with wipers going over that empty slogan. And now when I try to write in the evenings, when I try to work on my new novel, that's all I can hear, that pair of wipers screeching back and forth over that awful, empty slogan."
"If it was empty it wouldn't be painted on the windscreen of every bus."
"What do you say?" Isabel asked the juice lady. "You've followed this whole sorry tale from the beginning. What do you say?"
The juice lady sloshed the water from her bucket down the side of the road. She straightened up and said:
"There is only one mention in the Holy Bible of Our Lord writing something. He stoops down and writes on the ground, 'God is love.' If this man wants to write a story about that, I don't see why not."
"But Jesus never wrote that!" Isabel smacked the trestle table so hard that the thirty Jesuses jumped and slid off their stacks. "No one knows what he wrote, but he certainly didn't write that."
"Aha!" The bookseller jabbed a finger at the sky. "If no one knows what he wrote, then how can we be sure that he didn't write, 'God ..."
Isabel got up and rushed down the street before he could finish his sentence.
"Anyone have any idea what Jesus wrote here?" she typed into an online forum for Bible studies. "John 8:6."
No one knew. Some made random guesses. One contributor mentioned a book he had seen on holiday in Mexico, "says the message was God is love ... not too sure if it's based on truth or fiction :-) but thought I'd throw it out there :-) :-)."
Isabel spent the afternoon curled up on the cracked white tiles of the bathroom. She vomited, and vomited again, until her stomach had purged itself of every last droplet of orange juice.
Then she crawled back to her desk, lifted the dull plastic receiver off the hook and wrapped the cord around her arm.
From the window she could see them pull up in their van.
The bookseller swept half the books from the table into a gym bag. Two policemen were already walking toward him. He zipped up the bag and looked at the men, the bag, back at the men.
Just leave those stupid books, Isabel thought. But he stood paralyzed with his hands on the handles of the gym bag, staring up at the approaching policemen.
There was a crash, a clatter that reverberated all the way to Isabel's window.
The juice stall had toppled over.
The metal counter, the metal bucket on the metal counter, the metal mixer with its metal blades came crashing down on the men in uniform. And oranges rained down, dozens, hundreds of oranges that rolled between the policemen's feet, under the wheels of the van, along the curb and into the gutter. The longer Isabel looked, the more oranges rolled out of the metal crush that had once been a juice stall.
It was only when the last ringing spoon had fallen silent and the last round orange rolled to a halt that Isabel noticed the bookseller had vanished.
The policemen crawled out from underneath the debris. They kicked the trestle table over, turned the gym bag inside out, piled up the books on the pavement, and set them on fire.
It was a cold morning, with icy air sweeping down from the glaciers, and one of the policemen warmed his hands over the fire.
"The rain has stopped," Isabel said, but the juice lady did not respond.
"The maracuyas are back," she tried again and pointed at the fruit. Smooth big yellow hand grenades. "I suppose that's why the maracuyas are back. Because the rain has stopped."
The juice lady pressed her lips together and scrubbed her dented counter with the rag. She used her left arm. Her right arm was bandaged.
"It wasn't me who started the piracy business." Isabel leaned forward until her thin sandy hair hung over the counter. "It wasn't me who started all this."
"Thank God the rain has stopped," the juice lady said. "Is there a rainy season in your country?"
Isabel didn't immediately reply. She stood transfixed by the movements of the juice lady, who was weighing a large, yellow, smooth maracuya in her hang the type Isabel would never find in Europe. The knife cut through the yellow skin and Isabel could already taste the juice on her tongue, maracuya pulp mixed with water from the glacier.
Next to the chopping board was the juice lady's open bag. A corner of celestial blue peeked out of the braided leather and Isabel could make out three golden letters: "ove." The juice lady caught her looking, dropped the knife, pushed the book deep into the bag, and pulled the zip over her treasure.
The Berne Convention Or, The Copyright Crusader of Notre-Dame
Like almost all writers, I owe my living to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. There are exceptions, of course, such as writers who are state-funded (never an appetizing prospect for an independent spirit). However, most of us earn our money by selling our stories. The Berne Convention, which has governed international copyright since the nineteenth century, grants us the exclusive, worldwide right to copy and translate those stories. Even when we sell that right, the convention states that we can still "object to any distortion, mutilation, or other modification of ... the said work, which would be prejudicial to (our) honor or reputation."
It's a reasonable deal. The man behind it was not a corporate lawyer, not a publishing tycoon, but a writer: Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of NotreDame. He and his friends were tired of seeing their work pirated with impunity and campaigned for better legal protection. The result was the Berne Convention, signed in 1886.
Now while I'm a great fan of the Berne Convention, it raises one question that makes me uneasy--and I think Hugo, a social reformer, would have felt uneasy about it, too. The question is: What about readers who can't afford books and have no access to a library?
More than a decade ago, I walked into a bookshop in Bogota, Colombia, ready to buy armfuls of local novels to take home with me. To my surprise, their price was more or less the same as that of novels in New York or London. It was then that I learned a simple fact: in poor countries, books are a luxury good. A quick online search shows that this fact hasn't changed much over the past decade. Today, you can buy about three decent lunches in Bogota for the local price of one paperback edition of Sin Remedio, a wonderful novel by Antonio Caballero.
On a recent trip to Peru, home to Nobel Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa, I found the same pattern: few bookshops, plenty of stalls selling pirated books. While I loathe intellectual piracy, I couldn't really feel angry with the people buying these books. After all, they weren't downloading these books for free. They were willing to pay, just not as much as the legal retail price.
There might be a simple solution to this problem: cheap paperbacks for emerging markets, or perhaps novels sold in installments or by subscription. I encourage any entrepreneurs among you to come up with a business model. In the meantime, I've turned some of my thoughts on this issue into a short story. All rights protected by the Berne Convention, naturally.--Sophie Hardach
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|Title Annotation:||COVER FEATURE|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2012|
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