‘The Eternaut’ brings a Latin American classic to English readers

4 12 2016


Originally published in Popoptiq. 

Four neighbors play cards in a suburban attic. It’s nighttime and the city outside rustles with distant noises. A news bulletin on the radio warns that a radioactive cloud, the product of continued American nuclear tests in the Pacific, is moving southwest. We’re in Argentina, during the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. The players resume their game, until they’re startled by a crash or a scream, followed by a blackout. They walk to the nearest window and, past the glass, discover a desolate street scene of totalled cars, dead bodies, and – most eerily of all – phosphorescent snow. The protagonists assume the freak event is related to the radioactive cloud and make sure all the windows in the house are closed. Yet one of them fears for his wife and children, who can’t be reached on the phone, and recklessly sprints outside. The “snowflakes” touch his skin and enter his lungs; he doubles up and dies. As his friends soon learn, this is not a common storm nor a radioactive cloud, but the first phase of an extraterrestrial invasion. So begins one of the most celebrated, most cherished comics in Latin America, The Eternaut.

It was written by Héctor Germán Oesterheld, illustrated by Francisco Solano López, and released as a serial between 1957 and 1959 in the weekly Argentine magazine Hora Cero. “It’s the best adventure story this country has produced and the most enduring myth that Argentine narrative has conceived in the second half of the twentieth century,” said author and essayist Juan Sasturain. In the same vein, writer and journalist Fernando Ariel García called it “an aspect of our national identity.”

The Eternaut has been published in Portuguese, French, Italian, and Greek – but never, until now, in English. Translator Erica Mena and Fantagraphics Books have at long last corrected this with a gorgeous deluxe edition. The critical response has been glowing. National Public Radio considered it a “masterwork.” The Guardian wrote it’s a “brilliant comic.” Paste waxed lyrical about its political undertones. The Beat tagged it as the “most interesting graphic novel of the season.” It would seem that, after more than half a century, the Argentine classic has finally made its splash on the Northern Hemisphere.


But why did it take so long? “I’m not really sure,” says Erica Mena. “Usually when texts aren’t translated it’s for one of three reasons: lack of publisher interest in the target language, complications with the rights to the text, or lack of interested translators. I can’t speculate on what the reasons were for The Eternaut, though, because I really don’t know.” One possibility, perhaps, is that such comics are simply logistically challenging to import. “It’s an enormous and wordy graphic novel,” says Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics. “So the difficulties related to producing a translated book are compounded by the sheer immensity of it – the translation itself, the production work involved, the rights to the work which, because it involves heirs, can be hairy, and the amount of physical production work necessary.”

Argentine readers – even those (or especially those) who haven’t read it yet – approach The Eternaut with reverence and a little bit of caution, as one does any canonical masterpiece. English-speakers, however, will tackle it without such baggage. (It’s telling, for example, that Shea Hennum, at Paste, writes that Oesterheld is “one of the best kept secrets in comics,” a claim that, while accurate in a North American context, sounds utterly ludicrous to my Argentine ears.) What might they find, then, in this old but still relevant comic?

“So much! Everything, really,” says Mena. “The art, while at first glance may seem a little dated, is just gorgeous: the hyper-realistic detail and expression is entrancing. The story and the characters are pretty different from what English-language readers might expect from an action sci-fi story, too. There’s a nuance, and a communal mentality, that is substantially different from the loner-hero exceptionalism of many English-language action comics.” We mostly follow Juan Salvo, one of the card players and (later) the titular time-travelling eternaut, yet his comrades are equally worthy of our attention. “There’s no single protagonist. There are many secondary characters who are just as important,” says Laura Fernández, author of the book Comics and Resistance: Art and Politics in Oesterheld (1968-1978).


What’s fascinating about The Eternaut is how, even as it resembles American science fiction of the era, it subtly subverts the genre’s conventions, often redefining them in South American terms. “Up until its release, science fiction stories consumed in Buenos Aires, both in literature and in comics, weren’t actually set there,” says Fernández. “It was transgressive to do science fiction, with aliens, and have it all happen in Buenos Aires, in recognizable places.”

This geographical shift is not merely cosmetic. As the opening scene already suggests, with the news bulletin about the radioactive cloud, the characters are always discussing the real or potential stratagems of distant world powers. When the invasion grows more apocalyptic, they come to wonder if the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union still exist. (Communications are either down or sporadic, so the situation outside of Buenos Aires is unknown.) One of the main themes of The Eternaut is this point-of-view from the presumed sidelines, the sense that such desperate fights for the future of humanity are not supposed to happen – and yet are happening – at the bottom of the world, all the way down in Argentina. “It’s about being marginal, being at the periphery,” says Fernández.

How will this aspect of the comic register with North American or European readers, many of whom have never set foot in Buenos Aires and have no hope of recognizing pivotal landmarks like Plaza Italia, Estadio Monumental, Barrancas de Belgrano, and Plaza del Congreso? “I expect that most readers will accept the foreign landscape much as they might accept an imagined landscape, and the action of the story will carry them through it,” says Mena. “In other words, they will notice, but not in the way that Argentine readers do. And that is part of the violence of translation. A translation dismembers the text from its cultural body; in this case the most apparent missing link is that of the city-scape. For an Argentine reader to see and imagine their city so transformed would be a vastly different experience than for them to see and imagine, say, New York City, transformed by alien invasion. But how much of contemporary sci-fi is set in cities that English-language readers resonate with in that way? Isn’t it good for English readers to recognize their own foreignness, sometimes? I think it is.”

Beyond language and cultural competence, however, another matter to consider is the book format itself. As described before, The Eternaut was released in instalments over a period of two years. Yet modern readers, from any country, including Argentina, will invariably tackle it as a graphic novel. This transforms how the narrative structure is experienced. “I think reading it as a novel makes reception easier both for English and Spanish readers, and really doesn’t work against the initial intent of the work, which is to tell a single, overarching, and unified story. That it moves so easily from serial to novel form is another testament to the brilliance of Oesterheld’s script,” says Mena.


Indeed, although the episodic, stop-start nature of The Eternaut is hard to miss, it’s impressive how well it flows. Much of the story happens in the span of a few days, as the survivors of the invasion slowly creep their way across the ravaged terrain of Buenos Aires. Those familiar with the city’s layout can easily trace their path on a map. That this patient and smooth movement of bodies and plot points was actually orchestrated in short fragments, over months and months, is astonishing. “There’s an almost musical quality to character growth and storytelling rhythm,” says Fernández. “You lose sight of that in its original serialized form.”

Nevertheless, despite its narrative prowess, there’s no telling how The Eternaut will fare with English audiences. After all, its reception in Argentina has hardly been linear and predictable. Released shortly after a coup ousted president Juan Domingo Perón in 1955, it was savored by teenage readers and interpreted as nothing more than a rollicking adventure story. Yet, in the ensuing years, the political temperature in Argentina only continued to rise, as pseudo-democratic governments were succeeded by increasingly sanguine military regimes. This overheated context would affect The Eternaut. “When it was reprinted in the 1970s, it came with a prologue that positioned the comic politically,” says Fernández. “Oesterheld was in a very political moment in his life. So he gave his work new meaning.” Shortly afterwards, he would also release an unambiguously belligerent sequel, still unavailable in English. By that time, Oesterheld had become linked with the radical group Montoneros, eventually decimated – along with tens of thousands of victims – by the bloodiest of all dictatorships in Argentina, the so-called Process of National Reorganization (1976-1983). The author, along with his four daughters, entered the ranks of the “disappeared.”

After the return to democracy, in the 1980s and 90s, The Eternaut cultivated a new readership, with some leftist activists adopting it as an “anti-capitalist narrative, set against the imperialist system,” continues Fernández. But its admirers were found only within certain circles: “Comic fans, intellectuals, militants all read it. But it wasn’t that popular on the streets.” Yet, following Argentina’s economic collapse in 2001, the venerable classic was reborn. It was reprinted in 2004 by the Clarín media group, as the fifth entry into its Comics Library series. Street artists began referencing it in their politically-charged works. And, most famously, the figure of Juan Salvo in his homemade diving suit, built to protect him from the deadly “snowflakes,” was appropriated as a symbol by the followers of former president Néstor Kirchner. Now ubiquitous in modern Argentina, the comic has moved to foreign markets. Fernández recalls how surprised she was, for instance, when it was recently embraced by Brazilian readers, unaccustomed to Oesterheld’s brand of “serious science fiction, in black and white, with a pessimistic and very local outlook.”

What’s next in the checkered, topsy-turvy history of The Eternaut? Whatever the answer, the important thing is that, yes, the revered Argentine alien invasion tale is finally out in English. And that’s no small feat. “One of the points of good art is to open our eyes to perspectives and ways of seeing the world that we could not envision ourselves, and publishing work by foreign cartoonists simply gives us the opportunity to introduce American or English language readers to a wider range of such perspectives,” argues Groth, of Fantagraphics. And for Erica Mena, beyond all its history and canonical importance, The Eternaut is simply a great book. “Upon a first reading, in English, I hope that it is still an evident masterpiece, a work that both defines and exceeds its genre, a work that after decades is still important in its message and in its story.”


The Dream of the Heroes, Bioy Casares

28 02 2010

I adored The Invention of Morel and The Squid Opts for its Own Ink, so I was excited to read The Dream of the Heroes. Casares himself introduces it as his favorite work, not because he deems it so, but because his “most intelligent” friends have always said it was his best novel. When Borges heard the plot synopsis, he called it the most beautiful story ever told. I think it’s a pretty silly story. Borges probably said what he said out of friendliness. Or maybe Casares explained the synopsis of his novel-to-be with beautiful zest. Or maybe I just disagree with Borges.

In a way, the synopsis is potentially exciting stuff. A man wins money at the races and decides to spend it with his friends during three days of carnival madness. During the third day, in a haze of drunken epiphanic glory, he lives the most significant moment of his life, except he can’t remember it afterward. In the years following this event, he finds a girl, gets married, settles down, detaches himself from his unseemly and crude friends, and yet the mystery of that epiphanic glory never leaves him, and so, three years later, he decides to imitate his steps, following the same itinerary of that earlier carnival madness in the hopes that his memory will be stirred accordingly. Bioy Casares being a friend of Borges and so sharing a similar temperament, there’s a lot of dream-talk about waking up and only grasping the vague outlines of what must have surely been the most remarkable dream ever dreamed.

I can see how this synopsis might have sounded exciting. It was exciting enough that I bought the book. But Casares uses the above conceit for really dull purposes. The “reveal” in Morel opened the narrative up to unexpected philosophic vistas and emotional undercurrents that improved every noun and adjective that preceded and followed the discovery. We suddenly have to think about the meaning of love, social interaction, social performance, reality, perception, and the essential solitude of all human beings, along with the purpose and place of readership, both as a reader of books and as a reader of life in our everyday wanderings. That’s a good “reveal.” Here, the “reveal” mostly tells us that, well, destiny is ironic, love is eternal and meant to be, and what we once thought was really important and impressive might not be so later in life. Maybe I’m underrating it. Maybe I’m wrong. I am willing to consider a different outlook, but I can’t come up with anything else other than what I just wrote. The book is pretty limited and the story is likewise limited, concerned with a shallow love story and with a girl who only becomes interesting during the last ten pages, where we realize that the book would have been better off dwelling around its final fourth and dispensing with the mundane middle sections detailing the painfully conventional and idyllic love story. Morel played off platonic love cliches, but that ends up being gratifying when the cliches are turned around after the “reveal.” I am not sure the same thing happens here. Certainly, as in Morel, the facts of the love story are altered, but I don’t think they’re altered in any really meaningful way, except we’d have to read her character somewhat differently. I don’t know how the novel plays out during a re-read. Nevertheless, the “reveal” doesn’t introduce an alteration in content and essence, as it does in Morel, but merely in circumstance and suggestiveness: it’s not the meaning of the love story that changes, so much as its genesis and some of her motivations. The more magical part of the “reveal” is mostly destiny-gibberish that I don’t find very intriguing. The end is sad, I guess, which is sort of unconventional, but it has nothing on the gorgeously melancholy denouement of Morel.

There’s some historical value to the book, since it effortlessly describes Buenos Aires circa late 1920’s. It also focuses on an archetypal Argentine man in Valerga, just the sort of despicable, unruly, over-confident, patronizing, criminal, brutish, idiotic, cocky, faux-magnanimous, and faux-paternal man that rests at center of the Argentine soul. Extricating the Valergas from the Argentine soul could be the key to fixing the country. Probably not. There is probably nothing like a national soul, and speaking of a national soul is probably a language short-cut to talking about national tendencies haphazardly grouped, but either way, Argentina and Argentine history are marked by a glut of Valergas. The Dream of the Heroes so perfectly illustrates this archetypal individual, that it’s probably worthwhile just for Valerga: he’s an exaggeration or a culmination of the selfish me-against-the-world mentality that unfortunately grips many of his compatriots to this day. The protagonist’s journey is not just one towards memory and love, but also one towards realization, coming to terms with the awfulness of Valerga and the lifestyle that he embodies — at least for a time, until destiny plays its cruel hand.

Alas, this development is adequate, but not terribly inspiring: our protagonist learns the immaturity of his youth and of his seedy past, only to be sucked back into the same criminal fold from which he had escaped. This is pretty typical and there is nothing in the language that makes it fresh, especially since the narrator so solemnly explains its significance. Actually, the narrator does a lot of solemn explaining. This is the kind of narrator who will say: “And now we come to the part of the story where…” Not to everyone’s taste, obviously.

The Dream of the Heroes is too tame for me to either get angry at it or be very moved by its downbeat closure. It just is, and what it is doesn’t interest me. It makes discoveries that should form a launching pad for a longer book, not be final conclusions. The narrator does say, near the end, that the entire book has been magical, not just the finale. There is the possibility that the end is actually the beginning of a reappraisal of the whole story, in which case the discoveries are launching pads for the longer book that is the re-reading of the book we just read, kind of like Morel. I am not getting the sense that this is the case as of right now, but I leave the door open for a change of heart.

Nobel Sabato

6 01 2010

What if Ernesto Sabato wins the Nobel Prize for Literature?

He has been nominated once again, as has been the case every year since 2007. It will probably foment much discussion in Argentina. I don’t presume to know all the details of the “Sabato Question.” The rivalry between Sabato and Borges is oft-mentioned, and as we all know, Borges never got the Nobel. Most chalk this up to a political issue: Borges, to be incredibly lenient, didn’t exactly bemoan the Military Dictatorships. Sabato would be his political opponent, being the leftist writer who presided over the CONADEP Report on the disappeared once the final Military Dictatorship in Argentina fell to its ruin. It’s also worth noting that in The Exterminating Angel, written in 1974, Sabato already protested the right-wing death squads two years before the onslaught of the Dictatorship. He also, if cautiously, falls on the side of the leftists, although he doesn’t agree with some of their ideological tendencies. Nevertheless, we still get a glowing rendition of Che Guevara inside the novel’s fragmented melange. We also get similarly glowing renditions of honorable and leftist common people. Now, it’s not always Sabato doing the ‘talking.’ He often writes through the voice of other characters, who narrate or speak certain passages. The Exterminating Angel is far from being an unambiguous pamphlet. But it does seem to ultimately pick a side, and it’s decidedly not with the right-wingers.

So, is Sabato the good guy in the Sabato vs. Borges fight? Well…

The problem — the “Sabato Question” — is that for all his symbolic status as the progressive saint, he didn’t really oppose the Military Dictatorships. He would criticize them a bit, call them out on their interrogation techniques, suggest that Peronists should not be persecuted, and so on, but he basically supported them and didn’t antagonize them too much. You could say that nobody could antagonize them that much and that The Exterminating Angel was so prescient regarding the hell that awaited the country, that his labor, warts and all, is perfectly admirable. Alright, but his symbolic status suggests that he should have crusaded against the Dictatorships, not meekly accepted them. There’s also the matter of that infamous dinner, where four Argentine writers, among them Borges and Sabato, met with the Argentine Dictator General Videla. What did Sabato say about the General after this unfortunate meeting? That he was a smart and impressive man. The other two writers in attendance at least brought up the disappearance of a few of their fellow writers. Sabato said nothing.

Of course, Borges said nothing either, but who expected any different from Borges? He’s not the progressive symbol. And, more crucially, he was not the political writer. You can actually do that whole “separate the man from his art” thing with Borges. His writing, his legacy — outside of a few exemplars like La Fiesta del Monstruo — is apolitical, literary, and personal. I’m not sure you can do the same with Sabato. How do you separate the man from his art, the man’s politics from his art, when he writes a whole book about his politics and his art and how they combine? Granted, there’s more to The Exterminating Angel than that — a whole cosmology, a spiritual vantage point, a literary philosophy, etc. But Sabato encourages us to not separate man from art by writing about himself.

Do I personally look down upon him for his mistakes? Not really, but many do. Borges has his share of detractors. But, like I said above, it’s easier to put aside his politics when he does exactly that for much of his corpus. I don’t really know that much about this whole debate, to be honest. I just learned of the Sabato Question — or, if you will, the Borges Question — this year. It’s often a bit unnerving for a young reader to stumble upon lengthy debates that reach back to decades before his or her birth. How can the young reader hope to catch up? Like that great exchange from Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo: “What do you understand?” “Nothing — every day I understand less.”

If Sabato were to win the Nobel Prize, a lot of these issues would rise to the surface of Argentine discourse. Did he win because he fell on the happier side of history, even though he might not deserve to have done so? Should he really be the Argentine writer with the Nobel, over the more internationally-renowned and influential Borges? Does his literature deserve the distinction? Do his politics?

To close, I like one thing I read in Jose Pablo Feinmann’s project on Peronism and the dark period between 1955 and 1983: “We have to look back at those times with a bit of pity.” It was impossible to not make a mistake.

Books Read During 2009

1 01 2010

I did a good amount of reading this year, or at least, it seemed that way to me because I don’t think I have ever done so much reading for pleasure. I have read many books before, but most of them have been for my various school courses. And even though you could make the argument that — since I chose a book-intensive college education — even my course readings were for pleasure or at least by choice, the truth is that this is the first year where I read a good amount of material sans the motivation of an upcoming test. One thing to note, though: since I was preparing an entrance exam for my Journalism Master, I did a heavy amount of reading that is not reflected here — newspapers, online journals, and the such. Anyways:

The Lucid Camera by Roland Barthes
The Pleasure of the Text and Inaugural Lecture by Roland Barthes
The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato
On Heroes and Tombs by Ernesto Sabato
The Exterminating Angel by Ernesto Sabato

Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges
History of Eternity by Jorge Luis Borges
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Nocturne of Chile by Roberto Bolaño
Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
The Fascist Argentina by Federico Finchelstein

The Blue Book by Ludwig Wittgenstein
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid in the World by Chris Ware
Paul Auster: City of Glass by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

I would also like to point out the books I only read in part, and are thus on-going, but which nevertheless occupy a space in last year’s readings. These are:

To Play (The Light of Something Else) by Rodrigo Tarruella
Poetics of Cinema by Raul Ruiz
Image-Movement by Gilles Deleuze
The Fold by Gilles Deleuze
The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov by Vladimir Nabokov

Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
Fervor of Buenos Aires by Jorge Luis Borges
Peronism: Political Philosophy of an Argentine Obstinacy by Jose Pablo Feinmann
Discussion by Jorge Luis Borges
Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo

The Bitter Wonder of Being Argentine by Marcos Aguinis

Except for the last two books, all of the above — and that means both partial readings and whole readings — are first-time perusals. There is obviously a lot of Argentine stuff in there, which is the overarching theme of this listing. I was going to attempt an order of preference, but which such varied and disparate topics, it’s difficult to really compare. There is also a lot of Borges, especially in the partial readings section. That is because, if we want to be technical about it, I really only have one book by Borges, and that is Complete Works I, which combines most of the books I mention above and a few more I haven’t even flipped through, of which Evaristo Carriego seems most interesting. My method — which I think best for this type of collection, and especially for the fragmentary short-form-happy Borges — is to wander around the book and read an article, short-story, or essay as my gut wills it. This is fun. It’s like an adventure of sorts. You never know where you’ll fall. And Borges, being a reader himself, becomes a fellow traveler rather than a narrator. That is, even when he’s writing, he’s actually still reading, except in such a way that we can follow along with him: read his essays, something like Narrative Art and Magic, and it’s like overhearing a friend commenting on his latest literary discoveries; read one of his short stories, and it’s exactly the same feeling, save with fictional works rather than real ones like Narrative of A. Gordon Pym. Of course, the idea is that, after you jump back and forth between his essays and his stories enough times, you begin to realize that it doesn’t really matter when he’s making up the book and when the book actually exists, because the story being told in either case is the reader’s immersion into literature. Another important thing about Borges: he simply tells complicated premises. His labyrinths are not at the level of the telling, but at the level of the overlying premise, a complete picture of which is often not readily visible until the final sentence. Borges’ stories begin to grow and gain meaning after we finished them. While reading his stories, you might find yourself bored or unengaged. It’s when you put them down, or come back to them, or allow them to grow in your brain, that the story begins to deepen. Borges tells his tales until the outline of his premise is acceptably complete and then he lets his premise live its own life as it may inside our dreams. That’s why he never wrote a novel or a long-form work. What he was doing was dependent on brevity.

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is, perhaps, something like the novel Borges might have written. It is more or less a collection of short stories, gathered around the conceit of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan chatting with each other about fantastical places. Calvino, unlike Borges, is quite willing to imbue his fantastical visions with real-world topicality, often to blunt effect. The city of Leonia refashions itself every day by discarding yesterday’s objects in favor of today’s newly opened facsimiles. Each year, the city expands, so the accumulated waste of all those discarded objects, waiting outside the city’s perimeter, has to be pushed farther away. Some might enjoy this obvious ‘relevance.’ I personally don’t quite like it. Borges understood that his dives into literature can — in their obsessiveness, in their dream-impulse, in their capacity to display human frailty on an imaginary near-abstract plane — ultimately be very emotional, even though he has been called shallow, cold, and mechanical by many. Calvino, at least in this book, the only one by him I have read, is more up-front about his undercurrents: “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” That sounds heartfelt to me. Calvino’s best cities, or mini-stories, are those that manage to provide labyrinthine puzzles that, like Borges’ creations, keep growing in the mind after the book has been put away. Some are actually rather simple, like Phyllis, a beautiful city that eventually becomes a blank page if you remain inside of it for too long and are overtaken by routine and boredom. Like Leonia, the meaning is obvious. But I like Phyllis. It reflects how many people end up experiencing urban spaces. It contains a simple but effective truth. That’s what Calvino seems to be yearning for: kernels of truth in his allegorical cities. One user at Amazon complained that Invisible Cities is too obscure. I disagree. Calvino is not going for obscurity. Many of his meanings are self-evident, and even when they’re not, it’s not difficult to notice his manifold implications. Eusapia has an upper city for the living and a lower city for the dead. The living learn that the dead are subtly changing the features of their city every year, and so the living mimic those changes in their own city. It is then revealed to the reader that, long ago, the dead may have made the city of the living in the image of their underworld, which would mean that the living have always been imitating the dead. I don’t find this obscure. We’re always modulating our actions based on what the dead, what our past, what our heritage, has done, or rather, what we think they have done. Only a select few are granted access to the Eusapia of the dead, which means that the Eusapia of the living, in imitating the dead, depends on the labor of certain historians or travelers or church authorities (in the novel, a confraternity of hooded brothers) who bring back information on how the past has been developing, although we might not even be able to call it past, since the dead exist alongside the living, both having lived and still alive, if only as an idea.

I read three by Bolaño and three by Sabato. As far as Sabato is concerned, he only wrote three novels, so that means I’ve read the full extent of his fictional output. The rest of his books are philosophical essays. That admittedly sounds slightly odd, because his novels can be considered philosophical essays as well, especially The Exterminating Angel. Flipping through Sabato’s novel trilogy in chronological order is a beautiful experience. Every novel contains the previous one within its world-building, although they are not sequels. Every novel demonstrates vertigo-inducing aesthetic development. Sabato wrote them at a pace of one-a-decade, so it is not surprising that the final impression one gets is that Sabato would not write a novel unless he had a completely fresh and ambitious goal in mind. The Tunnel is rather inauspicious, a beginner’s start. It’s not unlike The Stranger by Albert Camus and it’s therefore not surprising that Camus praised The Tunnel. In both novels, we have an unreliable narrator and existential tremors. But Sabato’s protagonist is not Meursault. Juan Pablo Castel is not absent-minded and ennui-plagued. He’s more in line with Humbert Humbert during the second part of Lolita: neurotic, paranoid, solipsistic, and capable of twisting any random anecdote into the fold of a cohesive plot. In short, a storyteller who doesn’t appear to know he’s building a fiction around his life. That said, it’s worth noting that both Humbert Humbert and Castel are self-consciously writing the novel of their crime, so that while they may not “appear to know” the extent to which they’ve twisted reality to fit their imaginary whims, they may in fact be very well aware of their fallacies. After all, let’s not forget that we can always “count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Or, to quote Castel, “I am animated by the weak hope that someone might be able to understand me.” I prefer Humbert Humbert, to be sure, but the point is that both unintentional storytellers are — actually or additionally or both — perfectly intentional storytellers.

On Heroes and Tombs is such a massive jump — be it in quality, in scope, in dramatic power, in originality, in anything you might think of — from The Tunnel, that it’s a bit jolting. It begins like Sabato’s first novel, with a similarly fragile man, who similarly falls madly in love, is similarly detached from reality, and similarly spews forth overcooked romantic dialogue. I call this dialogue overcooked, but I think it’s an aesthetic choice rather than a flaw: these fragile and horrendously hopeless romantics live inside the glass ball of their illusions. Their dialogue is overcooked because they have no idea how else to communicate their emotions. One of Sabato’s main themes across his three novels revolves around exactly that question, how to communicate one’s deepest emotions in an effective manner. Unlike The Tunnel, however, On Heroes and Tombs starts off with the aching soul of a young man and then expands, and expands, and expands some more, like an endless spiral reaching farther and farther, embracing more and more land area, until, by the end of its four-hundred-and-thirty pages, we’ve been treated to a massive cosmology involving Argentine history, the whole city of Buenos Aires with all its mid-twentieth century conflicts, and a book-within-a-book that’s been released as a stand-alone product, chronicling one man’s insane battle against a secret organization of dastardly blind people, and all these terrors and cataclysms occur around the main characters and the impassioned love story that they create. There is also an older man, Bruno, who stands in for Sabato as the author-figure searching for a way to depict Argentina, to depict Buenos Aires, to depict the World from the vantage point of that minimal little window that is accorded to an individual. On Heroes and Tombs is a huge novel. Some knowledge of Argentine history is required — if not a whole lot — and this has likely undercut its off-shore fate. The Tunnel is more universal, in the crassest definition of the term, because it needs no knowledge of anything. On Heroes and Tombs is vastly more rewarding, though, and with a little help from Wikipedia, its nightmare has or should have no boundaries.

I can’t quite say the same thing for The Exterminating Angel, even if it was praised in France when it was released in the mid-seventies, which would suggest international appeal. But unlike On Heroes and Tombs, The Exterminating Angel has no plot, no traditional characterizations, no traditional structure, only echoes, and parallels, and slowly interlocking ideas. I said each novel contains the previous one. Indeed. On Heroes and Tombs mentions the crime explained in The Tunnel as a from-the-headlines anecdote, which instantly inserts the plot of the latter into the literary universe of the former. The Exterminating Angel stars Sabato himself as an Argentine book-writing Fellini, save that Sabato doesn’t create an alter-ego like Guido Anselmi, opting instead to unambiguously include himself as the protagonist: not just his name, but his profession, his place in culture, his fame, his everything — it’s Sabato talking about being Sabato. This is how the previous two novels are included into The Exterminating Angel, because Sabato talks about writing them, about translating them, about publishing them, etc. Those put off by self-indulgence should keep their distance. I myself am not put off by self-indulgence, so I kept reading. It’s a great book. But it’s also near-impossible to complete. Like Eight and a Half, it’s the story of an author who can’t come up with a story, so his only solution is to explore his life, his memories, his past works, his loves, his ideas, his spirituality, and in so doing, end up crafting a masterpiece. The difference is that Fellini never moves away from himself. Sabato, on the other hand, casts himself as the protagonist, but he also casts a bevy of secondary characters who are constantly threatening to occupy the center stage, and who finally do so in the concluding hundred pages. The Exterminating Angel shows Sabato’s journey towards self-effacement. To finds his fictional protagonists and escape from himself, he needs to indulge and excavate within, until he can remove himself from his own worldview, and let storytelling serve as his eyes. The novel is about the novelist’s desire to talk about the world he lives in without the need for his bothersome presence. It is also about the novelist’s confusion as to what kind of art to make in a troubled world, and Buenos Aires circa 1974 — with the Military Government two years down the road; the skirmishes between left-wing and right-wing factions writhing in the background; the fragility of democracy; the return of Peron, his death, and the ascension to the presidency of his unprepared wife Isabel Peron (not to be confused with Eva Peron); and the shadow of Lopez Rega’s right-wing death squad, the Triple A, which acted as a prelude to the massive counter-terrorism terrorism practiced by the Military after 1976 — was definitely a troubled world. And since the novel is about a writer trying to cope with his milieu — as he simultaneously copes with his own demons, as writers are prone to do — it only enriches the novel that the milieu in question was such a momentous one, the wounds from which Argentina has still not recovered. Whereas On Heroes and Tombs requires only a cursory understanding of Argentine history to enjoy, The Exterminating Angel is more involved with its time and place. It’s rather dated, if you will. As these sort of things go, the more you know about the historical context, the more you will get out of the novel.

On Pale Fire

17 11 2009

A glass house made of words creates a ball in my throat. I swallow and it remains. There is no way to vanish it. I swallow and it remains. I know what you’re thinking, it’s something else. The glass house made of words is empty. I cannot forget. And yet it’s full if I fill it. Should I fill it, then? The glass house made of words wants me to enter and paint on its walls so that they may be visible from every which angle, since the glass house is predictably transparent. You will note it is empty, and yet you will wonder if that is not a visual trick, a mischievous sleight-of-hand, because inside there’s immensity. The ball in your throat becomes bigger and always you feel the house houses profundity beyond belief. You don’t believe it. There’s no humanity! But what is humanity save what we bring with us? Or is that an excuse? The glass house made of words beckons, I wish to enter. Where is the door? Ah, it is here. This is so silly. I feel the screaming inside the house, but I don’t believe it. They tell me these houses are empty, and I believe that. But the screaming persists and it says that the glass house is actually a labyrinth. And then I realize that every labyrinth is full of passion, because only passion can manage to conceive the folds and pathways of a labyrinth, only passion can allow the needed concentration to linger and never waver. But is it a cold passion, a pale fire? The fact is this: I feel the screaming and I feel the cold. I feel the screaming in the cold folds. I am confused by irreconcilable emotions, touching the frigid surface, sensing the reverberations of screaming underneath, understanding that the screaming, silenced by the surface, is paradoxically augmented by the surface that conceals it, because an exposed scream is not as monstrous as the barely perceptible scream that builds a personal prison in the name of privacy. We pummel down the walls of the temple, the glass house made of words, as fragile as it is vast, and we note that the labyrinths ask us to solve its pathways. And so we try to solve them, only to soon realize that the solving is idiotic, for the feeling comes not from the solving but from the sheer existence of labyrinths awaiting nervously for the event of our interpretation. But is that right? For our solving uncovers connections and dialogues, echoes and confrontations, spite and spit, scuffle and kicking, quote and misquote, so that the solving grabs the threads and makes a whole, save this is a ghostly whole, a whole that can be disassembled and made anew, to form new wholes, and so on to infinity. Yet does this interaction not leave us with nothing? This novel is so fragile, so beautiful, giving itself up, honestly, without pretension, allowing itself to be completely empty or completely brimming with life, depending on the reader, depending on the reading, nothing new, nothing old, the same old thing we’ve been talking about since the sixties, that interactive reader, that panacea, now made blunt and literal with video games, asking readers to participate in direct ways that cannot be confused or missed. Back in the sixties, the interaction was abstract, conceptual, high-plane thinking and intellectual playing, and outside the windows of the bedroom of the house, not the glass house in your hands any longer, no, your real house, or the library, or the school, or the park, outside of your self-imposed self-serving literary bubble, turmoils gnash and gnarl, and all that social disruption and destruction and poverty and sickness and health and guilt, and you with your middle class so-so-ness stuck in that imaginary bubble and what are you thinking you little cretin? But we’re back to the old problems, the social responsibility of the socialists and leftists, and you agree with them, and they say you’re neglecting it — your mission, your resolve, importance, life, vitality, all those words — their moralistic affront, their imposition: “worry about serious things, for the folds of a book are not serious.” And then Sabato comes in, or his memory, his reflection, shaking his head in consternation, the exterminating angel. He talked about all this already and in an eloquent expulsion of angry prose he had outlined the solution: but fiction is nightmare, fiction is inner truth, do not conflate, do not simplify, do not denigrate, do not be less than what you are already, do not be more childish in the name of serious reality. I think that’s what he wrote. And I wonder, though, what this glass house suggests to me, does to me, and I see that it’s vain and relevant, slight and weighty, all sorts of contradictions, because our soul and our dreams and our hopes are all contained in this pale fire, that screaming is in there, and the screaming can make us better — better readers, better people, I don’t know — for the screaming, who knows, the screaming might be us, the reader stuck in a bundle of folds and labyrinths and we want out and we cannot escape because right there — right there, by our side, you cannot miss him! — there’s the narrator stuck in the folds with you, so maybe the reader is not really able to choose, as the post-structuralists will tell you, oh no, we have all been blabbering so many wrong things for so long, the interactive reader, oh no, the reader is trapped, deliciously trapped, and he wants to escape, but the author is right next to him, smiling, saying: “We’re in this together!” The pieces, those interactive pieces, are now revealed as broken reflections, cubists perspectives, and in the name of figuring it out, in the name of interactivity, no, there is no freedom, only endless getting lost and misery and passion, yes, passion is what we’re ultimately left with, because the passion inherent in the artistic world — the miracle of worlds created by words, as Kinbote exclaims! — is analogous to the passion of the external world, or rather, the artistic world, in its meticulously created shape, attempts to hold the beauty and perfection of the real world, and the great joke, the great human, sensitive, joke, is that this meticulously created shape, this fake artistic world, is ultimately so lost in its bundle of folds, and the reader is so lost as well, that the final epiphany is as such: we cannot hold the world entire within our hands, not even those we create, not even those we read, not even this glass house made of words.

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Thoughts on the Asian Stage

A collection of my posts on Asian cinemas, arts, and entertainments.

La Biblia de los Pobres

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Cine, Literatura, Videojuegos, Comics y Música