February 29, 2012

Twelve stories by Machado de Assis

The stories I've read of Machado are: the 10 collected in Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story (ed. K. David Jackson), one from The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories (ed. Roberto González Echevarría), and the two online from Words Without Borders (one of which was in an earlier translation in Oxford Anthology). Amateur Reader (Tom) has listed the primary source translations of these stories (here), most of which are canonized as "masterpieces of world literature". A substantial number of them is yet to be translated and collected in a comprehensive English edition. Tom has been writing a series of attentive posts on the Brazilian literary genius's novels and short stories. I committed to a read along of some of the stories and here I note a few of my general impressions of the Machadian.

Readers are almost always privileged to read/hear a Machado story. This privilege arises from the confession of a secret that weighs heavily on a conscience. The narrators often feel they must set the record straight. The mystery cannot be long suppressed.

In "The Nurse" (also translated as "The Attendant's Confession" in Brazilian Tales), the eponymous narrator writes his confession from his death-bed:

So you think that what happened to me in 1860 can be printed in a book? Do whatever you please, but with only one condition: do not divulge anything before my death. You will not have to wait long, perhaps a week, if not less; I am incurable.
    Look, I could tell you about my entire life, during which time other interesting things took place; however, in order to do that, one needs time, spirit, and paper, and I have only paper. My spirit is weak and time resembles a night lamp at dawn. It will not be long before the sun rises on another day. It is the sun of demons, as impenetrable as life. Good-bye, my dear sir. Read this and wish me well; forgive me for whatever seems improper to you. Do not mistreat the rue if it does not smell like a rose. You asked me for a human document, and here it is.... [Oxford Anthology, 61]

The reader asks for a story, and it is given, began in earnest, imparted in a unique voice. The story is of great human interest, a mock-display of unstable emotions and the ensuing crime of passion. The nurse is caring for the sick Colonel who has a serious attitude problem—"If he had only been grouchy, it would not have been so bad; but he was also mean." The nurse is honoring his own end of the bargain, telling the secret story in graphic details, another Machado quality. The reader will have to keep the story to himself, for it is a privilege to be told this by a nurse harboring a criminal past.

In "The Secret Heart", the reader is again privileged to encounter a secret heart. The opening is a domestic scene.

Garcia, who was standing, studied his finger nails, and snapped them from time to time. Fortunato, in the rocking chair, looked at the ceiling. Maria Luiza, by the window, was putting the final touches to a piece of needlework. Five minutes had now passed without their saying a word. They had spoken of the day, which had been fine, of Catumby, where Fortunato and his wife lived, and of a private hospital that will be explained later. As the three characters here presented are now dead and buried, it is time to tell their story without pretense. [68]

The true story is then recounted with characteristic linguistic verve and, as promised, without pretense. The pertinent details of a "love triangle" and "forbidden love" (favorite Machado topics) are laid bare. The reader is once more treated to priceless instances of beastly and saintly human behavior. The plot ambling along and to the point. The stories are generous in the serving of delicious gossip.

    The sharing of a common interest tightened the bonds of friendship. Garcia became a familiar of the house. He dines there almost every day, and there he observed Maria Luiza and saw her life of spiritual loneliness. And somehow this loneliness of hers increased her loveliness. Garcia began to feel troubled when she came into the room, when she spoke, when she worked quietly by the window, or played sweet, sad music on the piano. Gently, imperceptibly, love entered his heart. When he found it there, he tried to thrust it out, that there might be no other bond but friendship between him and Fortunato. But he did not succeed. He succeeded only in locking it in. Maria Luiza understood—both his love and his silence—but she never let on. [72]

It's fascinating how that single paragraph propelled the plot from easy friendship to familiarity and then to love. Clichés are quickly embraced and also dispensed with, "gently, imperceptibly", the story is coaxed forward and the scene set up for the great conflict. Machado had a way with inner psychology, sometimes tactless, sometimes full of tact, always respecting the delicacy of human feelings. But he also had the propensity to mix the lyrical with the ugliest of human tendencies. "The Secret Heart" not only captures the unraveling of a secret love but that of corruption inside men. Readers had to endure a sickening description of animal mutilation. Within the spaces allotted to tenderness and infatuations, Machado had prepared a place for the baseness of humanity—"It was like a moral tapeworm, which, although torn into many pieces, always regenerated itself and kept on going." [66]

The mastery of Machado's fine short stories is contemporary. His words and metaphors are exquisite at the level of the sentence. A story is cut to the quick, exceptionally, efficiently told.

