Open Book – A Literary Postcard by Ian Holding, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, May 2018
For a bibliophile, living in a country like Zimbabwe can be hazardous to one’s general state of health!
So here I am standing in Folios, what I consider to be the one and only real bookshop in Harare. Of course I say the only real bookshop with a degree of self-cringing haughtiness I’m only too fully aware of, but completely unable to temper. It stems from my steadfast belief that a real bookshop needs to stock what I alone consider to be real books. Yes, I’m a literary snob and at this stage in my life I don’t care who knows it. I’m totally out about it – open and proud.
Folios – the name alone has always inspired literary confidence – is nestled in a tiny L-shaped room on the very outer layers of the massively sprawling Sam Levy’s Shopping Complex in the upmarket suburb of Borrowdale. This in itself has never boded well for its survival, with rents rumoured to be so exorbitant it’s a wonder the poor woman who runs it – a strident, fierce, brilliant lady of Greek heritage – still has a shirt on her back. In fact, she now tells me, she’s thinking of chucking in the towel entirely on the local book trade; the market’s so depressed; there’s all these hassles importing books; finding the foreign currency; crippling import duty; convincing customers books are not simply sinful and seditious – in other words, a luxury item.
“It’s just all so bothersome,” she sighs from behind her counter, chin resting on olive-tinted hands, a sense of genuine defeat in her voice; that famous Zimbabwean pragmatism inked over with despair.
I’m browsing, scanning, rifling through her throbbing, cluttered shelves when I feel this instant abject horror crawl right over me at her announcement. I don’t say anything, don’t even commiserate, but just sort of stagger about a bit with a sense of dull disbelief; we book-fiends are terribly selfish individuals and already, like a hardened addict, I’m blazed over with nervy, palm-sweaty thoughts about how the hell I’ll now secure a stash of my latest fix.
Oh God, I can see agony ahead: resigning myself to buying direct from Amazon again, waiting a month, sometimes two, for my prized parcel to arrive, hoping it’s survived the brutality of its long-haul journey dog-eared and stain free. Then I glimpse all that nasty haggling with the postal official about what arbitrary amount of duty he intends to impose for this illicit pursuit of pleasure. Then sneaking out surreptitiously, the parcel half concealed under a jacket, an attempt to evade the attention of the ominous man in a dark suit from the Reserve Bank who’s rumoured to wait in ambush outside the post office to accost parcel-clutching customers, take you aside, demand to know what source of offshore funds could possibly process an order on such a forex-guzzling behemoth like Amazon. Yes, I fully anticipate that sudden, dreadful tap on the shoulder …
Of course there’s always Enock, my “dealer” at the Avondale Flea Market. He has my number on his phone; I have his. He has a scribbled list of my fixes, my favourites. He’s come good for me on a number of occasions, has enterprising old Enock. Once a lovely deluxe omnibus of Nancy Mitford in exchange for a 10kg bag of mealie meal. On another occasion an E. Annie Proulx – her top right corner only slightly torn – for a Coke and a pie from the supermarket. And just before Christmas he produced a rabbit for me right out of a hat: somehow, inexplicably, a discarded, almost brand-new hardback copy of Alan Hollinghurst’s latest offering, The Sparsholt Affair.