25 February 2013

Salamanca (Dean Francis Alfar)

Salamanca by Dean Francis Alfar (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2006)

A fecund, oversexed imagination is on display in this first novel by Filipino writer Dean Francis Alfar, the main proponent of speculative fiction in the country. The sorcery of the title refers to the fuel that powers an imaginary Spanish galleon to soar through the skies. The galleon is a fixture in certain fantastical short stories written by Gaudencio Rivera, the bisexual male lead of the novel. His fount of creativity is derived from his love affairs, betrayals, and promiscuity. Lovemaking fuels Gaudencio's haphazard literary activity.

Sometime in the 1950s, Gaudencio runs away from Manila to Palawan Island to escape a love affair gone wrong. There he encounters Jacinta Cordova, a young woman of peerless beauty. "Her beauty was of such purity and perfection that the walls of the house she lived in had turned transparent long ago, to allow both sunlight and moonlight to illuminate her incandescence." This is a love story.

At the moment that their eyes met through the see-through walls of the inconceivable house, Gaudencio dropped the cigarette in his hand as he was devastated by exposure to Jacinta’s luminous beauty. He felt an almost unbearable torrent of words rise up through his body: inarticulate syllables swiftly welled up from the soles of his feet; combining into nouns at his knees, verbs at his loins, adjectives and adverbs by the time they reached his heart; joined by prepositions and conjunctions from his hands and arms; becoming phrases, clauses, then whole sentences when they reached his head, threatening to erupt not only from his lips but also seeking immediate egress from his eyes, ears, and nose; before finally causing his hair to writhe as whole paragraphs, chapters, short stories, novellas, and novels recoiled backwards, suffusing his entire being with the terrible power of unspoken expression.

The magical absurdity of that passage is consistent with the novel's use of lust and love as materials for fictional creation. It is a creative act that expands fictional boundaries, for we are in the territory of magical realism. It is easy to fall prey to the trappings and overused routines of magic. Alfar's beautiful sentences, however, are the building blocks of a luminous structure that is this very novel.

Salamanca manages to convey significant aspects of postwar Philippine history while telling an exuberant tale of love, identity, and exile. The way Alfar intertwined the landmarks and history of the Palawan Island setting into the novel's larger story is particularly awesome (at least to me, who has been living in Palawan for some time now).

The novel deploys magic as more than an instrument of speculation. Magic is here a transgressive force. The early scene of a powerful storm for instance—wherein the characters, together with their freely flowing hormones, are carried aloft by an accelerating whirlwind—is an outrageous, comic set piece. Unlike the barren magic of certain popular novelists (Haruki Murakami, for instance), the magic in Salamanca has been disabused of its knee-jerk reactions.

The seemingly whimsical telling of the plot creates, well, magic. Gaudencio exploits his experiences, his loves, and his many betrayals of them—like his betrayal of Jacinta that resulted to their short-lived wedding—as materials for his writing career. Similarly, Alfar churns up new plot elements and characters with the spontaneous resolve of an aesthete. Part of his strength lies in the efficiency of his quick character sketches. Characters are added incrementally, and despite their brief appearances and the spare details about them, the readers feel invested in their stories.

There's a lot to unpack in this short novel which in its own way offers a synthesis of post-war Philippine history, not a magical slice of that history but the whole cake. At the start of the novel, Gaudencio is in the United States, homesick and planning to return to the Philippines to impregnate his estranged wife Jacinta.

Seven years after the complete destruction of Manilaville in Louisiana, the dissolute author Gaudencio Rivera decided to settle the matter of his incoherent sexuality and beget a child. His sudden announcement—made during a dinner party held in Los Angeles—was greeted first with laughter, then moments later with stupefaction, when a minor earthquake struck to seal the veracity of his declaration. As the small party sat under the shuddering table watching the room sway, Gaudencio told them that there came a time in every man’s life to part the gossamer curtain that separated childhood from the real world; that in his case, the moment had been too long in its postponement; that artists—especially gifted writers like himself—while often able to crystallize miraculous observations of mundane things, were sometimes blinded to more important matters; and that, ultimately, women were necessary to continue humanity’s existence, even if, occasionally, men proved to be better bedmates.

