Aura– Carlos Fuentes


You open the thin book. You have heard much about this writer, this giant of Latin American fiction, disciple of Cervantes and Borges….In the first page, you meet the protagonist, historian Felipe Montero. You read further into the story,  you find that you are walking into the old section of the city after seeing an advertisement in a local paper offering 4000 pesos a month plus room and board to edit an old crone’s late husbands memoirs…..wait, You ARE Felipe Montero.

Not having read a novel narrated in second person since Robbe-Grillet, I took readily to being the hero of the story I am reading for a change. Carlos Fuentes novella  Aura, was the start of his named cycle of novels ‘El Mal del Tiempo’ dealing with the problem of time. In an early interview, Fuentes declared that this part of his vast cultural-historical ‘project’ was to examine and negate western linear time..”I want to announce that my concept of time is linear, also cyclical, also eternal returns, or sometimes a spiral…”  Once armed with this and a bit of biographical snippets hinting that Fuentes spent a lot of his life in libraries and has whole rows of cultural history probably committed to his memory, you MAY be right to assume therefore if a mention is made by the narrator that the street number of the decrepit mansion has been crossed out and changed to 815, then a faceless voice tells you in the unlit hallway that you must take 13 steps to the left and then 22 steps up, the numbers probably have symbolic importance.  And all the seeming innocuous details: species of plants, colors of the character’s dress…more than likely point to a subtextual layer,  a bit of delving may point to associations with the ‘White Goddess’ , allusions to Hecate, and Artemis and the tripartite aspect of the moon goddess of birth death and rebirth.

You (Felipe Montero) have already decided that this place and its widow/crone are beyond creepy and weird, but the niece, Aura…well that will be another story… The editing of the old General’s memoirs is gravy, you want to milk this to last long enough to pay for some ‘me time’ later…but there IS the matter of interior lighting, or lack of it…along with the fact that Consuelo, (the ancient widow) is often found kneeling down waving a fist in the air in front of a Christ figure carved in black wood surrounded by votive candles is a bit bewildering, but @ 4000 pesos a month you can put up with some infirmities..

But then you have those dreams, or are they dreams? There was or wasn’t something beheaded, as if in a sacrifice…the senses are gradually less sure of the interiors of this place..That moonlight….You have exchanged the “Gaze” mirada with the crone AND Aura… its as if its a portal between two worlds, and you know you are eternally bound… to find out the rest of the plot by reading… Aura.

What I took Away

The narrative reads like a story by Poe… the characters -other than Felipe of course- are as ethereal as they are of blood and flesh, which is anyway integral to the dual world Fuentes creates. When the jolt to our senses occur, when the realm of the fantastic intrudes on our ‘reality’ we are called to question which world we (Fuentes ‘you’)  are located in, disoriented by the intrusion of another reality. The question of sanity even becomes a matter of perspective!  But then again, it may have only been a nightmare…



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In The Skin Of A Lion– Michael Ondaatje

Skin of Lion

Lured by rumors of Michael Ondaatje’s heady prose and some popular as well as critical success, I had no qualms in grabbing his 1987  In The Skin of a Lion next out of the Nobel Prize candidate stack. There ARE other worthy Canadian candidates, Alice Munro and Margaret Attwood come to mind, but as a sucker for poetic-leaning narrative, I took the bait (putting to rest the lame fishing metaphor..)

Prior to opening this, Michael Ondaatje’s second novel, I was aware that its sequel, The English Patient had won a Booker prize, and also that he is noted to be an accomplished poet. One sentence bio: born in Sri Lanka, he moved first to England and then finally to Canada in1962 where he became a Canadian citizen….

Set in Ontario and primarily Toronto of the 20’s and 30’s the novels characters, (the ‘six stars and a moon’ referenced in the opening authorial aside) are immigrants who have roles to play out in the construction of the city. This aside to the reader is key to the conceit for the narrative’s style:

This is a story a young girl gathers in a car during the early hours of morning….she listens to the man as he picks up and brings together various corners of the story, attempting to carry it all in his arms. And he is tired, sometimes as elliptical as his concentration on the road….

