Monday, January 7, 2013

Luisa Valenzuela, With a Dash of Beckett

Luisa Valenzuela                           

     In Dublinesque, Enrique Vila-Matas's narrator/alter ego Samuel Riba, who is in Dublin to mourn the death of the Gutenberg age and to inter print culture as Joyce/Bloom interred Dignam in Book Six of Ulysses, takes up James Knowlson's Damned to Fame: A Life of Samuel Beckett.  I don't have Knowlson in front of me, but here is the passage Riba quotes; this is Beckett explaining his aesthetic to Knowlson:

"I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one's material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that.  I realized that my own way was impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and taking away, in subtracting rather than adding." (page 167)

Of course the "lack of knowledge" is disingenuous, but Beckett's description of how he came to his characteristic style--pared to the bone, aloof, clinical, ironic*--interested me at once.  "My own way was impoverishment," naturally I thought about "anxiety of influence." but the phrase "my own way" forced me to reconsider what Beckett was really saying.  When he saw Paris for the first time, Beckett remarked that "he realized [his] stupidity.  Only then did I start to write what I felt."  This isn't quite the same thing as adjusting one's aesthetic to a strong predecessor: it was Paris that freed Beckett to write what he felt, not Joyce's maximalism or Beckett's desire to subvert it.  Place is central to a writer's aesthetic--this is obvious--but not only to subject matter and theme, but also to style. 

Which brings me to Luisa Valenzuela and Como en la Guerra (1977), translated as He Who Searches, a remarkably complex novel whose style--austere and oblique as Beckett's--deliberately subverts the dominant (masculine) mood of "Boom" writers like Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Manuel Puig, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Valenzuela's unique writing derives its characteristic power, heterogeneous voicings, and leftist political themes from Argentina, especially from Buenos Aires, from the Dirty War, the Guerra Sucia,and from the state terror and censorship (including the censorship of Page Zero of He Who Searches) that was central to it.   Nearly every character, theme, and event in He Who Searches is doubled or disguised or camouflaged: Pepe, a semiotician, is also a psychologist of sorts; his "patient" is a prostitute and perhaps a revolutionary who has a twin sister; at one point in the novel the semiotician/psychologist becomes his own patient.  Gender, politics, love, and sex are all mutable, morphing into their opposites--Pepe dresses as a woman, political positions shift and reconfigure, events are replayed with subtle variations. Love is hate, hate love.  The style is fragmented, dialogue is reported as monologue, time is bent and causality ignored.  The effect is to make the novel dreamlike, or to encrypt it--writers living in tyrannies often disguise their intentions, cloak their themes in metaphor, narrate through misdirection, or, as in the case of Mo Yan, disguise their ideas in comedic or satirical form.  He Who Searches is quite short, but the layering of meaning and reference, and the complications of its (minimal) plotting require considerable attention.  Like Beckett, Valenzuela says more in her silences, in elliptical moments of miscommunication between characters, than most of us say in our ordinary discourse.  The mystery of language, as Wittgenstein described it in the Tractatus, is that what is left unsaid is often where the meaning lies. 

To shake others up. Take them by the shoulders and shake them vigorously until they see straight at last.  And me?  Always shaken up . . .   Dark Desires and the Others

Valenzuela is published by the great Dalkey Archive, true Dublinesque publishers.  And the Paris Review interview with Valenzuela is dated, but well worth reading:

*Wry? "Mr. Hackett turned the corner and saw, in the failing light, at some little distance, his seat. It seemed to be occupied. This seat, the property very likely of the municipality, or of the public, was of course not his, but he thought of it as his. This was Mr. Hackett's attitude towards things that pleased him."  Watt

George Ovitt (1/7)


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