Juan José Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington
Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph
Open Letter, 2010
Eloy Urroz’s Friction
Translated from the Spanish by Ezra E. Fitz
Dalkey Archive Press, 2010
Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Clash of Images
Translated from the French by Robyn Creswell
New Directions, 2010
Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl
Translated from the Farsi by D.P. Costello
Grove Press, 2010
The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, by acclaimed Argentine author Juan José Saer (1937–2005), is only peripherally about Noriega Washington, the sexagenarian academic whose birthday party serves as a fulcrum of sorts for the book’s diffuse and daunting narrative. But even that is seen only in passing, relived through second- and third-hand accounts as the book’s two protagonists—the aristocratic “Mathematician,” just returned from a European jaunt, and the younger accountant Ángel Leto—meet by chance in the seaside town of Santa Fe, Argentina on a mid-autumn day in the beginning of the 1960s. Their conversation, halting at first, circles around gossipy tales of Washington’s recent celebration (which neither attended), where elaborate philosophical ideas were teased out over much grilled steak and red wine. But in the characters’ dense, multi-layered interior monologues there are several conversations going on at once, a fluid exchange among the “phosphorescent flow of consciousness” and the “swamp of memory.” Indeed, like a Dalí painting (or perhaps even Lucrecia Martel’s 2001 film La Ciénaga, which has a wallowing torpor all its own), time appears to be melting and converging under the glaring sun. And as the two men proceed together (the book is divided into three sections: “The First Seven Blocks,” “The Next Seven Blocks,” and “The Last Seven Blocks”), the narrative stretches out in different directions. We learn of Leto’s poor, rural childhood and his father’s suicide; of the Mathematician’s rejection of his bourgeois family, and of his dabbling in Trotskyist politics. And in the book’s feverish final paces, we see into Leto’s militant future, spent roaming the world from Cuba to Africa “until he disappears completely into the exacting, silent, clandestine life of the walking dead.” It’s a burning, hypnotic finish to a novel that, at times, has seemed to dawdle along the way—an apocalyptic vision of Argentina disintegrating before our very eyes in the years of military dictatorship more than a decade later.
Friction, by young Mexican author Eloy Urroz, is also, in many ways, a novel of big ideas—fate, desire, philosophy, metafiction—wrapped in a bawdier, more raucous package. In fact, you’ll hardly believe the levels of debauchery and scatological skullduggery Urroz works himself up to here. But then Urroz, one of the leading instigators of Mexico’s “Crack” generation that has sought to recapture the energy and boldness of the Latin Boom, has ambitions that go beyond mere crudity: His appetites may be Rabelaisian, but his intellectual concerns echo any number of modern writers and thinkers, from Borges to Kundera, Coetzee to Karl Popper. (All of whom, by the way, have cameos in the text itself.) So, then, what is Friction all about? Well, in short order: It’s about a writer, Eusebio Cardoso, a professor of Mexican literature and “the novel of the Revolution” at a small Southern US college, and his losing battle for tenure and even more disastrous love life; and it’s about “you,” a Mexico City yuppie banker and “reader” who watches as his wife is seduced by his own slacker artist-friend, who happens to be the son of the disappeared political crusader and eco-warrior Roberto Soto Gariglietti (who believes himself to be the reincarnation of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles). And that’s just for starters, because after several hundred pages of doubling-back and jump-cutting the two main storylines converge and the “reader” steps into the text and joins Cardoso on a road trip to the fictional Baja California town of Las Rémoras (resurrected from Urroz’s first novel, The Obstacles), where they’re joined by Pancho Villa, Empedocles, Mexican author Sergio Pitol, and others for a bacchanalia worthy of the ages. Did I mention yet that this all takes place in the year 2025? For all his pyrotechnics and meta-literary twists, Urroz is truly an original and omnivorous talent, audaciously wrestling with weighty issues of love and strife, life and literature.
Another book of pastiche, though on a more intimate scale, is the Moroccan Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Clash of Images. What, exactly, are we to make of this collection of childhood memories, abbreviated stories, and fleeting impressions of a changing Morrocco? Kilito spells it out in a short author’s note: These handful of fictionalized tales are bound together by a “tissue of connecting threads.” Later, in the piece “Don Quixote’s Niece,” he strikes a more critical tone: “Theorists praise the fragment—the text with multiple points of entry, whose sense is sporadic and fractured—and advocate reading against the grain.” And that’s essentially what we have here: a novel-in-pieces; small, fragmentary evocations that bring “back to life, on a current of memories, an entire vanished past.” For Kilito that past is where Arabic legends and Koranic studies, tales of djinns and the rituals of the hammam, first meet Tintin, cinema halls, and the startling new rites of French-language classrooms. It’s the combination, and clash, of all these things in the mind of a young boy, Abdallah; the thrill of discovering new worlds beyond his own front door and narrow street. And, above all else, it is Abdallah’s initiation into the bewitching realm of literature, from comics to novels, from Fenimore Cooper to Don Quixote. There is nothing flashy or postmodern about Kilito’s wry, languid reveries of first kisses and intellectual crushes, his celebration of a lifelong fascination with the combined powers of text and image. But there is trepidation as well. As Abdallah—who both is and isn’t the author—is warned by his father: “Books can kill; they can also cause madness.”
Certainly one of the more frightening books about madness is the classic 1957 Iranian novel The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat, “the father of Persian modernist fiction” according to a spirited new introduction by Iranian-American author Parochista Khakpour (Sons and Other Flammable Objects). Hedayat, we learn, was something of an in-between literary figure in Iran, immersed in both Persian and European traditions (he translated Kafka into Persian and was a disciple of Sartre) before committing suicide in Paris in 1951 at the age of 48. This personal history lends an added tinge of darkness to a book that is already excessively preoccupied with shadows. “I am writing only for my shadow, which is now stretched across the wall in the light of lamp,” the book’s deranged, opium-smoking narrator, insists. “I must make myself known to him.” Thus begins the book’s bizarre and macabre confessional, where recurring images of shadows and mirrors, poisoned wine and ancient urns, cloaked gravediggers and streethawkers, mingle with the echoing sounds of hacking coughs and dry, hollow laughter. Dreams, hallucinations, and nightmare visions mingle and dissipate in a haze of opium smoke and paranoid obsession. The sky oozes red: “In the gaps between the clouds the stars gazed down at the earth like the gleaming eyes emerging from a mass of coagulated blood.” The narrator’s face sags like fresh meat: “I wasted away from day to day. When I looked at myself in the mirror my cheeks were crimson like the meat that hangs outside the butchers’ shops.” These are just a couple of the eerie, Poe-like images that Hedayat returns to again and again, creating a dense fog of shifting patterns encircling the book’s grisly central act of passion that may or may not have happened the way it’s described. As the book’s haunted narrator mockingly asks, “Is not life from beginning to end a ludicrous story, an improbable, stupid yarn? Am I not now writing my own personal piece of fiction?” Surely, that’s a sentiment Saer and Urroz, not to mention Kilito, could agree with.