It gives Ondjaate’s narrator a license to freely work and shape his memories, to “suggest order to the chaos” and create a history out of the backwoods immigrant Patrick Lewis’s story. As a young boy, we learn early on that he is acutely aware of minutiae in his surroundings… Nah, too much plot summary for this blog… you can wiki here  if you want it spoiled.

The narrator is aware that he is linking together fragments of his memories as the narration occurs. Ondaatje uses a technique of narrative pull-backs, of creating two ‘present’ tenses in the story: time present in the darkness of the car ride, as well as the present tense in each storyworld scene as it occurs. The modal verb, ‘would’ (as in ‘years later he would…)  facilitates this pull-back device and is exploited freely to extend details in the story to bestow historical significance, since  the narrator is aware of his role as a teller of a tale, a choreographer of fate. I found what seems to set this novel apart ,beyond its stylistic elements, is its extreme ontological awareness. (apologies for the pretentious term), the cognition of place of each character in their historical-cultural landscape. So why should you care? Simply because what stands out in this tale, what seems to be a break in the magnetic attraction to doom: that its the opposite of the vast  majority of premises implicit in current literary fiction: do I need to even repeat the litany? inhuman, bleak, absurd, hopelessness and so (not) on. Ondaatje’s characters in The Skin of a Lion actually have an affect in their interaction with their landscape.They are actioners as well as reactioners. They are not all “unhistoric” (my favorite word in the novel):

This is what history means. He came to this county like a torch on fire and he swallowed air as he walked forward and he gave out light. Energy poured through him. That was all he had time for in those years. Language, customs, families, salaries. Patrick’s gift, that arrow into the past, shows him the wealth in himself, how he has been sewn into history.  

You would find (its addicting, this ‘would’)  if you read the novel, references to each character’s ‘horizon’, their centeredness in it at that particular time. Ondaatje’s links this sense of the characters individual horizon’s on a level outside, above the story level itself, to create a vast diorama of some criticial events in the construction of the  Toronto’s, polyglot cultural history. This linking of landscapes is one of the ways the narrator attempts to ‘gather all the corners of the story’.

The elliptical prose can be evocative and atmospheric as well as revel in minutia: it IS gorgeous. The depth perception enabled is impressive: between the close-ups lending a tactile quality, a felt texture to the story’s visible surfaces, to the sudden view from the heights. I at first admitted to a problem with some character dialogue pitched in the same register as the narrative. This especially occurs in exchanges between our hero, Patrick and his two haunting loves, Clara Dickens and Alice Gull. But a quick flip back to the all important open settled matters.

In the epigram at the novel’s beginning, we see a translation from an excerpt of the Epic of Gilgamesh: “I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion…” a mention should be made to its connections in the text. I will crucify by oversimplification:  ‘Skin’s’ are a referent to the immigrant’s abilities to assimilate to their new landscape. It  is often all that exists between the self and its survival. It is not only a protector from the elements, it can often be a mask or a means also of escape from threat. The protagonist significantly works at one point for a leather goods manufacturer, and is cutter of raw unprocessed cattle skins.

What I Took Away:
The American novelist, Stanley Elkin once said that a novel either says Yes or it says No. Though doubtful character trajectories abound in the book and it is rampant with its hard scrabble times. The novel’s landscape, though not windswept, can be survivable, as long as one as a sense of their horizon…if You ‘would ‘ read this book.

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The Slynx– Tatyana Tolstaya


Benedikt coughed politely to interrupt.

“My life is spiritual”

“In what sense”

“I don’t eat mice”

Having worshipped at the alter of some classic black-humor-slash-absurdist fiction back in the day, I was grinning like I was getting away with something most of time reading Tatyana Tolstaya’s first novel, The Slynx. Little did I suspect when I first dipped into this contemporary Russian writer’s book that at times it would shake out fond memories of Vonnegut, Robbins, and Harris. Though associating their wordplay, sheer inventiveness and bludgeoning irony, these guys played in a much shallower end of the pool than Leo Tolstoy’s great grand niece….

This novel was an on again, off again 14 year project, started when she lived in the USA and taught at Princeton during the glasnost and perestroika years, and finished in 2000.  Though I openly admit to being unread in utopian/dystopian fiction (not even 1984 oh snap), it seems as a given that books belonging to that genre are approached as line item allegories (This_______stands for That________) .. After finishing the last page ofThe Slynx, I searched for and read three online book reviews for the novel (something I normally don’t do) and found substantially three different interpretations of what the various  “this =” in the book….my grin broadened further. 

