Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados




My esteem and admiration for Gonzalo Torrent Ballester (1910-1999) grow with each new novel I read, even if paradoxically my pleasure in them decreases. In 2012 I read La Saga/Fuga de J.B., one of the most extraordinary novels I’ve ever read. In 2013 I read Fragmentos de Apocalipsis, whose structural virtuosity and post-modernist games helped me ignore some weaker excursions. Recently I finished reading La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados, a novel that during the act of reading earned my dislike, but which in retrospect, as I attempt to see the trilogy as a whole and position this novel’s place in it, I have to admit it’s a fitting culmination to the author’s tremendous endeavour.

In 1972 Torrente Ballester published the first volume of what is known as the “fantastic trilogy.” Nothing connects them save concepts, themes, techniques and an insistence in exploring metafictional possibilities. There’s nothing bizarre about this. In the 1960s there was a load of writers across the world dealing with it, especially in America but also in Italy, France and the UK: Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Gilbert Sorrentino, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Flann O’Brien, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Italo Calvino. Most of them had been born in the 1920 and 1930s and were reaching their maturity around this time, were young, cocky and ready to storm the novel. William H. Gass coined the term metafiction in 1970 precisely because there was a perception in the air that there was a sufficient body of work with similar features and elements that merited new nomenclature. The big difference is that Torrente Ballester was born in 1910 and started publishing in 1943, and was the author of conventional novels, primarily known for the trilogy Los gozos y las sombras, set in the years just before the Civil War, “an almost traditional, Galdosian historical novel,” in the words of Genaro J. Pérez, literary critic, who’s written a fine text about GTB and metafiction. (Sorry, only for Spanish-language readers. Yes, Richard, that means you.) And in his sixties he changed his style radically and became more avant-garde than all these upstarts. There’s something exciting about this man, at an age when most writers are calling it quits and their imaginative powers are dwindling, reinventing himself and up his game and take it to new levels of complexity, and manage to integrate his work so seamlessly in the new currents of modern fiction. Of course, the metafictional novel was born in Spain, so he had an advantage over everyone else. Not only Don Quixote but also Miguel de Unamuno’s Mist, where character and author talk. According to what I’ve read from his Sobre Literatura y el Arte de la Novella, he’s quite an expert on Cervantes. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to read Don Quixote shortly after this novel and that was instrumental in making me appreciate how much GTB borrowed from Cervantes for the trilogy and how much of a pioneer Cervantes was.

Like I wrote above, the trilogy is connected by concepts and themes rather than characters and plot. An important theme is the one of unreality, the construction of reality, and also the fabrication of history and its fictionality. In the first book, José Batista, the historian of the fictional Castroforte de Baralla, “the town that dreams itself,” discovers that the town’s history has been forged by a secret coven called the Round Table for the benign purpose of protecting it from the designs of outsiders, pejoratively called the Goths, who wish to prove the town does not exist. So the fabrication of history is like ontological guerrilla, inventing history in order to give substance to the city. In this novel we also have a character, the Spiritist, who believes that Adolf Hitler never died and is in fact hiding in Castroforte, aided by the police, who are in on the conspiracy. In the third novel we’ll also meet a character who has some bizarre ideas about another important historical figure.

In the second novel, the creative process becomes the metaphor for unreality. We follow a novelist, who bears some similarities to GTB, as he writes a “working diary” and constructs before our very eyes the novel we’re reading, as he considers and navigates through problems like setting, character, plot, coherence, genre and background story. The novelist and his girlfriend insinuate themselves in the novel and enjoy his God-like powers over his fiction, including feats like flying, teleporting, talking to a mythical dragon and enlisting the help of Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ archenemy. One reference actually connects the first two novels: the city he invents for his novel, Villasanta de la Estrella, is the name of the city that wants to obliterate Castroforte in the first novel. If it’s a fiction here, then what other proof is necessary that Castroforte is also a work of fiction?

The final novel weaves both strands together: the invention of history and the creation of fiction. Subtitled “A Love Letter with Magical interpolations,” the novel’s plot revolves around an English history professor who defends in a book that “Napoleon never existed, he was a mere technical invention to explain inexplicable events, the entire history of the 19th century becomes interconnected thanks to that fiction.” A friend of his, the unnamed narrator and a novelist, by turn investigates, using time-travelling powers, the possible events that led to a group of politicians on a small Mediterranean island to create the myth of Napoleon, thus creating a meta-historical novel within the novel we’re reading. And to complicate it, the novel is also an epistolary novel written by the narrator who addresses letters to a student he loves, in the present tense and frequently using the pronoun you.