Manilaville is a settlement for Filipinos in Louisiana, later destroyed by a powerful hurricane. Gaudencio mirrors the experience of immigrant Filipino writers, those who continue to long for their country even as they seek to establish their literary careers abroad. The name has a correlate with Vietville which also figures in the novel. Vietville is also a settlement community, the first generation of which were Vietnamese refugees who fled their country during the Vietnam War. They arrived by boat to Palawan after a long sea journey. The plight of exiled citizens and writers, what defines their rootedness in a certain home country, is one of the novel's dramatic strands.

This novel is also notable for its bending not only of genre but of gender. "Men, Women and Other Fictions" is the title of the second of three chapters of the novel, indicating how gender is here (almost) ignored as a deterministic criterion in choosing the sexual orientation of characters. The bisexual Gaudencio fills a gender gap in the characterization of male lovers in Philippine literary novels, at least novels of "epic and sprawling" ambition like Salamanca, novels which consciously integrate historical markers and details in their text.

The novel also makes reference to the use of magic as a political strategy of writers during the period of dictatorship after Marcos declared Martial Law in the country in 1972. The opportune use of fantastical elements in stories "permitted veiled criticisms of the nation's dictatorial regime without risking a visit from the police and an interminable incarceration in Fort Bonifacio, or any of the other venues where enemies of the government were routinely tortured, earning the sad victims the appellation 'desaparecidos,' the Vanished Ones."

Most significantly, Alfar makes a metaphoric case for sexual appetite as the "life force" of literary imagination.

"Do you still write?" Gaudencio asked him.
"No," Antonio replied with a mischievous smile. "I make babies."
"You really are an artist," Gaudencio said, blinking his eyes ... "Possessed by an imperative to create."

The imagined leap from the promiscuity of procreation to the promiscuity of creativity is one way of looking at art as perpetual giving birth to and bringing forth of artworks, the progeny of the imagination. Sexual reproduction as the mode of literary production: the prolific outputs of Gaudencio are direct products of his sexual proclivity. "His muse was the instant of passion", that instant when he "experienced his body's familiar transubstantiation of carnal lust to sublime vocabularies, and he would mentally partition texts as they were composed in his mind". Alfar seems to be hinting that, in the continuing process of national imagining and becoming, the liberal attitudes toward sexuality is the liberating force that makes us aware of the mystery of love and existence.

Self-awareness is that other modernist quality of the novel that makes it refreshing. Salamanca is a highly aware novel, aware of its opportunistic "exploitation" of human experience as fictional material, of magical elements as a creative force, of the politics of literary creation, of the national literary tradition it seeks to be an essential part of, and of the debilitating histories of colonialism and dictatorship. The witty self-references and historical asides, on top of transgressive magic and emotional subtlety, make for a novel of verbal and sensual riches.

One character in the novel describes salamanca as the thing that makes one see what is being described. This is the power of imagery to reveal images from words alone. This is also the power of fiction to portray ideas that reflect the sheen of reality. Through some hitherto unheard of black magic sourced from some enchanted cave, Alfar shows that the novel is a magical thing too—salamanca itself.

Salamanca is 2005 grand prize winner of the Palanca Awards in the category of Novel in English.

15 February 2013

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira (César Aira)

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by César Aira, translated by Katherine Silver (New Directions, 2012)

César Aira is flooding the market with his books—at least the Spanish-reading market (the English translation market cannot catch up). His is a thorough and deliberate exercise in style: each novel a miraculous variation of each other. The words within a single work are often self-referential, both to the work and to Aira's entire oeuvre itself. Consider a passage in the middle of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira.