Mouse Meat.
The narrative is all Free Indirect (basically 1st person point of view that is made to sound like third person) from the protagonist, Benedict. Our 30something hero is a delightfully engaging pragmatic simpleton. In the two centuries after “The Blast” the inhabitant’s staple and currency is mice, which are eaten, made apparel and candles out of, and strings of them are the coin of the realm. Benedikt is a scribe, a copier of decrees ostensibly penned by the Ruler, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. Similar to Clockwork Orange there is a bastardized vocabulary that the Golubchik’s (comrades) use to describe everyday items. Most all Golubchiks have various mutations from radiation, called “Consequences”. There exists a small sub group, or class of those that have survived the Blast, called ‘Oldeners’ who mysteriously do not age, but have avoided the mutations, and are outsiders, dissidents of the post-apocalyptic society. In the remnants of culture the existence of books are just rumors.

Benedikt, though for the most part a happy camper, like all Golubchiks, lives a subsistence level life. He reasons by observing, and this empirical narrative lens lets Tolstaya direct the reader into the storyworld with the same wide eyed wonder. Our hero has been shown to have ‘pudential” some possibility of artistic talent, and unexpectedly marries above his class. His new Father In Law, is the Head Sanitorion, a government official in charge of ‘cleansing’, retrieving books surreptiously kept by Golubchiks. In the background lurking is the titular mythic beast, the Slynx .More detail than this would mess the plot.

Mutant Bones:
Scattered throughout the narrative, the many snippets of poems and allusions to great Russian poets: Pushkin (a looming figure in the novel), Blok and Pasternak serve as artifacts, fossilized bits from a pre Blast culture and are unidentified annotations for the ‘oldener’s introspections. Also, in a sense this is a warped Bildungsroman, as our practical hero has tasted art in the form of reading books and he quests to obtain more. His questing is confused, books for him are a form of living vicarious lives, simply another experience . He seems to only understand what he reads at the literal level. In a scene where he reveals to his oldener friend Nikita Ivaniich, that he has actually read  confiscated books,  Benedikt tries to impress by telling them he knew how “Freedom is made”, he read “Knitting and Plaiting  Sweaters” and it had explained a technique of stitching to create “freedom of movement”. Enlisted and tutored by  Nikita,  Bennedikt carves a wooden statue of Pushkin, and helps erect it at the village crossroads. His mentor has tried to explain Immanuel Kant’s discovery of the categorical imperative:

our inner moral law is inscribed in fiery letters in The Book of Being.. and our life young man, is a quest for this book..and Pushkin knew this!

I wish I could read Russian just to compare Jamey Gambrell’s translated prose with Tolstoya’s original, because the prose sings:

You’re born, you die, you get up, you lie down, you dance at your neighbor’s wedding, or in the morning in the stern raspberry dawn you wake in fright as though somebody hit you with a stick, like you alone remain alive on earth- and the stars are still there, always still there, pale, indistinct, eternal, silent.

What I took away
This was a sheer guilty pleasure to read. There are no brainer referents to modern Russian historical socio-political entities to the futuristic storyworld of The Slynx, but there are many ambiguities where as stated at the outset, if it was a straightforward allegory of this = that, why isn’t there a consensus what “that” is? It could be argued the narrative wandered a bit in a place or two, but with Tolstoya’s ebullient prose, one can only say, by all yourself.


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The Procedure– Harry Mulisch



Traces expedition into Nobel candidate territory continues with Harry Mulisch’s 1999 novel, The Procedure. Mulisch has an extensive multi-genre oeuvre of at least 14 novels,  as well as drama, essays and books of poetry. He is considered one of the giants of post war Dutch literature and recipient of the Prize for Dutch literature for lifetime achievement. His two best known novels are his 1982 The Assault and his 1992 The Discovery of Heaven, both of which were made into critically acclaimed movies.

Genesis, Golems, Double Helix and Eboent oh my….

