The Tenant and The Motive by Javier Cercas, trans. Anne McLean (Bloomsbury, 2005)
After writing for 15 years since 1987, Javier Cercas finally arrived in the world literary stage with the publication of Soldados de Salamina, a multi-awarded novel in both its original Spanish and English translation. The novel was ranked at a lucky place (# 13) in the Semana magazine list of 100 best Spanish-language novels of the past 25 years. Soldiers of Salamis, the English version by Anne McLean, won back-to-back prestigious translation awards in 2004, receiving the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Premio Valle-Inclán. The novel revealed a writer concerned with the duplicitous workings of memory and the metafictional, intertextual tendencies of modern Q-narratives. It capitalized on a brilliant structure as it investigated a significant historical (wartime) memory. Like W. G. Sebald, Cercas explored the ethical dimensions of remembering and forgetting with a strong emotional force.
The two translated novellas in The Tenant and The Motive were only symptoms of Cercas's novelistic greatness, or perhaps manifestations of his potential aesthetic energy as a writer. Its retrospective appearance only set into relief his meteoric development as a writer. Between "The Tenant" and "The Motive", the second had the more self-reflexive creative design. It told of a writer beginning work on a novel closely patterned after his dealings with real people in his neighborhood. He stalked his neighbors and pursued relations with them in the service of his art:
Over the following days his work began to bear its first fruits. The novel was advancing steadily, though it diverged in parts from the outline arranged in the drafts and the previous plan. But Álvaro let it flow freely within that precarious and difficult balance between the instantaneous pull that certain situations and characters imposed and the necessary rigour of the general design that structures a work. As for the rest, if the presence of real models for his characters facilitated his task and provided a point of support where his imagination could rest or derive fresh impetus, at the same time it introduced new variables that would necessarily change the course of the tale. The two stylistic pillars upon which the work was being raised were nevertheless intact, and that was the essential thing for Álvaro. On the one hand, the descriptive passion, which offers the possibility of constructing a fictive duplicate of reality, by appropriating it; moreover, he considered that, while the enjoyment of sentiment is merely a plebeian emotion, the genuinely artistic enjoyment comes from the impersonal pleasure of description. On the other hand, it was necessary to narrate events in the same neutral tone that dominated the descriptive passages, like someone recounting incidents he hasn't entirely understood himself or as if the relationship between the narrator and his characters was of a similar order to that which the narrator maintained with his toiletries. Álvaro frequently congratulated himself on his immovable conviction of the validity of these principles.
The prose was leaden, ordinary. The tone was "neutral", parodying its own unremarkable style. It was a circular method. Later on, the protagonist Álvaro would acknowledge that "out of the material he'd written for the novel he would be able to construct its parody and refutation." It went back to the novel's signature and premise, attributed to Hegel, but echoing Borges's proclamation, after the American painter Whistler, that "art happens every time we read a poem":
Despite all the century's swipes, however, it was essential to keep believing in the novel. Some had already understood this. No instrument could grasp with more precision and wealth of nuance the long-winded complexity of reality. As for its death certificate, he considered it a dangerous Hegelian prejudice; art neither advances nor retreats: art happens. But it was only possible to combat the notion of the genre's death throes by returning to its moment of splendour, in the meantime taking careful note of the technical and other sorts of contributions the century had afforded, which it would be, at the very least, stupid to waste. It was essential to go back to the nineteenth century; it was essential to go back to Flaubert.
Flaubert in French untranslated was in fact found at the start of the novella, in its epigraph. Perhaps the only way to appreciate "The Motive" was to treat its rabid self-examination and its self-critical passages as irony and satire, which they were, although the delivery was rather solemn for its own good. And the cliches are too distracting to serve a satiric function.
"The Tenant", for its part, was an unsuccessful variation of "the double". Michael Rota, a lecturer in a university, was slowly being displaced by a newly hired professor who happened to be a tenant in the same apartment compound he lived in. He watched, seemingly helplessly, as his own tenured position and his girlfriend were usurped by the man. A Kafkan nightmare was being enacted at his expense. Something must have been out of sorts in the world, or a new dimension of reality must have opened up. "The Tenant" would have been an effective tale were it not for the obviousness of the literary devices used: the recurring images and metaphors, the surreal details doled out to connote and denote wrinkles in time: twilight zone-ish, déjà vu situations. As with the second novella, its reception would have to be adjusted to appreciate what the writer was trying to achieve using very transparent effects.
An apprentice work, The Tenant and The Motive was a merely amusing window into the full literary maturity found in the Sebaldian or memory-haunted false novel Soldiers of Salamis and its false sequel The Speed of Light.
For the Spanish Lit Month by Stu and Richard.