I returned to Guatemala in early April this year to run Dyslexia Bookstore for a few months. When I first arrived, there was some confusion that delayed my taking over from the other manager, so I decided to take a trip to Lago de Atitlán for a week. I decided to head to Jaibalito, a small village accessible by lancha from Panajachel, to spend a few days with my friend Peter Kilbryde, or as he is sometimes known, Irish Peter or Poetry Peter for his ancestry and his penchant for verse, respectively. Jaibalito is one of the less expensive places to live on the lake, which is why Peter was there.
Peter has been living in Guatemala for a few years on a very limited budget. He is a few years older than me and I’m no kid. We became friends during my second year in Guatemala when I hired him to work part-time in Dyslexia. His is an erudite, outgoing, creative personality that gives a person an immediate impression. He reminds me a lot of my old friend from the States, Ali Akbar, about whom I’ve written several stories for La Cuadra. Like Peter, not everyone who met Ali liked him immediately, because what came out of his mouth was often unfiltered. But they likely never forgot either Peter or Ali, that’s for sure.
As the lancha pulled in, I spotted Peter standing on the dock. He was dressed in his usual flamboyant style — of a mixture of Guatemalan-indigenous and western-mystic clothing. He had a long staff in his hand. He looked every bit the shaman come down from the hills — or maybe from back in time.
Peter was staying at a hotel run by a German immigrant named Hans who came to this small village at least two decades ago. Hans is considered by many as Jaibalito’s mayor-by-default. I liked the hotel and I liked Hans. He’s a quiet fellow, a little slow to warm up to strangers. I got to know him over the next few days and found him to be very generous and caring toward everyone. Moreover, his restaurant makes a smashing German stroganoff and homemade beer. The restaurant serves as the informal community center for most foreigners living in or visiting Jaibalito. Check it out if you’re there and give Hans my best.
After I got settled, Peter showed me around the hotel. There were private rooms, a dorm, and several separate casitas, or small bungalows. As we were looking around, we poked our heads over a wall and found ourselves looking onto the patio of a casita. In doing so we surprised the tenant, a young French woman, who suddenly saw two floating heads peering at her as she was reading in the afternoon shade. We apologized for the intrusion. She introduced herself. Her name was Estelle. She invited us in.
I noticed she was reading La Bête Humaine, an 1890 psychological thriller by Émile Zola. Since I’ve been running Dyslexia, I now almost always make a mental note of what people are reading. I hadn’t read the book, but I had recently seen the 1938 film adaptation by Jean Renoir which, in its U.S. release was subtitled, Judas Was a Woman. In the film, Jacques Lantier is a train engineer who lusts after Séverine Roubaud, the wife of his coworker, simply named “Roubaud.” When circumstances put Roubaud’s employment in danger, Séverine sleeps with his boss. When Roubaud discovers this, he kills his employer, a murder witnessed by the lustful Jacques Lantier. To keep Lantier quiet, Séverine offers herself to him. A romance builds between them, and Séverine pushes Lantier to kill her husband, which he ultimately does, before killing himself. In the end, Séverine is left as the cause and epicenter of a wasteland of destruction. It is a stunning story, though deeply disturbing.
I complimented Estelle on the choice of such a challenging, dark story. She said it was a great book, and when I admitted I only knew the movie, she said that she would bring it by the bookstore when she passed through Antigua. She was thoroughly charming, so much so that Peter and I invited her to dinner that night. She and I spent a good bit of that week together.
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When I returned to Antigua, I was happy to get started in the bookstore. I started getting reacquainted with the arrangement of the books. It is pretty remarkable how much stock can change in a few months. Also, the other manager and I have different systems for displaying various categories, so the first day is always spent rearranging the nest, so to speak.
A few days after returning from the lake, an older man came in. He didn’t speak much English and Spanish was obviously not his native language. It took me a few beats to realize that he was French. We didn’t get off on the right foot. He was struggling with conjugating the word cambiar (to change) while poking a book into my chest. I attempted to explain that we do not exchange books. He was impatient and a bit angry. Finally, after a good deal of frustration, I came to understand that he had previously purchased the book at Dyslexia while the other manager was working, and we do have a policy to buy back any books we’ve sold for half price.
Simple miscommunication, we both laughed at the realization.
After exchanging the book, the older man started looking through our French section and was excited to find La Bête Humaine, by Zola on the shelf. I was surprised, too. I had no idea we had a copy in stock, but then again, certain convergences like this are not unknown in our little shop.
