Dying by René Belletto, translated by Alexander Hertich
“Our love story seemed to reduce the rest of the world to nothing. But now, my Anita, I know today (today!), our story was nothing other than the world without us.” So says the narrator of René Belletto’s Dying, a story about the unreal and yet perfectly natural cruelty of love. Though the book is oddly structured -- divided into an Old Testament and a New Testament, featuring two separate stories -- the majority of the text is given to a first-person lament of an unnamed sculptor living in Paris. He and his lover Anita bond over art, and are soon drawn into an obsessive love affair, in which they cannot be apart from each other for more than an hour without being overcome by their own neuroses. They withdraw from society, and attempt to forestall the hideous mental and physical erosions that make up a life. The problem, however, is that they find their own obsessive love is stealing the life away from them both. Mired in a specifically European brand of world-weariness, the narrator decides that the only rational option is to fake his own death and go into hiding, assuming of course that the love of his life will someday move on.
Belletto is a French novelist, so it may be no surprise to some readers that the characters tackle these issues through grand monologues and esoteric dialogue. The examination of the narrator’s relationship with Anita comes closer to a dense treatise than anything else:
If Anita remained attached to me and if this transfusion of life continued in this manner even though my life was no longer in me but in her -- if the movement of appropriation and loss, combined with such infinite violence and obstination that it henceforth seemed like a perpetual-motion machine operating outside of our bodies [endured]… why wouldn’t it continue forever, for we were well on our way!
This type of talk is typical of the novel, and it turns what could merely be an absurd story into a moving, poignant one. The sculptor starts his story with the sentence, “I decided to pass myself off as dead in Anita’s eyes,” so every sentence after that, no matter how complex the language or light the subject, serves to reinforce the narrator’s spiritual death. We could raise our eyebrows or even laugh at the chapter in which Anita begs the narrator to test himself for Khler’s syndrome, for she is fearful of most things in life and can’t take the chance that he might be giving her this disease, which leads him to recruit his friend to pose as a doctor and print up fake test results to please her. But behind the absurdity of this strange scenario, there is still “the raven-haired and fearful Anita,” a figure that we cannot see as anything but helpless and fragile, and because Belletto’s narrator is so at ease in the particular language that he has created to describe his miserable situation, we too fear for her, and when the time comes to take drastic action, we feel that he is justified in faking his own death.
But that is not to say that the comic nature of the novel is buried underneath all this seriousness. Like Beckett and Kafka, Belletto understands how the type of delirium born out of misery can, to an outsider, be oddly funny. The narrator devotes an entire chapter to recounting a dream in which he becomes a journalist assigned to cover the birthday party of a powerful man’s daughter. He is forced to sit apart from the other guests at dinner and is served disgusting food that he suspects might be poisoned, which, he tells us, is the fearful Anita creeping into his dreams. The scene ends, however, in the most elaborate and artful description of the act of passing gas that I have ever read, culminating in a brilliant representation of the narrator’s impossible situation:
My lips undulate[d] irregularly, producing the illusion of an unknown language whose delivery was so rapid it seemed as if I was begging for my life to be saved, explaining myself, justifying an infinitely complex problem point by point, while the executioner had already raised his axe.
Again, we return to the illuminating nature of absurdity. The narrator’s whole predicament seems to consist of spasms throughout life, in which he is unable to seek help outside of the language he is comfortable with, the private language of love that he shares with Anita -- and with his readers.
On a larger scale, the entire book seems to share this confusion. The aforementioned Old Testament remains part of an intratextual puzzle, not directly concerned with the sculptor’s tale but sharing certain mysterious connections. It features an equally miserable old man named Sixtus who escapes from an empty hotel and meets a young woman, whom he eventually takes with him on a madcap journey, all this written in a feverish prose reminiscent of Beckett’s Molloy. The story dead-ends after fifty pages, but the manuscript that Sixtus finds in a hotel finds its way into the New Testament, complicating our understanding of who is telling whose story.
The novel is also filled with numerous detours. Various dreams are related, which feature whole new worlds and complex backstories, and it is almost disappointing to have them vanish into metafictional smoke after a few pages. The most arresting of these exercises, though, has to be the eight-page chapter relating the phonetic history of the word “prison,” a word that has come to obsess him as he embraces his own “living dead state.” Retreating into “the most infinitely vast library on Earth,” the narrator imagines this word as a rock in the sea of European history, being slowly eroded by the rise and fall of empires into the short, simple word we know today. The mention of an infinite library recalls Borges’s “The Library of Babel,” and indeed, Belletto’s miniature linguistic epic embodies the same spirit as the grand, self-contained worlds in Borges stories.
But however often Belletto dips into homage, or absurdity, or experimental detours, the overwhelming intelligence and misery of his narrator is always present. We see how one voice will not satisfy this desperate man -- he must go beyond the private language he is comfortable with and find some way of accurately depicting his pain, which is a pain that we cannot possibly understand. Death as we’ve come to know it is an end, something that comes after the suffering. In the narrator’s case, however, one can be dead and still have the majority of his life to live out, with all the aches and pains that come with it.
Dying by René Belletto, translated by Alexander Hertich
Dalkey Archive Press