22 June 2024

The spirit of déjà vu


Asinkrono: Isang Nobela by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles (De La Salle University Publishing House, 2021)

People say the novel is a way of imparting knowledge. Well, maybe. But for me it is more a way of imparting recognition of things that you didn't know you knew. You say 'yes'. It feels true even though it might be uncomfortable.

– Javier Marías

What is a novel? A jumble of words written on blank pages. A tumble of meanings out of chaotic sentences. A succession of illusory paragraphs. A confabulation of chapters and closures. A number of twaddles and wee things. A muddle of characters and plot. An entity, a being, a flat pavement, a cumbersome mountain. A writer’s opus, a master’s magnum. A reader’s delight, a reader’s curse. Something new in old, something old in new. If innovative, a novel has no boundaries, being boundless, depthless. Unfathomable and flawed. A futile exercise. A coloring book. A text in search of a form. A self-sustaining machine. A reader’s paradise; a reader’s purgatorio and personal hell. A self-propagating, self-determining organism. A sequence of sleepless nights. Narrative gestating in the mind, swallowed whole by the orobouros.  

Decentered. Asynchronous. What is a novel capable of these days? Unbordered. Unmarginalized. Does the novel still have the capacity to mystify and stupefy in this modern times when social media mediated our lives?

As we scan the pages of a novel. We find simultaneity is impossible. We read one letter, one word, one sentence, one punctuation, one paragraph at a time but we are unable to multitask. We find in reading that we can only read so much, one act or situation at a time. We cannot simultanenously see or hear everything else but what's in front of our eyes. Omnipotence is impossible. We are impotent of phenomena. The novel cannot be an asynchronous form of art. 

Of course various novelists, in their elusive search for form, in their mimicry of metamorphosis, and smooth handling of situations, tried their best to get around the situation. Nolledo and Coetzee had to put texts side by side to make the claim of simultaneous or parallel unfolding of events in a split screen. A novel, the most amorphic of arts, could after all approximate cinematic techniques. 

A novel could contain the spirit of déjà vu. A proof is Asinkrono: Isang Nobela (Asynchronous: A Novel) by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, a distinguished experimental poet, a practitioner of erasure poetry, and now an avant-garde novelist of fine caliber.

Unsurprisingly, Asinkrono, like his highly conceptual and experimental poems, produced an innovative novel that made obsolete the concepts of "characters" and "plot". Not that it was plotlesss. The novel's narrative plodded along ten discrete chapters, each bouncing against and refracting each other. It would be futile to provide a plot summary; it would be better to describe the form.

Not that the characters were flat or unimportant, or the novel was not character-driven; it's more like the characters were better considered as "identities" in so far as the characters in each chapter may or may not be related to each other. And in so far as the "characters" harbor fragments of memories that form a self. The puzzle would or would not be fitted in the reader's mind. Reading Asinkrono was an attempt to piece together fuzzy ideas and fluid memories.

For Javier Marías, the novel was an art (or an act) of recognition of unknown things. You never knew until the Archimedes moment of recognition. Failure to recognize was not a crime. It was the act of reading and recognizing semblances of meaning that matters.

Animated by the ghosts of many writers (anf filmmakers) and their works, including famed Filipino memoirist Rene O. Villanueva, Jorge Luis Borges, Roland Barthes's Mourning Diary, Auster, and Beckett--a skit channeled the character and ideas of Villanueva; two brief chapters emulated the prose style of the latter two, in Filipino!--the novel seemed to pose a lot of questions about the acts of writing and reading in this social media-savvy world.

Ano pa ba ang silbi ng pagsusulat? May puwang pa ba ang pagsusulat sa mundong laging nagkukumaahog.

[What is the use of writing? Is there a place for writing in a fast-paced world?]

A taunt to writers and readers alike, the text which subtitled itself "a novel" ultimately posed a self-reflexive question for a world in perpetual hurry: is the book I'm reading a novel?

In the dialogue between two doppelgangers Rene and Reny--stand-ins for Rene Villanueva--Reny expressed his preference for the world of literature over reality due to the former's deliberateness: in literature, everything is well-planned and calculated, even the parts that are unexpected or surprising. Arguelles the novelist would subvert further that idea in another chapter in the form of a short screenplay.

The varied subjects of the ten discrete chapters made for a portrait of an artist in various guises. What must have been autobiographical details about a novelist's childhood and the sociology of jueteng during its heyday in the country, among other materials. As a whole, it was a unique species of the fragmentary novel built on tangential connections. The chapters were open-ended and asynchronously connected to one other.

The central chapter was the screenplay partly set in Japan in which well-planned and calculated scenes took the spirit of déjà vu to the extreme. Characters bled into each other; scenes were reenacted in a different light. One character's desires dissolved onto another. All the while, Kawabata Yasunari's novel of failed connections, Yukiguni (Snow Country), hovered in the background like an emblem.

Brave novelists have profound respect for the readers to make sense of their works without prompting them or leading them to the abyss of interpretation. Arguelles's novel of deliberately planned and chance encounters showed there was much to consider in a world of perpetual hurry and the place of reading and writing in this world remained central in the transaction of literary ideas.

The most interesting novels reinforce the mystery of reading to fill out the homogeneous, empty time (to borrow the concept from Walter Benjamin). The unexpected is in the eye of the reader and his perception of deliberateness in the swirl of texts and images before his eyes. Within chapters of Asinkrono, asynchronous "breaks" in time disrupted the narrative and carried off fractal scenes, characters with spectral presences, and literary consciousness to unfamiliar ground. 

In the spirit of Nicanor Parra's antipoemas, the best novels are antinovels like Asinkrono. They have spontaneous freedom. Unplanned or not, they are form-centric, courageous, not time-bound. Their events are asynchronous, vivifying the mystical present.* 

1 comment:

  1. * "Time filled by the presence of the now [Jetztzeit]." In Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (p. 205). Trans. Harry Zohn. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

    Jetztzeit is footnoted with the statements: Benjamin says "Jetztzeit” and indicates by the quotation marks that he does not simply mean an equivalent to Gegenwart, that is, present. He clearly is thinking of the mystical nunc stans.