Having been forewarned that Mulisch is somewhat professed autodidact (self taught smart guy), I expected the unexpected in reading this, my first work by the author. Indeed.  Instead of chapters, the novel is divided into  ‘Deeds’, and each Deed further broken into ‘Documents’. The authorial presence was introduced in the first Document of the first Deed, titled Speaking, when our narrator instructs us precisely how the story is going to unfold, and a warning to prepare ourselves ‘through introspection and prayer’, as this tale is not for those who need immediate action and suspense, that he “can’t do it that way this time”….

The opening Document Man, explains the narrator’s interpretation of the biblical Creation story in which he informs us that a close reading of Genesis reveals ‘man’ was created three times. This is a portent of the three ‘creations’ that will take place in the novel. In the second document The Character, our narrator informs us that his opening section has caused the other ‘impure readers’ to flee and now it’s just ‘you and me’. He argues in circuitous fashion that literature is essentially theological in nature and that in the creation of a story:

The narrator of a story is at the same time not the narrator. The story itself is the actual narrator, it tells itself; from the first sentence onward, the narrative is a surprise to the narrator too…

He further explains that in the world of fiction, man is a ‘character’ having the additional meaning of a formation of characters in the alphabet, ‘figures on a typewriter’ and that the process of fictive creation is one of imitatio dei, like Jehovah. This  God-Like sense of the creative process of writing will turn out to be a key referent and be echoed by the three different stories that are variations on the theme of Creation, Genesis, and Conception.

 As in postmodern fiction enterprises, we are by now used to having ‘self conscious narratives’ the story teller winks to the reader that he and we both really know ‘what up’…Mulisch in The Procedure goes one better. He has offered to take the novitiate reader along for the whole mystery of conception, its creation, genesis and death.

Mulisch is obviously well in control of his material. From the embedded (well known) tale of  16thcentury Prague Rabbi Jehudah Loew who according to Jewish legend, successfully made a Golem, to an expose on DNA mapping and its brief history. The Deed ‘A’ is narrated in first person, Deed ‘B’ is constructed by three ‘communications’ from the protagonist: the internationally famous biochemist Victor Werker to the mother of his child. They form the narrative of the modern Pygmalion story. The prose for the first two thirds of the book is for the most part clinically detached and wry-ironical in tone, but the last two communications that form the central part of the novel are heart wrenching and powerful. Deed ‘C’, entitled The Conversation, is in third person ‘free indirect speech’ in which Victor tries to make sense of his past, present and future. The complex plot comes together full circle. That said, there is not the sense of total coherence of the disparate sections. Probably my impression is due to a momentum not sustained in the last section, it is more cerebral and in a completely different register from the emotionally moving previous ‘communique’ sections… 

What I took Away:

This is one of those novels, short as it is (230 pages in my Penguin edition) that would reward future re-readings. It’s intelligent, and is a rare bird for being a novel of ideas that IS also suspenseful and readily engaging. I would re-read it for the ‘Third Communication’ alone. Its that powerful. If you pass Mulisch’s ‘initiation’ into The Procedure, he will be glad to take you along for the ride…

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Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade– Assia Djebar



1001 words about a modern day sheherazade…

After being secretly proud of myself for keeping my readerly expectations to a minimum when I reviewed the last two much hyped novelists back to back, I had no such prejudice when starting Algerian author Assia Djebar’s 1985 novel, Fantasia:  An Algerian Cavalcade. In fact I had never heard of her, and this book only made my reading stack based on lists that have been floating around the net suggesting possible 2009 Nobel prize contenders… (now, be honest, most of you have not heard of half these writers either…)
My brow (low as is it) raised when I read that Assia Djebar is the owner of some serious literary credentials: 1996 Neustad Prize winner and the Yourcenar prize the following year. She became a member of the prestigious Académie Française  in 2005 and she is currently professor of Francophone Literature at New York University.

I will admit now up front, at first glance I had preconceived notions of a ‘lighter’ read. I was surprised when I thumbed the first few pages to see a Glossary of Berber-Arabic terms, a Chronology of Algerian History, and the Contents listing the three titled  parts to the narrative; with the ‘Part III’  broken into five ’movements’. Notice was duly taken, I settled into the book and when the desert dust and last shrill clamor faded, I found myself inexplicably on the other side of a Fantasia, and Assia Djebar’s third novel…

Fantasia (cultural definition): An equestrian event, a traditional closing of a Berber wedding celebration, it is a martial performance, and also is referred to as the “Game of Gunpowder” it symbolizes a strong attachment to tradition. Fantasia (musical definition): a musical composition featuring free improvisation by the composer.

