The Million Dollar Wall
Arturo von Vacano
This first vice began half a century ago and when I was five, thanks to Donald Duck.
I remember that afternoon as if it were yesterday. We went to the tiny second-hand bookstore in the
shadow of the Miraflores soccer stadium and my father read a big poster that said: “Donald Duck comes
to Bolivia! He comes next week, so boys and girls, be ready to welcome Donald!” He was coming via some
weekly comic books printed in Argentina.
It was great news indeed, but I was not ready: I could not read. So, while we walked back home, we made
a deal. My father would teach me to read in seven days, no matter what it took. It took him smacking me
with his knuckles on my head each time I made a mistake, but I learned to read in a week. So, when
Donald came to Bolivia I bought that first issue and followed him and his nephews for the next 14 years. I
have never stopped reading since then. You could say that I read all the time, no matter where I am.
My second vice began about two years later, when I wrote my first “poem”. It took 32 pages of a big
notebook. It was written for a very sweet girl who couldn’t care less for my humble person, so perhaps she
was no more than an excuse. Thank God I lost that notebook a few weeks later, but I remember it well,
quite well. Back then writing was sheer joy and nothing was as wonderful as reading what came from
nowhere as a dust of dreams on a white page to turn itself into very black things that you could never
change once they stared back at you from the page, free and immortal a second after you had made
them. I remember all of them, these words made by my fingers over forty years as a journalist and in two
dozen books, published and/or saved in my computer diskettes. I write a page or two every day. Most of it
never reaches a piece of paper. It goes directly to my digital trash file. These days, I am the writer and the
first and last reader of my digital words. It is still a vice and I enjoy it as if I were five years old. I laugh and
get sad, and smile and cry and sometimes my laughter makes my wife come and ask, “What? What’s the
matter?” only to turn around shaking her head because she knows me, oh, so well.
I wrote my first drama by the end of high school. My best friend’s father said that it was the best thing he
had read in ten years. Of course, he was a very kind and polite gentleman. I kept my drama in a manila
envelope until I lost it seven years later over the Rimac river in Lima, together with everything else I had
left, just an old bag full of clothes and papers. I was 19 then.
I wrote my first book three years later, when I was a famous and widely read journalist and columnist in
Lima, and I kept it hidden among my papers for another seven years. I saw it published in La Paz, me
already married and a well known journalist and columnist in Bolivia. I was 27 then.
My first novel, Sombra de Exilio, made me famous but not rich in Bolivia and I spent about three years as
the new young literary talent du jour until I wrote my second novel, Anton, and people wrote long reviews
in most of the national papers when it came out. None of them said bad things about me or my book. A
few said they had never seen a book like that in their whole life. I tended to see Anton as the Bolivian
Ulysses. Now I believe I was a little spoiled then, perhaps.
I then took advantage of my employment with Braniff, the best airline in the world for its employees, and
made a 20-day tour with a bag full of copies of my Anton that took me to Montevideo, Buenos Aires,
Santiago, Lima, Bogota, Miami, New York City, Chicago, Dallas and back to La Paz, but I could not find an
editor for my books. I made many new friends, though.
Back in La Paz and with three kids already, I went to jail for a first time because the military did not like my
writing style and spent a week inside a rotten cell. When I came out I wrote Morder el Silencio and spent
the next seven years trying to publish it. I published it fifteen days before the worst Bolivian military coup
ever, the cocaine coup in 1980, and the military burned my book and sent me again to exile to Lima, or so
It was not to be in Lima but in the U.S. When my plane stopped in Lima and I met some friends from my
young days as a reporter, they told me on the tarmac that the military in Peru would send me back to the
military in Bolivia, so I went back to my seat in the Lufthansa plane that had smuggled me from La Paz and
sat there, silent and worried, until I landed at JFK. I asked for political asylum and I knew that with a bit of
luck it would be granted because I had come to the U.S. twenty years before as a young, famous and
handsome boy from Peru with the best journalism fellowship in the world. So I bet the CIA knew about me
whatever it needed to know, I won, and I was shown a tiny metal door that opened America to me.
