In 1988, I spent a great deal of time travelling the country to promote the paperback edition of my book, Women. This experience reinforced my conviction that every city, town and village needs well-stocked bookshops. It was disagreeable to see the big bookselling chains jockeying for prime high-street sites in towns that were already adequately served by existing bookshops. (At the time there was a battle going between Dillon’s and Waterstone’s to see who would become the dominant retail chain.) Following on the previous year’s success with the Quartet Encounters list, I decided the time had come to stand the list firmly on its own imprint and issue a separate catalogue with point-of-sale material while orchestrating a major sales campaign in June.
Other highlights from the Quartet list in1988 were Julia Voznesenskaya’s Letters of Love, an anthology of messages smuggled out of prisons, asylums and institutions by women prisoners in the Soviet Union; On the Outside Looking In which told the harrowing but ultimately uplifting life story of Michael, the adopted son of Ronald Reagan; and Women & Fashion: A New Look by Caroline Evans and Minna Thornton, who had written a fascinating exploration of an intriguing subject that was an instant classic text for anyone with an interest in questions of style.
The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature that year to the great Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz created a buzz for Quartet as we had one of his novels in our backlist and suddenly there was a demand for copies. ‘Penguin,’ said ‘Grovel’ in Private Eye, ‘who had sniffily turned down the paperback rights some time ago were begging to be given a second chance. Attullah-Disgusting, whose feeling for the language is beyond question, gleefully told his staff that Penguin could “stick their bums up their fingers”.’
My greatest personal excitement, however, lay in presiding over the publication in English of the Mexican masterpiece Pulinuro of Mexico by Fernando del Paso. When it was originally published in 1977, it had won the Romulo Gallego Prize, which was awarded only once every five years for the best Spanish-language novel. The French translation won the Meilleur Livre Étranger in 1985. I was determined that when this epic Joycean tale was published in Britain, in a translation by Elisabeth Plaister, it would meet with a similar success.
In the Latin American canon it had been compared with the best work of Gabriel García Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa. It was set in Mexico City, where a medical student, Palinuro, has loved his first cousin Estefania with a consuming passion since childhood. Together they gratify their rampant desire in a room in Plaza Santo Domingo. Palinuro comes from an eccentric, polygenetic family. His Uncle Estaban fled from Hungary during the First World War and travelled across the world to Mexico; his Uncle Austin is an ex-mariner from Britain; his grandfather, Francisco, was a freemason and companion of Pancho Villa. Added to this are his grandmothers and a host of aunts and other cousins.
The great labyrinth of the city in which they live their lives becomes like an additional living character in the novel, evoking a cultural cornucopia and drawing in themes from mythology, science, politics, pornography and the collective unconscious. In its French edition L’Express had called it ‘an immense book in scope, length and beauty [with] pages of romantic lyricism, heady erudition, unbridled eroticism’. ‘Read it:’ exhorted Madame Figaro, ‘it is a breath of fresh air; it has a universal voice rarely heard . . . it runs the gamut from laughter to tears, from the crude to the tender, with an incredible virtuosity.’ The English-language version soon gathered many similar tributes. The Los Angeles Times Book Review summed it up by calling it ‘an inspired rollercoaster of a book about life and love in Mexico City’.
Dreamlike and fantastic, filled with sensuous, poetic language, a positively orgiastic love of life, bubbling humor and a special brand of literary alchemy, this pulsating novel still carries the same explosive punch of its first appearance in Spanish nearly twenty years ago . . . What’s impressive about Palinuro of Mexico is that it transforms a potentially daunting literary experiment into something that’s enormous fun to read . . . Few other novels have so much color, so many metaphors, so much of the feel, smell, sight and sound of human experience, so much life.
‘This tour de force is the novel of modern Mexico and its sprawling capital . . . warm and very funny . . . Elisabeth Plaister’s translation is brilliant,’ said the Sunday Telegraph; and in the opinion of The Times Literary Supplement: ‘At its deepest level, the narrative of Palinuro of Mexico embodies a totalizing ambition, reminiscent of Joyce, to investigate the conditions of culture and knowledge, to explore the relationship between myth and history, and to demonstrate the potential of literary language to revolutionize our ways of seeing the world.’
For a publisher the book represented a rare privilege which dwarfed all other considerations.