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“I wanted to read everything, which in my innocence was the same as wanting to uncover or trying to uncover the hidden workings of chance” – Arturo Belano
I stole Kafka and Borges, Flannery O’Connor and James Baldwin, Octavia Butler and Faulkner. I would skip class, walk towards El Raval, enter a bookshop, and feast. Then I would go to Parc de la Ciutadella and read until dusk when the sky became an immense bloodstain.
My family had enough money to buy as many books as I could read, but they had this one rule: no matter what, I had to read it to the last sentence. So I may have started stealing to be able not to read at all (Freud would say that as a baby my mother had never read for me, and that I wanted revenge). But soon it became too tempting to do it. Now I have stolen books in London (Foyles), Paris (Shakespeare and Company), Berlin (Hammet), and every city I spent holidays in.
During all those years I understood the best days and hours to get down to it, even what kind of salesclerk is more likely to track me down inside the store. If you are afraid, here you have some tips: upon visiting the bookshop check how many cameras there are, if any (you would be surprised how scarce they are in small cities); avoid stealing books placed close to the children’s section (always busy, with children going about their funny books); for the first month avoid books larger than three hundred pages (but once you get confident steal a Don Quixote); for every third book that you steal buy one (losing a bookshop is like losing a best friend). Also, there are two main strategies you can use to steal bookshops. You can be the infantryman type, crossing corridors as if your life depended on that, knowing the precise position of the soon-to-be-stolen book, and carrying it out of the store in full disclosure. Or you can be the hesitant one, checking aisle after aisle, as if demons and angels were giving paradoxical recommendations, until finally getting a slim paperback that can be stored inside your clothes.
In 1998 Barcelona and I were different. The city was noisy, elegant, and cultural. I was twenty-two which means young and full of illusions. Cafes, bars and terraces in every corner, people reading poetry, discussing the Catalan independence or football. I spent my evenings walking, listening to musicians playing flamenco, reading, and would come home broken-hearted because there were too many beautiful women out there. I even liked the beach. Playa de La Barceloneta and Playa de Bogatell were clean with light-coloured sand rich in quartz and iron (I stole books on geology) and never overcrowded with people listening to music and bothering everyone’s business (above all: you could rarely find a tourist wearing shoes in the beach). After what happened I left for Dublin (why I left is another story, and I’m not the best person to tell it, as I don’t understand it to this day).
Everything changed when I met Roberto.
Once I was at On the Road, an independent bookshop located on Carrer de Verdaguer i Callís, paying for Carver’s What we talk when we talk about love (I had already stolen three books that week) when Manoel, the owner (who listened to Salvadoran radio stations all day) started a conversation. Have you read Carver’s poetry? he asked. No, I said, just his stories. Cathedral makes me cry every time I read it. Wait here for a minute, he said, and he was gone to a room behind the till, a small office where he kept his private collection. When he returned, Manoel read a poem about Raymond’s father’s wallet, one about a dog dying, and other poems I can’t remember anymore. But one verse branded into my memory: fear of not loving and fear of not loving enough. At that moment I knew that our friendship was inevitable, and I kept going there every other day. We spoke about poetry, Hemingway, Cortazar, Joyce and other writers that we both liked. But I still was a thief. People will betray other people, but seldom betray their own instinct. One day I was leaving the shop in a hurry, carrying a leather-bound edition of Petit Poemès en prose in French (although I don’t speak the language), when Manoel stopped me. I know what you’re doing, he said, your group has been doing it for a long time, and we will track you down. I was baffled: first because I had not made a mistake, and yet he knew it; second, most important of all, is the fact that he said your group. I had been stealing books regularly for at least five years at that time, but not once I was accompanied by my friends (they were afraid of being caught, and yet kept borrowing my books). Hombre, I said, I’m not robbing you, we are friends. I paid and left. I went home thinking about the group Manoel had mentioned.
For days I did not leave the house. I just read (Hemingway according to my diary) and let my mind wander until I fell asleep. In my dreams I saw the group, with their shapeless faces, walking towards me. And, as they walked, they dropped books on the ground as if they were drawing or making a path. I would wake up, open the window, and see the Mediterranean in the distance. There were several half-finished novels and rejection letters scattered across my bedroom. For the first time I thought about what I was doing and how my life seemed wasted. I thought I was stealing books as a way of facing the literary establishment up, saying, I exist. I knew there should be other book thieves, but, like an uncrowned king, I believed I was the best in town. But Manoel had broken the spell. I decided to get a job in a bookshop and identify them.