The first thing was to begin publishing his installments of the Miracle Cures. First of all, obviously, he had to write them ... But at the same time he didn't need to write them because throughout the last few years he had filled an unbelievable number of notebooks with elaborations on his ideas; he had written so much that to write any more, on the same subject, was utterly impossible, even if he'd wanted to. Or better said, it was possible, very possible; it was what he had been doing year after year, in the constant "changing of ideas" that were his ideas. Continuing to write or continuing to think, which were the same, was equivalent to continuing to transform his ideas. That had been happening to him from the beginning, ever since his first idea.

It will not be a spoiler, for it is already obvious, if we say that Dr. Aira's "miracle cures" are also the real César Aira's extra-large quantity of publications. The miracle worker is the novelist himself, but the novelist is not trying to be subtle about it. That both of them share a name only indicates that one of them, or either of them, may be trying to pass himself off as the other.

Every other statement in that passage is a contradiction of the previous one (he had to write them ... he didn't need to write them; to write any more, on the same subject, was utterly impossible ... it was possible, very possible). He attributed this self-contradiction to his perpetual "changing of ideas" ("perpetual flux", he later said) or continuous transformation of ideas. He said it "had been happening to him from the beginning", from the get-go. Let us then consider here the beginning, the first paragraph of the novella.

One day at dawn, Dr. Aira found himself walking down a tree-lined street in a Buenos Aires neighborhood. He suffered from a type of somnambulism, and it wasn’t all that unusual for him to wake up on unknown streets, which he actually knew quite well because all of them were the same. His life was that of a half-distracted, half-attentive walker (half absent, half present) who by means of such alternations created his own continuity, that is to say, his style, or in other words and to close the circle, his life; and so it would be until his life reached its end—when he died. As he was approaching fifty, that endpoint, coming sooner or later, could occur at any moment.

Almost every other phrase or clause (unknown streets ... he actually knew quite well) is either a send-up or a comic reinforcement of the preceding. At the level of the sentence, Dr. Aira constantly revises his ideas, inverting the sense where possible.

His miracle cures are much sought after because they are "real" cures for the sick. However, his mortal enemy, Dr. Actyn (the name is quite meaningful), wants to expose the good doctor's methods and so keeps taunting him by setting up a trap for him one after another. That is partly the reason why Dr. Aira is wary of patients propositioning him.

One of the doctor's escapes from this paranoid state of affairs is writing. He decides to publish his miracle cures in installments. Hence, the implied comparison of dispensing miracle cures to novella-writing is so obvious it does not even need to be concealed.

This work, however, turns out to be not only an allegory for writing or the creative process but for the actual publishing process as well. The doctor worries too much about how to include diagrams and illustrations in his planned installments and what other materials to put in, say, an "autobiographical component". He seems to be more concerned about the additional "textual apparatus" and physicality of the text than the contents.

As opposed to other objects, texts withstand time only when they are associated with an author whose actions in life—of which their texts are the only tangible testimony—excite the curiosity of posterity. Such posthumous curiosity is created by a biography full of small, strange, inexplicable maneuvers, colored in with a flash of inventiveness that is always in action, always in a state of "happening".

With this passage as a clue to interpreting the writer's work (and vice versa, a la Varamo), some of his publishing quirks will no longer puzzle us. It partly explains why in Ema, la cautiva (1981), a very early "installment" of the real Aira, a letter is addressed to the "agreeable reader" at the back of the book. Or why the writer takes pains to bring out his installments in as many venues as possible, in as many small presses as possible, including one that bounds books in between cardboards.

More than the art of self-blurbing, more than self-advertising or trying to gain the world record for having the most number of ISBNs, Aira seems to be concerned with encapsulating the modes of production into his own books, dissolving the base into the superstructure, so to speak. More than the commercial and literary considerations of the texts/installments, the accretion of published texts is their concretion, a way to increase a writer's exposure and ubiquity, a way for the writer to actively participate in the merchandise of memory and posterity. Hence, the novels, in addition to being novels, function as their own textual apparatus as well.

