Tobias Carroll explores Pablo Martín Sánchez’s recently released The Anarchist Who Shared My Name (tr. Jeffrey Diteman, Deep Vellum Publishing) within the context of the Oulipo collective and contemporary creative nonfiction.
The experience of reading Pablo Martín Sánchez’s newly translated book, The Anarchist Who Shared My Name, is a fascinating immersion into historical documentation and imagined history. In a prologue, Martín Sánchez explains the core concept of the book: while searching for his name online, he came upon a record about an anarchist who had been imprisoned and executed years before—also named Pablo Martín Sánchez. In the pages that follow, he describes his research into his name-doppelganger, which culminates with him discovering the deceased Martín Sánchez’s aged niece Teresa. Teresa emerges as a powerful presence within the book and it’s through her conversations with Martín Sánchez that he receives the information necessary to complete this sprawling tale of doomed revolutionaries, unpredictable duels, and star-crossed lovers.
The Anarchist Who Shared My Name is essentially a historical novel bookended by works of reported nonfiction. The historical narrative within is divided into chapters that recount the life story of the elder Martín Sánchez, from his childhood to his final days in 1924 when he returned to Spain from France to participate in a revolutionary movement (which ended badly). The 1924 chapters are themselves prefaced by quotes taken from historical documents; these chapters can, to an extent, be read as Martín Sánchez’s fictionalized takes on what they contain.
Structurally, it’s a work that resembles nothing quite so much as Errol Morris’s quasi-documentary series Wormwood, which blended cinematic nonfiction with re-enactments of the events described—a hybrid of two forms, where the tension between them creates some utterly gripping friction.
In an age of renewed attention to essays and autofiction alike, what can be learned from that place where the Oulipo converges with nonfiction?
Martín Sánchez is a member of the Oulipo, a literary collective founded in Paris that explores how structures, rules, and constraints can be used to produce literature. Given that, it’s understandable that his take on a historical epic might elude easy classification. As Chad W. Post notes in a post on Three Percent, The Anarchist Who Shared My Name “isn’t explicitly Oulipian, except insofar that Martín Sánchez is part of the Oulipo, thereby making everything he writes ‘Oulipian’ in at least one sense, since the Oulipo is first and foremost a writing group.”
The same could be said for another book from an Oulipian released stateside by Deep Vellum: Anne Garréta’s Not One Day, translated by Emma Ramadan. Garréta writes a series of short vignettes about desire, each nominally nonfiction—until, at book’s end, she reveals that one is fiction, leaving the reader guessing as to which. There are shades of the conclusion of Orson Welles’s F For Fake, which is never a bad thing.
In a 2017 article in The Atlantic, Stephanie Hayes examined Garréta’s book in light of a host of other confessional literary works to explore how her own particular set of experimental constraints compared with those utilized by the likes of Chris Kraus and Maggie Nelson. Looking at both Garréta’s and Martín Sánchez’s books in the context of Hayes’s reflections raises an interesting question: in an age of renewed attention to essays and autofiction alike, what can be learned from that place where the Oulipo converges with nonfiction?
There are definite echoes of the Oulipian emphasis on constraints that come to mind when reading author Geeta Dayal’s description of her process for writing a book about the making of Brian Eno’s album Another Green World. While writing about the creator of the Oblique Strategies card deck, which offers suggestions—some concrete and some abstract—on proceeding with a creative work, Dayal utilized said deck as an element of her writing process. In a 2010 interview, she commented, “I find the Oblique Strategies cards to be extraordinarily useful; I've been using them for years. I keep a deck on my desk at all times. When I get stuck while writing—which is often—I pick a card.”
Dayal adds, “The Oblique Strategies cards, in their own way, were a systems-based approach to creativity.” This comment could suffice to describe a number of recent works of nonfiction, whether or not they’re specifically Oulipian. There’s also some overlap to be found with the newly prominent array of autofiction appearing on bookshelves around the country, works that emphasize constraints, formal experimentation, and narrative ambiguity around truth and fiction.
“What matters is the sudden twist, when you, the reader, thought you knew what you were trying to capture, and the text turns on you and you don’t know any longer.”
In a 2017 interview with Sarah Gerard, Anne Garréta discussed the line between fiction and nonfiction in Not One Day. Specifically, the discussion turned to the ambiguity of whether one section (about DJing) fell into one camp or the other. For the author, this distinction mattered less. “[T]he information about the technical practices is not fictional. And knowing which section is fictionalized doesn’t matter,” she says. “What matters is the sudden twist, when you, the reader, thought you knew what you were trying to capture, and the text turns on you and you don’t know any longer.”
In a long critical piece on autofiction for Vulture, Christian Lorentzen cites a particular moment in Sheila Heti’s Motherhood that recalls Dayal’s invocation of a “systems-based approach to creativity.” This book, like much of Heti’s work, blurs the line between real and imagined experiences; Lorentzen highlights one specific moment for its blending of the fictional, the real, and the random:
“One element that Heti avers in a note to be nonfictional are answers given to questions by coins flipped according to a practice from the I Ching. Of course, why put them in at all if the answers were just made up? These arbitrary (or fated) responses are some of the funniest things in the book.”
Readers looking for a connection between Heti and the Oulipo may be amused to read this journal from a 2002 tour, which culminates with a rushed attempt by Heti’s tourmate Carl Wilson to prepare something referred to only as “your Oulipo lecture.”
The tension between what’s real and what’s imagined is perennially present in Martín Sánchez’s The Anarchist Who Shared My Name. In fact, it’s one of the most resonant aspects of the book. Given that the prologue takes pains to set out its author’s research process—and the ambiguities that can emerge when dealing with memories that are almost a century old—to assume that this work is rooted in realism would be correct.
That said, Martín Sánchez is aware of the tension between the real and the imagined, and he occasionally plays off of it. In the midst of one scene of combat, the anarchist Martín Sánchez encounters a wounded man who dies while reaching for his pocket. What follows are several sentences describing what the dying man would have done had he completed the motion: produced a photo of his daughter, and asked the elder Martín Sánchez to convey to her his final words. Clearly, this is entirely fiction; more than that, unless Martín Sánchez owns a time machine and possesses telepathic powers, this is fundamentally unknowable stuff. And its presence in a nominally biographical novel stands out, a lyrical bit of prose in the midst of violence:
“If he had been able to carry out the gesture, he would have taken from his pocket a sepia-toned photograph of a little girl with long braids and a mischievous smile, the back of which bore the inscription: ‘To my dear father on the day of my First Communion. Elena.’ ‘Do me a favor, tell her I love her,’ would have been his last words.”
Why is that present there, then? It’s a jarring reminder that, unlike the found texts that precede several of the chapters, this is not simply a documentary recreation of the past but a fictional method to inhabit it. In the final pages, Martín Sánchez goes a step further, pointing out the areas in which his research has inevitable gaps, and offering up an alternate theory of some significant events in the narrative we’ve just read.
The current critical attention paid to autofiction, whether from Sheila Heti or Karl Ove Knausgård, raises questions about where the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction exist. These recently translated works by Garréta and Martín Sánchez offer another angle on the same debate and suggest a means by which experimental writing techniques can help readers achieve a deeper understanding of otherwise elusive literary themes.
Read WWB’s issue of Writing from the Oulipo
Read nonfiction by Anne Garréta
Read a review of Anne Garréta’s Sphinx (translated by Emma Ramadan)