Sunday, September 12, 2010


At first sight these selections from the Aventura series ("the Vintage Library of Contemporary World Literature") may just seem like particularly nice examples of 1980s paperback cover designs. They certainly were that -- the designer was Keith Sheridan, with various artists supplying the artwork -- but there's a bit more than that going on here.

These books were published during the waning years of the Cold War, when much of Europe and Latin America languished under one variety or another of tyranny, and six of the seven writers represented here are from countries in which it would have been risky or impossible to write and publish freely at the time they were written. (Timothy Mo, born in British-ruled Hong Kong, is the exception.) These images are not a completely representative sampling -- the Aventura list also included authors from Italy, France, Japan, and elsewhere -- nor were all of the books political in nature, but on the whole the titles reflect the values of the Western intelligentsia at a time when its political position was defined largely in opposition to Communism on the one hand and right-wing military dictatorships on the other. (Another notable example, from a few years earlier, was Mark Strand and Charles Simic's anthology Another Republic: Seventeen European and Latin American Writers.

There are still many places where writers are censored or persecuted for their work or their opinions, but the end of the Cold War has shifted the terrain and on the whole appears to have pushed literature to the sidelines. The day when writers could seem emblematic figures in a global struggle for democracy appears to be over, at least for now. How many times in the last decade has the New York Times Book Review -- or for that matter the New York Review of Books or the Nation -- reviewed a novel by a current political exile?

Most of the Aventura titles were reprints of books that had been published earlier in hardcover. One Day of Life, an exception, was a paperback original. Some of my copies have French flaps and others don't; I suspect this feature was abandoned to cut costs. The Aventura imprint seems to have been allowed to lapse at some point in the '80s. Here's the most complete list of titles I've been able to find:

Vassily Aksyonov, The Island of Crimea
Manlio Argueta, One Day of Life
Thomas Bernhard, Correction
Julio Cortázar, We Love Glenda So Much and A Change of Light
Maria Dermoût, The Ten Thousand Things
José Donoso, A House in the Country
Ariel Dorfman, Widows
Fumiko Enchi, Masks
Shusaku Endo, The Samurai
Jiří Gruša, The Questionnaire
Jamaica Kincaid, At the Bottom of the River
Tadeusz Konwicki, A Minor Apocalypse
Camara Laye, The Guardian of the Word
Earl Lovelace, The Wine of Astonshment
Timothy Mo, Sour Sweet
Elsa Morante, History: A Novel
Goffredo Parise, Solitudes
Manuel Puig, Blood of Requited Love
Darcy Ribeiro, Maíra
Samana Rushdie, Shame
Wole Soyinka, Aké: The Years of Childhood
Michel Tournier, The Four Wise Men

I read and enjoyed five of the books pictured, though the only one I've ever returned to is the Cortázar. I bogged down halfway through Widows (the briefest of the bunch) and I'm not sure I ever really started A Minor Apocalypse.

Update: here are two more cover scans:

1 comment:

Gould said...

Thanks Chris for the scans!

I order the Cortazar and reading Masks (so far so good).