The sole purpose of travel is the encounters we make. Whenever I am getting ready to go somewhere far away to speak about my books, I wonder what the true encounter will be, the one that, in the end, will have justified my long journey, the airplane pollution, being torn away from work, and the sentiment that the trip will have been in vain. I’m in the habit of saying that the only encounter that matters, in literature, is the one between the reader and the book, that all the explanations a writer might give are simply superfluous, and always fall short of the miracle of writing and reading. And yet… It is often an encounter that will start us reading, give us a lead for a book that is about to be cherished, that will go on to become as dear as a friend, as faithful and helpful. Every one of my literary journeys has brought its share of encounters: with readers, writers, editors, publishers, translators. Some of these encounters have changed my life, have turned into enduring friendships; others were intense but ephemeral. But the most interesting thing of all is that every one has sown books in my garden.
In Cartagena, all my encounters were remarkably intense. Oddly enough, this time they were all with women —but perhaps this is no surprise, in a Latin America where, after an eternity of silence, women are making their voices heard with unprecedented power. Through the interplay of acquaintances made possible by a festival which, for a few days, concentrates a host of women and men from all over the world, unanimously devoted to the same all-important thing, namely, literature, I found myself conversing with women from this part of the world: Colombian, Mexican, publishers, organizers, cultural missionaries. Often, they spoke French. They told me about their country, their mission, their struggles. As always, when my travels take me away from the opulence of my native country, France now seemed obscenely rich and frivolous to me, drowning in a culture that has become a consumer product, fed by the sprawling, grasping entertainment industry providing its anesthesia of boredom. In the testimonies of the women I spoke with, culture is a passion—for telling, for living, a conquest of freedom, an appeal to the stars, faith in the power of poetry, a ferocious desire for shared beauty. I don’t believe adversity makes for better writers, but I am sure that the repeated consumption of entertainment deadens us, diverts us from the quest for literature —the quest for human understanding. And so, I spoke with these women, some of whom, I know, will become lasting friends, and I marveled at our stimulating discussions. At the home of one of them I met a writer. She is from Argentina, her name is Dolores Reyes, and she has written her first novel. She doesn’t speak French, so Margarita, our hostess, translated our conversation. I already know I will read her debut novel once it comes out in French. Not because the author is a woman, not because she is from Argentina, not because everyone has told me that it’s an extraordinary text. But because, however ephemeral it might have been, however brief, and without the possibility for a direct exchange, the encounter took place. The singularity of a human being speaking to me, touching me: there is something about Dolores Reyes that beckons to me. And it is thanks to such encounters, now and again, that a book happens to us. Did someone one day, somewhere in the world, feel the same call when they came to hear me speak, and was that why they read one of my books? If so, it justifies everything —the journey, the explanations that fall short, the uncertainty, the doubt. As for me, my mind is feeling festive: I have come home with the prospect of new friendships and, in my heart, the desire to read a book. Long live literary festivals.
Translated by Alison Andereson