At the center of memory, memory
Text by Leopoldo Laurido
Photographs by Mateo Pizarro
In the states of Hidalgo, Tlaxcala and Mexico, and among them, one can find the Plains of Apan, renowned for having been the epicenter of pulque in Mexico. In those plains, the majority of the pulque haciendas are only tombstones of themselves, carcasses of what once were beautiful haciendas: if you travel on the highway, you can see the ruined hulls here and there. Very few live on, like the Hacienda de San Francisco Ocotepec in the municipality of Almoloya, which still exists with great splendor, not as a producer of the magic beverage though. In this hacienda – a huge garden with geese, a party room, carpentry room, a forge, stables with a dozen horses, jagüey trees, hills, magueys, prickly pears, lands where barley and corn are cultivated, lands inhabited by cows, bulls, donkeys… -, who would’ve thought? A vast library is sheltered, made up of six rooms with almost 40,000 volumes, mostly books but also magazines, old maps. We can’t picture this library as only being the center of the hacienda, but of the municipality, or the plains: a library is always the center.
Those who’ve met the owner of the hacienda, of the library, can picture him well sitting in the terrace for hours and hours, days after days, reading; those who know him, can hear him speak, can see him tell pages and pages of books in his large dining room; his memory is truly exceptional, jaw-dropping. Saúl Uribe Ahúja is a landowner, but an unlikely one. Besides being a lawyer, he’s a daily architect – he’s been the hacienda’s own architect for half a century – and a tlachiquero bookworm – he knows even the smallest detail about the process of producing pulque. His conversation is finite just like us humans are.
As you enter the first room of the library, after having spoken to Don Saúl – that’s what we call him now that we feel at ease at this stage of the article; his character is inviting like that; the smell opens up at the same time that ears and sight do, and immediately, the touch. The smell of sabino, the wood of which the bookshelves are made hits like a puff, impossible to go unmentioned by the visitors because it is so evident, one almost tastes it on the tongue. Silence appears in that environment, it stays with you as you walk or stops to look at the books, the lamps, the oil lamps, the paintings… the books, as it begins to stroke the polished wood, the frames that hide the interior row of books, whose sizes, designs and textures are unexpected. In this very room, Room 2, there’s a “Dictionary Wall,” whose name almost says it all. The roof is about 5 meters tall so we can’t read the titles that are on top if we don’t use the ladder. We use it: Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Related Knowledge, Dictionary of Agriculture, zoo technology and veterinary…
We keep on walking. In every room we see various singularities: it is obvious that they were not planned all at once but appear gradually since each one has a varied design within its unity. That’s how it was. The tree’s ink and memory roots with little consideration: the librarian told us that many rooms used to be Saul’s son’s bedrooms not so long ago, until the books came and occupied these spaces.
Everything here has a name: the last great book in the library is the library itself. Each room has a name related to the books it shelters. Room 1 is also called Aristotle, in it, one finds Philosophy, Religion, Natural Science books and a section on applied Sciences; Room 2 and 3, Solon and Lycurgus, respectively, because in them one finds everything related to Social Sciences; Room 4, Muses: Arts, Literature and History.
The volumes are carefully organized as you might’ve probably guessed. They use a classifying system called Dewey as well as certain customizations: books about haciendas, with any kind of focus are stacked in one place; those that talk about pulque in another; those about Leona Vicario in yet another (this hacienda belonged to her from 1824 till the day of her death)…
The librarian has a continuous job because books are constantly brought in. Vania and Eduardo, their assistants, learn the librarian profession. The latter takes us to a room (Room 5, Ancient background) quite different from the rest, not because of its design, but because of its type: it’s a bedroom and the living room of the library. As it acquired its new function, it didn’t loose the old one. Why? This bed-living room holds the most valuable books. We go over the ones at reach with our hand, read some of the spines: Benito Jerónimo de Feijoo, Erudite and curious letters, where, for the most part, continues… (Yes, the five volumes are there, bound with parchment; yes, so are the prince copies from 1742 to 1760); the Universal critics theater, or Various speeches in all genre of subjects…; a 1746 Corpus Juris civilis romani; the son’s first edition (1847) of The Vicomte of Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas, next to his father’s Isabel of Bavière , also a first edition (1835); the first edition of The Little Prince, the first of the Elementary Odes by Pablo Neruda… We take a deep breath. We see the first edition of Songs of life and hope by Rubén Darío. We take another deep breath.
Don Saúl and his library look alike, which is why speaking of one is like speaking of the other. Owner of a great memory, as we’ve already mentioned, he is also the owner of a great library; what is a great library but a great memory? Yes, it’s about a landowner and a hacienda, we must not forget that in order for the unlikely reality to become visible.
Francisco Liguori, exceptional epigrammist and friend of Don Saúl, describes the Plains of Apan as a “green Sea of maguey.” That sea no longer exists. It is but a memory. But in the center of that memory, there’s another.