Library Director’s Notebook
As someone who tends to primarily read books set in a Euro-centric milieu , I really enjoy coming across a book with a different cultural focus. Such a discovery for me was The Old Man Who Read Love Stories by Luis Sepulveda. Set in fairly recent times (the book was written in the late ‘80’s) and set in the Ecuadorian rainforest, this short but potent novel could be read as a warning about impending ecological disaster, a study of greed and ruthless power, and a paean to all that remains simple and authentic in some people and some cultures.
Antonio Jose Bolivar is the old man of the title. Although only in his early sixties, his harsh and often tragic life has aged him, but also made him wise in ways that keep him alive while other younger, richer, and more powerful men succumb to the many ways of dying the jungle offers in abundance.
An act of senseless poaching followed by an equally brutal murder of an innocent native from the Shuar tribe sets off a series of events in which Antonio is forced to join in a hunt for an enraged ocelot, whose cubs had been slaughtered and who eagerly attacks all men who enter her territory. Knowing the ways of countless jungle beasts, Antonio tries to bring sense and caution to the hunt, but time and again his advice is disregarded, to the endangerment of all. With all his senses and his weapons sharpened, he still finds himself drifting back to memories of his youth, of his wife who died young, of his friendship with the Shuar, and of his once great loneliness, belonging neither to the white man’s world nor to the world of the native peoples.
Yet having learned in middle age to slowly and painstakingly decode the words in a book, Antonio’s world had forever expanded and his loneliness disappeared. Of all the books in the world, Antonio most cherished love stories, with lots of misery and conflict in the middle, but with happy endings. An unusual choice, perhaps, for a world-hardened, much-suffering old man, who had always known poverty and rarely known friendship; but lost in his few books which he had read many hundreds of times, Antonio found a kind of transcendence.
Reading The Old Man Who Read Love Stories is a kind of transcendence for the reader, taking us from our civilized, quotidian world to a world rich in sensory beauty, sudden savagery, and through the magic of Sepulvada’s words, startling poetry.