French Decadent writer Leon Bloy, Saint Isidore’s “Etymologiae” from the Middle Ages, Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy”, Blazac, Paul the Apostle, Paul the Anchorite…. The first twenty-one pages of this novel contain the lot, and then some.
This work consists of fifty chapters, each relaying a similar story, presented to us by an unnamed narrator, journeys about himself and his friend Alberto, their situations constantly morphing through numerous philosophical situations.
The novel uses sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing as prime motivators for decisions. These decisions leading our narrator and Alberto into a labyrinth of possibilities;
I’m with Alberto and we’re trying to talk to a man without eyes about our surroundings, although it’s very hard to identify the objects. This lasts for a hile until we’re suddenly in front of a mirror that reflects us in a horrifying way: Alberto is a mummy and my head is growing. (p91)
An absurd, surrealist story that piles layers upon layers, although using the same milestones, (a university lecture hall, eight hundred drinkers, an old woman, an island where everything can be found, a broom, and more) the outcomes are always shifting:
…the old woman doesn’t need a rational structure to understand us and that this is what does us so much good: we feel understood. (p25)
Do not expect to be understood.
Given our narrator and Alberto are university lecturers, the philosophical debate is always simmering below a shimmering, surreal surface. The discussions on Leon Bloy centre on his “Le Desespere”, and the sections where vivid detail of teeth extraction are presented as an inordinate desire for self-abasement and mortification. Or discussions about Origen’s voluntary castration, or Ilya Kabakov’s relationship with “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, as a reader you are never far away from a treatise on mortality.
I’m furious and indignant because Alberto won’t stop talking about Borges in front of our students at the English university, who are enraptured with all the talk of mirrors, labyrinths, and doubles. Alberto isn’t into these subjects, but knows they’re good for captivating English students. Not only am I annoyed that he’s talking about these things, but also that I, despite being knowledgeable, about this subject, can’t do what Alberto does because I refuse to talk about these things. I try to interrupt him by talking about Bloy, but the students scowl, they motion with their hands, they throw old rags and rocks at me… (p21)
Although confusing and bizarre, well-read people who approach this book will find a smorgasbord of literary and philosophical material to keep them amused and entertained for hours;
I’m with Alberto and we’re at an airport explaining a new relationship that we invented between John Donne and Lawrence of Arabia to an old woman. (p11)
The numerous references include Simone Weil and a mathematical quote, this hints that there is a mathematical edge to this book, does it contain a hidden message, are there structures contained within the text, a la oulipo, that I simply missed? Maybe these stuctures/codes/enigmas are not possible in a translation? Maybe they are there and I had no idea of the riddles, puzzles contained, maybe it is simply a game?
Doing my best to avoid spoilers, the use of our primary senses to make sense of our existence and the daily choices we make, the ending, explaining the multitude of decisions we are confronted with, nicely wraps up a playful and enjoyable excursion. Does it solve the enigma? That’s up to you, the reader, to decide… If your exposure to Argentine writing has been through the pen of César Aira, and you’ve enjoyed his “avant-garde” forays, then Pablo Katchadjian is another writer you should hunt down.
As an aside – there are a few proofreading errors: “Alberto and I are on on a still ship.” (p93), and formatting issues “”Firstthere’ssilence;thenonlyapplauseandshouts” (p94), something I’ve come to expect from Dalkey Archive, given their massive output. It is a pity they couldn’t spend just a little longer fixing these sort of production problems.