I spent another seven years walking up and down Manhattan hoping to find an editor for my Morder el
Silencio. I could not find any. It took a mysterious lady with a sad smile to perform that miracle, and my
Biting Silence came out in 1987. I never made a cent from royalties, but my book went around the world. I
know because I got emails about Biting Silence from Toronto, Seoul, Tokyo and places like that. By then I
had bought my Apple IIe and my Mac and a wonderful LaserWriter II. My children were in their last years of
high school and we all lived in Bethesda, Maryland, even if we were not wealthy, as everybody there
seems to be.
It took a few years more, until 2003, for a second edition of Biting Silence to come out into the world. This
editor went broke a year or two later and did not pay a cent on royalties either, but by then there was a
place called Amazon.com and somebody was making money with my book.
Five years later, I learned to make books starting from a Word file and had written four or five new books. I
made them from the writing to the editing, the PDF version, the second PDF version, the cover, an ISBN
code bar and most of the intricacies you have to learn to get one, and I could say that I was really—quite
literally— the author of these books. Even the mistakes were mine.
I had also learned to use Google and Yahoo to my advantage and now both of them sell books for me. I
have my own Web site. I get messages about my books from places like Toronto, Seoul, Tokyo, Bogota,
Panama, London, Madrid and Milan. I have made $123.45 from my books since 1970. And somebody is
still making money from the first and second editions of Biting Silence.
I am 70 now. I had a quadruple bypass in 2000. I have problems with my legs. I have problems with my
eyes. I will stop reading any day now. I am functionally deaf. My stomach is not working well these days. I
am too fat. I’d better say that I look too fat because I am not that fat. My arms look like chopsticks.
Why am I not as famous as, let’s say, Puig, Donoso or Allende? After 65 years of reading and writing I
hope I hold the truth about this. It is because of fate, luck, friends, fashion and, perhaps, talent or the lack
of it. I have seen a lot of people that write trash and turn it into gold. I am not surprised by this miracle, nor
should anybody be. People like reading trash, and getting sentimental to pretend life is a can of soup.
Nothing new about that.
No. What stopped me in my way to be famous and make a few dollars with my books is the Million Dollar
Wall. I know myself quite well when it comes to fate (it’s against me), luck (I don’t have it), friends (a few
only, without any influence) fashion (I spit on it) and, perhaps, talent or the lack of it (nothing spectacular,
but I have what it takes: I have faithful readers in Toronto, Seoul, Tokyo, Bogota, Panama, London,
Madrid and Milan, besides La Paz and Lima). If I could live 300 years longer, I would be famous and
almost wealthy thanks to my books.
It is just a matter of being “discovered.” And you are “discovered” if you have enough time or money,
right? I do not have the time. That’s only natural. And I do not have the money. I have never had a million
dollars to promote and “push” my book as they do with every “best-seller”. I cannot be “discovered,”
therefore, and my long war to reach all kinds of people with my books was never a question of talent or
the lack of it. It was, simply and clearly, a question of money, of the Million Dollars Wall that I cannot defeat
because I do not have that kind of money. My pension as an old man who used to work for UPI is a
So, how fair was this battle of mine in the realm of the System? And who could be proud of such a
System? The book industry is a monopoly these days, and all newspapers and magazines promote the
same books week after week and never care about talent or the lack of it. It is always because somebody
put a million dollars behind each of those books and every journalist wants a few dollars more, right?
It is easy to sell books if somebody spends a million dollars of marketing on a book in the hope of making
ten million even if he knows that book is trash. They do that every day and then they sell a thousand
copies without losing their jobs.
I could do it any day, even in my days of declining health. So I am very proud of having sold a thousand
copies of some books I made with my own hands. Google and Yahoo and Amazon helped me, yes, but
there was no money at all to advertise them. It could be that some of my books are good. Well, for a few
people at least. But it is horrendous to know that I can die any day now and will not win my struggle to be
“discovered” only because God did not give me a million dollars to show the world that I am a writer.
Sometimes I remember John F. Kennedy, the idol of my youth, saying that life is not fair. Life was not fair
to him either. It gave him a million or two to become the idol of my youth and now we know what he did.
You can imagine what I think today about Kennedy, his sayings and all that jazz.
But, because I am in America, I am betting that this story will translate into a miracle that could smash the
Million Dollar Wall. It takes only for you, my potential reader, to “discover” me. Just ask any bookstore,
digital or not, about my books and throw twenty bucks away to make me happy.
Thank you very much.