Archive for July, 2019

Empty Words

July 6, 2019

In 2013 Juan Pablo Villalobos wrote about Mario Levrero for Granta’s Best Untranslated Writers series, stating that, even before he had read him, “I knew he was a ‘strange’ writer, unclassifiable, with a boundless imagination, who was creating one of the most intriguing, thought-provoking bodies of work in the Spanish language.” Six years later we finally have one of Levrero’s novels, Empty Words, available to us in English thanks to translator Annie McDermott, who similarly describes the author as an “uncategorisable writer who refused to be bound by rules or conventions, and for whom ‘the only thing that matters in literature is writing with as much freedom as you possibly can.’”

The novel itself certainly suggests a writer who is not interested in rules or conventions, but potential readers should not assume that this makes the work in any way ‘difficult’. In fact, its strangeness is companionable, even homely, perhaps because it is mostly set in and around Levrero’s home. In an introductory note, the author explains that the novel consist of two texts intercut:

“One, entitled ‘Exercises’, is a series of short handwriting exercises, written with no other purpose than that. The other, entitled ‘The Empty Discourse’, is a single, unified text that’s more ‘literary’ in intention.”

Of course, we must never entirely trust an author’s note: just as by interspersing extracts from ‘The Empty Discourse’ among ‘Exercises’, Levrero makes a mockery of the idea it is a ‘unified text’, so too should we mistrust the claim that the latter has ‘no other purpose’. Even in describing the process by which the novel was created, Levrero seems to be deliberately setting the unconscious against the conscious mind, humorously entitling his conscious (that is content-filled) text ‘The Empty Discourse’. Levrero begins with a further disclaimer:

“My aims at this stage of the therapeutic endeavour are fairly modest. To begin with I’m going to practise writing by hand. I won’t be attempting calligraphy, but I’ll at least try to manage a script that anyone could read – myself included, because these days my writing’s so bad that not even I can decipher it.”

However, he is soon commenting on the pull of his conscious mind:

“I’m getting distracted again and paying too little attention to the handwriting and too much to the subject matter, which is anti-therapeutic…”

He is also distracted by the outside world:

“Yesterday I only managed three and a half lines of exercises and then I was interrupted and had to stop.”

However later he concedes, “The problem isn’t the demands of the outside world even though I often think it is, but rather my attachment, or commitment, to those demands.” When the discourse begins to infiltrate the exercises in Part Two, rather than the philosophical tract we may have been expecting, we find simply that outside world, and in particular the story of Levrero’s dog:

“The discourse then has been filling up with the story of the dog.”

Although he goes on to say that “the story of the dog could be a symbol of the real content of the discourse, which for some reason it’s impossible to see directly,” he is accepting that his own vision is indistinct, not simply the reader’s. Just as in the exercises the conscious mind is superimposed on the unconscious mind, so here the situation is reversed:

“Today the topic of the dog has been thrust upon me once more…”

This is perhaps inevitable given the process Levrero describes:

“When I started writing this, my idea was simply to recover the form of an existing discourse and wait for its contents to be revealed as I went along.”

The two texts naturally begin to create a dialogue which in Part Three becomes a monologue as Levrero returns to his exercises but later also to the story of the dog – perhaps an admission that the separation is impossible.

All of this, however, does not really give a sense of the reading experience which I found as hypnotic as the repetitive exercises he describes. These provide a pulse, a rhythm which runs through the text, their artificial nature ironically enhancing the reality of everything else Levrero tells us. Even more astoundingly, they produce the character development we might expect from a traditional novel in the most unexpected way. Thankfully Annie McDermott tells us that a further Levrero translation is one its way (The Luminous Novel – “a 450-page prologue explaining why it was impossible to write the book itself”). Personally, I can’t wait to renew my acquaintance with this astonishing writer.

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The Wind That Lays Waste

July 3, 2019

Selva Almada’s debut novel, The Wind That Lays Waste, now translated by Chris Andrews, could be described as dramatic in its intensity if that word had not become corrupted with connotations beyond its reference to the stage. With its affordable cast of four characters (each as important as any other), its single setting, and the action taking place over a few hours, it would be easily experienced in a theatre. Of course, the thunderstorm towards which the action builds might lack the three dimensions of the imagination, and moments of back story would have to be redeployed, but the novel’s greatest strengths would remain intact: the constricted, at times claustrophobic, setting which enhances themes of freedom and escape, the dialogue full with nuance and depth, and the shifting slow burn of character development.

The idea that those characters will come to reflect on the directions their lives are taking is immediately created by the artificial pause in the literal journey of two of them, the Reverend Pearson and his teenage daughter, Elena, when their car breaks down and they are forced to stop for repairs. The mechanic, Gringo Brauer, also has the care of a teenage child, his assistant, nicknamed Tapioca. This is the first of a number of ways in which the men mirror each other. Tapioca is left with the mechanic aged nine by a woman who claims Brauer is the father:

“Tapioca nodded, still watching the truck, which had climbed up into the road now, with his mother inside, taking her away forever.”

A similar scene is repeated in reverse when Pearson drives off with Elena leaving her mother behind:

“Leni’s last image of her mother is from the rear window of the car…. Her mother is left standing there, beside the suitcase. She covers her face with her hands. She’s crying.”

This immediately marks the two men, and the two teenagers, as both similar and different. In the Reverend’s case, it is his religion which most separates him from Brauer, as seen to comic effect when he begins to say grace before a meal they are about to share together:

“‘Let us give thanks,’ said the Reverend.
Tapioca and the Gringo froze, their food-laden forks halfway between plate and mouth.”

Brauer is quietly dismissive of Pearson’s views:

“We make our own destinies, that’s what I believe. We know why we do what we do.”

