The Year of Reading Dangerously – Eloy Urroz

“Friction” – we are told on the back of Eloy Urroz’s second novel to appear in English – “one letter away from fiction (just in case we hadn’t noticed) – is what’s generated when reality and imagination rub against one another”. Sure enough, we are treated inside to two parallel narratives, one presenting itself as the novel, the other as episodes from the life of the writer. (The alternative chapters are identified by Roman and Arabic numerals). The novel tells the story of an affair between a painter, Arturo, and his friend’s wife, Maty, although much of the time they spend in bed together is taken up with Arturo recounting the story of his father, a famous politician. In the ‘real life’ story, the writer, Eusebio Cardoso, also misbehaves with his friend’s wife, bringing his marriage to an end at the same time he loses his job. Needless to say, the two narratives collide towards the novel’s conclusion, with Urroz’s previous novel also caught up in the impact.

The novel is an exploration of the ideas of the Greek philosopher Empedocles, in particular the suggestion that change is caused by the four main elements (themselves eternal) being united and separated by Love (Eros) and Strife (Eris). Urroz makes no attempt weave this subtly into the narrative beginning the novel with the declaration:

“Love and Strife, Eusebio, what are they? Perhaps the forces that move the earth, as the famous Empedocles asserted some five centuries before Christ?”

It follows, therefore, that we are drawn towards both, hence the novel’s affairs, where characters unite in love, but at the same time create strife in other relationships. The suggestion is we are attracted to the negative side of our actions as well as the positive. (However true this is of life, it certainly reflects the dynamic of fiction).

The second narrative begins dramatically with the instruction:

“Close the book. I’m talking to you, idiot! Yes, you, the one who’s reading, who just now started reading this page…”

Of course, there’s nothing more likely to make you read on than the command to stop (see, we are drawn towards potential strife…). In this case the Reader is a specific character, the husband of Marty who will shortly discover that his wife is having an affair. Unfortunately this bravura use of the second person doesn’t last long, and the character himself is largely forgotten until he unites with Cardoso near the end, known first as Reader before adopting the name Anagnostes.

The problem with dual narrative novels is that usually one story grabs you more than the other and therefore you read half the book in a distracted hurry. However, while Frictions is certainly readable, I didn’t find either narrative particularly engaging. The story of Arturo and Maty is largely a monologue about Arturo’s father (and his obsession with Empedocles), a story that is not helped by being placed in the context of a conversation. The relationship between Arturo and Maty becomes incidental. There is also the suspicion that this section has rather a lot to say about Mexican politics, all of which was missed entirely by this particularly Reader. (Why else would it be set in the future?)

Cardoso’s story is the more intriguing at first – as he is a university lecturer hoping for tenure it reads rather like a campus novel. His affair (where he ‘massages’ his wife’s friend to orgasm without either of them removing any clothing) is both comic and pathetic. However, when we are told a story about colleagues gathering to literally eat shit I rather lost sight of the satire (at least, I hope it was satirical).

The novel’s conclusion involves Cardoso and Reader flying to an imaginary town from Urroz’s previous novel, The Obstacles. Having not read this I’m sure much of the humour passed me by (although I did like the bit where Cardoso finds the phrase “Elias killed me” engraved on the floorboards under a character’s bed, something which presumably contrasts with the implications of the earlier novel). Unfortunately we then move onto another scatological chapter on arse wiping. A few pages later, when Reader exclaims:

“Enough with the never-ending chapters, already! We’ve had it up to here; let’s just put an end to this affair once and for all.”

I did feel he was speaking for me.

Urroz is clearly a novelist of great imagination but, for me, the tricks he employs never live up to their initial impact, and the novel itself outstays its welcome.

Danger rating: you may decide to have an affair rather than persist with reading.

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