Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Op Oloop and Knowledge of Hell

I am a bit behind on posting, and pressed for time as well, so I have two books for this entry that, happily, work nicely as counterpoints.  Juan Filloy’s Op Oloop (1934, trans. Lisa Dillman 2009) and António Lobo Antunes’s Knowledge of Hell (1980, trans. Clifford E. Landers 2008) confront the reader with very different forms, but both are about a favorite theme of twentieth-century modernisms: the transformation of human into machine in a world of obsessive rationality and an array of professions (for Filloy statisticians, for Antunes psychiatrists) bent on eradicating the unproductive and abnormal.

For Filloy, this critique takes the form of farce: his titular character, a statistician who obsesses over his schedule, finds himself thrown from his routine and spiraling into chaos.  Dalkey’s book jacket is a little misleading here: the description suggests Op Oloop’s schedule falls apart due to “an insignificant traffic delay,” but that suggests a very different working idea than what the book is really after.  Op’s system does not crumble due to its own excessive rigidity—as characters somewhat repetitively remind us, he has kept his basic attitude for years, and one would expect he has had minor delays before this one—but rather due to a return of the repressed, although of a more comedic than gothic cast.  Here it is love that distracts Op, as well as a past destructive love affair and leftist political commitments that his rigidity was invented to suppress but come back to him in unexpected ways.  It is the distraction of love, accompanied by slapstick violence and endless petty arguments between different characters, that give the book the feel of farce, even if the ending deviates from what you might normally expect from the genre.  Filloy is a full-on romantic: love here is a force that can bond two people across space in an metaphysical vacuum—as actually happens to Op and his fiancée Franzisca.  Honestly, while I enjoyed much of the book, this reverie, and what I suppose is meant to be a comedic tour-de-force dinner conversation, left me a bit cold.  This is only the second novel I have read of the Best Translated Book Award longlist from earlier this year (several more are on my list), along with Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring: so far my belated vote goes to Rodoreda.

Antunes, though writing much later, is doing so much more in the vein of experimental modernism: everyone who discusses him seems to bring up Faulkner, and for good reason.  The narrator, a psychiatrist driving home from a vacation, speaks in long, elaborate sentences; he switches between the third and first person, although the “he” spoken of is always himself, and he conflates, at an increasing rate, various memories and fantasies.  Landers’s translation of the prose in the first half of Knowledge of Hell is especially beautiful and I found myself reading some of it aloud to myself just to enjoy the language, as in this vivid moment:
I would sit on a bench, between the affectionless varicose veins of an old German woman and the intertwined thighs of a teenage couple floating on a raft of hashish, smiling at no one in the contentment of an unknown dimension, until suddenly seeing you, on the other side of the square, with a wicker basket on your shoulder, your hair parted in the middle like a squaw, coming toward me like the girl in the Repimpa mattress commercials who recycled Greta Garbo’s eyeglass.

The multiple comparisons are important here; Antunes’s style is thick with metaphor, with simile after simile often piling up in a single sentence.  In this passage these remain distinct—the addressee (the narrator’s daughter) is both like squaw and the girl in the commercials—but as the book progresses metaphors begin to embed one another, as in the following two non-continuous sentences from the same page:

Mr. Carlos was slowly disappearing, the employees were cleaning the windows of the station wagon in circular movements using a kind of sponge, the mechanic was wiping his fingers on his rag, looking at me with the strange fixity of those Christs with exposed hearts in my grandmother’s prayer niche who pursue us with the attentive and severe persistence of an urchin’s gaze.

Aljustrel seemed less and less like a concrete, almost geometric town inhabited by people, by voices, by the restless pictures of the dead, and more like a labyrinth of shadows, an apparition suspended between the black earth and the green sky, adrift, like an enormous boat in a silvery lake of olive groves.

The mechanic is like a Christ figurine which is like an urchin.  The town is like a labyrinth or an apparition that is like a boat.  The narrator of this novel cannot stop making comparisons—the long, comparative sentences pair up with the narrator’s tendency to slip between memories and the present, comparing his experiences as a psychiatrist with his years fighting in the Angolan war (both of which he feels guilt about, his rage against contemporary injustices driven by his own participation in them), and both in turn are compared to the vacationers he has just left behind.  In this most difficult, third quarter of the novel, the alternation between scenes becomes especially chaotic, and the novel makes it hard to discern how much the narrator’s connections of past moments and the present are reliable.  While a strong critique of psychiatry as a discipline comes through, the narrator’s rage is often so indiscriminate that it becomes hard to tell where or if Antunes is ironizing it (the narrator, it should be notes, has Antunes’s name), which threatens to topple the book.  I found myself especially frustrated with the intermittent misogynist descriptions of women, who most often here are portrayed as devourers and traps for men (of one woman who runs an X-ray machine: “She must have swallowed dozens of doctors with those lips.”)  Another inheritance of this kind of modernism, I think, which I really wish he could have left behind.

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