And it's not the same César Aira production if there's none of the usual idiosyncratic exploration of the novelist's instantaneous (moment-by-moment) method of writing. The way Dr. Aira performs his "miracle cures" at the final section of the book is very instructive in this regard, at least in terms of understanding the novelist's writing and publishing process. Partly revealed is the secret mechanism behind the doctor and the novelist's careful selection of bibliographic (biographical, fictional) details, the material forces that go into book production.

The doctor's final miraculous act is a scene to behold: "He looked like Don Quixote attacking his invisible enemies". (His actuations are similar to that of the Tom Cruise character in the movie Minority Report [2002, as in this scene, spoiler alert].) Like the other installments in the series, this book provides a peek into the workings and theatrics of the Airaesque.

The first of three chapters of the novel can be read here.

10 February 2013

F. Sionil José's re-imagined community

This is an expanded version of a previous post.

Po-on (1984, also published as Dusk) is the first chronological part of Filipino novelist F. Sionil José's epic story consisting of five volumes and collectively known as the Rosales saga. It is a historical and political novel set in Luzon Island during the last days of Spanish rule in the Philippines in late 19th century up to the entry of American imperialists. It traces the southward journey of an extended family evicted from their homes by Spanish authorities. The Salvador family's journey is marked by indescribable hardship. It also depicts the enduring character of small peoples and their continuing struggle against colonial powers (Spanish and American) and greedy landowners.

The novel is written in spare, transparent, and direct prose, devoid of any flourishes yet lyrical nonetheless. F. Sionil José is persistently spoken of as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. That he hasn't won yet may be explained by the fact that he is not what one would usually consider a prose stylist and that his novels are sometimes weighed down by their political themes. Among Filipino novelists in the English language (those that I've read so far), the late Nick Joaquín and N. V. M. Gonzalez are arguably better writers than him. Even so, his engagement with questions of national identity and social justice makes him a novelist worth reading. His aesthetic can best be summed up by the words of Apolinario Mabini, one of the novel's pivotal historical characters:

"Remember, Eustaquio, these are curtains to a window. And the words are themselves the window. First, the writing must be neat but not ornate for if I wanted beautiful letters, then I would have nothing but a page of the alphabet in ornate lettering. The Chinese consider calligraphy as an art form and it could be beautiful, but attention, as tradition demands, is drawn to the shape of the characters themselves. Great calligraphers are, therefore, great poets, too. But you are not Chinese. Words should not hinder the expression of thought unless one is expressing poetry. I am not writing poetry; I am writing to convince people of the validity of our struggle, its righteousness, and the utter fallacy and hypocrisy of the Americans in saying we are not capable of self-government."

"But you are not Chinese", Mabini emphasized to Eustaquio (Istak), the novel's protagonist. "You are Filipino", he was implying.

Here I'm reminded of the final scene of the 1976 film Ganito Kami Noon ... Paano Kayo Ngayon? (This Is How We Were ... How Are You Now?), directed by Eddie Romero. The main character Nicolas "Kulas" Ocampo (played by Christopher de Leon) encountered a group of children sitting in the midst of ruined shelters of Filipino revolutionaries. He told them, after they related what happened: "Tandaan nyo ito ha: Pilipino rin kayo" ("Remember this: you are also Filipinos").

I'm looking at the Wikipedia page of the film and I think its synopsis could very well describe Sionil José's novel.

Set at the turn of the 20th century during the Filipino revolution against the Spaniards and, later, the American colonizers, it follows a naïve peasant through his leap of faith to become a member of an imagined community.

At present I'm reading an influential book by the scholar and historian Benedict Anderson called Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983, rev. ed. 1991). "Imagined community" is the definition Anderson gave for a nation (excerpt):

[A nation] is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion....