    He came back to the house, and he did not go away. Dona Severina's arms enclosed a parenthesis in the middle of a long, tedious sentence of the life he led. And this added clause contained a profound, original idea specially invented by God and the angels for him alone. He stayed on, and his life went on as before. Finally, however, he had to leave, never to return. Here is how and why. ["A Woman's Arms", 78]

The "how and why" is the very resolution of the story in question.

The milieu and contexts of Machado are important in the appreciation of his shorts, all period pieces. His nudge to the years the stories were set in is a permanent marker.

Just imagine that it is 1813. ["Wedding Song"]

This was the selfsame explanation that was given by beautiful Rita to her lover, Camillo, on a certain Friday of November, 1869, when Camillo laughed at her for having gone, the previous evening, to consult a fortune-teller. ["The Fortune-Teller"]

Garcia had obtained his M.D. the year before, 1861. ["The Secret Heart"]

The above scene took place on the Rua da Lapa in 1870. ["A Woman's Arms"]

It was May 1882, and Venancinha hadn't seen her aunt since Christmas. ["Dona Paula"]

The lawyer died two years later, in 1865. ["Wallow, Swine!" and "Justice Unbalanced"]

The years don't lie but they might as well happen in 2016. Machado seems to be writing specifically for posterity. The mischief in his tales is the mischief a week ago. The active lust of his characters does not go out of date. His depiction of male and female, free and slave, old and young, wants and needs is astute. Irrespective of century, incorporated in each story is the tangibility of dreams and desire.


February 17, 2012

The castle of metaphoric destinies


The Castle by Franz Kafka, translated and with a preface by Mark Harman (Schocken Books, 1998)



KAFKAS TEKEL STORE AT THE FOOT OF THE KARS CASTLE (PHOTO: ELIF BATUMAN)


   The Castle, whose contours were already beginning to dissolve, lay still as ever, K. had never seen the slightest sign of life up there, perhaps it wasn't even possible to distinguish anything from this distance, and yet his eyes demanded it and refused to tolerate the stillness. When K. looked at the Castle, it was at times as if he were watching someone who sat there calmly, gazing into space, not lost in thought and therefore cut off from everything, but free and untroubled; as if he were alone, unobserved; and yet it could not have escaped him that someone was observing him, but this didn't disturb his composure and indeed—one could not tell whether through cause or effect—the observer's gaze could not remain fixed there, and slid off. Today this impression was further reinforced by the early darkness, the longer he looked, the less he could make out, and the deeper everything sank into the twilight. (98-99)

The obvious mystery of Franz Kafka's unfinished novel was whether the Castle is a symbol for something and whether the novel is a kind of allegory. Many interpretations were put forward. Max Brod and the Muirs (its first translators), according to Mark Harman (the translator in my edition), favored a theological/spiritual interpretation of the Castle as a source of "salvation" or "divine grace" that K. desperately seeks. Harman tended to dismiss or at least downplay this interpretation, calling it "simplistic." I tended to agree with him. A theological interpretation can only get you so far. I think that an atheistic interpretation of the Castle can say more about the whimsical and inconsistent attitudes of the characters, the unpredictable plot, and the dense "bureaucratic" prose stye.

If anything, the Castle, perched high up on a hill, at least represents the seat of political power. At the basic level, K. wanted to practice his profession of surveying and earn his worth, but people get in the way of his desire to work. The governmental system in place wouldn't let him be a productive individual. Thus, The Castle is basically a story about unemployment. But the prose of Kafka, which is closely tied to his politics, and which is also his poetics, obscures some things through a potent combination of hysteria and boredom. In the process of reading the novel, it gains excessive meaning through various interpretations and eidetic associations.


