The Buenos Aires Book Fair went on my list of things to check out the other day because…well, by now “what’s the worst that could happen” is a sort of sport. That’s the Buenos Aires International Book Fair, mind you, because people like it when things are called International (why they stopped short of Intergalactic I have no idea, marketer prolly wasn’t rockstaring outside the envelope). I get there at 20:00, weaving through the usual web of socks-napkins-and-power-adapters for sale, strewn around the ground on sheets, past the guy with $500 worth of microphone, guitar, and music stand and $0.02 of talent as he drolls out the doldrums and eyes passersby suspiciously. There’s a security retinue consisting of some old dudes in matching plastic manning a row of portable turnstiles equipped with barcode scanners they don’t know how to use. I buy a ticket (hey mister it’s not a book FREE! it’s a book FAIR!), three bucks with a two dollar coupon for buying books. They close at 22:00, but I figure I’ll be done with it in ten minutes.
The venue’s called “La Rural”, despite being somewhere approximating the middle of the middlest part of the city, and the building I enter’s as big and stylistically barren as any other convention center. What strikes me as I walk through is how very few books there are, and how each “booth”, more like a slightly raised platform perfect for tripping over on the way up or adrenaline-joltingly stumbling off on the way down, has some banner or other with “Gobierno de” and any given province silkscreenscribbled on it. I marvel a few hundred paces at having paid anything at all to attend this apparent Bored Bureaucrat Con 2016 as I observe the people manning these booths, all sitting, all behind big white plastic tables, all while pantallas gigantes de LCD! pan in and out of vaguely nonurban landscapes from wherever it is they’re advertising behind them. At the Tucuman booth, one of those guys with hair that’s long enough to not be short but short enough that nobody can call him a fag starts haranguing me about how they publish books by writers from Tucuman, because, you see, he’s from Tucuman, well actually he’s from Spain, but up north, in Tucuman? They publish books! By writers! Look, these are some examples. It occurs to me the raised platforms are there not to prevent a speedy escape, as I had originally thought, but because these folks likely think they’re really cool.
It’s at about this time the evening’s coffees and cognacs catch up with me, so I start searching for the restrooms. I walk nearly the entire perimeter of the building, about the size of two football fields, and discover at the last corner an exit different from my entry point, with a slow but steady stream of people carrying bags coming towards me, on some path through the darkness. I head out and find a series of fabric-covered tunnels a few hundred feet ahead, where the human ant trail is focused, so I follow against them, and after a good fifteen minute walk find the tunnel lets out into another, larger, room, which is naturally where the actual book fair is! Mind you, this isn’t pointed out anywhere. The sourness of old hot dogs and charred coffee is strong here though, mingling with the overabundant, fake apple-scented disinfectant/carpet shampoo, so I imagine I must’ve simply missed the local sirens’ smell.
I haven’t been to any sort of convention for roughly a decade, but still, the place seems odd. While it’s a far sight better than the lame governmental foyer, it nevertheless comes across as a sort of swap meet for the middle-aged, ho-hum fare peppered liberally with the pseudomedieval teen fantasy du jour stuff –but it’s the same ho-hum, middle-aged people buying it. They’ve adopted the insane slightly raised platforms from the first room, though many of these booths also have plastic walls in what must’ve been some attempt to further direct the flow of the herds (to what end, I’ve no idea, though I suspect it might’ve had something to do with the “food court” at the back). Also: extra-strength halogen spotlights that change colors every 2-3 seconds beaming over pretty much any available shelf, making the reading of titles something of a visual traffic jam. Helping this effect take on a true evil is the fact that Argentines shelve their books upside down, ostensibly as part of their turn-of-the-century compact with Beezlebub. So instead of struggling to read 8pt titles at knee-level in constantly changing light by leaning right and going top-to-bottom, one had to lean to the left and read bottom-to-top, which in theory shouldn’t be too upsetting but in practice feels about on par with swallowing one’s nose. Oh, and each booth has its own mediocre desktop computer “sound system”, so there are ~400 different songs playing softly at once. Pentru decor1.
I spend a while rummaging through poetry anthologies and seeing if any of the alt-y zines are interesting (not really). I eventually settle on a Kafka paperback for Spanish practice and attempt to use the coupon. Seller points out to me that it’s not to use at the fair, it’s to use at certain bookstores in the city a week after the book fair is over. I scrap it, pay, and wander around peoplewatching, noting that I’m probably the youngest female there save for the occasional hunched booth babe tapping acrylic nails against knockoff iphones. In a previously deserted corner I find a line nearly a hundred people long leading into some little black tent-like room. Probably where they’re stashing the good books. Or the exit. Or the BATHROOM!. I ask a woman with a great ass (who turns to look at me with an unfortunate face) what the line’s for? She shows me the book in her hand, which is some “real life” biography of Pearl Jam (what does that even mean?). She wants to get it signed. Oh, is the band in there? No, of course not, just the author, hahahaha. I don’t know, maybe he has a goiter or something. But I don’t know how to ask about a goiter in Spanish, and the face is even worse when she laughs, so I smile and walk on. After finding the bathrooms, I do one more lap, down a row I haven’t been in yet, finding the (inevitable?) Hare Krishna booth, which offers a nice olfactory pocket of respite from the rest of the place, but all their stuff’s in English, and I was kinda done with that at seventeen anyhow. Suddenly airport muzak comes blaring from a real live sound system somewhere in the guts of the building, making face to face conversation near impossible, and I gather it’s closing time. I watch people throw plastic tarps over the bookshelves as they prepare to leave, just like the guys at the produce markets do it (except of course for the produce market people being outside, and their tarps being tied down with rope, etc). Maybe it’s to let less of that hot dog scent seep into the pages at night.
The sock-sellers and Sr. Suspicious Fingerpickin’ are still out front when I leave, vying for the last of the day’s potential pennies. I slink into the subway station and head home, a blessed place with nothing whatsoever in common with the 2016 BAIBF.
- This bit of Romanian became a thing when a favorite restaurant in Timisoara tried to serve a certain gentleman his turkey schnizel cut into strips atop the potatoes. Which pieces didn’t in any sense fit together if one picked them up and attempted to reassemble a filet. Which prompted the gentleman to ask our waitress why she’d given him someone else’s uneaten bits of turkey schnitzel. She protested that no such thing had been done, and when asked why then the dish was presented thusly, she offered that it was “for decor”. She continued to mutter the phrase as we put on our coats and walked out. [↩]