José Revueltas, The Hole

The HoleThe Hole by José Revueltas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Hole was written in Mexico City’s Lecumberri Penitentiary in 1969 and published the same year; a classic of Latin American literature, one that Valeria Luiselli claims on the back cover has informed the works of Bolaño and Aira, the novella appears for the first time in English in this 2018 translation by Amanda Hopkinson and Sophie Hughes.

Revueltas’s short novel is not only remarkable for its prison provenance. It is also an experimental formal contrivance—a solid block of prose from end to end with no breaks. Revueltas narrates his characters’ experience in real time, a viscous flow of consciousness that mimics the hallucinatory desperation of its criminal anti-heroes in the depths of the prison.

Our main characters are Albino and Polonio; they have convinced their cell-mate, a pathetic, disheveled man they call The Prick, to have his mother smuggle drugs into the prison  by carrying them in her vagina. She is accompanied by their young girlfriends, La Chata and Mecha, who themselves fall prey to the violations of the female guards who search them on their way into the prison. The smuggling plan goes as well as you’d expect, and the novella climaxes in an orgiastic and defeated rebellion.

Revueltas was in the prison, but not the titular hole; he was not a common criminal but a political prisoner, a lifelong Communist on trial for inciting the student rebellion in 1968. Accordingly, his novella makes a number of philosophical points in the course of its brief nightmare narrative.

First is that society at large is a prison. The novella opens with our anti-heroes watching their watchers, observing the guards, whom they think of as apes:

They were captive. […] They were born to keep watch and they knew as much, to spy, to constantly look around, making sure no one escaped their clutches in that city with its iron grid of streets, barred corridors, corners multiplying on all sides…

The prison is the city is the world, and the guards are as imprisoned as those they keep. In his comprehensive introduction to The Hole, novelist Álvaro Enrigue points out that Lecumberri Penitentiary was an exemplary modern institution, a model of “‘progressive’ rationalism” founded in 1900 on principles derived from Bentham’s panopticon.

Modernity, rationalism, progress: everybody watching everybody else along the sightlines formed by an authoritarian grid laid over us all by the powers that be. Revueltas makes the point even more explicit at his novel’s climax when the anti-heroes are defeated by guards who pin them in their cage by barring the space with metal rods:

…all in a diabolical mutilation of the space, triangles, trapezoids, parallels, oblique or perpendicular divisions, lines and more lines, bars and more bars, until every possible move those gladiators could make was blocked and they were left crucified on the monstrous blueprint of this gargantuan defeat of liberty, all the fault of geometry.

If “geometry” is at fault, if reality’s propensity to be rationalized defeated even the endless love of history’s most famous crucified convict, then resistance is whatever exceeds the rational. This is a filthy, nihilistic book, but it offers glimpses of redemption. Consider Albino’s tattoo, which drives observers to erotic frenzy:

Lower down his stomach was a tattoo of a Hindu figure—etched in the brothel of some Hindustani port, or so his story went, by the in-house eunuch, a member of an unpronounceable esoteric sect, while Albino dreamed a deep and almost lethal opium sleep beyond all possible recollection—the tattoo depicted an amusing couple, a young man and a woman in the throes of passion, their bodies entwined, enlaced in an incredible foliage of thighs, arms, legs, breasts, and marvelous organs—the Brahmanic tree of Good and Evil—positioned in such a way and with such kinetic wisdom that Albino only had to set it in motion with the right contractions and muscle spasms, its rhythmic oscillations rising at intervals on the surface of his skin, and a subtle, in apprehensible rocking of the hips, for those flailing and capricious-looking body parts—torso and armpits, feet and pubis and hands and wings and stomachs and hair—to assume a mystical unity in which the miracle of the Creation was repeated and human copulation was portrayed in all its magnificent and marvelous splendor.

Entwined foliage rather than straight lines, mystical unity rather than bars of division, miracles rather than reasons: if these can be found even in the eponymous hole, then perhaps geometry need not win the war, though it wins the battle Revueltas stages in the novella.

