Short enough to be read in one sitting, Severina by Guatemalan master Rodrigo Rey Rosa lingers disproportionately long in the imagination. A seemingly straightforward tale of a bookseller’s obsession with an alluring book thief, Severina carries mysterious hints of the metaphysical as it makes sly jokes and asides about literary culture and bibliophilia.
An unnamed narrator encounters and falls in love with a woman, Severina, who repeatedly visits his bookstore and steals from him. He watches her and notes the titles she steals as if they are keys to her soul. He follows her. At one point she moves in with him. Yet however close he gets to her, she remains elusive. Why does she steal? Who is the older gentleman she travels with? What sort of life do they lead, these nomads who steer themselves by the currents of literature?
A fellow bookseller suggests that Severina’s continuing thefts are the result of kleptomania. The narrator disagrees: “…I felt that there must have been another explanation, which I associated with an uncompromising approach to life: absolute freedom, a radical realization of the ideal that I too had adopted one fine day—the ideal of living by and for books.”
By and for books! Anyone who has been touched at some point by love for books will recognize this dream. And, if nothing else, Severina gives the great pleasure of dropping the reader into such a dream world, one where it’s possible to spend your life in the company of equally obsessed readers. At first it seems Severina is a water bug of a novella, skimming a surface composed of poetry readings and flirtations among the bookshelves.
That impression would be the result of a calculated lightness present from the very beginning. Describing how he and his friends opened a bookstore (La Entretenida, or diversion in Spanish) on something of a lark, the narrator adds this parenthetical: “There are far more serious problems here, but I don’t want to talk about all that now.”
Soon there are more serious problems in his own story as well: intrigue, death, deception, all stemming from his infatuation with Severina. The narrator shrugs off these darker notes, at one point remarking that the Romantic idea of love is indelibly associated with death, but that this idea is “too gloomy to be credible, much less desirable, these days.”
His efforts to reassure himself aren’t entirely convincing. Rey Rosa’s prose is always beautifully limpid, whether he’s writing about drinking in a cantina or about why it’s difficult to carry a dead body. But a strange effect of this clarity and precision is a sense that much more is going on than is said on the page.
The book is also full of puzzles and feints. Is it significant that our narrator seems to have spent time in North Africa, where Rey Rosa has lived and set other books (not to mention encountered his onetime translator Paul Bowles)? Surely it means something that Severina’s most daring theft is from the library of Borges himself?
Like the narrator who studies Severina’s reading material for clues, the reader can’t help doubling back to examine the story for extra dimensions. The introduction by translator Chris Andrews notes the tendency of Rey Rosa’s fiction to open from a “narrowly conceived realism…onto a mythical or allegorical hinterland, delicately intimated, never insisted upon.”
That delicate intimation is beautifully manifested in the character of Severina. For a while the narrator isn’t even certain of her name. She doesn’t have an ID card, no papers, an unplaceable accent—she lives a borderless life. She does have, however, a father or grandfather (initially, the narrator fears, a husband), the cultured and learned Señor Blanco. This uncertainty over her traveling companion’s role and identity is paid out in the delightfully unsettling ending and the book’s last line.
Could Severina be in some sense (this will sound corny) the embodied spirit of literature? Anything is possible in this luminous, deceptively simple book.
By Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Translated by Chris Andrews
Yale University Press/Margellos World Republic of Letters (February 2014)