Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: Yo no soy yo, evidentemente

After five novels Gonzalo Torrente Ballester begins to paint a clear picture in my mind. There are themes he returns to, namely the questioning of reality, the intersection between fact and fiction and how what we reality is just an external simulacrum of men. In La Saga/Fuga de J.B. a historian discovers that the millennial history of Castroforte is a fiction conjured by a secret society; in Fragmentos de Apocalipsis a novelist shows off his meta-fictional omnipotent powers within the dimension of the novel he’s writing; in La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados another novelist travels back in time to prove that Napoleon was conjured by a committee of statesmen; in Las Islas Extraordinarias a detective discovers that the world’s economical engine secretly runs within a small dictatorial archipelago ruled by a tyrant who doesn’t have actual power. My latest encounter with the author’s is coherent with these novels: Yo no soy yo, evidentemente, published in 1987, follows the efforts of two academics to make sense of a mysterious writer, Uxío Preto, who may or may not have existed but who claims, in a letter to a magazine, to have written three novels whose authorship are disputed by critics and scholars.

In chronological order, the names of the three novels, written since World War II and in different parts of the world, are: Aquilina y la flauta de Pan, La ciudad de los viernes incertos and La historia que se busca em los reflejos. In a letter to the Nuestra Terra magazine Preto, a possible Galician author, claims that he wrote all three novels. “Many professors have verbally elucubrated or published critical works about each one of them without it crossing their minds that they could be attributed to an unarguably unique brain: it would be a lot more tolerable if, remaining in anonymity, they had reached the conclusion, scrupulous amongst the possible logics, that no one has written them; if they had been considered spontaneous apparitions from one of those collective or perhaps abstract entities which carry the responsibility, with a generalized satisfaction that is almost general, of authoring so many important historical events, for sure more important than many literary works, although less decisive for Mankind’s fate; I mean wars or revolutions, and a few scandalous matrimonies.” After taunting the experts of literary studies, he challenges them to ascertain the truth. “There’s no other solution, dear professors, than returning to the old ignorance and formulating it precisely in the terms I propose. Are the three novels by the same author? Is it Úxio Preto? Find out. And who is, was, or will remain being, Uxío Preto? Finding out seems less easy, a task for detectives or poets.”

To confuse matters even more some time later a book called Autobiografía póstuma de Uxío Preto shows up describing, in three eclectic chapters, the genesis of each novel. This posthumous autobiography whets the interest of Mr. Sharp, chairman of the Romance Languages Department of an American university. (“Uxío Preto is one more case of those writers who are almost unknown outside universities’ language departments, save in their own countries, where they’re ignored.”) Anxious to make a name for himself with the solving of this mystery, after milking the remaining papers of his secretary and lover’s dead husband, a genius of Linguistics, that she gave him to further his academic career, he enlists the help of Ivonne, an assistant who specializes in reading books in Spanish and who published a structuralist study of “adversative and dubitative forms” in Preto’s oeuvre. Although she neglected the narrative aspect of the novels to focus on the syntax and doesn’t show particular aptitude to carry out literary biographical investigation, she’s the closest thing to an Uxío Preto expert, so she gets the job. Mr. Sharp is convinced that Preto never existed. “Did Uxío Preto die? How can he die if he wasn’t born?” he asks after reading the autobiography. To him he’s nothing but a collective invention, like a secret society that crafted an idea and then let it loose (it’s all very Borgesian).

Ivonne and her partner, Álvaro Mendoza, a brilliant Mexican teacher, set out to discover everything they can about this sketchy figure. Their main clues are in the Autobiography. Although the names used in the book apparently relate to pseudonyms, there are three specific chapters (title Gamma, Zeta and Sigma) dealing with the creation of the novels that have each an “alphabet soup” containing encoded names that refer to real people. And so the hunt begins.

