Buffalo Bill Romance Odyssey

I have in my hands the book Buffalo Bill Romance by Carlos Pérez —very illustrated!—, with beautiful photographs and collages by Dani Sanchis. This is a book that was not foreseen in Media Vaca’s publication plan, if you can even say there is a publication plan when sometimes we take six years to finish the editing process of a book or when the title we initially thought of publishing ends up becoming something else. Miguel Calatayud, for example, was invited to illustrate Aesop’s Life and ended up making The World Turned Upside Down. Diego Bianki was meant to illustrate a selection of excerpts from Book of Disquiet by Pessoa and ended up making a book on Buenos Aires. Well, he has not finished yet. According to the plan, the book should have been published in 2006, but he still have not managed to finish it.

When Carlos Pérez told me he had written a book, I am not sure what I understood he had written. He said, I remember, that an unpublished poem by Vicente Huidobro, the famous Chilean poet, one of the main protagonists of the avant-garde, had appeared, and since the poem was very short, perhaps only a fragment, he had written an article to contextualise it and to also achieve a text of a certain length that would allow him to make it known through a single publication. Vicente Huidobro’s poem is called ‘El romancero de Buffalo Bill’ (Buffalo Bill’s Collection of Ballads) and took up four pages, not very well exploited; the article by Carlos Pérez was titled ‘Buffalo Bill, the Eiffel Tower, and an Avant-Garde Poet’, had 56 pages, and 7,489 words.

Carlos sent me Huidobro’s poem on 26 July 2012 (that is what I had written down), and a few days later sent me the following note: ‘My idea for the book is to make an amusing biography of Buffalo Bill and his tour of Europe. The arrival in Paris of the ‘Wild West’ show coincided with the inauguration of the Exposition Universelle and the Eiffel Tower (1889). For the occasion, the explorer hired Annie Oakley, the famous sharpshooter. I would add Huidobro’s ‘Romance’ and another one of his longer poems, ‘Cow Boy’. And also a drawing by Sonia Delaunay (the label they used in envelopes, on which the Eiffel Tower appears). Of course, I would speak of the Tower. I have the story more or less studied and there is a possibility of making a small exhibition (with fake things, like in fairs). I am still thinking it through, I will send you the results later.’

When Carlos finally sent me his text and I was able to read it, I forgot most of the previous comments and, as it happened to other readers of his story, came to the following conclusions: 1) the text, very pleasant, could be read in one sitting; 2) despite the fact that Carlos tried to play it down, insisting that he was not a writer, his story was ambitious and he did not just trace an outline following the doted lines but, as we shall see later, he had created his own resources for his artifact; 3) lastly, the story, the article, the writing or, as we have called it, the chronicle, made sense in the form of a book, just as his author had sensed, but it made sense, especially, as an illustrated book. How is it possible to talk about the mystery of the circus, the splendor of Paris, the astonishing art of the avant-garde, without showing paintings, photographs, or posters? A picture-less book, a blind book, could never tell the same story. It would be like attending a concert of the jazz guitarist Angelo Debarre, to give an example, and being handed a printed score at the entrance to the venue but the music was muted.

Once we agreed we would make the book and that it would be a very illustrated book, I suggested to Carlos the possibility of working with an illustrator and introduced him to Dani Sanchis. Before meeting in person, I offered both of them information about the other’s work and, without knowing each other, they two of them connected. As explained in the text about the illustrator that appears in the book itself, when Dani agreed to join the project, he had no idea what he was getting into. None of us did, to tell the truth, and that is only natural, because an illustrated book is rather different from a story and rather different from the images that comprise it, and something that cannot be entirely controlled by the editor. This is not always the case, and that should be the objective: the sum of efforts and abilities should achieve a better result than that obtained by the different individual visions. Carlos had a few images already located, extracted from books and old publications, which were the starting point for all the subsequent decisions. In this first task, the help of the photographer Bernard Custard was incredibly significant. Then, for months, we embarked, each on our own, on a search for images in order to choose those we considered most suitable, that is, the ones that best told what we wanted tell; and among the most suitable ones, the most interesting; and among the most interesting ones, those with the best reproduction quality; and from those, the ones that were most accessible due to not being subjected to copyright restrictions or due to their reproduction restrictions being the most affordable. Some images were certain from the beginning and others remained up in the air until the last day. There is one that I am particularly saddened not to have gotten hold of. It was a photograph taken in Rome by Count Giuseppe Primoli, a descendant of Napoleon’s family, between 20 February and 9 March 1890. The picture shows a big bare tree with a large dark stain, a sort of ivy, that seems to be climbing up the trunk. It is not ivy, but children, a few dozen, who have climbed the tree in order to spy on the rehearsals of Buffalo Bill’s circus, which at that moment was performing on the castle’s esplanade. This rare picture with children was, in my opinion, the image that best illustrated Vicente Huidobro’s unpublished poem.

