Alphabet of circumstances

I have been asked to say a few words and speak on behalf of all the award winners. I do not know if this is possible, it is already difficult to speak in behalf of two people. I would like to say something about the way I carry out my profession, and give some examples of what is closest to me. As I only have ten minutes, the most appropriate thing to do in these circumstances is to read an Alphabet of Circumstances. And that is precisely what I am going to do, with the collaboration of some friendly letters.

A is for ATXAGA. The writer Bernardo Atxaga acquired an alphabet-making machine which he has managed to handle with great virtuosity. I have borrowed his machine —a beautiful device, very similar to the one used to make homemade noodles—, I place him at the top for good luck and I move on.

Vicente Blasco Ibáñez knocks on B’s door, shouting at the top of his lungs. It is only natural: we are in Valencia, we are speaking of books; his name is almost indispensable. But not essential, so we will not open the door and that is it. Who we will let in is another writer with a B in his surname. He is Jan BRZECHWA (pronounced ‘bshegfa’), who was a poet and a storyteller, and an author of children’s books. His is the poem ‘Pali sie!’ (Fire!) which has prompted the book that brings us here. This is a book about firefighters, but also about a fly, Saint Florian, Ruben Darío, and Valencia’s fallas.

C is for CELL. This very place, the San Miguel de los Reyes Monastery, was once used as a prison. Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, who insists on entering the alphabet, passed through here. This time we will allow him to do so, under the condition that he lets us copy a fragment of a letter sent from Paris to his partners at the Sempere publishing house, later renamed Prometeo.

‘If I can express my opinion freely (…) I will tell you that I did not like the fourth notebook (of History of War), and that the publication’s quality is not improving.

That old print is absurd. Why red? It would be understandable if there were fire or torches. But there is none of such. It should reflect the calm of the night after a battle, and the colour should be a sort of blue, or the green of the second print. Besides, it is not even red, but crushed strawberry or redcurrant. The colour of the rubber pictures of saints we used to buy as children. It is wrong. Colours are to be used with discretion, especially strong ones. And it is common sense the colours should be in accordance with the subject of the sheet.
In addition, there are too many English sheets in a row. It seems that only the English make war. There you have the Marseillaise charging the bayonet, etc., and others of L’Illustration. But, for Christ’s sake!, do not serve them with redcurrant sauce.

I hope that once warned, as anyone can make a mistake, you will not repeat this error. Red sheets can be made, but only when the subject requires it, when there is fire, and in another shade of red!

(…) One more thing to Sempere. If you must keep sending me the notebooks as you have done up to now, in cardboard as soft as snot, do not concern yourself.’

As deduced from this letter (and many others), Blasco had a view of books that transcended that held by many of his contemporaries. For him, a book was something that required certain attentions, which could not be done in any ordinary way. If one wanted to stand out and make money, it was important to follow the most successful models.

D is for DESIGN. The book is a highly designed product. Paper, binding, illustrations, and typography matter. Also the manageability, the weight, the format… All of these elements are part of a designer’s professional work, but when this role did not exist, the responsibility fell on the publisher. Even today, the publisher often has the last word in many of these decisions.

E is, naturally, for EDITOR. What does an editor do? What exactly does an editor do? If books are written by the writer, printed by the printer, distributed by the distributor, and sold by the bookseller, what does the editor do after all? Who is this character? Is he a wealthy man with the whim to spend his money on books? Well, there are editors like this. Is he a somewhat mischievous man who does what he pleases without paying anybody? This can also be the case. Is he someone who knows a lot of people and spends his time attending cocktail parties? Of course. Is he someone who does not speak to anybody and spends his time locked in a room full of books? Some are like this, too. The truth is that there are editors for all tastes. To put it very simply, we could say there are two main types: those in large companies (who are sometimes directors, or partners, or employees), whose faces are not very familiar; and those in small houses (who are usually owners and employees at the same time), who are responsible for an infinity of things and are —and, most likely, will continue to be— complete strangers.

