Vargas Llosa as Cataloger

Here is a quote that struck me from Mario Vargas Llosa’s provocative book, Notes on the Death of Culture, in the chapter The Disappearance of Eroticism. He describes how in 1955 in Lima, he had to work a number of jobs to survive. One of those jobs however, he singled out.

But the most enjoyable of my eight jobs that earned my daily bread was not the cemetery but acting as assistant to the librarian of the Club Nacional. The librarian was my university teacher, the historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea. My duties consisted of spending two hours daily, from Monday to Friday, in the elegant building of the Club, the symbol of the Peruvian oligarchy, which, around that time, was celebrating its centenary. In theory, I was supposed to spend these two hours cataloguing the new additions to the library but, I don’t know if through lack of funds or through negligence, the Club Nacional hardly acquired any new books in those years, so I could spend these two hours writing and reading.

And what did he read?

There I discovered, with delight, hidden behind some discreet folding screens and prim little curtains, a splendid collection of erotic books, almost all French. There I read the letters and erotic fantasies of Diderot, Mirabeau, the Marquis de Sade, Restif de la Bretonne, Andréa de Nerciat, Aretino, The Memoirs of a German Opera Singer, The Autobiography of an Englishman, The Memoirs of Casanova, Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos and any number of other classic and emblematic works of erotic literature.

So, cataloging helped him learn about eroticism! He doesn’t say if these books were also in the catalog, or if the records were any good. I wonder what the librarian would have thought about how Vargas Llosa was spending his time! (Incidentally, Casanova wrote his Memoirs while employed as a librarian and was even more bored than Vargas Llosa)

I can remember reading only two items completely at my desk while at work. The first was an original edition of Stalin’s speech when the Germans invaded. (I had never read his speech before)

The second was the incredible autobiography of a quadriplegic alcoholic who was also a cartoonist: Callahan, John. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot: The Autobiography of a Dangerous Man. New York: Morrow, 1989. Here’s one of his outrageous cartoons:

I couldn’t put it down.