21. The Booksellers by the River

IN THOSE DAYS IN Innocents, the riverbank on Sunday afternoons in the summertime would be lined with cars with their boots open, filled with old yellowing books and magazines. To make extra money, the impoverished intellectuals of Innocents would sell for a few pfennigs their yellowed books, books that had fallen into disgrace with the fall of the previous regime. In truth, they must have considered it more of a social occasion than a commercial opportunity, for very few titles seemed to change hands. It was more of an occasion to remember the past by flicking through the pages of an old spy novel or a western comic, breathing in that odour - sharp and dusty all at once - of old paper, which is of course none other than the smell of paper's decomposition. The fall of the regime had coincided with the fall of the book. Whereas under the old regime people secretly knew that for the most part the books that made it past the censors had little merit, they read them all the more greedily. The previous regime had published great quantities of worthless books, carefully studied by readers for the slightest spark of talent or originality. They were almost invariably disappointed. Occasionally, a young writer would show some promise that managed to slip through the regime's multiple defences, in which case that young person would become the toast of Innocents, and soon enough the regime would come knocking, and that young writer of promise would be invited to official openings, gala events, and even summer and winter retreats in buildings designed by the regime's favoured architects. The young writer of promise would be encouraged to join the writers' union. If the young writer of promise showed the slightest critical tendency, they would be offered a lucrative administrative position within the writer's union, or one of the state's cultural institutions, and told that in order to change the system, in order to make a difference, it was best to do so from with the system, and soon enough of course the young writer of promise would find that it was difficult to be wholly critical of the system itself, that it was fairer to try to identify those particular corrupt individuals whose corruption was corrupting the entire system, and thus those writers of talent became a valued part of the very system they had originally set out to criticise. All that was under the old regime. Under the new regime, people simply didn't read anymore. What few books were published were free to say anything at all, and they were mostly ignored, despite their unquestionable merits. Books were now more or less permitted to say anything, within limits of course, but they were no longer the slightest threat to the regime because they were almost completely ignored. Writers hadn't just lost their privileged position - they had become figures of fun and derision. The writers' union had ceased to exist soon after the fall of the previous regime, although paradoxically writers were more united now than ever before. All the old antagonisms and rivalries, which once upon a time had cost many a writer their very life, were reduced to the status of nostalgia - amusing anecdotes graciously told at the teller's own expense, recounted mostly on Sunday afternoons in the summer sunshine by the booksellers standing by their cars by the river. Most of these booksellers had been writers under the old regime, some of them had even been considered young writers of talent at some point in their careers, and now they were reduced to hocking their precious books for a few pfennigs from the back of an emphysemic jalopy, reduced to poverty by a regime that paid no unemployment benefit to the unemployed, no pension to the retired, and which in fact hadn't even paid its teachers - not even the most distinguished university professors - their due in months.