The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind....

It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm....

Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

I am quoting Anderson's definition at length because I think that "nationalism" is the underlying theme of the novel (and the whole Rosales saga) and consequently a robust framework in which to approach it. (Any investigation of national literatures will, I think, benefit from Anderson's ideas in his book.) Po-on is published just a year after Anderson's book came out, and yet the elements of a nation (imagined, community, limited, sovereign) are well integrated into the story.

The idea of sovereignty and self-government, for example, is evident from the first quoted passage. In addition, the imagination of national (territorial) boundaries can be seen in another passage in the novel, the words of Mabini again, replying to Istak's question on why he must care for this "nameless mass" Mabini calls Filipinas and for the people not even related to him:

"If there is no country as such or as you know and recognize, then in your mind you must give it its boundaries. Do this because without this country you are nothing. This land where you stand, from which you draw your sustenance, is the Mother you deny. It's to her where your thoughts will go even if you refuse to think so, for it is here where you were born, where your loved ones live, and where in all probability you will all die. We will love her, protect her, all of us—Bisaya, Tagalog, Ilokano, so many islands, so many tribes—because if we act as one, we will be strong and so will she be. Alone, you will fall prey to every marauder that passes by. I am not asking that you love Filipinas. I am asking that you do what is right, what is duty ..." [emphasis added]

The same hopeful leap from regionalism (Bisaya, Tagalog, Ilokano, etc.) to nationalism marks the ending of Ganito Kami Noon ... Paano Kayo Ngayon? It's not surprising then that these re-imagining of a national community earned for the novelist, as well as the filmmaker, the honor of being elected a "National Artist".

09 February 2013

The Melancholy of Resistance (László Krasznahorkai)

The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes (New Directions, 2000)

It was said that modern Mayans rolled their eyes at the suggestion of Armageddon on 12/21/12. But in László Krasznahorkai's novel, nobody is rolling his eyes as something wicked comes the way of a Hungarian village. The seriousness of the situation is evident from the ambiance of fear and foreboding as Mrs. Plauf travels by train to her home. She can't shake off the feeling that an infinitesimal change in the landscape brought something amiss to the relative peace of the village. That constricting feeling of impending apocalypse suffuses the novel's introductory chapter, titled "An Emergency".

After so much gossip, so much terrifying rumour-mongering, she could now see for herself that 'it was all going down the drain', for she understood that while her own particular immediate danger was over, in 'a world where such things happen' the collapse into anarchy would inevitably follow.

The anarchy comes later in the book, but it seems to be a logical, methodical anarchy for it happens after much paranoid and apocalyptic proselytizing by its parade of characters. Like the Argentinian novelist César Aira, Krasznahorkai is a proponent of spontaneous realism, where the narratives unfold in real time and almost any scene can be considered in medias res. The characters ride a literal "train of thought", not so much in streaming consciousness, but a branching out of consciousness to alternative mental routes. They think aloud and they follow no discernible script except what insights their "walking minds" alight on.

Quotations of stock phrases (as in the above passage: 'it was all going down the drain'; 'a world where such things happen') make this narrative of constant "scenario-building" somehow realistic, somehow not hackneyed. They anchor the narrative to certain familiar tropes and avoid being too precious despite the seriousness of "the threat of end of times". At times, they provoke a certain "war on idioms and clichés" in a world where every usable concept may already have been labeled and delimited as to be "set off" and "qualified". Yet again, the quotes can be literally literal, as for example, Mrs. Eszter in front of her ex-husband's dirty laundry ("... if Valuska was willing to keep it a secret, she would like to wash her husband's dirty laundry with 'her own two hands', explaining how, through all the preceding years, she had regarded the husband who had so coldly rejected her with such unconditional fidelity and respect that it saturated her entire being.") or "cherry picking" later in the novel with real cherries in front of her.