I visited half a dozen bookshops before I landed a job. I went to Don Hernesto’s Granta on Via Laietana, Librería Cómplices on Carrer de Cervantes, and stores that no longer exist until I got my job on Carrer de Sant Pau. The place was called Ithaca, and was owned by Alba, a woman from Andalusia, who smoked cigars made from vine leaves, perfuming the store with a lasting fragrance. The ground floor stored new books, and the first floor held second-hand material. I worked from ten to four, Thursday through Sunday. Working in a bookshop is quite different from what people imagine, especially when it comes to used books. For example, if a customer got Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales from the fiction section and placed it amongst dictionaries, I would never find it again. I got calls, prepared collections, received new material, and ran to one or another store when we missed a book for an important client (Enrique Vila-Matas was a regular). It was the best job that I ever had.
All the while I was on the lookout.
I had been there for two weeks when Roberto walked through the door. He was thin like a ghost and seemed not to have slept in weeks. His denim jacket, jeans and boots were so battered that I felt sorry for him. He didn’t stay long: he rummaged through the poetry section, crossed the store to see books on music, went upstairs (changed his mind mid-way and came down), paid for a Coltrane’s biography and left. I was lucky. I did not expect such a guy to be one of them.
Earlier that day, I had dusted and organised the section and he was the only client that paid any mind to the area. Then, on my way to lunch, as I was leaving the store to eat at the beach, I noticed a book was missing. I gave up on my meal, checked delivery orders and the sales notebooks, and confirmed that Neruda’s Selected Poems had been stolen.
I became obsessed with Roberto. I would wait for him during my shift, then walk to other bookshops hoping that chance (I’m very superstitious) would make us stumble upon one another. At night, I would cross El Born and El Gòtic, areas famous for hosting small literary events, where writers would meet to discuss the future of Spanish literature. I did that for a month and didn’t see him once. Worst of all, I couldn’t steal books anymore. I felt as if I was being observed by someone hidden. And in my dreams, Las Ramblas would shift: Miró’s mosaics transformed into firepits, and books cascaded from windows, and more books were flying out of Teatre de la Santa Creu and El Liceu’s doors, and the pavement was covered by loose pages.
On Friday afternoons, as summer was getting closer, people would go the beach and gather in towels sharing cheap white wine, olives, cheeses, and baguettes. After sunset, people scattered across the city based on their interest (if you’re gay you went to Eixample, if you had money you stayed in La Barceloneta, if you liked art you would go to El Poblenou). I was in a bar in El Raval, near the Ayuntamiento, when I saw Roberto. He was alone, drinking tea and reading a book. I had had two shots of tequila and was brave like Hercules. I approached his table and asked point-blank, is this the book you stole from Ithaca? He looked at me, and said, I stole this from Don Hernesto’s store. I joined him and ordered a beer. Soon Roberto told me about the group. They called themselves Los Cuatro Cinco Uno, or 451.
They had been stealing books since they were seventeen. It all started with a joke, he said. They dared me to go into a bookshop without any money and return with a book. And I did. It was Sabato’s The Tunnel. I read it the same night and was just terrified with the story and how fate works. I didn’t know the author, nor was I into reading. Then this happened, and I knew I should read every available book, or at least have them close to me, in case I needed to touch them and read random pages. Soon we were going to bookshops every week. We’d walk into the store in two groups. Bernard and Maria pretending to be a couple, and I’d be alone. They had memorised phrases that they’d say aloud in case somebody was coming and I was at risk. I think they liked it more than I did. It’s as if we were inverted cops, they’d say, rather than being on the alert to catch robbers, we are on the alert to inform robbers. Then I asked, how many books are you stealing per week? At least two dozen, he said. How can you steal so many? We realised that we’ll never be able to achieve our goal until the end of our lives. So, he continued, we recruit more people. We are an organic body, connected by this goal, and when we die, the group will continue (the more tea he drank, the more elusive he became). I stayed quiet for a few minutes, smoking his tobacco while he read more poems (Gianuzzi’s ¿Hay alguien ahi?). And where do you store them? I asked. We don’t. We seal them in plastic bags and bury them under leaves or sand. In every park, plaza and on the beach. People, sooner or later, will start finding books, and they will ask themselves what’s happening here? and then everyone will set out to dig up books, uncovering literature. He lit a cigarette, ordered another apple tea (I offered to buy him a beer, but he said that he couldn’t drink alcohol) and asked, do you know why we are doing this? Because few people care about literature, and books, and stories. Because we are going under. Because we are losing our imagination. By the time Roberto finished I was too drunk to remember much else (he might have spoken about how they would achieve their goal, and what strategies they would use, but my memory may be fooling me).
