I have been around and about literary life for quite a long time, forty plus years, and I have never seen anything even remotely like I witnessed Sunday evening at the Buenos Aires International Book Fair.
Some background. The Buenos Aires International Book Fair is the largest book event in the Spanish speaking world, held annually in late April through early May. The event attracts over a million and a half visitors, which is worth noting in the book is dead discussions. The Embassy of the United States sponsors an American author visit to participate in book signings and offer a talk or discussion on literary subjects. In recent years these visiting authors have included Tom Wolfe, Annie Proulx, and Junot Diaz.
This year the embassy got two for the price of one, inviting novelist John Katzenbach and his wife, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Madeleine Blais. Katzenbach’s books are certainly popular in the United States, but his popularity in spanish speaking countries is in another league altogether. John writes mainly psychological thrillers; three of his novels have been made into films, including one of my favorites, Hart’s War. He has published around a dozen novels, including The Madman’s Tale, The Analyst, Just Cause, In the heat of the Summer.
I had the privilege of spending quite a lot of time with John and Maddie during the last few days, including hosting a cocktail party for them in our apartment last Friday evening. I was getting to know him, one author to another, one man to another, before … before the deluge.
Sunday he was scheduled to appear at the fair booth of his Argentine publisher to sign books. They guessed he would be popular so designated an unusually long two hours for the signing, then he had to prepare for his main event, a presentation in the fair’s largest meeting room. I decided to pop in to see how the signing was going after the first two hours, and maybe go with him for a coffee before his next appearance. When I approached the area of the signing stand, I kept walking past this seemingly endless line of people waiting; it went all the way around the booth, down a long aisle, around a corner, and into the next room. Everybody was holding one of John’s books. Fighting my way to the signing stand, I couldn’t get near John, but stood with Maddie watching the show. Two hours of signing became three, then four, and the line seemed to be getting no shorter. There were hundreds of people waiting, maybe more than a thousand — for a book signing. Not even Sarah Palin can pull that off.
When there was no choice but to stop the signing so John could get to his main event, it required four guards to get him through the throng. That is the photo above.
The room for his presentation (which was, I can honestly say, the single best author presentation I have ever seen) was filled to capacity, and the presentation was being broadcast on a widescreen TV outside, where many more people gathered.
Okay, maybe for Eric Clapton, maybe for George Clooney, maybe for Madonna … but for an American novelist? A police escort was required to get him through the mob gathered by the exit and outside to a waiting van after the presentation. Girls crowded around trying just to touch his arm. If I had not seen this in person, I would never have believed anyone’s description of it. (Maddie says that nobody at home is going to believe it, either.)
Who would have known there can be rock star authors?
Who, by the way, happens to be an amiable and flagrantly interesting man, with a brilliant wife, and if they want to come back to Argentina, my wife and I would be more than happy to travel with them to Patagonia, where John and I could do some fishing.