This is a good moment to pause to admit that I didn’t love this novel. As I try to hold within my brain everything GTB attempted with this novel, I must applaud him for another narrative labyrinth of dazzling virtuosity that he’s gotten me used to. What bothered me about it was not the labyrinth itself but what happened outside it. After five novels I’ve also realized that GTB loves to fill novels with romance: there’s always someone in love, falling in love, anguishing over love. In previous novels this wasn’t so excessive as to contaminate my enjoyment of the more interesting elements to me: the puzzles, the flights of fancy, the careful structure of his expansive, tentacular sub-narratives. But in here it’s just too much: Mr. Sharp lives an abusive love affair with a castrating woman, Mrs. Madison, the secretary who secreted her dead husband’s papers to him in order to build his career; Ivonne worries that Mr. Sharp is using Uxío Preto to seduce her; in Spain Mendoza meets an old friend who secretly loves him and only Ivonne is perceptive enough to realize it, prompting her to do some strategic matchmaking to bring together the two lovers. That’s nice but I don’t care, I wanted more literary sleuthing scenes. I mentioned this novel has a touch of Borges, but the virtue of Borges’ stories is that he had a pure devotion to the Idea, nothing mattered outside the development and exhaustion of the Idea. Another comparison I can make is to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire: this novel operates on two levels, let’s say Kinbote’s level and the Zembla level; GTB’s novel also has two levels: the investigation and the genesis chapters. The problem is that every time we jump from the investigation to the chapters there’s a palpable sense of loss of narrative thrust, they’re just not as interesting, and I suppose it’s because they’re more mundane love stories. Nabokov kept the Zembla narrative absurd from start to finish and it’s a joy to read it, but GTB never makes Preto a memorable character capable of carrying his own sections.

In Gamma Preto, living in Spain, hangs around with a gypsy dancer called María Elena, according to him a graceful dancer and a liberated woman, who dies in the same airplane that claimed Leslie Howard’s life. He finds out she made him her heir and he receives a fortune. Later he meets a writer named Néstor Pereira (or Pereyra) who co-writes Aquilina y la flauta de Pan with him. Except Néstor may just be a figment of his imagination, even though he becomes involved with a real woman. In Zeta Uxío Preto and one Pedro Teotonio Viqueira exchange letters about what turns into La ciudad de los viernes incertos; again it’s not clear if Viqueira exists. Zigma, written as a play, has Preto, dressed up like an Inquisitor and masked by a hood, questioning a woman called Leticia about a season in Venice with one Froilán Fiz and his suicidal alter ego, Melitón Losada. Of three I enjoyed the last the most.

What, to me, redeems these sections is the way they’re dismounted by the others; after each genesis chapter there’s a chapter with Ivonne and Mendoza questioning the “alphabet soup” people, who give contradictory testimonies about them. In Spain, Mendoza, with the help of María Magdalena, meets the aging Don Bernardino, a washed up would-be writer who thinks he’s been unjustly forgotten by the younger generation. He doesn’t have kind words for Preto. “He had a grey, lifeless look. He lacked personality. He only opened his mouth to say nonsense, banalities or inconveniences. A few times we asked him to go away, but he always returned like a beat up dog. We even suspected that he was a snitch, who earned a few coins from the Police by telling them what was being told in my literary meetings.” Of María Elena he says that she was a “very mediocre dancer” and a “big whore” who had sex with anyone, including Bernardino. Informed that the British army hired her to cheer the soldiers up, only for her to die on the same airplane carrying actor Leslie Howard that was shot down by the Germans in 1943, his reaction is delicious: “That they died together proves the inexistence of God or of anything that can replace it. It can’t be understood, no, not even if we think that natural forces are blind, that death is blind. I think that if the Germans knew what a contradictory cargo the airplane carried, they would have reconsidered just because María Elena and Leslie Howard can’t be equalled in death. It’s a metaphysical injustice.”

Bernardino also claims to have written the first novel and hopes that Mendoza’s study will restore the fame he deserves. The man has a huge opinion of himself, as we can deduce from this comparison. “It’s out fate, sir. Oblivion. Federico had to die in order for the world to realize that they had killed a great Spanish poet. But the others, the ex-pats and those who remained here, we lacked that sinister propaganda. Does one have to die to achieve glory?” But the plot thickens. Mendoza checks the British registers and can’t find any woman called María Elena hired by the army or amongst those who died in the crash. Did she exist under a different name? Did Preto invent her too, and is Bernardino backing up this lie in order to carve a role for himself in the story? Is the fact that he insists he wrote the novel true? Or is he creating a new version, hoping to supplant Preto’s since he’s allegedly dead and can’t dispute it? These are the labyrinth bits that I liked! It gets better: they meet another eye-witness, Don Armando, who remembers things differently. To him “Uxío did not lack talent, but as a human being he was a true disaster, an anarchist without remission, one of those men who seem to enjoy destroying themselves with the pretext of defending their independence…” He doesn’t doubt that he wrote the novel but is not sure about the other two.