That night I had another dream. I walked into a circus and there were no other spectators. A magician came into centre stage and started a presentation. I couldn’t see his face, yet I knew it was Roberto. He removed a bubble maker from his hat and started to blow. They were thick as glass, and they floated towards me, involving my body. When they burst, I saw my life in a sequence of flashes.
Next day I called in sick. And the next. My body reacted as if it had gone through a spiritual revelation. I felt pain and fever, and my head spun with ideas and images. I was moved by Roberto’s words and Los Cuatro Cinco Uno’s project. Roberto burnt like a roman candle. Roberto was mad, but he wasn’t afraid of telling the truth. Roberto was preaching and I had heard the call. I understood that, up until that moment, I didn’t have a real purpose in life. I was just living each day as if life was a sequence of unrelated episodes. Even stealing books lacked a true purpose. No matter how many books I stole; they would never notice me. If I really wanted to be seen, I would have to join the group and work for their goal.
I made up my mind and I decided to ask Alba if she had ever heard about Los Cuatro Cinco Uno.
Coming back to work was terrible. Alba told me to clean the entire Spanish classics section on the first floor. It took me two days to finish, and only then I brought up the subject. I beat around the bush saying I wanted to own a bookshop in the future. I asked if it was possible to make a living out of it. Ah, niño, she replied, stupidity is a global disease, and there’s not enough doctors to cure it. I mean, there are books, which work as medicine, but not enough doctors, which are people reading. So, answering your question, niño: you are going to survive, but you should pray to God sometimes. Then I asked if bookshops were robbed often. She grabbed a bottle of vermouth from her office, poured two glasses, and drank hers before continuing. How can I put, niño? There are these boys, this group, they are called Los Cuatro Cinco Uno, and they have robbed every bookstore in this city. And not only in Barcelona. I heard that it goes as far as Blanes. They’re audacious, niño, I admire them for that. I got the bottle and poured another round for us. Alba called me into her office where she opened an archive and showed me newspaper clippings reporting on Los Cuatro Cinco Uno. Here and there, for a period of three years, they had been reporting stolen books. The first article was from July 7th, 1993, the second from April 12th, 1994, then December 2nd, 1994, and from 1995 onwards (the period in which Los Cuatro Cinco Uno started to act) you could find monthly interviews with shop owners. She also had one of their notes. “We are Los Cuatro Cinco Uno. You are going to hear about us.” The handwriting was clear and precise, as if the writer had spent hours weighing each letter, as if the writer had poured all his life into that phrase.
The temperature soon got over 30 degrees and weeks went by. Roberto had vanished and I stayed at home shuffling my books, drinking beer after beer, so bored that I would read poems in front of the fan which in turn blew my words back into the evening. At some point, I began a list with every title that I possessed. My collection was rich, with some rare books, like the first Spanish version of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, from 1962, and an edition of Bartleby translated by Borges in 1944 (it is said that he altered the story, creating a version full of mirrors and invented books) which I paid for. If the goal was to bury literature, nothing better than leaving singular tokens under the ground.
One day Roberto was waiting for me outside Ithaca (he was reading Poe). Why didn’t you call me? Los Cuatro Cinco Uno board will meet today, he said, and I want to introduce them to you. I’m sorry, I said, I was liquored up and lost your number.
