December 2015

Simone Wolff


Loquela by Carlos Labbé, translated by Will Vanderhyden

Carlos Labbé's Loquela is a book about a book about a book... I could go on. The comparison with Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler is unavoidable, as Labbé has also created a novel nestled in a novel, a room of mirrors where characters and narratives are duplicated, which pokes serious fun at the academy and literary community.

The first book (after Loquela itself) is "The Novel," presented every other chapter in italics. Its protagonist, Carlos, named after Labbé himself, is writing a novel, which seems to be a kind of whodunit surrounding the murder of an albino girl. Carlos has an albino friend, Violeta, who narrates the second-person epistolary section, "The Sender," and who is also writing a book. Hers is a collection of stories about her childhood fantasyland, Neutria, which she created with Carlos's cousin, Alicia, as an alternative to the suffocating surroundings of Santiago. Of course, in her book, Carlos is writing a book -- in fact, she calls him "He Who Is Writing The Novel." Loquela's structure is a hall of mirrors that entrap both the reader and the characters.

The title comes from a Barthes quote defining loquela as "the flux of language through which the subject tirelessly rehashes the effects of a wound or the consequences of an action." Labbé, however, has the consequences of the action -- the murder of an albino girl/Violeta -- reverberate backward in time, so that the effects of the wound precede the wound, as well as render the wound inevitable.

The central wound of Loquela is not, as it might seem, the murder of Violeta, but instead the wound left when narrator and narrative are severed -- that is, the wound left by writing itself. Carlos and Violeta, the two writer-narrators of Loquela, belong to a fictional literary movement called Corporalism, which explores this very severing and tries to heal it by retrieving the hidden body of the writer. This movement, ironically, serves to wound further, because the only way to retrieve the body is to mortify it. The troubling line between literal and figurative violence is one of Loquela's main concerns.

Loquela has an oscillating structure, with chapters alternating between the third person, italicized "The Novel," and either of the two second-person sections: "The Recipient," from Carlos's perspective, or "The Sender," from Violeta's perspective. The sections are short, and repeat many times in the same pattern with total consistency, suggesting an Oulipo or conceptual approach. Like many Oulipo works, the text is chaotic on the surface, but on closer inspection reveals a rigid structure.

Each character in turn takes on an unsure, prismatic persona as the story itself is turned to show each character's perspective. The goal of this multivocal structure is not merely a fracturing of narrative but the demonstration of an apparently made-up literary movement, Corporalism, which involves breaching the physical boundaries of the author. Think less "the author is dead" and more "the author was killed."

For all of its heady strength, Loquela still falls prey to the usual downfalls of postmodernism. It can be cold and usurious, at times appropriating transsexuality and rape as metaphors for the sake of the novel's argument. These were the moments I felt the project of the book fell apart, succumbing to the narrator's narcissism for its own sake. They betray a kind of cognitive dissonance, as if a fractured narrative was most relevant to a cisgender, heterosexual male, and not actually more applicable to the lives of the transgressive and oppressed. It's not only that it lacks humanist feeling, as might be expected in a postmodernist text, but that for all his self-reflexivity, the novelist/narrator seems unable to overcome his own ego.

For those used to forgiving postmodernism its faults, Loquela will be a vessel for all its pleasures. It is drenched in the spirit of experimentality, dry and absurd humor, strangeness and intrigue. Loquela is, in a way, after its time, but perhaps that's exactly the point. In Loquela, everything has already happened, every action is reactionary and iterative. The plot is closed, but not sealed -- there is a constant slippage of relationships, events, even faces: "Carlos defended himself by saying that was how he preferred it, that all men have his face, that all the women be slight and distant like his girlfriend." Each character is indistinguishable from the next, and all characters are indistinguishable from the author. But rather than the homogenous result you might expect, Loquela runs a series of breathless, thrilling loops.

Loquela by Carlos Labbé, translated by Will Vanderhyden
Open Letter
ISBN: 978-1940953243
200 pages