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With Foreign eyes

A handful of ‘lovely’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘Wonder’

At the entrance to Central’s marquee, I bump into Donna Leon, contemplating, enchanted, the charms of a dog being petted

“Pretty, yes, without doubt a sublime beauty, a svelte blonde, five foot eleven, with long, splendid legs and slim wrists. [...] You weren’t looking at a remote object of feminine splendour, you were talking with a living, breathing human”. Ever since reading this quote in Winter Journal, in which her husband describes her so beautifully, I’ve wanted to see Siri Hustvedt in person. Not mentioning the name of the author of these lines is an intangible part of the spirit —to not be “the wife of”— of her book A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, a collection of essays in which the female world is central.
Hustvedt is one of the international authors visiting Barcelona this year for 23 April[1]. It would be nice to know what their views are, if it meets their expectations and if they’re connecting with the essence of the festival.

Before meeting her, I start the morning visiting Petros Márkaris at the Abacus tent. He’s sitting next to Valerio Massimo Manfredi. They’ve both arrived fifteen minutes early and already have queues awaiting them. “Will we sort it out?”, a couple of people ask the Greek writer, aware that his writings on the economic crisis are substantial and heeded. He replies in few words, but with an almost permanent smile on his lips. “His books are timeless” I hear from the queue, and almost simultaneously Manfredi comments to a reader that the old book that they’ve brought to be signed is “the book of a lifetime”. It goes without saying that time, in some manner or another, always features in any work of art.

At Fnac, R.J. Palacio is signing copies of Wonder and Sarah Lark copies of her Tetralogy of Fire, culminating in A Hope at the End of the World. Lark is happy, she came to Sant Jordi two years ago and is now repeating: “What an magnificent festival. I’m addicted to Sant Jordi!” Palacio is much busier and has little time for distractions but it doesn’t matter, her Catalan language editor, Isabel Martí, has twice the enthusiasm: “The angel of Wonder is not only literary, it’s her herself! She’s so friendly, so natural and so genuine!”

At the entrance to Central’s marquee I bump into Donna Leon, contemplating, enchanted, the charms of a dog being petted. I say hello, and she freaks out at my shirt: “Oh, foxes, beautiful!” I explain that I got it for Christmas and she comes back with a shirt of insects which she loves but wore yesterday and couldn’t again. With so many animals, I don’t know if I should ask her about the crocodile that she would like to eat the tourists in her beloved Venice. I’m entertained to read on the signing timetable that Paul Preston –sitting just along from Leon- will sign works from his whole catalogue. A reader has taken this literally and brought along four different books from their library.

Dodging a very unfriendly bouncer, I finally arrive behind Siri Hustvedt and see from up close that blonde hair and notable height so well described by her husband. As now almost all the signatures come with a photo taken on a mobile, she’s diligently throwing herself into it, almost hanging off her readers’ necks. She’s very happy with her first Sant Jordi: “It’s lovely because all the people who’ve turned up know my books well. Nobody is here by chance and that’s very touching”. Two “lovelies” in a five-minute conversation, some lovely, living, breathing humans.

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Translator’s notes:


[1] Among the many patronages of Saint George (Sant Jordi in Catalan), along with that of England, is that of Catalonia. His feast day, 23 April, is a major regional festival. The traditional gifts are roses for women (mothers, girlfriends, wives, daughters, etc.) and books for men; every town fills with dozens of stands run by charities, schools and businesses where these can be bought. The largest event is in Barcelona, where dozens of authors give signings throughout the day.

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