Geometry does tend to win out in Álvaro Enrigue’s long introduction, though, which frames the text for the Anglophone reader. While Revueltas was, as I said, a Communist, “all the fault of geometry” is not a Marxist position. Marxism does not perceive a fault in the structure of the universe as the source of social problems, but rather contingent and therefore alterable historical conditions. According to Enrigue, this tendency toward ontological pessimism rather than historical optimism caused Revueltas’s comrades to react with suspicion:

When Revueltas published his first novel, Walls of Water, Pablo Neruda denounced it for its pessimism: such existentialist themes were disrespectful of Stalinist orthodoxy. Neruda failed to understand the literary potential of young José Revueltas, who in turn held the Chilean poet—the loftiest of all lofty Communists—in such high esteem that he took Walls of Water off the market. Nevertheless, Neruda was correct in pointing out the link between Revueltas and post-war French literature. His tragic characters belong to the race of Albert Camus’s existential heroes: “indifferent to the future.”

Revueltas’s self-criticism anticipates the auto-#cancellation of authors scorned by social media activists today, and should tell us all we need to know about the Stalinist sources of the ideology taking root in American cultural institutions. Unfortunately, it takes further root at the end of Enrigue’s introduction, when he insists that this quasi-pornographic and wholly oneiric novella is “a timely fable about our complicity—all writers and readers—in the triumph of mass incarceration as the only solution to problems that could be resolved in more rational ways.”

But The Hole identifies rationalism itself as the enemy and names no solution whatever to the problems it describes, as it portrays prisoner and guard as alike caught in the cage of the universe and refuses to moralize over its anti-heroes’s murderous viciousness and visionary appetites. “Fable” is the last word I would use for this violent spasm of language.

I might have preferred a more emotionally complete fiction than The Hole myself, and I too hope our society can move on from mass incarceration; but the need to find in imaginative literature a timely and rational political fable is another “gargantuan defeat of liberty.”

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Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo

Pedro PáramoPedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It sometimes seems as if great novels—where “great” implies success at the historico-political task of summing an epoch or capturing a society in fiction—almost have to be long. You know the list: Bleak House, War and Peace, Middlemarch, The Magic Mountain, Underworld, etc. But I am also interested in a certain type of shorter novel, often even straddling the novella/novel boundary*, that has the perhaps peculiar ambition of taking up the job of the big-canvas Balzacian or Dickensian novel (and behind it, the epic) in a much smaller space. These novels often address themselves to generational time-scales, vast territories, communal experiences, or transpersonal institutions; formally, they often incorporate multiple perspectives and conflicting voices. While you might think that the shorter or short novel would mainly concern very particular moral problems or psychological experiences (and many examples come to mind, more examples than of the kind of book I am discussing, as in the short novels of James or Mansfield or Bellow, for instance), the short or shorter novel I am thinking of manifestly exhibits the world-describing or world-making power of bigger books with the additional ambition of compressing this power within a small compass: Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Billy Budd, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Toomer’s Cane, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Morrison’s Sula, Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Sometimes these brief texts are even the fictional treatments of their historical subjects (American Puritanism for Hawthorne, modernist London for Woolf), yet they will fit in the back pocket as similarly epochal novels like Lost Illusions or Ulysses will not.

Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is such a novel. My little old Grove Press paperback, translated by Lysander Kemp, is 123 pages, and that is with fairly wide line spacing, but the book’s historical reputation is as the great Mexican novel. Rulfo’s first novel, published in 1955, is a deliriously fragmented tale, surreal and supernatural, about what befell the village of Comala in the early twentieth century.