*


   He speaks to Klamm, but is it Klamm? Isn’t it rather someone who merely resembles Klamm? Perhaps at the very most a secretary who is a little like Klamm and goes to great lengths to be even more like him and tries to seem important by affecting Klamm’s drowsy, dreamlike manner. That part of his being is easiest to imitate, many try to do so; as for the rest of his being, though, they wisely steer clear of it. And a man such as Klamm, who is so often the object of yearning and yet so rarely attained, easily takes on a variety of shapes in the imagination of people. For instance, Klamm has a village secretary here called Momus. Really? You know him? He too keeps to himself but I have seen him a couple of times. A powerful young gentleman, isn’t he? And so he probably doesn’t look at all like Klamm? And yet you can find people in the village who would swear that Momus is Klamm and none other than he. That’s how people create confusion for themselves. And why should it be any different at the Castle? (181)

The deliberate objective of the people around K. seems to be to confuse him, to speak to him in circumlocutions. Why shouldn't it be any different from what the Castle stands for? Why shouldn't the entire novel be a novel about duplicity, misunderstanding, miscommunication, and fraud? What's interesting is that K. himself seems to be aware that he is being had from the beginning. He's playing the game even if he's acting naïve about it the whole time. At some point K. admitted, "It amuses me ... only because it gives me some insight into the ridiculous tangle that may under certain circumstances determine a person's life" (63).

Of course to think of The Castle as the odyssey of the unemployed is also a simplistic reading. The scenes are just too rich with meanings and innuendos. Nothing is as it seems. The man called Klamm may not be Klamm at all. Klamm's name has to be mentioned nine times above to drive home the feeling of suspicion and uncertainty. The surface appearance of things is deceitful. Anything uncalled for can happen and it does happen. Time collapses. And snow, bad weather, will fall on a beautiful day.

“How much longer is it till spring?” asked K. “Till spring?” repeated Pepi, “the winter here is long, a very long winter, and monotonous. But we don’t complain about that down there, we’re safe from the winter. Of course at some point spring does come and summer too, and they certainly have their day, but in one’s memory spring and summer seem so short, as if they didn’t last much longer than the two days, and sometimes even on these days, throughout the most beautiful day, snow falls.” (311-312)


*


In reality Hans was looking for K.'s help against his father, it was as if he had deceived himself, for he had thought that he wanted to help K. whereas what he had truly wanted, since nobody in their old circle could help them, was to determine whether this stranger, whose sudden appearance even Mother had noted, might perhaps be able to help them. (147)


Yet another interpretation of K's struggles around the Castle was messianism, the belief in a savior or redeemer. K. was ostracized by some Castle villagers and not given a chance to practice as a surveyor, but he was also embraced by others as someone who could be the answer to their problems. The Landlady, the Chairman, and the Teacher were the ones who wanted to drive K. out. Hans, Barnabas, Frieda, and Olga, all seemed to need something from him.

With his unannounced arrival, the deep rifts among the villagers, their insecurities and tragic histories were brought back to the surface. He was seen as a kind of mediator in their behalf, one who could patch up their personal and family difficulties or who could straighten their falling out with the Castle employees. Consulting with K., the characters appeared to carry the very burden of their existence. In the the same way K. wanted to establish himself in the village, they desperately wanted something from him. While speaking to him, they were either solicitous and extremely cautious of the Castle's power over them, or they were prone to badmouthing and backstabbing others. K.'s presence seemed to embolden them.

This K.-type messianism was exaggerated and used more overtly in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Unconsoled, wherein a pianist named Ryder was assaulted by requests from different personages left and right prior to his performance. A similarity with Ishiguro's novel is the inclination of the two protagonists, K. and the pianist Ryder, to be generally apathetic with people around them.


*


“Surveyor, in your thoughts you may be reproaching Sordini for not having been prompted by my claim to make inquiries about the matter in other departments. But that would have been wrong, and I want this man cleared of all blame in your thoughts. One of the operating principles of authorities is that the possibility of error is simply not taken into account. This principle is justified by the excellence of the entire organization and is also necessary if matters are to be discharged with the utmost rapidity. So Sordini couldn’t inquire in other departments, besides those departments wouldn’t have answered, since they would have noticed right away that he was investigating the possibility of an error.”
   “Chairman, allow me to interrupt you with a question,” said K., “didn’t you mention a control agency? As you describe it, the organization is such that the very thought that the control agency might fail to materialize is enough to make one ill.”
   “You’re very severe,” said the chairman, “but multiply your severity by a thousand and it will still be as nothing compared with the severity that the authorities show toward themselves. Only a total stranger could ask such a question. Are there control agencies? There are only control agencies. Of course they aren’t meant to find errors, in the vulgar sense of that term, since no errors occur, and even if an error does occur, as in your case, who can finally say that it is an error.” (64-65)


K. is a "total stranger". His arrival at the Castle has upset some kind of balance in the Castle's domain. He is like a brand new idea that is stubbornly rejected by tradition, an outsider who dares to ask questions and so must be put in his proper place. His very presence is attributed to a clerical error. He is reproached for questioning about control agencies when such agencies seem to function under a totalitarian organization.

The Castle is necessarily an unattainable goal. Based on the characters' description of its internal workings, even if K. is granted audience by the Castle authorities, the layers of bureaucracy and the red tape will not take him further afield. His dealings with officials and their emissaries are presented as Sisyphean. Hence, his desired destination (the Castle), as well as his starting point, does not matter; only his journey is important. This worldview is one shared by Javier Marías who said in an interview, "Conclusions and final explanations are often the most irrelevant—and disappointing—parts of a novel. What counts the most—and what we remember the most—is the atmosphere, the style, the path, the journey, and the world in which we have immersed ourselves ... What matters, then, is the journey along the horizon—in other words, the journey that never ends." Another modernist, the Brazilian novelist par excellence João Guimarães Rosa, put it another way: The truth is not in the setting out nor in the arriving: it comes to us in the middle of the journey. The novel being an unfinished novel already implies that Kafka didn't care in the least how the story proceeds. He has already written the meat of his vision through K.'s eternal struggle to settle down in the village despite being prevented from doing so. The officials could just as easily pay K. for the trouble of journeying into the village. But then we wouldn't have a story.


*


  From the mouthpiece came a humming, the likes of which K. had never heard on the telephone before. It was as though the humming of countless childlike voices—but it wasn’t humming either, it was singing, the singing of the most distant, of the most utterly distant, voices—as though a single, high-pitched yet strong voice had emerged out of this humming in some quite impossible way and now drummed against one’s ears as if demanding to penetrate more deeply into something other than one’s wretched hearing. K. listened without telephoning, with his left arm propped on the telephone stand he listened thus.
   He had no idea how long, not until the landlord tugged at his coat, saying that a messenger had come for him. “Go,” shouted K., beside himself, perhaps into the telephone, for now someone answered. (20, emphases added)


Someone answered the phone even though K. did not dial a number in the first place. What principle was operating here? Dream logic? The unconscious? Magical realism? Science fiction? Or was it simply a well calculated joke? From a never-heard-before humming to singing, from children’s voices to distant singing, from listening to waiting, from static to a definite reply: there’s an apparent breach of the fundamental laws of nature. Or was the error confined only in the observable dimensions? A warping of spacetime, “in some quite impossible way”? As suggested in one of the previous quoted passages, no errors ever occur; if one does occur, who can say that it is an error?

The Castle is a palpable example of spontaneous realism, a tendency in fiction writing characterized by shifts in narrative direction. The shifts may be dreamlike or not, they may be logical or not, and magical or not. Whatever the case, a spontaneous realist novel is a record of transformations: of characters, scenes, and details. The changes in the appearance and attitudes of the characters may be gradual or sudden—without due warning, without being prefigured—and irrevocable.

Frieda’s disposition changes from a resolute lover to a wronged woman. Jeremias, one of the assistants, suddenly changes appearance from a youthful person to an old, infirm man “whose flesh sometimes gave one the impression that it wasn’t quite alive” (237). Some major changes are explained in flashback stories of the villagers, where a family’s economic standing suddenly plummets, their vigor turning into wretchedness, and their health deteriorating to a most pitiful state. The witness to all these instabilities is our tenacious K., the surveyor whose search for work and recognition is rebuffed by the Count’s authorities. For someone who was meant to validate the location and measure the size of plots of land (i.e., someone who ascertains that things are right in their proper place), his failure to initiate the first step tells on a really confused state of affairs.