Cavalcade: A procession or parade, that focuses on a re-enactment of important historical events. It is a participation event, as opposed to a spectacle.

Many, many historic and interrelated ‘witnessed’ events, first person reports, narrative snapshots but no conventional plot= no plot synopsis. I suppose one COULD say, a Berber Arab exile looks back and makes sense of her country’s and her own personal emancipation from cultural-colonial tyrannies… but I won’t. But I can say that the prose is a tour de force: from succinct reporting to a rich lyrical extravagance, from sensuous impressionistic set pieces to keenly nuanced and detailed  renderings of landscape and atmosphere. 

Call it an exoskeleton, since it’s a Fantasia after all…Since the book overtly incorporates the structure of a musical fantasia (and since I have NO formal knowledge of music theory, I had to look it up!): its says it is characterized by  free improvisation, a loose ‘arrangement’ of thematically contrapuntal sections  or ‘Fugue’ overlaying each other to enhance and develop themes… There are two narratives, the first in the “current” time, a narrator look’s back on her formative years as an Arab girl in colonial Algiers. The second consist of The Cavalcade: a pageant of two counterpointed histories, the first more recent past, during the 1954-62 Algerian War of Independence largely from the point of view of the colonized (Algerians) and the distant, 1830 French conquest culled from actual first person accounts, primarily from the perspective of the conquerors (French).

There are thematic dichotomies, or dialectics Djebar explores through the novel’s contrapuntal structure, or Fugue. The colonized vs the colonizers, the theme of (big L) Language: the oral tradition of capturing and expressing the past of the Berber tribesmen vs the French, written language. Cultural repression as in the social mores of the veil ( the subsumed feminine identity as entrenched in the traditions of her homeland)  vs emancipation ( feminine self expression). The self vs the Other (the self is equated as the colonized,  the Other the colonizers). A major leitmotiv in the novel is the theme of Love Letter and the written word. In an early scene, the narrator recounts how she and her French-schooled sisters have clandestinely sent out ‘Love Letters’ to unknown paramours listed in the personal sections of a magazine. It is counterpointed with the dispatches of the war historian’s correspondences sent back to France. These early correspondents have conflicted emotions about the monstrosities of war, and are cause for self examination. We develop a sense that the colonizers are attracted to this alien world of Algiers, like an uncontrollable desire for a woman: it is equated to forcible sexual conquest:

these new crusaders of the colonial era, overwhelmed by such a clamor of voices, wallow in the depths of concentrated sound. Penetrated and deflowered;  Africa is taken despite the protesting cries that she cannot stifle.

This highly complex structure used in the novel is a wonderfully interesting arrangement: there are five sections in each movement, a ‘Voice” section, a short narrative of a tale of death or survival in the War of Independence,  a titled prose poem, followed by another Voice section, this is then followed by a section called ‘Embrace’ an vignette of an event or scene from the first War of conquest. Overall though, there is an imbalance due to the fugue portion which is contained in the five ‘movements’ of part III, it is overweight with at least two of the Voice sections seemed to me to not add anything thematically to their counterparts, they seemed to be repetitious. It should be emphasized heavily that the novel is NOT disjointed as it may sound by my simple breakdown. Djebar artfully ties together multiple elements that I have not even touched on: images and motifs of cultural ceremony (such the ululations of the tribes women, shrill cries of celebration or lament) , the allusions to the role of the storyteller embedded in their culture in the figure of Sheherazade..and finally the Muslim/Quranic elements and her probably controversial depiction on its deleterious affect on the role of women in Algerian society.

What I took Away: (Blarmy part)
This work is first part of a projected Quartet. (I ordered the second novel, A Sister to Sherehazade )
I get the sense that Fantasia is a story that the writer had to get out as if her life depended on it. She found a form to give her country’s chaotic past a supremely rich voice. What is unclear is if her Sherazade’s voice finds listening, unveiled ears in her homeland.

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Heart So White– Javier Marias

Heart so white

Macbeth murders sleep…

says the narrator at one point in the much hailed Spanish novelist Javier Marias’ highest profile work to date; his 1992 novel Heart So White.

