Thursday, July 7

The fire of a mythical library in Malaga and the author who recounts the great burns of history books

52 years ago the Proteo bookstore opened in the center of Malaga. On the night of May 6 to 7, 2021, the store burned due to a power surge in the electrical panel, causing 451 degrees Fahrenheit to destroy more than 97,000 books. The wooden building, more than 125 years old, housed a cultural temple. Malaga’s citizens, between shocked and saddened, have tried to pitch in and help the fourteen Proteo booksellers by donating money or ordering online, until it is reborn. One of the most commissioned books here has been, precisely, Burn books (Criticism, 2021), in which the librarian of the University of Oxford, Richard Ovenden, recounts the great book burns in history.

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Jesús Otoala is the director of the bookstore: “He called my brother at 11:30 at night saying that he didn’t know how to tell me, but that he had read on social media that the bookstore was on fire. I ran and it was a nightmare. The flames came from the first floor and the smoke from the fourth. More companions arrived and the sadness was enormous, we hugged each other thinking about, not only fire, but also what water entails with paper “.

The writer María Dueñas called them saying that she wanted to help, and a few days later, they brought a table to her door and more than three hundred readers lined up to meet her. Jesús Carrasco and Irene Vallejo have also wanted to join, and with a charred copy at the signing table and, as the bookseller says, “although this book is burned, the ideas continue”, the readers and writers have made Proteo “keep rowing by the books with force “.

Otoala is moved by the numerous expressions of support that they are receiving: “The Plenary of the city of Malaga has agreed, which is not much, to help us with the rental of a place in front of the bookstore so that we do not have to close the project while repair work is done. ” At number one Calle Álamo, in front of Proteo, we see a window dedicated to the pyres of books and the history of the destruction of ideas. “The image of burning books shocks us because it takes us to terrible scenes in history. Seeing burning books makes us tremble because the letters give us the possibility to learn to choose. The book is the spark that ignites the brain, like this that seeing them burn makes us feel the future is in danger in a society increasingly punished in terms of freedom, “says the bookseller.

Extinguish culture

“Throughout history books have been burned to extinguish culture, to punish ways of life, to annul the memory of peoples, as well as to disparage freedom. Burn books by Richard Ovenden tells the story of arsonists and great little heroes “, says Jesús Otoala, who is sending copies of the book that are requested from all over Spain.

On custodians of culture, Ovenden relates that at the end of 1940 a goatherd discovered a set of ceramic vessels in the Qumram caves in the Judean desert: “Inside there were hundreds of scrolls containing the oldest preserved copies of texts. of almost all the books of the Hebrew Bible (…). There is consensus that they were purposely hidden by a Jewish religious group, which today identifies with the Essenes, during the repression that followed the first Jewish revolt in 66- 73 AD “.

If we speak of burning books with fury and hatred, the words of Joseph Goebbels on May 10, 1933 sound terrifying and forceful: “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency in the family and the State The German of the future will not only be a man of books, but a man of character. It is for this purpose that we want to educate you … You do well to cast into the flames the evil spirit of the past. It is a great feat, firm and symbolic “.

The mob, sometimes flammable material, threw books of Jews, Marxists and homosexual authors onto the pyre in Unter den Linden (Berlin). And as the Oxford librarian states: “The bonfires were a clear warning of the attack on knowledge that the Nazi regime was about to unleash.” According to Richard Ovenden, it is estimated that during the twelve years of the Holocaust (from 33 to the end of World War II) more than 100 million books were destroyed.

The Sarajevo Haggadah has become a symbol of multicultural resistance in the face of attacks and wars of hatred. We read in ‘Burning the books’: “This is an important manuscript illuminated by a long and complex history: it was created in Spain in the mid-14th century and the Jews took it with them when they were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1497.” The Bosnian National Museum acquired it in 1894, and during World War II the Museum’s chief librarian, Dervis Korkut, snatched the manuscript from the Nazis and removed it from Sarajevo.

On August 25, 1992, shells rained down on the National and University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Serbian militias were not only seeking a military domination and the annihilation of the Muslim population, but an authentic cultural genocide. The Library housed more than a million and a half books, manuscripts, maps and materials that burned and disappeared leaving the memory of the Bosnian people riddled. So the Serbs setting fire to Vijecnica (as the building was called) tried to make the culture of a people disappear, annihilate Bosnian morality, as well as silence its history.

Richard Ovenden recounts that there was a library in Sarajevo that managed to escape destruction: “The library staff of the Bosnian National Museum evacuated much of the 200,000-volume collection while dodging sniper bullets. Museum director Dr. Rizo Sijaric, was killed by a grenade explosion in 1993 while trying to place layers of plastic in the holes in the museum walls to protect the collections that remained inside. ”


Curiously, throughout history we also find arson craving on the part of the authors themselves. On these occasions the heroes of the paper brigade take the form of disobedient friends, of bad friends. “In antiquity, the Roman poet Virgilio, as his biographer Donato relates, wanted to consign to the flames the manuscript of his great epic poem La Aeneid (not yet published at the time) “, Ovenden tells us.” In the last stages of his illness he constantly asked for his boxes of books to be brought to him with the intention of burning them. “It was his friend Vario who decided to guard the manuscript and not do case to the will of Virgilio.

Kafka also left very similar instructions to his confidant: “Dear Max, My final request: everything I leave … in the form of diaries, manuscripts, letters, sketches and so on, must be burned. Of everything I have written, the only thing that counts are these books: The Trial, The Stoker, The Metamorphosis, In the Penitentiary Colony, A Rural Doctor and the Story of An Artist of Hunger “.

Richard Ovenden concludes: “Books provide a fixed point of reference that allows truth and lies to be judged with transparency, verification, citation and reproducibility. The preservation of written records helps societies to recognize themselves in their cultural and historical identities. “. For this reason, libraries and bookstores stand as guardians of the papers that narrate what we were, what we are and, probably, what we will be as a society.