It begins with seeming straightforwardness, as a narrator named Juan Preciado ventures to Comola at the behest of his dead mother because it is where his father, the eponymous Pedro Páramo, lives. But it soon becomes clear to Juan that Comala is a town empty but for ghosts of its prior residents, who take turns taking him in on his voyage, and from whose testimony he pieces together the scarifying story of his father’s life (though not before, midway through the novel, joining the dead himself). Pedro Páramo was a ruthless, expansive landowner, cheating and murdering his way to control of his territory, dominating the women he desires, and even manipulating the Mexican Revolution to his own advantage; the center of his life, however, is his obsession from childhood with a woman named Susana. The last third of the book, as the vital Pedro Páramo’s story comes to dominate over that of his now-dead son, narrates the land baron’s attempt to recover Susana and her own erotic madness.

Carmen Boullosa, writing in The Nation in 2006, summarizes the many meanings that have been attributed to this classic (which, she notes, every Mexican inevitably reads in school):

It has been said to represent, embody, allegorize or illuminate: the times of Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship, the social context of the Revolution, patriarchal rancher culture and the repression of women, the poetic qualities of rural speech, Mexico’s relationship with death, the lingering influence on Mexicans of Aztec cosmology, Mexican deruralization and the ghost towns it created, Mexican culture, Mexican history, Mexican modernity, universal myths and archetypes. All of these interpretations are right, except those asserting that they alone are right. For me, the novel is about the Novel: the wonders of storytelling, the power of the literary word that spins so fast it never lets the reader catch it.

While I am admittedly inexpert on the specifics of Mexican history, I obviously appreciate Boullosa’s point about “the Novel”; for me, though, Pedro Páramo is about the difficulties and paradoxes of belatedness: the sense that, though the past was brutal, at least it was alive, while the present feels like a gray colloquy of ghosts. This is just where “the Novel” comes in. As I have said before, art might be our only substitute for the life we no longer can or want to live, the man we no longer can or want to be. In reading about Pedro Páramo, we do not have to be him. The son of the absent father, Juan Preciado, in that sense, is the reader’s surrogate. (And the author’s surrogate? Perhaps the chorus of women who tell so much of the story—a feminist essay that I am sure has been written already.)

My book’s back cover refers to Faulkner, and Boullosa, in cataloguing the notoriously cagey Rulfo’s artistic exaggerations, notes that he claimed never to have read Faulkner. This is not convincing, and anyway there is no shame in influence. Faulkner with his modernist hinterland gothic taught us all to look with relativizing multiple perspectives on absolutist monomaniacs, to elegize monstrous tragic heroes we are relieved not to have to live with even as we are perversely sad they are gone, and to communicate in worldly or cosmopolitan literary form the particularities and hauntings of our local experience (whether the locality is in our villages or in our heads). Speaking of influence, Rulfo’s novel has also been said to have been a forerunner of magical realism; its own magic is somewhat traditional, that of the ghost story, not the more baroque inventions of a García Márquez, but the impact on One Hundred Years of Solitude is evident. Recurring to my first paragraph above, note, though, Rulfo’s almost novella-length tale as compared to García Márquez’s vast saga.

Anyway, I recommend Pedro Páramo most highly, from the beautifully surreal details that begin on the first page—

They say a road goes up or down depending on whether you’re coming or going. If you’re going away it’s uphill, but it’s downhill if you’re coming back.

—to the comic, poignant voices that ring through the empty town, those that belong in a horror movie—

“The village is full of echoes. Perhaps they got trapped in the hollows of the walls, or under the stones. When you walk in the street, you can hear other footsteps, and rustling noises, and laughter. Old laughter, as if it were tired of laughing by now. And voices worn out with use. You can hear all this. I think someday these sounds will die away.”

—and those more intimate and tender—

“Illusions are bad. It was an illusion that made me live longer than I should have. That’s how I paid for trying to find my son, who was only another illusion. I never had a son. Now that I’m dead I’ve had time to think everything over, and I understand. God didn’t even give me any home to keep him in. Just a long, weary life, always searching wherever I went, looking sideways, looking behind people, always suspecting they’d hidden my child. And it was all the fault of my bad dream.”

—to the moments of lyrical description that seem to arrest time in evoking its passage—

The wind blew during all those days, the wind that brought the rain. The rain had gone now, but the wind stayed on. The corn-shoots dried off in the fields and lay down to protect themselves from the wind. It was bearable enough in the daytime, although it shook the vines and rattled the tiles on the roof, but at night it moaned and moaned. The clouds drifted like great, silent pavilions over the earth.

A great twentieth-century novel, and not a bit less great because you can read it in a day.
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* Isn’t it odd that we insist on the novella/novel distinction, but no distinctions among texts considered long enough to be novels? Why is there a qualitative difference embedded in our language between a 30,000-word fiction and a 70,000-word one, but not between a 90,000-word fiction and a 1,000,000-word one?

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

 

Valeria Luiselli, Faces in the Crowd

Faces in the CrowdFaces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The honest critic must be content to find a VERY LITTLE contemporary work worth serious attention; but he must also be ready to RECOGNIZE that little, and to demote work of the past when a new work surpasses it.
—Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

Faces in the Crowd is Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli’s first novel, published in Spanish in 2011 and in Christine MacSweeney’s English translation in 2014. The English translation is named for Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”—the Spanish title, by contrast, translates to The Weightless—and the novel can be read as a tribute to modernism. Like the modernists, Luiselli writes in fragments organized by mood and meaning rather than plot; and like the modernists, she is committed to both the evanescent self and the modern city through which it drifts. If her first novel is not entirely successful, if it is too emblematic of the present’s will-to-curation and cleverness, it is not for lack of intelligence.

Faces in the Crowd tells two stories as one. The main narrator is a young mother of two in a troubled marriage to an architect; she lives in Mexico City, and she is writing a fictionalized reminiscence of her younger days in New York City when she worked for a publisher of translated literature. Because of her childcare duties, she explains, her novel will have a fragmented form:

Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is—has to be—in short bursts. I’m short of breath.

Consequently, the novel is divided into very brief sub-divisions, few longer than a page.

For the novel’s first half, Luiselli divides the narrative between the main narrator in Mexico City, whose husband is becoming increasingly suspicious of what he reads over her shoulder, and the narrator’s New York past. In New York, she had been friends with a variety of urban artist types I have already forgotten—too much of this part of the book reads like hipster-hijinks Brooklyn indie comedy, ready to be filmed with Greta Gerwig in the lead. On top of that, the fractured storytelling ensures that we never get to know Moby, Salvatore, Dakota, and the rest in any but the broadest outlines since we spend so little time with them. Nevertheless, the heroine’s job at the publishing house and her conversations with White, her editor, allow Luiselli to situate her own work not only biographically—she was a new mother when she wrote it, like the narrator—but also within the sociology of literary markets:

Weren’t you a friend of Bolaño? White shouted from his desk (I worked at a small desk beside his, so the shouting was unnecessary but it made him feel like a real editor). He took a long drag on his cigarette and continued in the same mode: Haven’t you got any letters from him or an interview or something we could publish? he shouted. No, White, I never met him. Shame. Did you hear that, Minni? We have the honor of working with the only Latin American woman who wasn’t a friend of Bolaño. Who’s he, chief? asked Minni, who never knew anything about anything. He’s the most popular dead Chilean writer ever. His name gets dropped more than coins into a wishing well.

Eventually, she tries to get her translations of the real-life early-20th-century Mexican poet Gilberto Owen published, passing them off as rediscovered translations by his American friend Zvorsky (really a fictionalized Louis Zukofsky).

From there, the narrator abandons her memoir-like fiction about her own past and composes instead a neo-modernist city novel—though still intercut with her own present—about Owen’s life in America. Owen narrates in the first person, and his own story has two temporal levels: the “present” of his section of the novel is the 1940s, when he is a Mexican consul in Philadelphia, alcoholic, divorced, and going blind; from this dismal vantage, he recalls his glory days in the 1920s, when he spent his time in Harlem drinking and writing with Lorca, Zukofsky, Nella Larsen, and others. Throughout the novel, Owen and the narrator have been seeing each other in the subway, just as Ezra Pound supposedly saw the ghost of his dead friend in the metro, prompting the epochal poem that gives this novel its English title.