I read Macbeth (unbelievably) for the first time last spring and had highlighted:  “My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white” from Lady Macbeth’s  response to Macbeth when he told her “the deed is done” (meaning Macbeth tells his wife he has murdered Duncan). With that said, one does not have to have read Macbeth to enjoy this novel. After finishing this,  I had learned more about the layers of interpretations of the play than any of my rereading  ever could.

The 40something newly married narrator Juan, is a government Interpreter slash Translator, and he, we are told has a ‘tendency to want to understand everything that people say, and everything that I hear, even at a distance’. From this vocation, Juan has privileged his premise that even everyday conversation,  human dialogue is often a ‘matter of life and death’ in its influence in the course of human events:

Its strange that words don’t have worse consequences than they do. Or perhaps we just don’t see it, we just don’t think they have any consequences and, in fact, the world’s in a permanent state of disaster because of the things we’ve said.

Soon after his honeymoon, Juan has decided that his imagined future together with Luissa his wife is a ‘concrete’ one, its trajectory is predictable. But he also has ‘presentiments of disaster’ and the discovery of the sources of these forebodings provide the impetus for his attempt make sense, to discover the reality of the chronicle of his enigmatic father, Ranz’s previous marriages and their dark secrets they have hidden.

In the course of his reflection he forms ‘hypothesis and conjectures’ of connectedness between past events of Ranzs’ marriages and his own current marriage and their influence on an imagined future. The strands, or threads of the fabric, are formed by  two parallel stories of his father and his first wife Theresa; along with his own relationship with his wife Luissa. They form a weave with two counter-posed stories of couples: first the purely conjectured relationship fabricated from an overheard conversation in a neighboring hotel room in Havana, the ‘story’ of Miriam and Guillermo. Second the attempts at relationships of his friend Berta and her noir lover Bill.        

Marais’ narrative is much like a weaving loom whose shuttle and arms are formed by: ‘listening’ which is primary Interpretation, and Translation: which is less direct, and more subject to distortion, recounting of the personal events, the stories,  which may be self serving lies or part truths, pictures of the past. Just as in the plays of Shakespeare, in Heart So White  much of what characters, and narrator, learn about each other, plot events or even of themselves is through casual overhearing and eavesdropping. Another device of the narrative-loom is repetition of ideas, framing spoken sentences remembered, which Marias uses here much like in the poetic form of the villanelle. This loom creates:

“a vast piece of cloth with no stitching, no ornament, no folds, like invisible, reddish sky with no angles to limit it, then differentiated, and mobile hole in which one cannot see the we and there is only repetition, but not the repetition that occurs after some time has passed, which is not only tolerable but pleasant, not only tolerable but necessary a continuous, uninterrupted repetition, a constant leveling out of what is happening.”


Then there are four lines from Macbeth centered on Lady Macbeth’s role in Macbeth’s murder of Duncan that are repeated as in stanzas of a villanelle . They are used to frame inferences in the narrative, each probing specific themes:  “a heart so white”: complicity/implication, “brainsickly” thinking:  secrets/culpability, “the dead are like pictures”: ‘negation of the retold’ and last, “Macbeth murders sleep”: the willful ignorance of the past’s affect on the future. They echo and reverberate within Juan’s story, and are a prism that Juan the narrator uses to explore and attribute meaning to events in his and his father’s relationships with women, as well as the mirrored stories of the other couples that form the narrative.

Since ‘listening is the most dangerous thing’  because it obliges the listener, in the warp and weave of the loom, Juan obliges us, the reader by weaving his story of how he comes to an understanding of the ‘reality’ behind the events of the opening scene. Once the story is started, and just as  “one word must follow the other”, consequences, implications follow, one after the other. But mere gathering of evidence will not suffice, this is the equivalent of  translating the ‘reality’ of the past, by extension, its affects on the future. This is not reliable as memories and there retelling are seen as a negation:

“Recounting an event distorts it, recounting facts distorts and twists and almost negates them, everything that one recounts, however true, becomes unreal and approximate, the truth doesn’t depend on things actually existing or happening, but on the remaining hidden or unknown or untold and what is called reality or even real life they become part of some and knowledge your symbolism, and are no longer facts, instead they become mere recognition”


Windswept bones:
This novel is as tightly bound together as any poem. It is wonderfully intricate  without being complex or complicated, if that makes any sense.

