Sayulita, Mexico - Yes, I stole a book. A small book. It was the only thing I ever stole in my life and it happened over 20 years ago. And I didn't steal this book lightly. I felt very guilty about it. Please don't condemn me as a thief until you read the reason why I had to commit this literary crime.
We collect Mexican silver designed by William Spratling (1900-1967), an American architect who came to Taxco to study its architecture in 1929 and lived there for the rest of his life. In addition to being a successful silver designer, he also was an excellent artist, architect and an accomplished writer.
One of his books was titled Little Mexico, a charming collection of short stories about Mexican life, replete with Spratling's illustrations. By concentrating on interesting people and events it was far different from the sweeping generalities of most of the Mexican travel books at the time.
Sales of this book were not a great success because the publishers went bankrupt and so very few copies ever come on the market. I tried to find it with no luck - this was way before one could find rare books on the internet. As a Spratling collector, my having this book became a minor obsession.
In 1994 we found ourselves in Cuernavaca, renting the very beautiful house of the great American actress, Helen Hayes, who had died the year before. We had learned the house recently had been purchased by the wife of a Greek shipping magnate and that Hayes's son, the actor James MacArthur, recently had come to the house to take everything he wanted to keep.
Still, there were many books left on the shelves, including dozens of vintage Mexican travel books that I enjoyed reading. Soon, I came to a book and, yes, it was indeed Little Mexico. I was a little dizzy with this find.
Furthermore, a blank page in the front of the book showed that the book had been given by Spratling to the noted American author, William Saroyan, and was signed by Spratling twice, along with a very nice note to Saroyan with "amazing admiration." From there, the slim volume ended up on Hayes's bookshelf.
It was a convincing presentation, but I explained that I had never stolen anything; I could feel the "guilts" starting to build up in my brain.
I thought about it for the rest of our stay there, vacillating back and forth-leave it; take it. Finally, on packing day, I put the book in my suitcase and prayed that I would not hear from MacArthur, nor rot in hell for all eternity for stealing Little Mexico.
Recently, I took the book from my shelf and decided to re-read it. One of the short stories was called Revolucionario. Spratling wrote of a wonderful character named Jesus Llorado whom Spratling described as a "general without ever having fought battles, a lawyer without ever having studied law and a congressman without ever having been voted for."
Spratling noted that Don Llorado liked to publish so-called manifestos that he plastered on walls for the edification of those who could read. One was about the greatness of Taxco and its artists. Don Llorado personally gave Spratling a special copy that Spratling translated and put in his book as a prime example of the flowing, flowery language for which many cultured Mexicans are noted. Don Llorado wrote:
"Everything in thee is fragrance and greatness; the soul, on feeling the monotonous silence of thy afternoons, remounts its flight toward the sky, thy sky tinted with burning scarlet, orange, or violet, and it rests there in memory of similar evenings.
Near thee, seen on rainy afternoons, thy seven-million-year old hills covered themselves with a gas of whitest mist; the Huitzteco, imposing and sublime like all the standards of our patriotic liberties, is caressed by the purest blue the sky contains.
In thy heart, historic city, Art sentiment feels itself palpitate; each house is a true landscape ready-made, full of dreams and poetry, where is heard at each moment the mellifluous and argentiferous voice of thy handsome women, whose agreeable manner awakens the inspiration in the poets, in the painters, in the musicians.
Meanwhile, the burnt-red of the ripe fruit of thy coffee groves reminds me of the purple lips of the woman I adore. Where a vision of virgin forests or of jazmin-de-España may be seen through a pleasant window, there one fancies the divine face of the ideal woman of eyes with sublime expression and of glances indefinable as the infinity, and I can imagine an angel there, with mouth as enervating as opium and as exciting and full of savour as a ripe pomegranate recently open.
My village, thou enlargest my heart during nights full of illusion; thy black nights appear unloosened tresses scattered with crystal drops, thy crystalline fountains are clear mirrors for the portraying of violet sunsets, thy nights silvered by the moon and he miraculous tints of the aurora.
Not even the nightingale can explain why the first arpeggio bursts from its throat, nor does the bud of the tuberose understand why, on opening itself, its perfume is diffused. So it is with the soul of an artist. He does not know the reason for his greatness; the artist feels the Revelation of God in his thoughts and he has for a professor wise Nature itself, from whom he takes his marvelous creations.
My town, thy men are hospitable, decent, honourable, unaffected, valiant. Thy women are vases of perfume, lovely angels, charming nymphs, goddesses, true goddesses of Beauty. In one word, my town, in me thou inspirest Love."
With these soulful insights into Mexico, how could I not steal the book? Or, on a higher level, how could I not save it from destruction?
Ed Schwartz and his wife, Bambi, are Mexico-philes from way back, having visited Mexico over 40 times before buying a house in Sayulita in 2007. Ed's writings on wine, food and travel have appeared in the SF Chronicle, LA Times and Image magazine.
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