Sunday, March 28, 2010

Printing Press Street: Lima, Peru

In the very few days I spent in Lima, I managed to wander along narrow streets into a passageway of crumbling Colonial buildings. It may have been an "area where I should not have been," though at this point it probably only exists in my personal record. In my memory, which now houses the images of that small street as a series of still photographs, the street did not have street lamps, the sky was a velvety, cobalt blue and every door was only slightly ajar, cracked and carved wooden portals sitting uncomfortably on their hinges. The whole street hummed with presses. Lima tends to be organized by sector - here is the cake street, where you can purchase a cake to suit your needs, here is the shoe shop street, where you can fix your soles at any one of 50 vendors lining it, here is the weird cardboard-and-tissue-paper party decorations street, etc. This, I gather, was Printing Press Street.

I had just landed in Lima for the first time and Printing Press Street was solidly romanticized by me in the ten or so minutes it took to traverse that alley through cabs and pedestrians. For a word nerd like me, wandering down a back-way where every single doorway led to a giant machine, purring, and the scent of ink and paper wafted out of busted doorways that had probably been carved hundreds of years ago was maddeningly enticing. Nevermind that most of what I saw being printed were [gaudily designed] advertising posters, pamphlets and leafleting sundries.

I didn't yet know about Peru's publishing piracy problem at that point. Daniel Alarcon writes about the absurd facts of said industry - as large as, if not bigger than the official publishing industry of Peru - here. Learning about all this in retrospect is vaguely amusing, impressive and depressing simultaneously, but experiencing it was maddening. As Alarcon points out in the Granta piece, book stores are hard to come by. Before taking off for Iquitos by boat from Pucallpa, I ran around looking for books for the week long trip and did not find a single book store in the entire town. When I had finally given up, reclining in my leopard-print hammock on the boat, a man came by hawking pamphlets and reading materials "to help you sleep." I should have looked for book sellers instead of book stores, apparently. Alarcon also points out that pirates, not bound by publishers' rules, contracts, or moral obligations to the writers, take certain liberties. The most impressive of these, for me, is the power of abridging. Throughout Bolivia, for example, there are book stores and stalls full of pamphlets that look like children's coloring books but are in fact abridged versions of books like Les Miserables and Three Musketeers and The Complete Aesop's' Fables [abridged] - thick books twiddled down to a few breviloquent pages. They all come from Peru.

So I wonder, now, about Printing Press Street. Was it the heart of the illegal publishing industry, pushing posters by day and switching to Don Quijote (a most popular street book throughout South America) reprints by night? The plan is to find out.

No comments: