Having read several excellent thrillers set in Argentina in the last year, I was excited to see the interview with Alberto Manguel (Glimmer Train #102). Born in Buenos Aires in 1948, Manguel lived in Israel and many other countries. Taking his love of reading to the huge scale, he was the director of the National Library of Argentina, but on an intimate scale, as a teenager he read out loud several times a week to the great Jorge Luis Borges as his eyesight was failing. Manguel (pictured) is now a Canadian citizen.
Everyone who is a reader can admire the love of books that has propelled his career. His first book was put together when he was working for an Italian publishing company. He and his colleague Gianni Guadalupi wrote a travel guide to the cities, lands, and islands that live only in the imaginations of authors and their readers: Shangri-La, Oz, Wonderland, Middleearth and many others. His catholic reading led him to assemble more than twenty anthologies, for which the included authors are undoubtedly grateful. “The impulse was less of writing a book than publicizing what I had read,” he said. Eventually, writing about what he had read became the non-fiction book A History of Reading and many others.
Like most inveterate readers, he said, “experience came to me through stories. Books have always given me the words to name the things that happen. We all know that we can’t see what we don’t know is there.” If imagination is a tool for survival, we tell stories in order to hone that tool and make us of it.
“I think our species has survived through having experiences without having to have the physical experience,” he said. You can link up that thought to the repeated studies showing that reading literary fiction helps builds people’s empathy. (This finding does not apply to popular fiction, which often lacks characters who are “nuanced, unpredictable, and difficult to understand”—you know, as in real life.).
Most of Manguel’s books were written in English, which was his first language, followed by German. He didn’t learn Spanish until he was eight. “When I learned Spanish, I was introduced to another way of thinking. I’ve always believed that languages dictate your thoughts and allow you to think certain things,” and language studies bear out his view.
Miguel continued: “Spanish has a horror of the vacuum. You don’t allow for silences. You fill the sentence with adjectives, adverbs, synonyms, and it’s not disturbing. If you do that in English, you write purple prose.”
What an interesting insight! It makes your fingers itch to sit at the computer and bang out an adjective-rich conversation. Here’s Argentinian thriller-writer Sergio Olguín’s character Verónica Rosenthal describing her cousin’s house: “It’s hidden away behind a little wood on the hillside. A typical nineties construction, Californian style: huge windows, Italian furniture, BKF butterfly chairs (uncomfortable), and Michael Thonet rocking chair, which, if it isn’t an original, certainly looks the part, a spectacular view (even from the toilets), a Jacuzzi in almost all the bathtubs, a sauna, a well-equipped gym, huge grounds (looking a bit sparse now that autumn’s on its way), a heated swimming pool, a changing room, a gazebo which is in itself practically another house and lots, lots more.” Whew! That passage is from Olguín’s new five-star book, The Foreign Girls.