Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Arménio Vieira writes a zombie novel

Arménio Vieira (b. 1941) was born in Praia and is a Cape Verdean journalist, poet and novelist. He belongs to a generation of Cape Verdean writers who rose to maturity during the 1960s, that is, while the colonial wars that were raging through all the former Portuguese colonies. He also contributed for many Cape Verdean and Portuguese magazines and newspapers. In 2009 he received the Camões Prize, awarded to Portuguese-language writers for their oeuvre. Speaking about the decision, he declared himself happy but surprised given that Cape Verde is not a major country. “It’s small in relation to the immenseness of Brazil, which has hundreds of great writers. And Portugal too. It’d have been too difficult for Cape Verde to grab the award.” Nevertheless he became the first Cape Verdean to receive this honour. 

Although he’s mainly famous for his poetry, we’ll leave it for the final post. Vieira is also a prose writer and has written a novella and a novel. No Inferno was written in 1999. The alluring title captivated me; I’m a sucker for literature that deals with the concept of hell, like The Third Policeman and No Exit. A few years ago I read my first Cape Verdean novel and felt disappointed. I thought that the novel was too conventional. Although I didn’t fall in love with Vieira’s novel, at least I can’t accuse it of conventionality. No Inferno is as post-modern as it gets, it’s so inter-textual it induces nausea and is full of screaming meta-fiction. It’s a novel written by a novelist who thinks the novel is dead, making this a sort of zombie novel. For Vieira, the novel reached its apogee with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and there’s nothing else to do afterwards. To him, the last three greats were Flaubert, Joyce and Borges; “the last of the great fiction writers,” he says apropos of Borges, “preferred not to write novels but to elaborate instead synopses of hypothetical novels and comment them.” Well, saying that the novel is dead will not endear him to me, considering most of my favourite novelists came after dull Joyce, not to mention No Inferno is a trifle compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Unbearable Lightness of Being or The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Vieira certainly has a comical imagination that serves him well when he’s weaving his absurdist poems; but when he attempts to write prose, every line comes unpolished, simplistic and loaded with stock phrases. I’ve seldom read a novel so devoid of aesthetic beauty, so embracing of total linguistic banality and carelessness. It’s like a novel written by a man who never heard of ostranenie, which is horrifying to imagine in a poet. In spite of the repulsion the novel provokes in me, I’ll attempt to explain what it is about.

The author explains in a note that he wanted to give the protagonist a mystery to solve, “that of his own identity.” And so he puts him, amnesic, on an island, locked in a house, filled with books. A mysterious warden explains to him the unusual conditions of release: he must finish a good novel in order to learn his identity and regain his freedom. It’s like a precursor of Old Boy and Lost. But our protagonist opts not to write a novel and instead writes short-stories that jump around from idea to idea, without nexus. And this allows him to shift genres, mock styles and pay lots of homages to past writers. Only towards the end does he reveal his debt to Lawrence Sterne. “Reader, convince yourself once and for all that this fiction is not like the others. It is crazy, it doesn’t make sense. At least I advise you to suspend its reading right now, unless you’ve read from start to finish Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy.” You see, the joke is that the advice comes before the final pages, so it’s too late to stop reading. Ha ha, get it?

I dislike Sterne too.