F is for FIRE!, which is the English title for Jan Brzechwa’s book illustrated by Agnieszka Borucka-Foks. We met Agnieszka at the 2001 Bologna Book Fair. (At that time she was just Agnieszka Borucka, she had not yet married Mateo Foks.) She showed us her illustrated book project based on Brzechwa’s poem and we immediately wanted to make the book. If it has taken us thirteen years to make, it is for reasons we will share in their due time. Agnieszka’s work was her end-of-degree project in Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, where she was specialising in Book Design.

G is for GRAZKA LANGE. Grazka was the Academy professor who assigned Agnieszka the project. She is possibly one of the most prestigious international book designers, who has won many awards. And is, despite her merits, a very discreet person. She does not allow herself to be portrayed, and in group photos she always has her back turned to the camera. When it seems you have finally caught her by surprise, she happens to have a vase in front of her face, or a book, or anything opaque.

We also met Grazka in Bologna. Professors and students were friends and travelled together in a large caravan from Poland to Bologna. (It may seem like they are close by because they have similar names, but they are not.) It is curious to think that we almost published a student before her professor. Although, in the end, both of their books have appeared almost simultaneously, within a very short time of each other. This has been so, among other reasons, because of what we share in the following letter, which is the H for HEIRS.

The main job of an editor is, from my point of view, to solve problems. Problems that involve every imaginable type of matter. When Grazka asked her students work on Brzechwa’s poems (who passed away in 1966), she did not know it was going to be extremely complicated to obtain permission to publish the work. At first, we simply could not locate the heirs, despite the fact that Brzechwa had worked in the Society of Polish Authors. One day, unexpectedly, we received a response in the form of an e-mail, and we thought that perhaps it had taken all those years for our interlocutor to learn English and familiarise himself with computers. But not at all. We soon received a perfectly drafted contract which featured up to six different people as beneficiaries, with varying percentages between 7.5 and 40 per cent. From that moment on, everything became easier, since we were dealing with a person who was acting as a representative of all the Brzechwa. Thanks to him, Wiktor Reyzz-Rubini, whom we have not met personally, this edition was made possible.

I is for ILLUSTRATION, which I will not expand upon. I will only say that the word has made its fortune and that in recent years many young people want to become illustrators. This would be all well and good if their education were as demanding as the one Grazka’s students receive, but it is not always the case. Every year, new generations of young people, most of whom do not buy or read books, aspire to be the illustrators of these works, which travel from the print shop to the warehouse, from the warehouse to the bookshop, and back again, without finding any readers.

J is for JUEGO (GAME in Spanish). Those of us who work with books must be aware that we give our days to objects which, although they occupy every corner of our homes and all our suitcases when we travel, in general, do not matter much to people. The most successful books continue to be those written by television presenters, and even those are not read by anyone. (I am probably exaggerating, but then again, this is the J of Juego.) So we must come up with a way to have fun while carrying out our profession. In my case, I try to interact only with kind people, and search in every one of our projects for all the resources of humour, both the evident and the hidden ones. This is why, in spite of the time and effort invested, we ended up having fun with the book Fire! We saved ourselves, because we made the book into a great game. 

K is quite a difficult letter to place, but in this Alphabet there is no doubt it belongs to the name KRYSTYNA. This is the name of two Polish women. The first, Krystyna Brzechwa, a painter, is 87 years old and the daughter of the author of the poem ‘Fire!’. We met her only a few months ago, almost fifteen years after we became interested in this work. She met us at a very elegant café in the centre of Warsaw, which was the place she and her husband, Wiktor Reyzz-Rubini, first met. At that moment, we found out they were separated, but that they had always maintained a good friendship. We gave Krystyna our edition of Fire! and, in this way, with a warm handshake, concluded an adventure that needed an end.

The other Krystyna is also Polish, she has no age and is a professor in Mexico City. We first met her many years ago as a collaborator of the publishing house Tecolote, which specialises in history books for children. Since her contribution to this book is noteworthy, and taking advantage that her surname begins with L, we will dedicate the next letter to her.