We walked to La Cabaña, on Carrer dels Àngels, and they were drinking beer. What can I say about them? Sometimes they gave me the impression of being born in the wrong century, or rather, that they should exist in two centuries at the same time. Sometimes I looked at them and they seemed to flicker like lightning, and I pinched my arm to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. When we arrived, I remember Maria saying: there’s time for poetry and time for fists. Her head was shaved, and she had a rose tattooed on her neck. She spoke about African Literature, and how Europeans only care about their own literature, and how colonialism still existed. Bernard spoke little, seemed depressed (he was a chain-smoker) and kept writing poems in a notebook. We know that you work for Alba, said Maria, and that you steal books, like us. I cannot steal from her, I said. No, you don’t understand, said Bernard. We want you to join our biggest performance so far: robbing La Central, the one in Carrer de Mallorca, the biggest bookshop in Barcelona, Roberto said. They started to speak over each other, and soon there was just one voice, deep and brave as the ocean, and I plunged into it.This performance is a statement, so everyone will know about us. We will steal the entire fiction section and dump it on the streets. We have someone inside, someone like you, who will help us get in when the store is closed. We want to destroy literature, so people will miss it, and only then they will love it as much as we do.
The robbery would take place on the Summer Solstice, during Sant Joan’s Festival. Thousands of people would be at the beach launching sky lanterns and eating barbecue, so the police would be busy. We would use a van they brought from France, and I would be the driver.
The entries in my diary form the days leading to our performance are far and between. Things like “Nobody wants to read the imperfect, torrential works, books the blaze paths into the unknown,” or “Dreamed with Maria. She was naked, eating an orange by the window. Beyond her, I saw the whiteness of houses and walls snaking through a mountain like new teeth,” or “An old man was saying he could hear silence during the night.” In any case, I was probably nervous and sweating.
I parked the van in a backstreet, just out of the La Central’s café and parallel to the main entrance. A guy let us in (days before, he had gone to the police saying he had been robbed. The store’s keys were gone). Inside we were mesmerised. We could live here forever, Roberto said. Under cover of darkness, I saw Maria and Bernard smiling. I paced around different rooms, opening books at random and reading passages aloud. I was happy because we were doing something huge. Stealing one or two books is something, but stealing dozens is true joy. I was lost in thought when Roberto started to recite poems he knew by heart while he piled books into the wheelbarrow. He seemed driven by madness, and I felt that my life would never be the same, no matter what happened. The robbery wasn’t about us, it was about our generation, our destinies: we were stating our frustration, our passion, our desire to live a different life. Spain is a failed country, Roberto said, but we still have poetry and literature. We are poor, and there’s no jobs, we are vagabonds, and Rimbaud would have been one of us. Chicos, Maria said, I’d rather die than live my days without lust and desire and rage. And I thank you for being here today. Tomorrow all Catalan papers will be talking about what we did, she continued, and even the king, that bastard, will talk about us. They will double the security at the National Library because they know we will come after it.
We put dozens of books into the van’s boot and left towards Plaça d’Espanya. As I was driving down Carrer de Balmes Roberto told me to go to Plaça de Catalunya first. The streets were mostly empty, and when I looked towards the beach, I saw lights and fireworks coming on and off in the sky like in a war movie. By Las Ramblas they were already tearing pages from books, and in the rear mirror I glanced at our track of nouns and adjectives, clauses and words, many words fluttering in the warm night, and different literary periods blending and detaching from each other and being engulfed by a gutter. We did the roundabout and all I could hear was laughter. But once we got to Gran Via, I saw a police checkpoint. Don’t stop, Maria said. Keep going, Roberto said, we are never going to stop. I was in a trance. I sped up, and they came after us. Two blocks from Plaça d’Espanya I lost control of the steering wheel, the van flipped and the last thing I saw was Maria’s smile and pages sailing in the air.
About Rafael Mendes
Rafael Mendes is a writer and translator from Brazil based in Dublin, Ireland. His work has appeared in “Writing Home: The New Irish Poets” (Dedalus Press, 2019), “Arrival at Elsewhere” (Against the Grain, 2020) and elsewhere. His translation of Brazilian poetry has been recently published in Cyphers and Icarus. He’s a 2021 recipient of The Irish Writers Centre Course Bursary and of the Mentor/Member Programme.