April 2010

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Four to Six in Ten

Sometimes I wish books were more like video games. Rarely do I find myself so immersed in a book that I forget to eat, like I did when I used to play video games. Occasionally, a good book can gobble up neighboring “business”; maybe we don’t forget to eat, but we might skip the gym or stay up late. That’s why I think books should come with playing time the way video games do. For the last ten years or so, video games come with a time estimate of how long it takes to beat the game, according to their game testers. I’ve seen some internet publications that brand their stories with read time to attract busy readers (on the internet don’t we all feel “busy”), but maybe the same could be done for books. I read somewhere that publishers don’t like short books. Is that true? Don´t most readers like nothing more than a neat, slim book? It’s the one-night stand with none of the unnecessary slop of commitment. Those Pynchon, Ford, Vollmann clunkers are relationships that even long-ass narrative poems don’t, not even Hamlet does. Four hours and you’re out. Catharsis. Boom. Go home. They´re like short books that, despite their brevity (soul of wit or not), give more bang for your book. Take Mister Calvino by Goncalo M. Taveras. It’s only 50 pages and its reading time maxes out at about four hours, although I could see coming back to it again.

Did you say Italo Calvino? Who is this Goncalo M. Tavares? And who does he think he is writing about Italo Calvino? Ask his paisano, José Saramago, who told a crowd at an awards ceremony, “He doesn’t have the right to write so well at 35. It makes you want to punch him.” Ironically, Taveras did everything he could to avoid this categorization; at twenty he vowed not to publish until he was thirty, and took time to practice and compose, like so much Sonny Rollins. It seems to have done great things for his writing, not to mention his career: in less than a year of his thirtieth birthday, he already had two books out. Since then, he has had no trouble finding a publisher for his novels, poems, plays, investigative works, or encyclopedias, the first of which to appear in English was his series The Neighborhood.

Imagine Robert Musil, Michel Foucault, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Samuel Beckett and George Orwell live in the same building; next door to Andy Warhol, Michel Duchamp, Le Corbursier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Bosch; just around the way from Italo Calvino (fittingly living in the top floor of his own building). Welcome to The Neighborhood, seven skinny volumes of Taveras’s musings on his favorite thinkers and artists.

I thought Calvino would be the best place to start. Everyone loves Calvino. Besides, he hasn’t had any book beyond the grave like some of his former contemporaries, so it’s nice to find some new material, even if it’s only about him, sort of. Mister Calvino reads like excerpts from what you’d imagine Calvino’s life to be -- that is if you haven’t read his journals, which make Flaubert sound modest. In the fictional account of his nonfiction life, he mostly dreams. He dreams he’s falling out of his thirty story window and landing unscathed on his feet. He dreams he’s a butterfly that makes him feel as though everything was “thought out and resolved, without the need for human abnegation.” He dreams that he discusses percentages inside a whale. From there on, it’s all regular neighborhood stuff, only that Mister Calvino’s understanding of this everyday life is anything but regular: balloon floating through the sky serves as a momento mori; carrying a metal rod from one end of the town to the other becomes an appraisal for maintaining parallelism; an article about a prehistoric bird leads him to ponder the persistence of flight. In fact, Mister Calvino’s charm lies in his natural disposition to over-think everything.

At times, Mister Calvino can even be an intellectual grump (as he seems in Hermit in Paris, which might as well have been titled Asshole in Paris). The last piece in this collection, “ Mister Calvino Takes a Walk,” begins with Mister Calvino trying to avoid distraction from his thoughts. At one point he thinks, "when one is thinking one is interrupted as though one was doing nothing at all," in response to the conversations passersby force on him. Other times, he is a kind literary codger (as you might imagine him when you read Difficult Loves), like in “The Dog and the City” when he volunteers to take a blind dog on walks, when no one else will.

Like those above, Taveras’ tropes (for lack of a better word) are clever, rarely kitsch, and always playful. In “Games” Mister Calvino plays chess with his neighbor Mister Duchamp. Afterwards they invent ten new rules, five each to see who wins. “The Sun” describes Calvino’s discovery of a fading library, in which he believes the sun is yearning to read, so he begins opening its books wherever its rays falls. In the end, he understands that his books when read become “new things under the sun.” As I said, they’re rarely kitsch.

The Neighborhood is a tribute to the artists that inspire him, and likewise a reflection on their identities; nevertheless, one can’t help but notice the its similarity to Calvino’s Mister Palomar. Is it merely coincidental, or the muse of the entire series (all of which begin “Mister”)? Although Taveras makes no direct mention of Palomar, his version of Calvino is reminiscent of Calvino’s made-up meandering and pensive observer.

How has The Neighborhood escaped the attention of one of the world’s largest translated fiction markets for so long? Perhaps its publisher Transbooks has something to do with it. Based in India (where publishing is certainly much cheaper) where his translator lives, Transbooks exclusively publishes Portuguese fiction, so exclusively that they are almost impossible to find. Hopefully, its list of distributors will grow. (I should also note that Dalkey has just published Jersualem, of his black book series, that I’ll review in coming months, after I complete reviews of each volume of The Neighborhood.) Undoubtedly, once his books are made available (as of now they are not sold on Amazon or Powells books) Mr.Taveras will soon be moving to this neighborhood, alongside the other great and respected writers -- probably somewhere between Mr. Kafka and Mr. Calvino, both of whom offer fantastic views.