L, then, is for LIBURA, which is the name of this Krystyna. She offered to write a literal translation of the firefighter poem, which was of great use when the person who was meant to be the translator fled in the opposite direction to the fire. Last year, at the Guadalajara Book Fair in Mexico, we gave Krystyna a copy, and she was deeply moved to know we had taken the trouble to introduce this Polish poet to our readers.

M is for MEXICO, as it could not be otherwise. If we are here today, if we can keep making books after seventeen years, it is especially thanks to the Mexican Government’s purchases of free books for schools. We have had the fortune that many of our books have been selected for the programmes organised by the Secretariat of Public Education, and that large print runs (the average is around 50,000 copies) have been made of those titles. Although the selection system could be improved, there is no doubt that the programme is exemplary, and other countries in Latin America have been copying it for some time now. If only we had such a variety of proposals for the enjoyment and learning of our students!

N is for NOSE. I do not know how this nose got here. Perhaps it is because when talking about complicated translations I remembered the nonsense verses of Edward Lear, an author worried about his nose and who dedicated several verses to the topic. After many versions, at this precise moment I am still confused with Lear’s rhymes. But no, the nose is not his, nor any of his characters’, it corresponds to Luis Santángel. Luis Santángel, a Valencian banker, is considered to be Christopher Columbus’ protector and a ‘generous cooperator in the discovery of America’. He has a bust which commemorating him in this way in Paseo de la Alameda, more or less opposite the bar La Pérgola. One time, Begoña and I, while walking around the city, happened to pass by the statue. We found that the pedestal was covered with Nazi symbols and graffiti hating on Jews. The ground was full of stones, and someone had broken off the bust’s nose with one of them. We stood there for a few minutes observing the mess and suddenly discovered Santángel’s nose in between the stones. We picked it up from the ground and wondered what do do with it. The nose was Valencian patrimony. We had to hand it over to the authorities so they could restore it to its head by means of a very powerful glue. We wondered which would be the right department to approach: Parks and gardens? Museums? After mentally reviewing several examples of the poor state  in which Valencia keeps its public patrimony, we decided to wrap the nose in a tissue and put it in one of our pockets.

The Ñ of this Alphabet, which I would like to reiterate is an Alphabet of circumstances, is for AZAÑA. That is, Manuel Azaña, the last president of the Spanish Republic. Since I have dragged on the last letter, I will be more brief here. Valencia was the capital of the Republic in 1937. Oddly enough, almost nothing in the city recalls this fact. For many years, our governors have preferred to bury the matter and wait for the change of generations to guarantee a perfect oblivion in order to avoid discussions that, according to them, lack sense. In 2014, however, and contradicting this custom, Valencia City Council dedicated a street to Manuel Azaña. An unheard of event, which could be considered a milestone. As few people have come across this street on their strolls around the city, I will tell you where it is located so anyone who wishes can go there to pay homage: it is the gap between the Levante football field and the Arena shopping centre. More precisely, the alley the shopping centre employs for loading and unloading.

O is for OJALÁ (IF ONLY, HOPEFULLY). In Spanish, the expression comes from the Arabic ‘wa-sa Alláh’ (‘if God is willing’), and is widely popular among those of us who make books. According to María Moliner’s dictionary, with it we ‘express the desire for a certain thing to occur’. Hopefully the book interests readers. Hopefully the illustrators hand in their work soon. Hopefully someone writes a good review of this interesting work. Hopefully that nice bookshop puts our book in its window display. In that same dictionary, at least in the edition I own, there is another related term, ‘ojalatero’: ‘Applies to those from last century’s (19th) civil wars who wished the triumph of the party they sympathised with, without contributing to it.’ A synonym would be ‘passive’. So, that too.

