El Persa and the future world

I soon learned what the final destination of books was, and, by extension, of all things. My father had a pastry shop in Valencia and a Moorish oven where, besides baking delicious sweets, the most select libraries of the neighbourhood burned. It was the post-war period and people were scared of the most absurd reprisals that, also absurdly, kept taking place. Verne, Reclus, Blasco Ibáñez, Unamuno, Bartolozzi, shared flames with pine needles, which came to us in sacks that still held the forest’s fragrance, and other authors I cannot recall. The combination of Pinocchio (Bartolozzi’s) and pine needles was a strange one for me. My uncle Colás, whose library escaped the flames by hiding in the village, and Mr. Vicente, who had a buy-exchange-sell stall of novels and comic books next to the pastry shop, wept as if the books were human, at those which turned to smoke and ashes, and which —in some mysterious way— also coated the eclairs, the puff pastries, the pasties, the Romanian rum cakes, the panquemao (sweet bread), the cakes. From then on, I have professed an undifferentiated love to these three things so ephemeral and permanent at the same time: fire, books, and sweets.

But, in spite of everything, I always had plenty to read during my childhood. In addition to school books, the Three Kings always remembered my hobby. My uncle Colás provided me with duplicated copies from his library, and Mr. Vicente let me read any of the books that rested in the display window of his shop. At the time I was unable to tell the difference between a comic book, a cheap novel, or a serious book (fortunately this has not changed much: I read, and still do, everything that appears in front of me). However, neither Mr. Vicente nor my uncle were able to explain to me in a way I could understand how books were made. How those letters so well traced, those indescribable drawings, at times with beautiful colours, could be put on paper. I tried to draw comparisons between my father’s trade and that of printers or publishers, and for some time I even thought that each copy was written and drawn by hand, by an artist who handled their tools with the same skill as my father handled his. An artist who did not mind repeating the same work over and over, were it a millefeuille or an FBI comic book. I did notice that books enjoyed a better reputation than pastries: books were respected by the priests and teachers at school, and books told us to love books, my uncle told how great Blasco Ibañez’s burial was, how much humanity owed to Gutenberg, things like that. But no one said such things about pastries, nor about the craft of making them, nor about Brillat-Savarin; only that if we ate too many sweets our teeth would fall out and we would get worms in our stomachs. So I chose to make books instead of pastries. And, as I discovered too late, it was a mistake. 

A child’s determination can be very strong. I began drawing and writing in little notebooks I bought from the stationary shop. Later on I produced my work on paper that I cut myself and bound with a stapler. The last thing those short novels and adventure comics intended to do was to be different from what I already knew, I was looking for a product that was as standard as possible and I never felt discouraged by poor results. Once they were finished, my pastime ceased to interest me and I never showed them to anyone, except for Mr. Vicente and a few friends from school. As I grew older I realised that certain skills, such as playing football well, catching flies, jumping out of moving trams, and drawing provided a certain status in the friend group and also interested girls, more than enough reasons for me not to abandon pencils. I spent many years of my life in this way, always consuming an abundant amount of printed products, but it never occurred to me that I could join the side of those who made them. And, without being aware of it, I became a reader with judgement, a reader who knew what he liked and why. Among my friends, I made closer bonds with those who were good and passionate readers.

One day, by chance, I met a stranger who, when he introduced himself, turned out to be the sales director of an important Catalonian publishing house that published comic books, short stories, children’s books, cut-outs, and all those things that had livened up my childhood. He offered me to do a trial job for his company and I did not hesitate. This was in the mid-seventies and I had already worked in very diverse trades, from architecture to doughnut delivery, all of them unsuccessfully according to the standards of society at the time. Drawing for the publisher that had once nourished my daydreams was not bad at all, and I did quite well, too. My creations —mostly cut-outs— were one of the publishing house’s greatest hits and also one of the last: plastic trinkets and television were competing more and more aggressively against paper toys and comic books, which were beginning to be regarded as antiquities. In the early eighties, the publishing house closed down and I was left without one of my most beloved clients.