Alain Sidney, intimately known as Claire, is the historian. His grandfather, Sir Ronald Sidney, happened to be a famous English poet, who lived on the Island of Gorgona, where Napoleon was concocted, and left notes alluding to the fabrication of the myth of Napoleon which influenced his grandson. His friend teaches Literary History. The novel takes place in an American college (to where GTB, after the commercial failure of his Don Juan, went to give classes. This was in the mid-sixties, just when the abovementioned generation was coming to maturity. See how it all fits together?) Connecting them there’s a Greek student called Ariadna, loved by the narrator but who in turn loves Claire. All their feelings go unrequited in what turns into a platonic manage a trois. For a while, though, the narrator and Ariadna live together on the Island of Cut Hyacinths, a place the college rents to teachers and students to live in. It is here that he starts employing his time-travelling powers to go back to the other island, Gorgona, to find out how Napoleon was created. He does so at the insistence of Ariadna, who’s hurting because Claire’s reputation is at risk for his ludicrous claims, which would be acceptable if he were a novelist, which he’s not, even though his methodology is described as such. “Claire, reputed historian and excellent professor, had achieved through irreproachable ways the condition of true novelist, for the way he extracted fantastic and above all amusing conclusions from the scrupulous handling of trustworthy documentation and sources.” But he takes things too far, and especially upsets political interests. Consider the implications of Napoleon not existing. “If you knew what they’ve said in my country, how the news has been received! There’s no Napoleon in Chamartín anymore, nor a national victory over the imperial troops, and the people is robbed of its glory in the guerrilla, thanks to which it managed to endure a century of oppression without popular pride perishing, without those doomed to abjection feeling abject: for each and every one of them, in their worst moments, saw himself as a possible Juan Martin; now everything’s reduced to a few skirmishes with Dupont, with Murat, or with Soult, overblown in their importance by royal propaganda, for in the myth of the invincible people there was a pretext for one hundred years of conspiracies, pronouncements and frauds against democracy. But and what about the Russians? At this moment I have on my table this morning’s New York Times, and when you arrive I’ll show it you: the Soviet Academy is asking what depths of dementia intellectuals under capitalism have sunk to, seeing as how they can sustain with the luxury of a scientific apparatus and precisely thanks to it, that the invader of Russia is nothing more than the name of a lie. And Berezina? And Marshall Kutuzov? Why was Moscow burned down?” Claire’s theory irks too many national prides, too many festive dates.

The historian behaves like a novelist, and the novelist behaves like a historian, digging up the past, but using a novelist’s whimsy, a method “so exquisitely anti-scientific, so rigorously poetic, of investigating events through the contemplation of fire” that he calls it “a procedure as obscure as it is archaic in reputation, belonging to the time of self-decreed kings and of the magi called wise men, the all-powerful.” In a Greenwich apartment, the narrator casually meets Cagliostro, Enoch, Elias and Ashverus (or Ahasuerus), alias the Wandering Jew. These four historical and mythical figures, some immortal, generously teach him how to travel back in time. (Don’t try to make sense of this; just accept it.) He immediately asks to visit the year 1910, his year of birth, cementing the likeliness that the narrator is GTB. When I first read this bizarre scene in what so far had been a conventional novel, I was pretty sure this was just some elaborate metaphor for the imagination. But the narrator really learns to travel in time, using the method of staring into the fire. So he and Ariadna journey to Gorgona and even interact with the past and vice-versa.

The story of Gorgona becomes a historical novel within the frame novel. The narrator arrives when the island has been conquered by General Galvano Della Porta, a reactionary leper who hides from the public, and his prime-minister, Ascanio Aldobrandini, initiates the post-revolutionary rule. And what follows is a series of vignettes terminating in the creation of Napoleon. There’s the mystery of  Della Porta’s possible non-existence, a myth the islanders, businessmen and tradesmen, prefer to believe in than to go back to the rule of the Greek sailors who wanted to implement the French Revolution’s ideals on the island. There’s Ascanio’s wife, Flaviarosa, who entertains a lover called Nicolas, who writes an epic for her husband’s master, called the Galvanoplastia. “You’ll get to work right away and you’ll start asking his Lordship for a stipend: I don’t want my lover to have economic difficulties. And a poem like that, as you know, lasts a whole life and it’s common to be left unfinished at one’s death.” And finally we reach the amazing meeting between Chateaubriand, Metternich and Nelson, accompanied by their mistresses, and served by a servant called Napollioni, to invent the great myth that will usher in the 19th century. And Napoleon’s such a convincing invention he even attacks the island. On the fringes there’s also the story of Sir Rodney and Agness, the woman of his sonnets, which seems as platonic as the modern-day relationship.

Time is cyclical in this novel. There are two islands, and two Sydneys, and two stories of unrequited love. These parallel stories were also a feature of the trilogy’s first book. For all that, I fear they never cohered as seamlessly as the several iterations of the Round Table across generations. I didn’t see how the story in the past shed any light on what was going on in the present and vice-versa, and although the historical novel is interesting, the frame story sags. Many times I felt the novel would benefit without it. But this is a novel that fights against linear and univocal narratives. The preceding books dealt with several levels of reality and this one is no different, and so you have two stories across time sometimes overlapping. With the narrative of Ariadna and the narrator, the novel gains more levels, it turns into a bigger labyrinth, it adds more interconnections, more complexity, which is clearly the purpose of this trilogy, to jam-pack the plot with excrescencies. I’m not against this, I just think this particular narrative fails and could have been replaced by something more inventive than a tiresome unrequited love story. After the virtuosity of the previous books, it’s too banal and I fear impedes the trilogy from ending with the sonorous bang it was heading towards.

Still, as a whole, this trilogy is a major achievement and I don’t have any explanations for why no one has yet translated this into English. GTB must be the only foreign writer who taught at a college in America and didn’t get anything out of it. Now I’m certain Dalkey Press would be an ideal publisher for it. The trilogy is not just great literature, it’s certainly an important resource to appreciate the development and revolution of the novel in the 1960s. And it’s time Gonzalo Torrente Ballester gets his place amongst the other great 20th innovators of the novel.

Read for Rose City Reader's 2014 European Reading Challenge.

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