Friday, February 19, 2010

Of Love, Life, and Death

By Macedonio Fernández
Translated by Margaret Schwartz
Open Letter Press
238 Pages
February 23, 2010

Humans, breathers, those innumerable incessantly stirring the world's air, relentlessly ordering it into your chests, elevating your eternally open mouths to an eternal heaven, beings of the heartbeat and the voice that either brightens or breaks, which perhaps every day demands alternately an end or an eternity, there's beauty to give us all understanding of the Mystery, and to stop all pain. But where is it? Is it in Art, in Conduct, in Understanding, in Passion? In Cervantes, or Beethoven, or Wagner, or in some great delirium: in adoring intonation, dazzled by Walt Whitman's Man?

Argentinian author Macedonio Fernández (1874-1952), though largely unknown in the English-speaking world, has been something of a cult figure to several well-known Latin American authors of the twentieth century, including his protege, Jorge Luis Borges. Fernández's adult life began in conventional bourgeoisie comfort until the death of his wife in 1920, following which he abandoned his profession as a lawyer, sent his children to live with various relatives, and drifted through a series of boarding houses. Translator Margaret Schwartz likens his place in literary mythology to the role of Socrates: as the founder of a new, uniquely Argentinian way of looking at eternal things who dramatically influenced ensuing generations, his voice and teachings revealed through the writings of his students. Fernández was also noted for his eccentricities, such as the time he gave away his guitar to a random stranger in the street, and the other time he tried to establish an anarchist colony in Paraguay only to give up after one night of mosquitoes.

The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel) was commenced in 1925, went through five drafts, and remained in an unedited, unfinalized state at the time of Fernández's death (similar to another great product of Latin American literature, Roberto Bolaño's 2666). Like his contemporary Louis Aragon, as well as many other writers of the Modernist era, Fernández sought to reinvent the rules of the novel, starting with a very basic premise: Why risk love when death is inevitable? In tackling a question that has haunted countless thinkers before him, Fernández takes a deeply metaphysical approach that influences the very form of his greatest work. Dedicated to the caprices of the "Skip-Around Reader," whom Fernández claims will unwittingly find themself reading in order, The Museum of Eterna's Novel is a work of philosophical metafiction that uses its medium to explore the cosmic complexities of human life and human love.

Fernández was of the opinion that Art should not imitate Life. "I want the reader to always know he is reading a novel and not watching the living, not attending to a 'life.' The moment the reader falls into Hallucination, that ignominy of Art, I have lost rather than gained a reader." In fact, the bulk of The Museum of Eterna's Novel is not a novel at all, but a series of prologues, some fifty in total, with titles such as "Prologue That Thinks it Knows Something, Not About the Novel (It's Not Allowed That), But About the Doctrine of Art," "The Essential Fantasmagoricalism of the World," "The Man Who Feigned to Live" (which is one big footnote), and "For Readers Who Will Perish if They Don't Know What the Novel is About." Some meditate on the process of creating The Museum of Eterna's Novel from the perspective of both the author and the characters, including the cook who decided to resign and left the remaining characters with nothing to eat. Other prologues, in dense and difficult but ultimately rewarding prose, set up the mystical underpinnings of the main story.

The actual novel takes place on an estancia called "La Novela," owned by the President, who has gathered together his closest friends, including Maybegenius, Sweetheart, The Lover, Simple, the Gentleman Who Does Not Exist, and Eterna, who is both the President's love interest and the personification of idealized beauty and eternal love. There, the characters exist in the moment and only for each other, spending each day in one another's company and speculating on the nature of companionship and eternity. And here we come to the crux of the matter: the definition of "Totalove," the theme connecting all the musings and mind exercises of both prologues and novel. Fernández describes it as "the Highest form of Daydream." It is a rapturous state of passion that prevails only in the present and is the ultimate form of love: for a beloved, for friendship, or for art and beauty. The problem then becomes how to sustain a moment that is only that: a moment. The Action is only one aspect of Totalove. There is also the anticipation, like the weeks building up towards Christmas and the sadness one feels after the presents have been opened and the rest of the day still remains. Once the Action has occurred, there is nothing left but loss or even death.

Hence the prologues: The Museum of Eterna's Novel is a novel that doesn't want to begin because in our beginning is our end.

The Action initiated by the President is the conquest of Buenos Aires by beauty, which is achieved by eliminating all references to history and the past, including statues of famous men and all homages to the memory of heroic deeds. Streets are given new names such as Peace, Hope, Happiness, The Bride, and Youth. "In the end, something happened to non-flowing time, like history, and there was only a fluid Present, whose only memory was of what returns to being daily, and not what simply repeats, like birthdays. That's why the city almanac has 365 days with only one name: 'Today,' and the city's main street is also named 'Today.'" But the Action fails to bring fulfillment to the President and his relationship with Eterna. He is unable to achieve Totalove and the result is a gradual break-up of La Novela and the final good-bye between all the characters. I realize you may want me to continue on, Fernández assures the reader, and force me to bring good tidings to all these characters you have fallen in love with, but Posterity likes tragedy and not comedy, and thus, we too must reluctantly take leave.

Clearly, Macedonio Fernández was a fascinating, complicated man. That is evident from this book alone, and not to mention his biography. The Museum of Eterna's Novel is a brilliant, thoughtful and frequently hilarious work that brings to mind everything from Mark Twain's irreverent humor to Jorge Luis Borges's mental labyrinths to Edgar Allen Poe's preoccupation with death and idealized beauty. It's definitely slow reading - Fernández's prose is often deliberately obtuse. Translator Schwartz describes it as "baroque" and likens it to Fernández's presentation of himself as a relic of the colorful past bumbling his way through sleek, fast modernity. But what struck me about The Museum of Eterna's Novel was how little it fit the image I had developed of Latin American literature, which I had classified as writers such as Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Roberto Bolaño (despite all their political and artistic disagreements with one another). The Museum of Eterna's Novel felt more like a work of a European avant-gardist, written in a cafe in Paris while hanging out with the Surrealists or the American expatriates. In fact, it fits into no box I can think of. I'll warn you: it's a difficult read and this review took me forever because I just couldn't figure out how to describe it. But if you're up to the challenge, this book is truly worth it.

Review Copy

For some reason, this video just seems to fit. I think it makes more sense if you read the book.

Music: "Silence," Delerium feat. Sarah McLachlan,
Images: Final Fantasy VIII


Anonymous said...

Everything about this book sounds good. I'm up for the challenge (it's more a matter of finding the time!) Some of those prologue titles already made me laugh - the whole format is intriguing. I had a little trouble with the dense writing of I, the Supreme last year, but it too was well worth it - though this book sounds like it will give me a little more to think about. Thanks for this excellent review!

E. L. Fay said...

This book will definitely take you some time - it took me about a week and a half to get through it (I kept having to re-read difficult passages), and then another several days to figure out how to write about it. But if you do get to it, it'd be really interesting to hear what someone else thinks! This is one of those books that just offers a million interpretations and a million things to think about.

Emily said...

I was JUST reading about this on the publisher's website, and thinking it sounded super-intriguing, and here you are confirming me in that opinion! I feel a craving for realism coming on right at present, but once I get over that I'll have to search out Fernández. I actually think the endless prologues sound more interesting than the "novel" portion (I especially love "For Readers Who Will Perish if They Don't Know What the Novel is About"). Thanks for the review!

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