P is for PRIZES. For examples, these awards. I would like to think they serve a purpose. And, indeed, they probably do serve a purpose, but I have not discovered what that is yet. We have received the awards for Best Valencian Book, Best Illustrated Book (in Spanish), or Best Bibliophile Book on eight occasions, and never has a journalist from a local media outlet asked us or their authors about them, nor has the number of copies sold exceeded a dozen as result of the promotion (until last year). If only awards were always fair, and also serve a purpose!

Q is for QUIXOTE, but it is only here to say that this book, The Quixote, greatly praises another, Tirant lo Blanch, whose first publication, in 1490, we celebrate this 20 November. By the way, this is not the only important event that took place on a 20 November. On this day in 1820, an 80-ton sperm whale attacked the Essex ship and sank it 3,700 kilometres off the coast of Antofagasta, Chile. Apparently, this event inspired the writer Herman Melville to write his novel Moby Dick. Coming back to Tirant, the passage which refers to it, calling it ‘the best book in the world’, is very well-known, and is, in my opinion, the most wonderful book review anyone has ever written. I was going to copy it into the next letter of this Alphabet, but since it is an Alphabet of circumstances, and circumstances force us to conclude, I will change the R of REVIEW for that of RECAP, and speed up the end without even stopping.

S is for SANTÁNGEL. Just to say that, as with all stories that have a happy ending, the bust grew another nose.

T is for TOSCA, for Father Tosca, the author of a map of Valencia, drawn at street level, which is reproduced on the front of the book Fire!.

U is for UNIVERSITY. (Who knows what I had planned to say here.)

V, twice, is for VICENT VENTURA, Valencian journalist and politician, who wrote somewhere that in Valencia, in contrast to other cities, there are no friend groups of this or that. In short, that Valencia is a city without friends. This is an idea that will have to be developed as it deserves, probably in the form of a book.

W is for WARSZAWA. The Polish name for Warsaw, the capital of Poland. It is also the title of the book we have made with Grazka Lange, included in the collection about cities, which is an alphabet in itself. Warsaw is where we held the presentation for Fire!. Specifically, at the National Stadium of Warsaw, where locals watch football matches and where they have the funny quirk of hosting their book fair.

X is for XAVIER ANDREU, a friend from Borriol and a doctor in History who interned with us for a year and who now lives in Copenhagen. I told Xavi how hard it was to separate our work with books from the place we live in. He knows how much of our catalogue of sixty books is autobiographical. This Alphabet is dedicated to him.

Y for ‘Y LO DEMÁS’, which means ‘and for the rest’ in Spanish. That is to say, the ‘etcetera’ placed at the end of a sentence. Because there is always something else. That is why: books.

Finally, Z is for ZIHUATANEJO, a paradisiac tourist city in Mexico where Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, protagonists of the film The Shawshank Redemption, end up reuniting when they escape from prison. I cannot help thinking that Valencia must be other people’s Zihuatanejo. If only it were our Zihuatanejo too!

Vicente Ferrer.

Text read on 20 November 2015 at the award ceremony of Best Edited Books and Booksellers’ Work in the Valencian Community for 2014.   


‘God bless me!’ said the curate with a shout, ‘“Tirante el Blanco” here! Hand it over, gossip, for in it I reckon I have found a treasury of enjoyment and a mine of recreation. Here is Don Kyrieleison of Montalvan, a valiant knight, and his brother Thomas of Montalvan, and the knight Fonseca, with the battle the bold Tirante fought with the mastiff, and the witticisms of the damsel Placerdemivida, and the loves and wiles of the widow Reposada, and the empress in love with the squire Hipolito—in truth, gos- sip, by right of its style it is the best book in the world. Here knights eat and sleep, and die in their beds, and make their wills before dying, and a great deal more of which there is nothing in all the other books. Nevertheless, I say he who wrote it, for deliberately composing such fooleries, deserves to be sent to the galleys for life. Take it home with you and read it, and you will see that what I have said is true.’

(Miguel de Cervantes, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Chapter VI: ‘Of the diverting and important scrutiny which the curate and the barber made in the library of our ingenious gentleman’.)