Chris Andrews, the translator of Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s “Severina” (Yale University Press, 86 pages, $13), declares, in his foreword, that the characteristics of the Guatemalan writer’s fictional world are “instability or inscrutability of the real and a mythical or allegorical hinterland.”

There’s little of that in “Severina,” a simply written book with the occasional inscrutability but nary a mythical or allegorical motive in sight. I read it three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something.

It’s the story of a Guatemalan bookseller who falls in love with the woman of the title, a dark-haired beauty of indefinite age and origin who repeatedly steals books from him. He is bemused and curious about her motives, so one day he confronts her, albeit very politely, telling her vaguely she now owes him a debt.

Gradually he becomes obsessed with her. Meeting her on the street by accident, he walks her home to the room she shares with her grandfather, Otto Blanco. The bookseller, whose name we never learn, confronts Blanco, wanting to know what motivates Severina’s theft, having already decided that she was not a kleptomaniac but someone in search of “absolute freedom, a radical realization of the ideal that I too had adopted one fine day — the ideal of living by and for books.”

The grandfather confirms his theory. Books “are animated by a kind of collective spirit. In a sense, books war with each other, and, as in real wars, the best don’t always win; but for us, in the end, there are no losers, although they all fade away.”

We learn almost nothing about the bookseller, who narrates and occasionally tells us that something reminds him of his childhood but always stops short of explaining. About Severina we learn as much as the narrator — that is, almost nothing. The bookseller is given to enigmatic thoughts, which also lead nowhere. “I’ve always been wary of the word never and the word infinite for reasons that are, I think, fundamental.” And this oddly worded feeling, out of the blue: “I was floating in a world whose elements were ill-defined, nebulous, and possibly evil.”

So what is this novel about, if not the rather thin love story? The point, I think, is the books all three characters are reading, the saving of these forgotten books, the ones that didn’t win the fame game. The bookish theme evokes Rey Rosa’s beloved Borges, but lacks his idol’s fantastical, even perverse, imagination.


Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis.