March 2011

Janet Potter


The Scale of Maps by Belén Gopegui, translated by Mark Schafer, and An Answer from the Silence: A Story from the Mountains by Max Frisch, translated by Mike Mitchell

Belén Gopegui, in The Scale of Maps, quite elegantly rejects time and space. Consider:

…today you hear that an old friend has returned whom you had long ago decided was lost forever to a distant continent. It’s eight in the evening, you leave your house imagining the meeting, your happiness so irrepressible that you are laughing under your breath as you walk, because in the blink of any eye you have seen your past with that person and your future, the joy of being close. You board a bus, going down the list of places you are thinking of bring your friend, arm raised, hand gripping the dirty metal pole… But in fact it was all a false alarm. The person who had told you your friend was returning had mistaken the date or the name. Where were you while you were planning this meeting? If you answer “on the bus,” aren’t you committing a sin of imprecision, to say the least? What was the emotion you were feeling composed of and where was it located: forty-five minutes of palpable happiness incited by an illusory event?… to whom does that span of time, running counter to reality, belong?

Gopegui’s novel stalks this idea obsessively. The main character, Sergio Prim, calls it a “hollow,” a kind of pocket within the fabric of your surroundings into which you can retreat.

Sergio, is a shy, fidgety man. He is a cartographer by trade, but a cartographer who, while he finds comfort in maps -- “They establish a unique relationship between us and the world, as do books” -- doesn’t think they tell the whole story. His basic discomfort in the world leads him to believe that the world has some other nature that no one else sees, or no one else is looking for. He’s a little crazy, but he might be a genius.

What really throws him into a conniption is that there’s a girl who likes him. Her name is Brezo, and she is Sergio’s opposite. Her unfettered desire to be with Sergio -- to spend time in his company and make room for him in her life -- baffles him. When she proposes they go on a trip together, he protests, “I, who have spent just short of half a decade mastering the five hundred square feet of my apartment… it occurs to Brezo to propose an odyssey of train cars and luggage, unfamiliar beds and unpredictable breakfasts.”

From a purely practical standpoint, Sergio’s reactions are maddening. “You’re a hypochondriac cartographer!” one wants to shout, “date the pretty woman!” But Brezo’s attention puzzles him, and their differences puzzle him, and he spends most of the book puzzling about them. From a loftier standpoint, his befuddlement, which he elevates into an existential dilemma, is the tableau on which Gopegui muses.

Like Swann, Anna Karenina, and Don Quixote (all invoked) before him, Sergio’s relationship is Gopegui’s point of inquiry. But rather than examining social norms and constraints, she uses Sergio’s hand-wringing to question the very fabric of humanity, “to refute the links human beings habitually establish with their surroundings.”

It’s an ambitious novel, to be sure, made beautiful by Gopegui’s liquid prose, and made accessible by her ultimate refusal to answer her own questions. No matter how much Sergio keeps chewing on his theories -- removing himself from Brezo, and then from civilization, to focus on finding “hollows” in the world -- he never quite finds them, although he falls farther in love with the idea. “But isn’t it better, my friend, to go mad over nothing, over the leaf falling slowly through the air, over the pale cold, over the slightest thing?”

This preference for dwelling in questions is also the basis of An Answer From the Silence by Max Frisch, a Swiss novella from 1937 recently translated into English. Frisch’s nameless hero has just turned 30 and is engaged, but is not realizing the greatness he assumed would be his.

As he had joined those around him in living an ordinary life, he says, “you know that you’re only pretending and that you aren’t an ordinary person, you know that in fact you’re waiting, just waiting for things to start moving, for that special gift, for fulfillment, for meaning.”

His reactions to his own disappointment are twofold. The first, bizarrely, is to blame God, or the absence of God. For all his claims of being extraordinary, his life was made dull, as is everyone’s, he claims, by “the lonely silence, which envelops all life and swallows every cry as if it had never been, this nameless silence, which is perhaps God, perhaps nothingness.”

It’s an eloquent defeatism, but it conflicts with his second reaction, which is to blame himself, and then prove himself wrong by climbing the unclimbed North Ridge. It’s a classic midlife crisis tale done Swiss style -- with Alps involved -- and as a novella is a much more linear investigation than The Scale of Maps in that, as the title suggests, the climber won’t stop until he gets an answer.

Attempting the North Ridge is suicide, he’s told, but the climber is determined. Either the unfathomable silence of the world will defeat him, thereby proving the irrelevance of the individual, or he is right, and he’s an extraordinary person with a mighty destiny. “Nature is so great and so profligate, who can say how many people it tries out before it gets one who is really alive and who knows to the limit what it is when they talk about life, about pain, about longing and work and happiness?”

The novella’s limitation is that Frisch is fleshing out the dilemma of a man who sees only two possible, starkly opposing explanations of the world. There’s far too much room in the middle for the reader to see nuance Frisch never allows for. And yet, when the climber sets out alone towards the deathly North Ridge, his quest does feel like it will answer something. What has already been answered, long before we learn the climber’s fate, is the value of stepping out of our tracks, every once in a while, and asking questions of the sky.

The Scale of Maps by Belén Gopegui, translated by Mark Schafer
City Lights Publishers
ISBN: 087286510X
176 Pages

An Answer from the Silence: A Story from the Mountains by Max Frisch, translated by Mike Mitchell
Seagull Books
ISBN: 1906497923
128 Pages