The long road of a small pocket book

Paths are laid in our cradle at birth. They are the blueprint of our destiny. Just as we have a blood group, genes that determine our hereditary factors or have inherited physical characteristics from our ancestors, so each of us has a path that accompanies us all the way to the grave and there, at the end, becomes our very last road.

Paths are sometimes easy, but there are also striking variations. When I wanted to publish my very first book, it was hard for me to find a suitable title. After a long back and forth, and months of headaches, the publisher came up with the idea of publishing the book entitled “Verschlungene Wege”. (Winding Paths). I found this very apt at the time, because “winded” are not only many fateful ways of people, no also objects, books for example, often go strange winding ways until they reach the shelf in the house of its owner, or also get lost inexplicably from there. Sometimes these paths are particularly strange and deserve to be told, like this story that began more than 15 years ago in Brazil. But read for yourself what an incredible way a little paperback made a during a trip around the world.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had that happened to you? You wished you had a book for Christmas. Not an ordinary one, no, one that is not very easy to find because it was published in a foreign language in a foreign country – and you absolutely wanted to read it in the original version. In fact, you found the book as a Christmas present under the Christmas tree.

After some time you did something with the book that you always knew should never be done: you lent it to someone you didn’t know very well. Against all adds, one does not lend books, because they usually get lost, yet you just convince yourself that you will get it back, and then … then the book suddenly disappeared!

The story of this booklet, which gave me so much pleasure but also so much headache, begins in the book’s home country – Brazil. On a sunny Saturday afternoon I walked across the Rua Bernardino do Campo, in the Brooklin district of Sao Paulo, and stopped in front of the shop window of a German bookstore. I can’t remember which of the titles on display caught my eye, at least I was interested and entered the store.

The owner, a stately middle-aged lady from Munich, showed me the book written in German by the Brazilian writer Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro – a book that had been published under the title “Ein Brasilianer in Berlin” (A Brazilian in Berlin) in the early nineties. Ribeiro, a member of the Brazilian Academy of Languages, was awarded a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) scholarship to Berlin, where he stayed with his family for a year and wrote columns for various newspapers. During this time he experienced funny things that he put on paper in an entertaining way.

Since the Portuguese edition – as the stately lady assured me – was out of print, I bought the German translation of the book published by Suhrkamp and left the bookshop. That same evening, I began to read. I quickly got through the one hundred and twelve pages of amusing short stories – and now I really wanted to have the original version in Portuguese.

On the following days I searched the Internet for the book. But nobody had it in stock. At an internet bookstore I finally discovered a copy – but it was second hand and the price was three times higher than the price of the new publication. Since I absolutely wanted it, I contacted the seller, an unknown seller without references from Rio de Janeiro. The delivery would only take place after prepayment. I fulfilled my part of the agreement and waited a week, but received no book. A second week went by. Nothing. Nothing. After the third week I contacted the seller again and he told me that he had already sent the book. He could not understand why it had not arrived. After the fourth week, one day before my return flight to Frankfurt, I realized: I had fallen for a fraudster.

All day long I tried to reach the salesman. A call to the telephone information service in Rio revealed that the subscriber’s number and address had already been unsubscribed a week ago.


How could something so stupid have happened to me, the far-travelled one?

Whenever something goes through my rags that I wish for especially, my hunting instinct breaks out and I only bite myself even more into the thought of capturing the object of my desire.

Back in Germany, I spent months browsing and in Portugal – as well as antiquarian bookshops and special bookshops that promised that nothing was impossible for them … as long as you’re willing to pay the appropriate price for the book that’s so dear to your heart.

After a while – finally tired of searching – I decided to wait. I had already invested a lot of time, spent more than fifty euros and had not come a bit closer to my goal.

Then Christmas came. Yes … – and the book… the book of Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro was under the fir tree. The original.

My mother had found the title through an antiquarian bookshop in Würzburg.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it for very long, because I just carelessly lent it, which sealed his fate. It was hair pulling.

In the following summer season, I was increasingly looking after Brazilians on my travels. Now I could have used Ribeiro’s book a lot. Nothing is better for entertainment (on the long journeys from Cologne to Hamburg or from Berlin to Frankfurt) than a reading from a book full of amusing experiences from one of her Brazilian compatriots.