*


“We are not your guardian angels and don’t have to follow you every single byway. Well, all right. The chairman thinks differently. Of course the actual decision, which is handled by the Count’s authorities, is not something he can speed up. But within his sphere of influence he seems to want to arrive at a truly generous temporary settlement, which you are free to accept or to reject, he is offering you temporarily the post of school janitor.” (90-91) 

To be more precise, K. was faced with underemployment, a temporary reprieve from unemployment. He was offered a job as a school janitor. For someone trained in a technical job as a land surveyor, this was an absurd proposition. K. refused the offer. But consistent with the novel’s spontaneous absurdity, he was later made to accept the job. By the end of the book, the landlady fancied another job for him, a plausible job but utterly incompatible to his skills as surveyor. Given the serious comedy of what came before, his new job offer adds laughter to injury.


*


For all the ludicrous tangles K. found himself in, his uncompleted journey to the Castle can be read as a heroic effort. He elected to go through the motions even if there’s a stronger and stronger indication that all his efforts are doomed.


Certainly, I am ignorant, that at least is true, sadly enough for me, but the advantage here is that those who are ignorant take greater risks, and so I’ll gladly put up with my deficient knowledge and its undoubtedly serious consequences for a little while, for as long as my energy holds out. (55)


The irony is that K.’s journey also represents a missed opportunity. At the moment when he stumbled on an influential man from the Castle, someone who could assist him in his troubles, he was not able (Kafka will not let him) to seize the day. At the precise moment when a light is proferred K., he collapsed in exhaustion. Whatever K. (a person, a cog in the wheel) does is answerable to the built (fictional) system in place. And the system has decided that K. must fail, in a magnanimous and spontaneous and riveting way.

The means justify the means. As a work of spontaneous realism, The Castle is destined to be an open metaphor, concerned as it is with the perpetual collapse of meaning and representation. The cathartic encounters and transformations only emphasize the tragic comedy of existence. It can be a deeply religious text in a hermeneutic sense as it takes for its object a naked individual facing machinations by an inscrutable power structure (read: shit happens). Fulfilling destiny is facing the manipulations of a capricious god/s (the Count, the Count's men, the author, randomness, evolution, intelligent design, someone, something). But considered as a secular text, the novel is more open to inquiry, more robust in its possibilities. The Castle as a metaphor for metaphors, as a projection of man's yearnings and desires. As metaphors are worth pursuing, interpreting (or head-scratching) then becomes an exercise of freedom. Which is to say: an exercise of happiness, in spite of the dark and the fog enclosing the hulking metaphoric structure. "How suicidal happiness can be!" (269), exclaimed one Castle employee, in a tone that was perhaps half-serious, half-mocking.


“It isn’t easy to understand exactly what she is saying, for one doesn’t know whether she is speaking ironically or seriously, it’s mostly serious, but sounds ironic.” “Stop interpreting everything!” said K. (205)


I hear you, K.



(Note: First posted in Project Dog-eared. This post is benefited by an online group discussion.)

February 7, 2012

Alphabetical anonymous


Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish (New Directions, 1974)


All history in Africa is hearsay, and consequently, although Africa indubitably exists, history cannot correct certain highly erroneous assumptions. But history can conceal assumptions. It can confound historians, authors, booksellers, and also doom armies. For instance, each African army is given a few erroneous dates, a few important defeats for discipline, a few false facts, and an arrival and a departure, all contained in a book, a fictional book, but extremely accurate, extremely factual concerning foreign invasions ... ["I", 21]   


I first learned of this book from The Art of Fiction by David Lodge. Under the section on "experimental novel" Lodge made mention of lipogram novels. Perec, of course, wrote something called La Disparition, a novel allergic to letter "e" in French. The English translation, A Void, was true to its linguistic esprit.

The American writer Walter Abish (b. 1931) does something similar in his first novel Alphabetical Africa. The rules of its construction are alphabetical. There are fifty-two chapters, each with letters for title: A to Z and then Z to A. As with acrostics, the first word of the chapter begins with the letter of the chapter title. Hence, Chapter "K" begins: "Knowing Kant intimately helps, as I keep a clear head." The second Chapter "K" begins: "Knowledge derived from books hardly ever improves killing efficiency ..."

Every word in Chapter "A" starts with the letter A: "Are all archeologists arrogant Aristotelians, asks author, as Angolans abduct Alva. Adieu Alva. Arrivederci. [2]" The words in chapter "B" begin with letters A or B. Each word in Chapter "K" will begin with letters from A to K. And so on until Chapter "Z" where the words begin with any letter. That's the first pass (A to Z), expanding the word choices as allowable letters start to accumulate. And then it reverses in the second, backward pass (Z to A), shrinking the word choices as letters begin to be subtracted one at a time.