Regularly, Carlos, Dani and I, often joined by Begoña, would meet to talk and share our findings. Dani found a 1945 foxtrot dedicated to Buffalo Bill in the National Library; I found a 1934 book with poems for children in a flea market titled, just as Huidobro’s poem, 'Romancero de Buffalo Bill'; Carlos found in an auction house some United States coins from 1937, with the portraits of a buffalo and an Indigenous man, which he gave to us and which we kept as a talisman. (Although their face value is five cents, their price is much higher, and most certainly the greatest monetary reward those of us who have worked on this book will get.) Our favourite meeting places have been the restaurant Tapas para Tomar de Manglano, in the Mercado de Colon (Columbus Market), and Simón and Maylin’s Shaw’s House, in Ciscar Street, a very welcoming ‘saloon’ (as Carlos calls it) which closed for business just when we were finishing the book but that promised to reopen soon. We always arrived to the restaurant on time. When Carlos was going to be three minutes late, he would call us. In a short time we would exchange information related to the project and spend the rest of the meal talking about other things. When I say ‘other things’ I mean exactly that. For the most part, the rest of diners would simply listen to Carlos. Incredibly enough, we could always take useful material from what he told us and apply it to the book. This is how we resolved the pages featuring the circus’ advertisements and posters, which had their complications. Later, Dani turned Huidobro’s ‘Manifesto tal vez’ (Perhaps Manifest) into a comic book. We found some interesting images on the Internet, but those one thought would be the easiest to find were, of course, not there. However, there are photographs of William F. Cody, Buffalo Bill, for all tastes, from when he was a year old until the year of his death. When Buffalo Bill was not riding a horse, it was because he was posing. This discovery confirms that the fame of the explorer and businessman owes much to photography (and film) and to the extraordinary boom in advertising during that period. Despite the time elapsed, one could say Buffalo Bill is, in many aspects, our contemporary. He is a pioneer of the show business culture we are so familiar with today. The song ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ was performed for the first time in the musical Annie Get Your Gun, by Irving Berlin, dedicated to the sharpshooter Annie Oakley, the undeniable star of Buffalo Bill’s circus. In that song, Bill himself sings backing vocals.

Another contemporary of ours is Vicente Huidobro: an inventor, someone who made an interesting life for himself (as did Willam F. Cody); and a poet less known and less read than other of his contemporaries. This book by Carlos Pérez is undoubtedly a great homage to Huidobro and returns the poet to that cosmopolitan world in which he was so comfortable. There are numerous homages in this book, as readers will be able to see. In fact, around two hundred and twenty-five characters are mentioned, not including Emilia Pardo Bazán, a robust lady who takes up considerable space and who appeared at the end. Eighty characters feature in the flyleaves alone, from Apollinaire to Zip the Pinhead. Despite this parade, each of them take their place in their corresponding chapter and no large crowds come together. Another characteristic of the text is the footnotes, which Carlos Pérez has turned into a stylistic feature. The plot is continuously interrupted by a note that serves to rescue a name or a certain anecdote. The marvellous thing is that the interruptions do not distract from the reading, since the notes, which are indicated in red and in the same font size as the main text, are just as part of the main plot as the text printed in black. The red river and the black river are two parallel rivers, and curiously enough, the main river is not always the most vigorous. There are artists that hit a moving target while shooting backwards; others teach elephants how to dance; Carlos Pérez makes footnotes dance: he straightens them up, makes them jump, traps them, sits them down, throws sardines at them, and starts all over again. In Buffalo Bill Romance, footnotes occupy exactly a third of the full text. Even in the colophon there are footnotes. Readers who detest footnotes will make an exception for this book, exceptional for so many reasons.

As well as many homages, this book includes a long list of acknowledgments. One could say that acknowledgments also form part of the homages: we must celebrate the generosity and effort of many friends and strangers who have made it possible for this project to become the book I now have in my hands. The collaboration of the Huidobro Foundation, represented by its president, Vicente García-Huidobro, has been essential. Also, that of a few institutions and museums (several dedicated to the memory of Buffalo Bill) that are mentioned in the corresponding section and whose webpages we recommend visiting. The images, an inseparable part of this Romance, as has been said, have been taken care of by Paco Mora Studio, and every single photograph and poster has passed through M.ª Ángeles Hervás, the Annie Oakley of Photoshop. The revision and correction of the text has been done by Leticia Oyola from the Wild West, that is, from Badajoz. The impeccable print work has been carried out by the Brizzolis workshop in Pinto, Madrid, at the same time they were producing a catalogue for the Prado Museum. Many people have made valuable contributions; we are very grateful to all of you. Marta Pina, from Industrias Lentas, who has given the book cover the authenticity of a 19th century poster made of wood type. Marcos and Pablo, aged six and four, who have drawn portraits of the main protagonists of this chronicle, Buffalo Bill and Vicente Huidobro, with the dignity that these personalities deserve, that is, dressing them up in suits with many buttons. Of course, we will aways be in debt to the Rector Peset Hall of Residence, which welcomes us once again to their pleasant basement, the brightest place in Valencia. We would like to give special thanks to Margarita and Marta for their care and attention. (Thank you, Dani Sanchis, without your collaboration this project would not have the same charm nor would it have been so fun to make.) A very special thanks to Carlos Pérez for trusting us and taking us on this adventure, and for briefly coming out of his retreat in Prague to share with the illustrators and the publishers so many splendid moments. Let’s give him three big hurrays. Both friends and readers will agree. Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!

Vicente Ferrer

Text read during the presentation of the book at the Rector Peset Hall of Residence on 27 November 2013. In the picture, a group of Indians join the Buffalo Bill foxtrot chant performed by the singer Begoña Martínez and the pianist Jesús Debón (photograph by Santiago Martí).