I’ve had a dabble in Cuban literature in the past, and plan to get through Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s, Cervantes Prize winning “Three Trapped Tigers” over the coming months, however a short distraction occurred with the a new release from Dalkey Archives, the 2012 Alejo Carpentier Award winning “The Last Librarian” by Cuban writer, and holder of an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, Osdany Morales (the book translated by Kristina Bonsager).
A discovery highlighted by recognized, contemporary, cultural liberalness consists of text recycling, not always the classics (and not always belonging to the medium of literature). This process allows the authors to interact with references disinherited from their originality. Movie industry remakes, architectural revivals, and new arrangements of old songs now promote an approach to the rewritten text, but also the proliferation of readings that don’t firmly belong to the original work, but to its replacement. For example, to read Ulysses before The Odyssey. Or “Eldorado,” by Raúl Roasas, before Raymond Carver’s equivalent story, “Why Don’t We Dance?” (p129)
Our narrator, a writer, travels through time and place to discover the Seven Libraries of the World, in each he needs to deposit a single book, having no books he needs to write one in each location. Before he visits the first “library” he discovers two prophetic statements chiselled into the window pane of the guest house where he stays; “The centre is unmoving, but miniscule” and “Everything vanishes, but also endures”. These statements forming part of the banter he uses to gain access to the libraries of his imagination.
The book that we are reading is made up of his journeys and the books that he writes in homage to former writers, and they are numerous. We start off with Boris Groys, art critic, media theorist and philosopher;
“The city per se possesses an intrinsically utopian dimension by virtue of being situated outside the natural order.” Boris Groys, I remembered. (p8)
Groy’s work “Art Power – The City in the Age of Touristic Reproduction”, discusses the move away from the natural order of things into a walled city (Utopia); “Traditionally cities isolated themselves from the rest of the world in order to make their own way into the future. So a genuine city is not only utopian, it is also antitourist: it dissociates itself from space as it moves through time.” More recurring themes to throw into this novel. A disassociation with space and time.
Naturally this leads to Borges, referred to here as “The Great Masturbator”, and his story “The Book of Sand”, Osdany Morales advising that this story of Borges’ “is a direct allusion to a passion for pornography.”
He told me that his book is called The Book of Sand because neither the book nor sand possess a beginning or an end.
These allusions to themes occur before our writer enters the first library and writes his story. This is “The Book of Writing: The Scribe” Set in the 1400’s it recounts his love Becchina, Visconti and being beaten by his uncle Carracci. Alluding to the Renaissance and solitude, isolation and events outside of personal control, this is one of the sketchier references to influential works. There may well be a direct correlation to Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch or even (later) Machiavelli, if so I missed it.
There is a sudden move to 2008 and Shanghai, where our narrator meets a European girl in a mall. There they discuss Cavafy (specifically the poem “Days of 1908”) and other references from 100 years prior, 1908. “O. Henry wrote “The Voice of the City”, “G K Chesterton published “The Man Who Was Thursday” in 1908 and it was read by the Argentine writer Borges”, Cesare Pavese’s “Death Will Come and Will Wear Your Eyes”, Tristes Tropiques’ “The Raw and the Cooked”, “The Origin of Table Manners”, “From Honey to Ashes”, “The Naked Man” and “The Savage Mind” and then “Unmasking of Robert – Houdin” by Houdini.
In the future a poet will write “Ode To Niagara”. Don’t ask me what that word means. I don’t know – It’s probably another splendid monster. (p61)
As you can now see, this is a work rich with literary and cultural references, only sixty-one pages in and the listing of works across a vast expanse of time are piling up. Book Two is “The Book of Time: Tempo” and the story is set in 1789, where a merchant comes across a magical bell jar that can age whatever is placed in it. Fruit ripens quickly, wine can be produced quickly, and chicks can become roosters in front of your eyes, although the bell jar is also used for evil purposes such as ageing somebody’s head!!! Bending time, a la Borges, however I may add nowhere near as skilfully, we have quotes such as;
I’d add it was like listening to Slipknot in the front row of a concert playing “All Hope Is Gone”.
Book Three is the “Book of Perfection: Apropos of the Wet Snow”, exploring “pure fiction” and our story is a la Dostoyevsky, a writer, stolen fiction, street workers, and innocent men caught up in an intricate plot…
“Book IV: The Book of the Beast: Eternal Love for Jim Jarmusch” is an homage to Jack Kerouac, as well as the film maker Jarmusch, a Doctor on a conference in Rio de Janiero, goes on a search , with an Australian called Sydney, for an obscure book for his lost son, a writer. Another fragmentary tale unfolds:
In Karachi I paused in front of a snake charmer. He was taking a break and the cobra rested curled up inside the basket. He admitted to me that tourists weren’t satisfied anymore to just see the cobra dance.
“Now they want to bring the snake home with them,” he said. “If you want to know the truth, the cobra doesn’t actually dance. It follow the movement of the flute with its head. That’s the true charm and it appears to dance because its damn body always ripples.”
He handed me the flute in case I wanted to try it and left me to care for his basket. I looked around to ensure no one would see me making a snake dance in Pakistan. I raised the basket’s lid, lifted the flute without playing it, and the cobra began to rise up. Instead of having it move from side to side, I had it extend upward; the cobra remained straight. Then, it looked away from the flute and stared me directly in the eyes. Flaring its hood like a weightlifter flexes his muscles, it said:
“Has it never surprised you how within a group of friends or a family the memory of a trivial event from years ago lingers and gets brought up every time the group is together? The story can center on a phrase, a nickname, or some word that is incomprehensible to someone outside the group. Have you ever taken a step back and felt bewildered by the absurd repetition that has no humor or impact? These measly efforts are an attempt to resist the passage of time, death’s human vertigo.”
I lowered the flute and the cobra collapsed upon itself.
Three other writers appear in this “book”, César Aira in a short story about virgins and vampires, Samuel Hope the master of the short story who spent his life savings stopping his works from being published, and Higuchi Ichigo who throws away his writings so they are not discovered.
“Book V: The Book of Contemporaries: Fight Club” works with Cuban literature and the struggles of the 70’s and 80’s. One of those writers being our author himself. We also have a taxi driver who loves quotes, and there are pages littered with quotes from famous people. This is the section where the influences of outside literature, on Cuban writing, come to the fore, the black market publications, the passing of titles amongst readers, of course the book we are currently reading is a compilation, a mimicking, of these well-known works.
“Book VI The Book of Fame: Lost in Translation” is a short tale of a taxi ride in Tokyo where the driver happened to be an extra on Sofia Coppola’s film, relaying stories of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. The lines of fiction becoming blurred.
“Book VII: The Book of the Book: The Last Librarian”….
Whilst highly entertaining, with the numerous voices, the imitation and the copious styles, I did question the intent. A book that reminded me of a creative writing graduate wanting to prove the amount they had read. The book within a book also reminded me, slightly, of “If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller” by Italo Calvino, something that is catchy and clever but one that doesn’t demand re-reading, actually a re-read makes the original wonder disappear. Maybe too much is attempted, packing the book too tightly? Clever, readable, entertaining but with too much squeezed in, and unlike the Sergio Pitol’s of the world I didn’t feel the need to pick up the referenced books, maybe I’ve read most of them!!!, ultimately though I have to ask, “why?”