I did not earn much money drawing those things but I gained others of higher value: the most obvious one was getting to live in Barcelona for a few months a year, and also —and this becomes relevant now— that the same family who owned the publishing house had a large modern printing press and, among other things, printed the company’s works. I spent many hours there and had the opportunity to familiarise myself with the printing world from the inside. I enjoyed the linotyper’s roar, the intimacy of reproduction, and the mystery of moiré patterns; I learned how to proofread texts and how to avoid widows and orphans. I learned about papers and their textures, weights, qualities, and which were best for each specific use. I very closely followed the necessary steps to transfer texts and images on paper, and discovered the secret of the four-colour printing process, two-tones, and special inks. I learned about die cutters, filming, shrink-wrapping, display boxes, invisible watercolours, the types of binding. And although much of that knowledge is obsolete today, it often surfaces in my thoughts when I am working, warning me against the excesses to which the easiness of computer processes can lead to nowadays.

During those years, now in possession of the required technical knowledge, and perhaps due to my profound immersion in the world of children’s books, the child-editor I had once been resurfaced again, and his presence was so strong I ended up publishing a collection of opuscules I titled La Beca del Artista (The Artist’s Grant), for friends only, which were booklets of diverse contents in the style of the Lecciones de cosas (Lessons on Things) I had liked so much as a child. I typed the texts with a cheap typewriter and assembled the pages with the texts and drawings I produced. At one point I employed the two ink technique. A real print shop took care of the printing and binding of the three hundred copies that made up the print run of each issue. I also participated and collaborated in various editorial and literary adventures that had begun sprouting in Valencia. This era culminated when, in 1979, I published the Mascarilla Masticadora Bowerbräu (Bowerbräu Chewing Mask), which had a good media impact. I was finding my place in the world of books: a very small place, but also a very motivating one.

I was very comfortable in that cave where I baked my modest loaves of bread, which a few enjoyed with great delight. There was no other motivation, I was not gaining fame or money with all that, rather, quite the opposite: there were those who thought me mad, and my publications cost me money that I needed for other things. I lived those years in the late seventies wildly and voraciously and, almost without realising it, I was becoming an independent author/editor.

When the publishing house in Barcelona announced it was going to close its doors permanently, I realised I had to organise my life differently: I had begun to enjoy the graphic arts and could not conceive making a living outside this business. I decided that a way to start fresh would be by offering my services as a drawer/editor of cut-outs to public and private entities. And so I did, with a higher acceptance than I had expected. I used the economic gain to get involved in new ventures, creating a children’s publishing house, similar to the one in Barcelona, exploiting those ideas which had worked so well at the time and recklessly taking risks. I had the impression I was doing the right thing, but, although the products I attempted to introduce to the market were of a high standard, the adventure was derailed due to a lack of good distribution and sale mechanisms: I had learned how to make, but not how to sell. In the end, all that concluded with the destruction of almost a tonne of paper.

But the products I had continued to make for pleasure, not expecting anything other than the joy of sharing the ideas and emotions that inspired them with a selected few, survived and provided me with a good reputation. These included the magazine El Llaüt de Xàbia, publicació per a menors de 180 anys, which for almost a decade was distributed every three months, without an excessive punctuality, to all those who requested it. From here, my thanks to Xàbia City Council, which generously assumed the costs. A good selection of those pieces is included in the book The Unknown El Persa, which has recently come out, published by Media Vaca, an essential title for any good library.

And these words, which tell us something about insisting on showcasing what no one asked for, are coming to an end. I believe that today, like before, those who have a vocation for literature, with or without illustrations, have few alternatives: the first is to knock on the doors of the more or less established publishing houses, using your own knuckles or those of whomever represents you; the second is to take part in any literary and illustrated text competition; and the third —reserved for those who assume their readers will be few—, to self-publish in short print runs, for friends only. It goes without saying that I have chosen the third option: one works with more freedom, since there are no parameters prefixed by others’ interests, it is cheaper in the long run, and the reward is greater: there is no risk of being a bestseller. And one can continue to be blissfully unknown: as Borges, we do not have to repeat that fame is the greatest misunderstanding. Because fame, even posthumously, kills: Verne knew this well.

José Cardona, El Persa

Text published in the magazine Educación y Biblioteca, no. 168 (November-December 2008), under the title ‘Celsus 233. Bien pronto aprendí o Las ediciones no limitadas’, and which forms part of the book El Persa: For Friends Only (Media Vaca, 2013).