Visually it looks like the figure below. The chapter proceeds vertically, with the allowable starting letters shown bold in black. The gray letters are off limits.


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
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A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


As if writing with 26 letters isn't hard enough. But here, it all appears wickedly simple. Effortless. And the plot? The plot is funny as hell. We have a narrator named A. or with an initial of A. (Author? Abish?). He is pining for his love, Alva. There are two shady characters, Allen and Alex, who killed a jeweler. There's the queen of Tanzania, the transvestite Queen Quat, and her invasion of another African territory. There are attacks of colonies of ants. Espionage. Escape and detection. War and wild sex.

There are also, inevitably, linguistic concerns: African click languages, mixed vocabularies, dictionaries of African words, the writing of history. The alphabetical structure is closely tied to the content. There is Africa's land area shrinking fast by continental drift, mirroring the shrinking of words in the book.

      Africa is diminishing in size. It is considerably smaller than all the pocket atlases indicate. Still, it is roomy enough for an Abercrombie & Fitch organized outing, six or seven men in bush jackets accompanied by fifty black gun carriers, basket carriers, tent carriers, but not more than fifty, since the now smaller Africa couldn't absorb it. ["V", 58]

What else do we get? Puns, word plays, quick brown foxes.

    Tanzania is celebrating the anniversary of Quat's arrival. Everyone is rehearsing for the gigantic tableau. Since's [sic] Quat's coronation, no one can quite trust or accept another person's gender. The customs officials have learnt to ask: are all airplane pilots airmale. They're always compulsively touching all those control knobs. ["T", 52]

By the time the book reaches the "S" chapter in the forward pass, the constraint becomes more and more relaxed as a good many words can now be accommodated. It also provides a summary of the first half of the book.

     Summarizing Africa: I can speak more freely. I find fewer and fewer impediments. Soon I'll reach my destination. Soon I'll also complete my documentation and my book. ["S", 47]
 
A. is writing a factual book about Africa, a cross between history and memoir. He details all the means he is exerting to find his lost love, Alva. The literally expanding and contracting text is the very means by which characters enter and leave, locations change, and scenes play out, as determined by the letters that begin the proper nouns of names and places. We know that Allen and Alva and Alex can safely appear in all the chapters while Zambia and Zaire will have limited exposure in a pair of chapters. We can vaguely predict when an introduced character will be dropped in the second pass based on his or her name alone.

     You must find something to do ... You can't stay in the twenty-seven room house by yourself. You'll soon retreat into yourself, become a recluse, abandon language and thought. You'll lose more and more words. We mustn't let that happen to you. ["Y", 78]

Maybe the 27 rooms refer to the 26 letters of the alphabet plus another letter Z. That's the first 27 chapters, just before the letters start to lose more and more definition in the second pass. Maybe.

This is all well and good. Except for one thing: it fails the alphabetical scheme. Drastically. The violation of the constraints will gently, then savagely, strike the reader who pays very close attention to the slips. On page 2, the final sentence of "A" chapter, we read: "Alex and Allen alone, arrive in Abidjan and await African amusements [my underline]". On the "D" chapter, words are supposed to start only with A, B, C, and D. But instead we have, in page 9:

Alva's bare breasts droop, as Chester's alarming deafness darkens African continent, and all despair because Chester cannot hear Dogon birds chirp: biu, biu, biu, or Dogon birds bark: bow, bow, bow, or antelopes: blit, blit ... ["D", my underlines]

The web blog Attempts by Stephen Saperstein Frug collates these into a table of errata. Some 43 errors are so far identified (excluding the debatable second words in compound words). Surprisingly the errors I mentioned above, occurring in the first few pages, are not in the table. I detected five more errors not given in the errata, listed below. There may be more. I'm not paying that too close attention.


A1, p. 2premature I... arrive in Abidjan ...
D1, p. 9premature HChester cannot hear Dogon birds chirp
D1, p. 9premature Obiu, biu, biu, or Dogon dogs bark
D1, p. 9premature Obow, bow, bow, or antelopes
M1, p. 32premature THe appeared to have been a middle-aged man.


