La casa de cartón

I count this book among those that helped me figure out why I wanted to write and how I might go about it. I found a copy of Martín Adán, tr. Katherine Silver, The Cardboard House (Graywolf Press, 1990) at what was, for me, the best bookstore in Tampa, Ybor City's Three Birds Bookstore. I'm very grateful to that small but excellent bookstore for being one of the few places where culture thrived outside the malls and highways of Tampa in the early 1990s.

Martín Adán (Peru, 1908-1985) published this short novel in 1928 but when I read the English version it seemed as new to me as anything I had encountered. I first heard about it a few months before finding a copy, when my grandmother gave me a newspaper clipping she thought I might be interested in. It was a brief review in the 23 August 1990 issue of The Christian Science Monitor.

I've never seen a paperback edition of the book, so it seems to have gone out of print soon after publication. Which might simply reflect its status as a secret, or invisible, book. At least in its English translation.

Adán's novel is composed of 40 short chapters, most of which read like prose poems. The narrative is centered in the sea-side Barranco neighborhood of Lima, where the young narrator, his friend Ramon and the beautiful Catita live and go to school. There's no plot, other than the precocious narrator's observations of Lima and the sea, zooming in on the endless visions and sounds a large city and its environs offer:

"I walk away from sky. And, as I leave the countryside, surrounded by urbanizations, I notice that the countryside is in the sky: a flock of fat, fleecy clouds—award winners at the Exposition—romp about in the green sky. And this I see from far away, so far away that I get into bed to sweat colors."

I haven't been able to find a copy of the book in the original Spanish, though I have encountered Adán's poems in various anthologies. None of the single poems I've read of his interest me as much as this text, which I've yet to tire of. It has been a central part of whatever nomadic library I've built for myself over the years. Two chapbooks I wrote at the time (Typewriter and Cholo) now seem to me like poor imitations of Adán's hallucinatory and sometimes mundane (though never boring) prose observations of a decaying city.

I can't explain how certain texts become talismanic, nor would I want to. In this case, part of it has to do with when and where I found the book. By the mid 90s, when I was living in Ybor City, that area of Tampa was quickly losing any aura it held as a cultural vortex. Three Birds Bookstore closed in 1994, The Blue Chair Records closed soon after and galleries and studio spaces such as titanic anatomy were on their way toward extinction. The mainstream clubs and obnoxious bars were on the rise and today Ybor City is merely another tourist attraction. But I found this book there in 1990 or 1991, so some fragment continues in whatever map I've built of that time and place.

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