The novel starts with a prologue where a fan of a poet meets him in Cape Verde, where he’s writing a novel on order for an admirer. “I was astonished: it was hard to believe someone could still give money to poets,” the fan says. But the poet isn’t thrilled because the job is a bore and he’s not a novelist. Next they have a conversation about James Joyce and the death of the novel, and the poet gives the fan the manuscript to read. And I don’t know if the novel the fan is reading is the manuscript, but things get very unhinged next. We start with Leopold Bloom leaving his house to buy livers only to die stabbed in the guts by a butcher after he makes a faux pas at the butcher’s shop. Then Leopold, or someone with that name, wakes up in a room decorated with infernal and demonic motifs. Incidentally, Leopold dreaming where he goes buy livers and dies in some horrible way becomes a sort of recurrent joke in the novel; another time he’s turned into a rat that is devoured by cats. Anyway, Leopold wakes up from his first dream. He’s amnesic and disorientated. He leaves the room and stops being Leopold and becomes Robinson, “for it’s time for the character to change his name.” And because he’s Robinson, he must of course be on an island, from where he can’t get out. He discovers a recorded message telling him that he’s there to write a novel, and if it’s good, he’ll be released and his memory will be returned to him. He also has the option of trying to find the combination to a series of lockers that could grant him freedom, but the recording estimates that that would take forty years. Writing a novel is easier and faster, unless you’re William H. Gass. In order to help him write his novel, “for only readers write,” the mysterious warden has a huge library with a telling selection: The Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, the short-stories of Edgar Allen Poe, The Songs of Maldoror, The Book of Job, The Book of Disquiet, Goethe’s Faust, A Season in Hell, The Flowers of Evil, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Kafka’s The Trial and The Metamorphosis, Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, Waiting for Godot, The Waste Land, Journey to the End of the Night, 120 Days of Sodom, and more. In other words, books about evil, entrapment, death and hell, in its traditional or metaphorical sense. The author’s cards are showing, though, because he doesn’t list the most obvious one, Sartre’s No Exit. Anxiety of influence?

But the recording doesn’t take into account the fact that Robinson may prefer to stay on the island. “Who did he wish to see? Nobody. Who or what place could he miss? Nobody, nothing.” And he’s taken care of in the house, he has everything he needs. “Could the outside world offer attractive motives that made him want to abandon a house that so far had been his shelter and where he lived in complete tranquillity? Wouldn’t that old mansion be the possible paradise?” But he needs a comparison from the outside world to make up his mind. So he watches the tapes on the island containing the horrors of history and the modern world: wars, drug traffic, sexual exploitation, hunger, epidemics. “Yep, this is enough to evaluate some things. It seems I’m far better here.” But he fears running out of food and energy and dying in that fortified mansion, so he continues to search for a way out. He even worries about running out of toilet paper and wondering if he has the courage to use the books to wipe his ass. Vieira is really making it hard for me to like him.

After making sure there’s no way out, he resigns himself to writing a novel; so he starts reading the library, making a new discovery: he’s read them all and he has memories of them, in fact he knows them all by heart, he just can’t remember anything about his own life. And there’s another problem: he can’t write a novel; instead he writes short-stories that don’t add up to anything. And this is when the novel gets all loopy. There are parodies of many genres and writers. There are allusions to detective novels, Proust, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Kafka, and Coleridge, just to name a few. It mixes prose with poetry and theatre. There are pastiches of The Castle and Hemingway’s “The Killers.” There are also autobiographical allusions to the author’s life, as he explains in the note.

There are certainly other novels with similar structures, for instance Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. This is a novel on the crossroads between Modernism and Post-Modernist: on the one hand it declares that there’s nothing original anymore, things can only be recombined and rewritten, old myths in new ways; that’s why he invokes Joyce and Borges. “That overload of books in his memory, instead of helping him, perhaps harmed him,” the narrator says about the protagonist’s inability to write a novel. Is that why he fails to write it? Are we held prisoners to influence and history, do they stop us from doing anything new? It’s possible to discuss it, but I do not think they do. On the other hand, the novel is full of post-modernism’s irony and self-awareness, worst, there’s a streak of self-congratulation to it that puts me off: at the same time the author decries originality he thinks he’s really making something so radically bizarre and out of the ordinary here, although I don’t think his achievements have a lot more merit than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

There’s a final problem, the biggest one to me: the fact that the author puts explanatory footnotes in every allusion and reference he makes. Now I did not like Lawrence Sterne’s novel a single bit, it’s not my idea of novel, but I’ll say something in its defence: whatever my limitations to appreciate it, at least the good reverend had enough faith in me to let me wonder through that hodgepodge of a novel without help. Vieira, I’m shocked to write it, thinks the reader is so dense he can’t get a reference to The Castle without a footnote telling him The Castle was written by one Franz Kafka. Seriously, are you kidding me? And he doesn’t do this once or twice, there are dozens of such idiotic footnotes, for Robinson Crusoe, for The Trial, for Pierre Menard, for Hemingway. It’s a novel written by a man who’s read a lot and thinks his reader has read nothing. It’s embarrassing, to him.

Fortunately he doesn’t bully novels in his poetry, which is far more interesting too.

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