I would like to believe that these errors are intentional, that Abish constructed a pattern around them, a hidden formula. In the same way that the constraints of poetry (rhyme schemes, number of lines in sonnets) are doggedly pursued to focus and concentrate language, lipogrammatic works strictly adhere to an instituted rule or system. But sometimes poetry deviate from a rhyme scheme to create powerful effects beyond euphony. An iambic pentameter is broken by an anapest. In the end, poetry can soar free as blank verse. Fixed rules being better served when violated. From time to time, that is.

Did Abish deliberately plant the errors in Alphabetical Africa? Based on the errata published by the blog Attempt and the new errors I listed, we can look at the sequence of letters that deviated from the rhyme scheme.

Errors in Chapters A to Z:  I H O O I O O O L U L N O S T T O S O O P S T W Y
Errors in Chapters Z to A:  W W W W W W W W T Q O L L L L I H H F I I D C

The repetitions are highlighted. The long series of consecutive letters, 8 Ws and 4 Ls are quite conspicuous. Perhaps they tell something, perhaps they don't.

Was it not only the writer but the book's editor and copyeditor who were complicit in these errors? How could they miss the error right on page 2?

Ironically, in a chapter devoted to a hardliner and censorious copyeditor who erases every word that is erotic in nature (second "E" chapter, p. 140-141), three errors appear!

Two consecutive erroneous I's appear back-to-back, in the second chapter "C". For a chapter that should contain only A-B-C words, these discrepancies seem much too obvious to be overlooked.

After considering all alternatives, I capture a couple crocodiles. [146]

After I cross a close-by creek, am accepted by barricaded army as a celebrity. [147]

Perhaps A. (or Abish) is too sentimental to let go of "I". Just as he wrote a few pages back, in the chapter of the same letter, before bidding final farewell to that letter:

     Eventually, I'm convinced every "I" imparts its intense experience before it is erased and immobilized in a book. Ahhh ... how fast it disappears. He is being deceitful, claims Alva. Everytime I approach, he flees back into a book. He's afraid ... ["I", 131]

And so he, "I", flees back into the book.

A way to visualize the alphabet errors is to map out their locations, as illustrated below. The red color indicates an erroneous letter occurring only once in that chapter; the green means the error appears twice; the blue, three times; and the orange, four times.


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


Can we ascertain from this figure whether the errors are deliberate ones or not? Are their placements too random, does a pattern emerge out of it?

Aha, the word "HILL" is formed in the upper half. Aha, look at the cluster of 3 red S's. Aha, isn't there symmetric correspondence in the forward and backward passes of several erring letters? Maybe one sees things one wants to see.

This failure of an alphabetical book by author Abish is about the creation myth: creating things (plot, characters, places, details) as they are written, as they happen on the page, as letters and words give birth to unintentional meanings and unintended ideas. The book is also about apocalypse, as it folds into itself, disappearing into another alphabet, another Africa. In between are human errors, typographical faults, reminding us that we are aware of the rules and that we can spot the flaws if we decide to look.



WALTER ABISH (IMAGE)


February 5, 2012

Voyage Along the Horizon (Javier Marías)





The day that witnessed the departure of the Tallahassee—a sailboat with a metal hull, three masts, and a steam engine, classified by Lloyds Register of Shipping as a mixed vessel, property of the Cunard White Star, built by Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in the United States, purchased by Great Britain (where it was newly registered in 1896, though its original name, that of the city where it was baptized, remained the same), capable of reaching a velocity of 11.5 knots, with capacity for seventy passengers, and operating under the command of Ship's Captain Eustace Seebohm, Englishman, and First Officer J. D. Kerrigan, American—there was a great celebration at the port of Marseilles. The ship was fêted and festooned with balloons, confetti, and streamers that dappled the surrounding waters with their dazzling colors. As they boarded the vessel one by one, the passengers were cheered by the onlookers. Finally, at ten in the morning, after all the obligatory ceremonies had finally come to a close, the boat pushed away from the coast with forty-two prominent society figures, fifteen men of science, and an inevitably furious, resentful crew.