Ignorance of the consequences of what we say, of letting only ‘translations’, memories form the fabric of the narratives of our lives, is the equivalent of sleep. Juan is in this sense, as much a ‘murderer of sleep’ as Macbeth, and he either abides or not, that is the question…

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Remainder– Tom McCarthy


The tyranny of matter…

There that’s my summary of this debut novel by Tom McCarthy.
You know its really refreshing, think about how many novels are thematically concerned with the tyranny of time…

He already had established his avant-garde credentials as the founding member of the International Necronautical Society, where one of its axioms is: Death, is viewed by the INS as “a cipher for the outer limit of description, for the point at which the code breaks down”. The society explores the relationships between representation (in the artistic usage) and death.

Where to begin…. There is the narrator hero of no name, who could be referred to as the Enactor, who surrounds himself with re-enactors, who also have no names with the notable exception of the head Re-enactor, or facilitator, Nazrul Ram Vyas, Naz for short. This will be explained forthwith…Lets see, the plot structure is chronologically straight forward. The prose has a captivating, unassuming pulse, is invested with its own logic, and pace is brisk.

Our hero has experienced brain trauma, an accident involving some “bits” falling down from the sky. The first section is not so strange as we learn the nature and extent of his injury and the current state of his consciousness: that he is specifically amnesiac about the accident. But this works in his favor, as evidently this accident had a non-natural cause, and he receives a mysterious settlement of 8 ½ million pounds sterling. What is not in his favor, and which starts the novel’s own system of phenomenology, is that his primary motor functions have to be re-routed. He has to ‘learn how to eat a carrot’ by consciously thinking about every movement involved. As he gradually regains a semblance of normal life, and in the course of relearning, he develops an amazing ability to deconstruct: actions and events, the relation of objects in space.

He also comes to a conclusion that he has become, or at least his actions have become, “inauthentic” faked. He learns to equate a ‘real’ action as an act devoid of self-consciousness of the act itself, of any self cognition of the act. While in a bathroom at a friend’s party, staring at a crack in the wall triggers an apparent mimetic-connected vision. These episodes of altered consciousness, manifest themselves in a bathtub or bathrooms. He has a sensation of a part memory, part vision, where he perceives a connectedness, a sense of being “authentic”. His profound epiphany sets him off on a quest to reproduce the setting, along with a sequence of actions by various tenants in this vision, the entire high rise apartment complex, along with the neighboring building, and the particular peculiar tenants that formed the component parts, in his ‘vision-episode’.

In a mostly tongue in cheek and sardonic tone, its narrative is filled with metaphors of technology, especially telecommunications. It foregoes any interiority other than the narrator-as-commentator on his own discoveries, and the conclusions he draws from the series of successive replications. We go from one re-enactment, and all its logistics to another, but each time there is an associated revelation, sometimes in mid re-enactment, so that the novel’s processes are self aware, and has its own logic. The narrator examines the “residual”, what he has figuratively distilled from each series of enactments. This ‘remainder’ has both spatial and temporal connotations: a conclusion drawn, a residual of an event after the “surplus” matter (or time) is removed, or an actual physical residue. Each replication leads him to a new state of self awareness, advancing him closer to his quest for authenticity and subsequent moments of increasing “enlightenment” that his super-facilitators can make come to fruition. But what becomes troubling is that his visions are accompanied by an intensely pleasant physical sensation of tingling. They become an addiction, much like those that excersise to the point of enjoying their body’s own endorphin’s. Boundaries of what is not only possible, but what are ethical are pushed. After one particular adaptation goes awry, windshield wiper fluid gets re-routed through the dash of his old Fiesta and splatters his trousers, he requests that they duplicate this scene again, that his team make the fluid go away, disappear upward into space, dematerialize. He is informed that such transubstantiation is impossible, but he and his cohort Naz have become lost in their abstractions, they become detached from limits, in the enacting their ‘study’.

The mind expands, the texture of time and space deepens and stretches out, there is Light, and Blood…there are figure 8’s…I must stop here.

to avoid de-spoiling any further this amazing novel….I will leave you with the remainder…

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