Spanish books or Books in Spanish?

Stauffacher bookshop, Bern, April 2021

The shelf labelled “Libros Españoles” holding books in Spanish irritates me.

I now challenge the salesperson every time I see it.

“Excuse me, would you place Friederich Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch, and other Swiss authors under “German Books”? I asked the salesman at Stauffacher in Bern yesterday.

He looked puzzled, so I tried to explain,

“You see, many of the books you have on this shelf are not “Spanish books”. Take Isabel Allende, she’s Chilean, Borges, Argentinian, García Márquez, Colombian, Vargas Llosa, Neruda…oh, you even have Joël Dicker here in Spanish, he’s Swiss. There is a difference between Books in Spanish and Spanish Books. Just like there’s a difference between livres en français and livres françaisBücher auf Deutsch and Deutsche Bücher, books in English and…

I like to think if books had legs they’d walk right off that shelf. Perhaps it would be García Marquez who would start the revolution, “Oye Borges, vámonos de aquí que tu y yo no somos españoles” (Hey Borges, let’s get out of here; you and I are not Spanish). Of course, some say Borges was a monarchist, so maybe he’d be happy to be under Spanish books. But I bet Eduardo Galeano would follow García Marquez out off that shelf, actually, he’d be the one to start the walkout.

“You’re the first client who points that out to me,” the salesman tells me.

I’ll be the second, third, and fourth one if necessary. It’s become a sport. I just keep repeating myself. Initially, I noticed my voice was irritated, hurt, I resented the mislabelling as a colonial holdover. Especially the day I saw my sister’s book, La Casa de la Belleza, a Colombian murder mystery (Melba Escobar, House of Beauty, Harper Collins) under Literatura Española at Payot in Geneva. Recently though, I make my point more calmly. Of course, this depends on how open the salesperson is to understanding my “grievance”. The kind gentleman at Stauffacher yesterday engaged in an entertaining discussion. As a suisse-romande, French is his native language in a country where French is a minority, which perhaps explains his willingness to understand me.

“Are you as a Latin-American Spanish speaker a minority?” he asked.

Actually, Latin-American Spanish speakers are far more numerous than the Spaniards. There are 450 million Spanish speakers in the world, and roughly 10% are Spanish. But this is not about numbers, emotions, politics or identity, although all of those underlie and explain my irritation. Leave all that complexity aside for this time, the labelling is simply wrong.

Before I leave the bookstore, I want to browse through books in English. I take the lift, as the elevator opens I see Nelson Mandela’s beautiful smile on the cover of his book, Long Walk to Freedom, and above him, the label, “English Books”.

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