Again I went on a search. And yes, found what I was looking for.

Opposite Hamburg’s Sankt Michaeliskirche, near the Landungsbrücken, there is an antiquarian bookseller who had already convinced me once during a previous visit: a small, older man with long grey hair, bushy eyebrows and a bald forehead with so much knowledge about authors and their books … Hertha Müller had just received the Nobel Prize for Literature and of course the antiquarian could tell me everything about this famous writer and her career. Of course, he also knew who Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro was. But he didn’t know where to find the book I was looking for. “Give me a few days,” the antiquarian said. “I’ll get back to you as soon as I find the book.” He sounded as convinced and sure of victory as a Caribbean pirate who points the cannon at the bow of a merchant ship. I was sure this was the only bookseller in Germany who was able to get me the book.

And I was right. Three weeks later I received an e-mail:

Traced your book. It costs € 30,00. If you agree, please confirm this in writing and when you are back in Hamburg, you can pick up the book at my place.

Thirty euros was about the amount I had stuck in the sand in Brazil. I didn’t care. After all, I was dealing with a serious bookseller. I confirmed and four weeks later I could pick up the book from him. To this day, I’ve never borrowed it again.

But that’s not all.

Six months later I travelled through Germany with a small group from Sao Paulo. Among my guests was a gentleman – in his mid-seventies – who immediately struck me. His name was Joao Gomez. A tall man, obviously of European descent, because of the light skin and the once blond but now grey hair. Joao Gomez’ gaze – this typical academic gaze, which gets a certain charm through the secret hairline corners – immediately conveyed to me that he had to be very well read. On the bus he also always held a book in his hand. Again and again he read, put the book aside, listened to me, closed his eyes, then opened the book again. No matter where we were, he was never without a book in his hand. I decided to talk to him about it.

When I asked him whether he always reads a lot, he replied: “Yes. Books have fascinated me since childhood. So much so that shortly after my studies in Sao Paulo I opened my first bookstore. Today I own a bookstore chain that is represented all over Brazil. During the course of the trip we soon got a little closer to each other. We talked about great writers, revealed to each other the names of our favorite authors and commented on their works. A certain intimacy arose and we even started joking with each other. The man with the academic look showed humor.

After we had lunch in Hamburg at the Landungsbrücken, we visited the Michaeliskirche. Some of my guests took the elevator that went up to the tower. Joao had stayed down in the church and looked at the newly renovated nave. We met at the entrance of the main church before the others returned from the tower.

The antiquarian bookshop where I had finally purchased the expensive edition of “Ein Brasilianer in Berlin” was directly opposite. I had the booklet with me and showed it to Joao.

He leafed through it.

“Where did you get this specimen?” he asked.

“From that bookstore over there; the owner got it for me. Was not easy … “

“Hm. Show me.” Again he leafed through the pages with two fingers. His forefinger finally got stuck to a small label on the second side, while he stared at me in disbelief.

“Brincadeira,” he said, “this is a joke,” and he laughed. Excited, he took the heavy Sony camera off his shoulder and took a photo of the label.

I didn’t understand anything anymore.

“Read here,” he said, “read here!”

I still didn’t read or understand anything. “Livro around presente inteligente Livraria Aeroporto SSA- Bahia. Phone: (71) 3377-6899.” (An intelligent book present from the bookstore at Salvador de Bahia Airport. Phone: (71) 377-6899).

“And…?” I asked confused.

“This is one of my bookstores. Come on, I want to meet the owner over there right now.”

“Excuse me?” I shook my head in disbelief as Joao dragged me across the street into the bookshop in front of St Michael’s Church in Hamburg. The owner’s already met us.

Joao immediately stood next to him, pressed his fancy camera into my hand and ordered me to take a picture of him and the antiquarian, while he kept asking me to translate for him what the strange man actually wanted from him. Now we were all excited and I had trouble reassuring the two men. Finally, I managed to communicate.

There we were: three book lovers, usually separated by thousands of miles and yet united by a consciousness of happiness that only a book can give us. How beautiful, I thought, that there are still people to whom books mean something and who spontaneously let their feelings run wild.