Is all the foregoing the reverie of a house-bound mother, regretting the artistic life she was not able to lead? That would make the novel a somewhat standard political statement, but Luiselli has metaphysical ambitions. The end of the novel distinctly implies—in what I believe is a nod to one of Luiselli’s major precursors in the Mexican novel, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo—that all of the characters are dead and are interacting as ghosts in an afterlife of picturesque urban desolation. Rather than the clear utterance of a single narrator, the mother in Mexico City, the novel becomes a Möbius strip whose narrators and narratives pass through and into each other almost imperceptibly until the final sentences, when Owen and the narrator seem on the cusp of discovering how they have haunted each other. The novel’s last line has the force of a riddle’s solution—it is worthy of Nabokov.

Faces in the Crowd is ingeniously conceived, but also a bit of a mixed achievement. As I said above, the whole strand of the plot set in the narrator’s New York past comes to seem extraneous—what do we need all of its quirky characters for? And the section on the narrator’s present life generates and then squanders the suspense of her husband’s increasing suspicion. The narrator’s young son, moreover, has the worst raison d’être for any fictional child—he was invented, alas, to say The Darnedest Things, which he does for the novel’s entire length:

What’s your book about, Mama?
It’s a ghost story.
Is it frightening?
No, but it’s a bit sad.
Why? Because the ghosts are dead?
No, they’re not dead.
Then they’re not very ghosty.

And the obtrusive and portentous metafictional asides (“A dense, porous novel. Like a baby’s heart,” “A vertical novel told horizontally”) are the sort of thing that should be edited out of a first novel.

More seriously, Faces in the Crowd‘s reflection on the status of Mexican literature and identity will perhaps read oddly or even offensively to U.S. readers; it relies on Owen’s racial typology, never notably contradicted by the novel overall, which positions the Mexican uncomfortably between the abstract “Swedes” and the earthy “blacks” who seem to divide what he calls “the United Estates” between them. The real-life figure of Nella Larsen comes to serve as the novel’s symbol for this polarity—

Nella Larsen was a writer. She was also Danish and a mulatta. In that sense, she was a walking, wiggling paradox who united the two characteristics that separated the Owens from the Federicos of this world: the Swede and the African, the world of the whites and the world of the blacks, what was not mine and what was not his. That to which we both aspired in a culture incapable of absorbing us.

—though Larsen’s own assessment of her conflicted cultural and social position, particularly in her extraordinary first novel Quicksand, is far more rational than Owen’s racial mysticism would suggest. Does Luiselli share Owen’s hoary theory about Ice People and Sun People and the poor Latins in between? Hard to say—though the narrator’s own depictions of African-American characters earlier in the novel (“[she] screamed, You madafaka, then beat his face with the chicken leg”) hint that she is not deploying stereotype as critically as she might.

In any case, the purely literary problem here is less essentialism or racialism than their likely source in Luiselli’s nostalgia for modernism. She may mock the Bolaño trend, but it is probably underpinned by the same nostalgia, and this is not to mention Enrique Vila-Matas, author of the Joyce-worshipping Dublinesque, who provides a lavish back-cover blurb; nor is this post-postmodern curation of modernism confined to Spanish-language contemporary writing, as we know from the autofiction and flânerie vogues in post-Sebaldian Anglophone fiction. This is not to disparage modernism, but to question the vitality of a literary period that is providing annotations to the last major high point in western literature rather than attempting to create new forms—which is what the modernists themselves were trying to do. If they looked to the past, it was to transfigure it, not to imitate it. Faces in the Crowd warns in its epigraph, quoted from The Kaballah, “If you play at ghosts, / you become one.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!