He returned a couple of hours later with the book in hand. He handed it to me, smiling this time, and said, “Anglais.”
I opened the book and saw that it was, indeed, written in English, though the title on the cover was in the original French. I apologized. He gesture-asked me if he could just exchange it for another.
“Sure,” I said.
He then went back to the French section and found the 1877 short story, Hérodias, by Gustave Flaubert. Again, with that odd Dyslexia convergence, the short story he selected was also one of duplicity, trickery and sexual entrapment. In general form, the story is widely known. Salomé is the beautiful daughter of Hérodias. Hérodias is the second wife of Herod Antipas. Hérodias wants John the Baptist executed for his many affronts to the wealthy and powerful. In order to achieve her ends, she sends her daughter to seduce Herod with a dance. Once he has fallen in love, Salomé is granted any wish she desires. She says that she wants John’s head. Herod grants her wish, Hérodias is satisfied and the world is ever more in need of salvation.
The older Frenchman snatched up the Flaubert and I smiled as I shelved The Human Beast in its proper place in the English section.
A week later the older Frenchman was back in the store to exchange Hérodias. By now I was used to his somewhat gruff manner and I liked the guy. And he was a good reader; that goes a long way in my ledger. He bought something else, though I don’t recall what, and left. I shelved Hérodias back in the French section to await its next partner.
Two weeks later, Estelle showed up at the bookstore. She decided to come to Antigua before heading off to Honduras. It was great to see her again. We talked for a long time. I enjoyed her company for a long afternoon in the shop before she offered me her copy of La Bête Humaine in French, which I gladly accepted. I gave her Q10 for it and immediately thought of the French guy. He was bound to come back. He just had to. She started browsing the French section, and, to my surprise, pulled down the copy of Hérodias as soon as her hand glanced the cover.
She bought it straight away.
As she was walking out the door, Estelle opened the book and found three Q10 notes stuffed inside. She pulled them out and offered them to me. I told her I knew the guy who brought that book in and that I’d make sure the money found its way home. She turned to leave, but at that moment I felt that a small acknowledgment was in order for her being such an honest person. I asked her to take one Q10 note with her. She refused, at first. Then I told her the story about the older Frenchman, the English version of Zola, the dark subject matter of both books. She agreed. She loved it, in fact.
I asked her if she was busy that evening.
Peter happened to be in town that night, as well, so we both treated Estelle to an evening of dinner, music and drinks. It was a late night, even by Parisian fin de siècle, or modern Antigua, standards. By the end, we were all, in fact, quite drunk.
Estelle had a shuttle reservation at four in the morning that would take her to Honduras. Peter and I walked her to her hotel at around three. The streets were dark and empty. She could not quite remember the address of the hotel, and so we stumbled around in the general neighborhood for almost an hour searching for something that might put the pieces together. During the day, Antigua is a city of repeating, but differentiating colors. But at night, when you’re a bit tight, everything looks remarkably alike.
Although Estelle was concerned, she also had a rather French devil-may-care feeling about the whole affair. We laughed quite a lot in the dark. In the end, we found the hotel and she had ten minutes left to pack. Peter and I said our goodbyes and headed back down the road.
Two days and one hangover later, I saw the older Frenchman walking down 1st Avenue, across the street from Dyslexia. I called out to him and gestured that he come over. He seemed surprised, but pleasantly so, and crossed the street. When he got to the door, I handed him the two Q10 notes and did my best to explain that he had left three folded bills in the pages of Hérodias, but that I had given one to a charming Frenchwoman named Estelle as a reward for her honesty.
He understood, and was quite happy with that. I then walked over to our French section and picked out Estelle’s French language copy of La Bête Humaine.
“Este era el libro de la francesa bonita,” I said. “This was the book from the pretty Frenchwoman.”
“De ella?” he asked, while gesturing to the Q20 in his hands. “From her?”
“Yep,” I said with a smile on my face. “That was her book.”
I then gestured that he open the book. The older man’s face lit up, quite pleased to have found his second copy of Zola in the same small used bookstore in Guatemala. He was shaking his head in happy disbelief, as he said in labored, but simple English, “It is in the French! Trés bon!”
“Yes it is,” I said.
We walked towards my desk and my note pad where I register sales.
He looked at me and gesture-asked with a shrug of his shoulders, “How much?”
I smiled broadly and glanced at the two Q10 notes in his hand.
He smiled back and nodded his head.
It only made sense.
He handed me the Q20.
Sometimes it takes a while, but eventually it all gets sorted out.