After Mrs. Plauf, the paranoid narration is passed on to another character in a manner of a relay race. But this is a relay where, due to the almost standstill pace of real time narration, the baton is almost grudgingly passed on. The snail-paced race is continued by Mrs. Eszter, the ambitious lady who plans on leading the town as a decorated political leader; by Valuska, the half-wit and son of Mrs. Plauf, whose naivety is a contrast to the other characters' worldly cares; by Mr. Eszter, the estranged husband of Mrs. Eszter, who seems to have renounced the world and retreats into his house a physically broken man; and in between by characters who launch into monologues. These major characters perform the race according to their own slow motion and spontaneous meandering. Murphy's law is at work but there is at least one certain thing in the story: apocalypse lies at the finish line of track and field

There is barely a plot in the story. A traveling circus is in town to showcase a very large whale and other circus oddities. It, along with some strange local occurrences, seems to have elicited the general fear of the town's "backward" populace. There's an undeniable apocalyptic flavor to the goings on behind the circus tent.

Krasznahorkai's whale seems to be a projection of all the uncertainties, pent-up anxieties, and random menace the world (or modern life or existence) is capable of inflicting on the human race. The ominous whale of monstrous proportions offends the sensibility of the provincial villagers. At the same time, the "fifty-metre truck-load" seems to have generated a cult following from the other villages it visited. These doomy attitudes ("an infection of the imagination") of the people ("spellbound mob") are bound to manifest a doomsday of their own. That doomsday is anything but joyful, except that the existential funk and angst of the characters are all too darkly and comically explored within a stylish, dense prose. Kilometric sentences within blocks of text not set off by paragraphs, a profusion of commas and dependent clauses: the tics of a handful of excellent European writers.

He recalled various stages in his frantic efforts and the fact that even then, in what was imposing itself as a general frame of mind, he had suspected that any eventual resolution would not be due entirely to taking rational thought in the matter, a suspicion that had in the meantime become a certainty, for in divorcing the heavy artillery of his intellect (so typical of him) as he was, metaphorically, edging forward, or, in his own words, divorcing the 'ostensible fire-power of a determined general' from 'the chain of practical action and reaction', he had achieved mastery not through the application of a logical experimental process but through constant, wholly involuntary adaptations to the moment-by-moment nature of necessity; a process that no doubt reflected his intellectual bent but took no cognition of it. To judge by appearances, he summarized, the clear lesson was that the serious issue underlying this apparently insignificant task had been resolved by a persistent assault embodying a flexible attitude to permutations, the passage from 'missing the point' to 'hitting the nail on the head' so to speak, owing nothing, absolutely nothing, to concentrated logic and everything to improvisation, to an ever new set of exploratory motions, or so he had thought as he set out on his tour of inspection of the house to check whether any loose boards needed more secure fixing; there was nothing to indicate that the body's command mechanism, that well-oiled part of the human organism focused on the reality principle (he entered the kitchen) had imposed itself between the legislating mind and the executive hand and remained so well hidden that it could only be discovered, as he put it, 'between, if such a thing were possible, the dazzling object of illusion and the eye that perceives that object, a position that entailed conscious recognition of the illusory nature of the object'. It seemed it was the very freedom of choice between the range of competing ideas that actually decided the angle, the height, and experimental path between the top of the arc [of the hammer] and the point of the nail ... [emphases added]

The character, Mr. Eszter, is here speaking literally of hammer and nails, as he learns again "to master the art of banging in nails". In the course of this intellectualizing of carpentry, he also shares some of the qualities of the narrative's spontaneous realism. This seamlessly bridging of "the legislating mind and the executive hand" is an appeal to the authenticity of fresh ideas being transcribed as they occur. It is quite similar to Aira's 'constant flight forward' method of writing, but here is more painstakingly expressed in longer form.