Nor would it be too far from Mexican writer, Mr. Mario Bellatin, who has been receiving hordes of international intention, so much that he has recently agreed to publish some books in French translations before their Spanish originals. You have to admit that’s pretty cool. He is one of those cool authors. He also has a prosthetic limb and several different attachments, like the villain from Enter the Dragon. That’s really cool.

His books, like Taveras’s, tend to be short; however, unlike Taveras’s works they don’t grant much room for re-reading. They begin and they end. You must swim or drown in his massively small and ordinary narratives. When you do re-read it’s best to start from the beginning, as the stories are almost allegory, and their culminating moment of climax is unrepeatable.

Try this one from City Lights Books, Beauty Salon: Our gay narrator (never named) starts off cutting hair in a salon owned by a Japanese family, until he can earn enough money to buy his own. When he does, he finds competition and realizes that “ in order to compete the salon´s décor was fundamental.¨ So he gets a fish tank to set him apart from the competition. Around this time men in the city fall ill; plague is suspect. His clients arrive dying. Thus, his upscale, baroque barber shop becomes a hospice for the terminally ill (very appropriately called the Terminal). And voila: hair stylist transforms into nurse.

Much of what keeps Beauty Salon interesting is its allusiveness. At first, there seems to be a plague, affecting mostly men, who patronize the parlor. Is this AIDS? Are these drag queens? Do they work as prostitutes? Bellatin never directly answers us, but still, clues linger. The ambiguous protagonist alludes to his own homosexual relationships and use of make-up. Over the years, from close contact with the male clients the narrator too becomes infected with this mysterious disease. Suppose what you will, Bellatin seems to be saying. It is precisely his evasion of the concrete that avoids elementary allegory and turns it into something more morbidly lyrical.

Outside the Terminal, the community begins protesting against the salon and its patients, going as far as breaking windows and the front door; regardless, the narrator and his defenseless diseased, persist and so does the salon. The narrator occasionally mentions his childhood and his disapproving family, now replaced with this surrogate family of sick men, in which he plays mommy, so much so, that while performing his duties he kisses one of his would be ilk. Yet, this was not his intention. In fact, he scolds himself over and over again for establishing anything more than a Hippocratic relationship. After one of his patients dies, he thinks, “I regret having become emotionally involved with him” and treats his own grieving as a lesson learned. Soon after this intimate encounter, the narrator reveals that he too is dying and now must contemplate the most intimate death of all: his own. It’s over. Did you get it?

In the Terminal, like the flashy fish that inhabit the aquariums, and the terminally ill that die around them, everything floats. There are no turns of the heart, or sudden twists. We drift through the inevitable. If poetry is making nothing happen, as Auden once said, than this novel shows that prose can as well. The narrator’s encroaching death, for instance, comes slowly and calmly, providing plenty of time for examination and reflection. In his autobiographical essay "Portwood. Model, 1915" Bellatin describes writing Beauty Salon as somnipheric claustrophobia; indeed, in this book the reader as though stuck a fish tank.

An interesting comparison could be made with Chilean writer Jose Donoso’s classic The Place Without Limits that tells the story of a small town brothel in Chile, who’s protagonist slowly reveals himself to be a transgender prostitute. The same menacing ambiguity, in terms of gender and sexual identity, appear in this novel; only that unlike its predecessor, boredom in this novel ends in decay, rather than destruction.

Bellatin has spoken of love for the visual arts and like an installation piece, Beauty Salon is meant to be inhabited. The daily maintenance of colorful fish, alongside the tending of pale patients works better visually than it does verbally. The same could be said of the supposedly painless wide-eyed fish that witness the excruciating deaths of the Salon’s “guests.”

Despite the book’s nuts and bolts style, Beauty Salon rides somewhere poem and prose. It’s either a long prosaic poem, or a short poetic piece of prose. His knack for cold aestheticism could be attributed to his love of Yasunari Kawabata (who is cited at the beginning of the novel), while his ironic and often reluctant allegories are most reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges and sometimes, Samuel Beckett. This terseness could make translation challenging. One wrong word and his teetering juxtapositions would fall into superfluous abstraction, but Hollander’s translation succeeds and lets us concentrate on the story in question.

Bellatin like Taveras has published close to a dozen tiny novels, most of them 2-3 hours in reading time. I have re-read some. Each time I have had to go back to the very beginning and start again, sort of like a beating a video game and going back to the beginning to play it again on Difficult.

None of that gets even us any closer to the mystery that surrounds the act of writing. It’s one of the few real life conceits an author has left. I’m reminded of a Chinese anecdote that Mr. Calvino cites somewhere, about an emperor who wants the best portrait of a crab money can buy. So he pays a painter a large sum of money, gives him a house, servants and five years to complete his task. For five years he doesn’t work on anything (video games?) and then asks the emperor for another five years. Then, after all that time with no practice, he paints the crab in one stroke. No one can figure out how. And that’s what makes it so good.