Friday, August 13, 2010

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

My husband and I recently attended one of the Hay Festivals. In 2010-2011 they are being held in Wales, Cartagena, Beiruit, Kerala, Nairobi, the Maldives, Belfast, Segovia and Zacatecas—conveniently located about nine hours away from our summer home in San Sebastian. Writers, musicians, film makers, scientists, and social entrepreneurs talk, play, screen and inspire; Bill Clinton called it “the Woodstock of the mind.”

The festival was a brilliant experience and the romance of the city couldn’t be missed. A lecture might be held in the Antiguo Templo de San Augustin or in the partially ruined nave of the ex-convento which now houses the Museo Rafael Coronel with it’s collection of 1600 Mexican masks. The open-air concerts, and what perfect high altitude summer air it was, were held in a plaza created by a cluster of colonial jewels. Our hotel, formerly a bishop’s palace, had displayed Morelos’ severed head for two weeks on its tour of Mexico during the Revolution. Other historical sites, templos, museos and ex-conventos crowd the small Centro; we tried to see them all.

At the of the other Coronel brother, Pedro, one of Mexico’s most noted twentieth century artists, the visitor enters through a library. Once belonging to the ex-convento that houses the museum, the library is a grand room, perhaps seventy feet long with sixteen- or eighteen-foot ceilings and high windows set in the thick walls. The upper reaches of the shelves are lost in the dim light and are packed with leather-bound and gold-tooled volumes. We immediately began to see treasures—first editions of Bernal Diaz’s history of the conquest of Mexico and of Prescott’s conquest history in Spanish translation. As other museum goers passed through the library and on to the rest of the collection, we were riveted, exclaiming over and examining every shelf until the distinguished old librarian offered to let us see whatever book we wanted. He extracted whatever we asked for, bringing it to the lectern on the little desk beneath the window and turning the pages for us with his gloved hands.

Then he offered to show us the rest of the library. We passed through a black-curtained arch into another room, even larger, at a right angle to the first, taking up the entire side of the former convent. This room, the librarian explained, contained books from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Every one was bound in parchment, discolored and crinkled, with hand-scribed titles on the spines in red and black ink. Then a third room along the back of the convent. Here were books with balsa wood covers and brilliantly marbled end papers, dictionaries, atlases, a facsimile of the Mendocino Codex, one of the few Aztec codices to survive the Spanish bonfires.

All that was a dream experience, but then this: Write out a solicitud, a request, go to the pharmacy and buy a left-over swine flu mask and latex gloves and all this was mine for the examining. I did it. Just another couple of hours, I assured Jonathan, but it took an extra day in Zacatecas before I tore myself away. Ask me what items and how much of them Montezuma received in tribute each year and what a parchment-bound Vulgate Bible feels like, book worm trails and all. I saw a collection of photos (not prints of photos) of Mexican churches taken by Frida Khalo’s father, an engraved map of Mexico City and surrounds when it was in the middle of the lake and reached by causeways and fifteenth century stories of the missionaries who brought Christianity to Ethiopia. I could go on.

One isn’t trusted around rare books in the US. I once (barely) got into the stacks of the Yale University Library even though supervised by my daughter who had access as a student. And the really old and valuable stuff isn’t there anyway, it’s over in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library and you aren’t getting in there without a letter of introduction from your academic advisor. Zacatecas is a good place to be reminded of how pleasant a society Mexico can be.

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