Voyage Along the Horizon by Javier Marías, translated by Kristina Cordero (McSweeney's, 2006)


This is a sophomore effort by Javier Marías, started when he was 19 years old and published two years later, in 1972. I'm still eagerly waiting for when his first book, Los dominios del lobo (1971, Domains of the Wolf), will appear in translation. That's that book, along with La asesina ilustrada (The Enlightened Assassin) by Enrique Vila-Matas, that for Roberto Bolaño, "marks a departure point for our generation."

Voyage Along the Horizon is, by Marías standards, a minor novel that I'm still glad to have read. One gets to see similarities and contrasts with the novelist's late style. In this, the young novelist already displayed a tendency for playful tinkering with plot. I can see why Bolaño, fed up with the imitations of magical realist novels of Boom writers, would prefer a novel by a young Marías. The form, structure, and diction of Voyage Along the Horizon eschewed the magical and folkloric reference; it did not anchor itself on "nationalist" literature. Instead it pays homage to the English adventure novels, openly acknowledging the influences of Joseph Conrad, Henry James, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

The time of the "novel within the novel" was 1904. A trip to Antarctica was organized by the charismatic and gloomy Captain Kerrigan, who invited men and women of prestige aboard the Tallahassee: writers, artists, and scientists. The idea for this kind of journey must be bold and vain at the time, but it is prophetic too. A similar trip was recently undertaken by "a mix of scientists, academics, students and journalists" to raise awareness about climate change (news link here, provided by a friend).

This journey is a background story framed by the present story where the unnamed narrator learns about a novelist named Victor Arledge who retreated from society and who died abjectly. A guest in the narrator's party mentions that he had with him a certain manuscript of a novel entrusted to him by a late friend. The novel is entitled Voyage Along the Horizon. (In true Marías mannerism, the name of the novelist behind this "inner" novel will not be revealed until well after halfway through the book.) The manuscript recounts the journey of the Tallahassee where Arledge was one of the passengers. Arledge's experiences aboard the ship may or may not have contributed to his mysterious decline in old age.

A young woman who studied the works of Arledge is very interested in the contents of the manuscript, so she asks the literary executor (Mr. Holden Branshaw or Hordern Bragshawe, the narrator "hadn't quite caught" the name) permission to read the novel which, once published, Branshaw (let's assume) strongly believes, would catapult his friend to literary limelight and would pave the way for him to be considered "one of the great novelists of his time". Later on, this assessment will change, and Branshaw will pass a definitively harsh judgement on the novel. The winking self-reference in this book must be one of its enjoyable aspects.

Instead of letting the lady borrow the novel, Mr. Branshaw invites the lady and the narrator to his house where he would read from his friend's story. From this unpublished manuscript of Voyage Along the Horizon, within this novel of the same title, Marías produces other branching stories in the form of letters, confessions, and investigations. The novelist luxuriates in the same storytelling tics and antics that characterize his later books. The safekeeping of secrets, the confession of unpleasant deeds, shady or morally corrupt characters, ever so lengthy digressions—these are all here, surprisingly anticipating the elements swirling in his literary cosmogony. In addition, the scenes in its pages are as unlikely as assembled: kidnapping, duel on a ship, smuggling on the shores of Formosa and Southeast Asia, pirate attack, journey in search of a habitable island.

For a writer who was always concerned with the act and art of storytelling, this novel is a kind of variation of his literary maneuvers. Marías may have hardened in his dense prose style, as in the "difficult" and extremely long Your Face Tomorrow, but his stance as a "secret sharer" and "secret withholder" has always been intact.

"One must learn how to cultivate the art of ambiguity", someone said in the novel. A principle that the novel seems to have taken to heart. The novel resists resolution that would tie up everything neatly together. Readers are instead treated to nontraditional murder and mystery stories, wide open to interpretation, and whose ultimate ending provides only cold comfort.

The book contained an appendix—an interview called "Eight Questions for Javier Marías" where he discussed the novel's style and influences, its metafictional elements and open ending, and the quality of his fiction that predisposes it to translation. Asked what he wanted to tell readers who were mystified by the ending, he answered: "Conclusions and final explanations are often the most irrelevant—and disappointing—parts of a novel. What counts the most—and what we remember the most—is the atmosphere, the style, the path, the journey, and the world in which we have immersed ourselves for a few hours or a few days, while reading a novel or watching a movie. What matters, then, is the journey along the horizon—in other words, the journey that never ends."