La Zona Fantasma: Prohibited Material - Believer Magazine
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La Zona Fantasma: Prohibited Material

by Javier Marías
Illustration by Charles Burns

La Zona Fantasma: Prohibited Material

Javier Marías
15 Snaps

Every year between April 23, Spain’s Book Day, and mid-June, when the Madrid Book Fair comes to a close, everyone in our country gets very philosophical about literature, and our conversations bubble over with all sorts of clichés (some accurate, others less so) on the topic: we all talk about how reading makes better, more imaginative people; it broadens our knowledge; it has the capacity to change us and our understanding of those around us; it allows us to live vicarious lives; it makes us more tolerant; and it may even help stop some of us from committing crimes. I fully admit I have made my share of these comments, but I do try to limit myself so as not to contribute to this general overkill of saccharine sweetness. This year, as Don Quixote is trotted out in his endless and exhausting four-hundredth-anniversary dance, politicians in Spain have been extolling the virtues of books and reading as never before. We haven’t given Cervantes a moment of peace this year, so forgive me for repeating one of the most celebrated lines from his novel: “Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts that heavens have bestowed upon men… for freedom… men can and should risk their lives; and on the other hand, captivity is the greatest evil that can befall mankind.” I don’t object to the politicians who cite these words, though some of them do sound a bit ludicrous when they do.

A few months ago, I received a letter from a man in captivity, a prisoner whose return address was the Albolote Penitentiary in Granada. It was a very kind letter, and among other things he described the place he lived in as “singular.” As it turned out, one day he had been listening to a classical-music radio show to which I had been invited as a guest host. I had picked out some of my favorite pieces, which we aired, and then I spoke about them for a little while. This prisoner had enjoyed my selections so much that he decided to dash off a letter posthaste:“As I write this, I am listening to the Bernard Herrmann piece you selected,” he wrote, adding that he had read many of my articles and books. I decided to reciprocate by sending him a book, one he probably hadn’t heard of: Cuentos únicos (Singular Stories), an anthology of terror stories by some very arcane British authors, which I had edited. I wrote him a dedication and sent it off.

After a few weeks, the package was returned to me with a stamp that said “Unknown.” I found it rather bizarre that a jail did not know the name of someone imprisoned within its walls, but I let it go. I then remembered that the prisoner had written a postscript advising me that by the time I read his letter, he might be “back” at the prison at Alhaurín de la Torre in the province of Málaga. So I re-sent the package to the prison at Alhaurín de la Torre, but in two weeks’ time, the package found its way back to me. On both occasions I had given my publishing house as a return address, and a woman who works there, Paz Vega, explained to me why the book had been returned. On the outer envelope someone had written “Package contains prohibited material.” A book, “prohibited material”? For a long while I mulled over this concept, trying to make sense of it, but the only explanation I could think of was so absurd that it didn’t seem possible.The book I had sent was a hardcover: perhaps the wardens considered it a potentially dangerous weapon? I spoke with Paz, who was as bewildered as I was, and she generously offered to look into the issue on my behalf. Years earlier, my publishing house had tried to send some books to another prison, as a donation to its library, and the prison officials had required a letter of warning in advance of the shipment. With this in mind, I sent the errant anthology back to my publishing house to see if we could get permission from the prison officials and finally send the book on to the prisoner.

Yet again the book was bounced back to me like a very determined boomerang. Paz had spoken with a representative of the prison at Alhaurín and could only describe her conversation as “quite an experience.”I had two options: I could either travel to the jail myself and hand the prisoner his book in person on the day he was authorized to receive visitors, or I could write to him and ask him for the address and phone number of relatives who visited him regularly, and once he sent me that information I could contact the relatives and send them the book so that they, in turn, might give him the book on their preappointed visiting day.

An extraordinary set of requirements, I thought, just to send a book to a convict who likes literature and classical music. I find the incident so outrageous that I would be very grateful if the director of the governmental agency that oversees the prisons (I believe her name is Gallizo), or if not her then the warden of the prison at Alhaurín del a Torre, or if not the warden then some other official of the jail in question, might be able to explain to me why on earth a simple book—something that does so much good for the world, according to everyone—is labeled “prohibited material.” And if nobody is able to get back to me, I suppose I can only conclude that, from the president of our government all the way down the chain of command, our politicians are nothing but hypocritical liars who toss out effervescent but empty words of praise for literature, especially their beloved Quixote. They do make a mockery of things.

Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero

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