As Pearson attempts to convert Tapioca, however, he grows irritated:

“I know him like the palm of my hand. And believe me, he doesn’t need any Jesus Christ. And he doesn’t need some John the Baptist like you to come along with your snake-oil spiel and tell him about the end of the world and all that crap.”

Religion is also coming between Pearson and his daughter:

“‘Ah, my girl, Jesus has blessed me,’ he said and patted her on the cheek.
This meant that he was very glad to have her with him, thought Leni, but he could never say it straight out: he always had to get Jesus in there, between them.”

Almada clearly conveys her love for her father, but one tempered with resentment:

“Her childhood was very recent, but her memory of it was empty. Thanks to her father, the Reverend Pearson, and his holy mission, all she could remember was the inside of the same old car, crummy rooms in hundreds of indistinguishable hotels, the features of dozens of children she never spent long enough with to miss when the time came to move on, and a mother whose face she could hardly recall.”

Later she says she has never seen a photograph of herself as a little girl. While Tapioca’s life appears to be one of stasis and Leni’s one of movement, it feels static to her. Her only escape is to listen to music on her Walkman (she has promised her father only to play religious music in order to be allowed this one expression of individuality).

Things come to a head when Pearson insists that Tapioca should go with him, telling Brauer, “You don’t realise how special that boy is; there’s a treasure in him… You have no idea of the destiny awaiting that boy.” In this there are echoes of his own childhood, when he was taken by his mother, who was not a particularly religious woman, to be baptised by a preacher. Though he has since converted others, he believes the boy to be exceptional in his innocence.

However, this is not really a novel about religion, but about relationships: the longstanding relationships between the fathers and their children, and the new relationships developing in this moment, with the potential to change lives. It is beautifully judged and entirely free of cliché. As the characters grow closer, in that way we can believe we know others after only a few hours together, so too the reader comes to feel their presence in the room, as if they might look up and find them there.

Who Among Us?

July 1, 2019

Who Among Us? is the third of Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti’s novels (though the first written, in 1953) to appear in English in recent years, translated, as with Springtime in a Broken Mirror, by Nick Caistor. His previous novels demonstrate a writer intrigued by different narrative forms: The Truce is written in the form of a diary; Springtime in a Broken Mirror presents us with a chorus of different voices. Who Among Us? is perhaps the most daring yet – its love triangle, while not quite a ménage a trois, is certainly a recit de trois, a story told in three narratives: the first a journal, the second a letter, and the third a short story written by one of the characters.

Each member of the triangle (Miguel, Alicia, Lucas) tells the story from their own particular angle. It is Miguel who writes the first and longest section, having encouraged his wife, Alicia, to go to Buenos Aires to sell some property in the hope she will meet Lucas. He now regards their eleven-year marriage as the wrong choice for her:

“The present crisis has arisen out of a gradual conviction: that Alicia has always preferred Lucas.”

Miguel, Alicia and Lucas’ relationship dates back to their time at school, the first two quickly becoming friends with Lucas added when he arrives a year later at Miguel’s insistence. Though Alicia is closer to Miguel, he feels that her relationship with Lucas is somehow more necessary:

“It was plain the two of them really liked me, were loyal to me and would carry on being so. I was certain of that. They, however, did not like each other: they needed one another.”

Despite this, and a period after school when it is Alicia and Lucas who spend most time together, it is Miguel and Alicia who later marry. Even so, Miguel considers Lucas an important factor in Alicia’s choice:

“Probably Lucas sang my praises (I also praised him whenever I talked with Alicia; the absent person was always the star), and no doubt as a result Alicia became convinced I was the best of the three – and consequently the better of the two, Lucas and me, which in the end was the only choice that mattered.”

Miguel tells the story of his relationship with Alicia in a detached manner, frequently commenting on his lack of strong feelings. “I’ve never needed,” he tells us, “to be the reflection of other people’s affections.” The crisis in his marriage with Alicia is precipitated by a realisation that his feelings for her, even when she is pregnant, are lacking to the point of absence:

“All of a sudden I was overcome by the sensation that my tenderness was forced and that deep down I couldn’t care less about her or her condition.”

“I still don’t know if any any point was in love with her,” he says, “but that’s more because I question my emotional capacity.” Miguel excuses his indifference by portraying himself as the inferior member of the trio. As a teenager, he says, “I knew I was there as their witness… and consciously vegetated in their shadow,” going one step further to describe his relationship with his own life in the same terms:

“Witness is a terrible role to be cast in, and I can’t even avoid being witness to my own life…”

He briefly describes a childhood where his father routinely abused his mother, where he is also a “silent witness,” winning the reader over with his honesty:

“I don’t want to be lied to, or lie to myself. I want to know everything about myself.”

Or, at least, so it seems – at the end of the first section there is a revelation which I assume is the reason Jonathan Gibbs commented on Twitter:

“Blimey. Something’s just happened in this book… that makes me want to chuck it across the room and leave it there.”

Miguel is not, after all, a reliable narrator, as we quickly discover reading Alicia’s letter:

“I never understood why you insisted on brining me and Lucas together. I saw him as an intruder and wanted to refuse him entry, to cut him down to size, before the boundless prestige you endowed him with could begin to overshadow our fragile bond.”

The final section is a short story written by Lucas with footnotes on which he relates the characters and events in the story to those in his life (for example the character Claudia is Alicia) when he meets Alicia in Buenos Aires. Just as the previous narratives have allowed us insight into the narrator’s feeling, so too does the story in the gaps between reality and fiction.

Who Among Us? is masterfully constructed, refracting its three relationships through three different lenses, while also questioning a fourth relationship – that between text and truth: the stories we construct to explain what we do. Luckily Benedetti still has five other novels awaiting translation.