The effect seems to be an illusion that nothing is predetermined, that there is a higher intelligence at work governing the fate of plot and story. In the hands of a prose stylist, the extraordinary turns of phrase (and plot) can be pedantically funny and refreshing. It can lend playfulness to the anticipation and perception of events and a spontaneous beauty to seemingly random details "freely" selected from a "range of competing ideas".

There can be detected a creative component to this spontaneity that may yet make us believe that Reader can be Author himself and, for that matter, that the novel is not dead or stale. A good spontaneous realist novelist is one who can pretend that everything is not wholly up to him, that the story is not contingent on the whims of his created characters, and there is always room for the reader to "ghostwrite" the novel as he reads. Writer and reader lead the story to exciting directions and digressions, without loss of a texture of complex reality. "The novelist is all of us," says Fernando Pessoa, "and we narrate whenever we see, because seeing is complex like everything."

The Melancholy of Resistance may be a philosophical novel outlining its own state of nature ("the present state of the area") but not offering a social contract.

He had been wrong, he decided a few steps from his house, wrong in assuming that steady decay was the essence of the situation, for that was in effect to say that some element of good persisted in it while there was no evidence of that whatsoever, and this walk had convinced him that there never could have been, not because it had been lost but because 'the present state of the area' never had the slightest shred of meaning in the first place. It was not meant to have a point; if it was meant for anything at all it was expressely [sic] for the purpose of having no point ...

The speaker's stance is pessimistic and nihilistic and any resistance to this state of nature is predicted to fail. The failure is here dramatized as a thought experiment, with the novel's apocalyptic scenes leading to self-realization and epiphany of the characters yet nonetheless consuming them. The whale has been likened to Hobbes's Leviathan but Kafka's looming Castle may be the more appropriate template. It is more a symptom of one's inability to comprehend things at a glance. When the idiot Valuska sees the whale, he is at least aware that his perception of it will be hopelessly incomplete.

Seeing the whale did not mean he could grasp the full meaning of the sight, since to comprehend the enormous tail fin, the dried, cracked, steel-grey carapace and, halfway down the strangely bloated hulk, the top fin, which alone measured several metres, appeared a singularly hopeless task. It was just too big and too long, Valuska simply couldn't see it all at once, and failed even to get a proper look at its dead eyes.... [I]t was simply impossible to see the enormous head as an integral whole.

Perhaps there is something there about the danger of populist/mass thinking, its innate lack of foresight, and its consequent savagery arising from the inability to see the forest for the trees, the whole for the parts. Our yearning for the end of the world is but our failure to exact meaning from existence: our own enactment of intellectual mass suicide.

It's not surprising that W. G. Sebald contributes a blurb to the book which states that the novel's universal vision "rivals that of Gogol's Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing". He and Krasznahorkai are priests of a sort of European "literature of doom". Thomas Bernhard also belongs to that company. The Hungarian novelist seems to share in the Austrian's lamented topics. The former spells out the state of nature no less explicitly: "the whole of human history is no more ... than the histrionics of a stupid, bloody, miserable outcast in an obscure corner of a vast stage, a kind of tortured confession of error, a slow acknowledgement of the painful fact that this creation was not necessarily a brilliant success"; "he wanted to forget everything he had had to suffer during the decades of his so-called directorship of the academy of music: those grinding attacks of idiocy, the blank ignorant look in people's eyes, the utter lack of burgeoning intelligence in the young, the rotten smell of spiritual dullness and the oppressive power of pettiness, smugness and low expectation under the weight of which he himself had almost collapsed."

Anxiety at the impending end of the world and (by extension) the end of literature marks the terrain of the literature of doom. Only agents provocateurs flourish in this setting as they do damage to the established peace and order (and literary conventions). Who ever is prepared for catastrophes, apocalypses, terrorist acts, and other anticipated endings? Everyone dissembles in the end. But readers resist the idea as it appears the novelist himself is the agent provocateur. Our consolation is that the grand narrative may yet belong to the readers whom the novelist is forced to transact ideas with.