Similar contradictions crop up when Ivonne interviews Marquise Úrsula, who may have inspire a character called Ute in the second novel. And also with Virucha Portabales, the Spanish teacher who may have been the basis for Letician. Questioned about Froilán, she admits she met a man with that name, she almost loved him but refused to go with him to Venice.

It’s not only a question of whether the genesis chapter describe real events; it’s questioned whether some of the figures even existed. For instance, a woman claims to have known and loved a writer called Néstor Pereira, but Preto himself insinuates that he’s just a personality he made up. “On asking myself if Néstor Pereira possessed his own entity, I wanted first and foremost investigate if he owned a body, mere astral figure, for, as I’ve been repeating to the point of tedium, even if he used mine, it was also true that on certain occasions I had seen him, contemplated him outside myself, with his cane hitting his shoes. It could be an illusion, yes; but why haven’t I suffered from others? Was my brain ill and as such it had specialized in imagining the person of Néstor real? (I don’t say personality, because that doesn’t need a visible body for anything.)” Likewise Pedro Teotonio Viqueira, with whom he corresponds, may just be an alias or identity. “If the figure of Nestor was somewhat rigid and stable, Pedro Teotonio Viqueira was a lot more flexible and elusive, with a dash of disillusioned neglect and a bit of caprice, according to the style of painting at the time, without ever becoming extravagant.” And after Preto finished interrogating Leticia and removes his hood she says that he and Froilán are almost identical. Like I’ve said Froilán’s chapter was my favourite of the three, here he seems to be wrestling with an evil entity that is trying to destroy his relationship with Leticia. She says, “Froilán’s words were deep and seductive, enveloping like a caress; but the other spoke ill to me about my lover with my lover’s voice. Not the same, some differences. Melitón had less of a Gallician accent.” He’s like a demon, which suggests the idea of possession, cajoling his host to kill himself in order to get rid of him. To complicate matters a bit more, Leticia meets a mysterious woman called Nicole, a fierce feminist novelist, who has strange conversations with her about Froilán. “One can tell you admire him. Perhaps in excess.” Another time she asks her, “Don’t you want to be free?” When Virucha explains to Ivonne why she chose not to go with the man called Froilán, she explains she didn’t want to give up her dreams for uncertainty, “to renounce myself.” It’s as if Leticia and Nicole were an exteriorization of Virucha’s dilemma between being herself and following Froilán. Sounds kooky, sure, but I like it; it’s like a mirror. Even Froilán asks Letician if Nicole isn’t to her what Melitón is to him. It’s worth noticing that La historia que se busca em los reflejos means precisely The story where reflections are searched for, as if GTB were winking at the reader (and he probably was).

Although the novel starts with the questions, Who is Uxío Preto? What is Uxío Preto?, I think GTB is also interested in displaying the power writers have to transform reality. As I’ve written in the past, the author left to America in the 1960s, the heydays of meta-fiction and his novels since that time show that he quickly excelled at incorporating these novelties (with lots of obscure easter eggs only those initiated into his world would get. For instance, Pedro Teotonio Viqueira is named after a Portuguese ambassador called Pedro Teotonio Pereira and Miguel Viqueira, a Spanish-born Portuguese critic who knew the author. There’s even the name-dropping of Carmen Becerra, a real-life critic who’s also written extensively about him.). His fiction doesn’t presume to be realistic, he even doubts objective reality is possible; for him it’s a question of how the world is remade by the writer. The fact that the sleuths look for direct connections between fact and fiction, only to constantly find out distortions and supposed models that don’t see themselves in the finished objects, reveals how GTB conceives imagination. It’s not far from the preoccupations Philip Roth shows in The Counterlife, part of the Nathan Zuckerman saga, that cycle of novels that is exactly about the interaction of fact and fiction. As Zuckerman muses, “expecting the woman next to you, whom you suspect of cheating on her husband, to reveal herself to you as Emma Bovary, and, what’s more, in Flaubert’s French” is ridiculous, characters don’t exist fully-formed in reality, there’s always an imaginative effort behind their creation.

As the novel approaches its conclusion, is there a conclusion at all? No, there isn’t, and that’s another of its strengths. Who is Uxío Preto will remain unsolved. The last chapter, gripping and tense like a good thriller, despite its necessary anti-climax, offers a handful of solutions for the mystery without committing itself to any. We’ve had the Borgesian hypothesis (a secret society like in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), and Mendoza admits that the theory of madness is “one of the solutions, in any event a cold rational and whimsical madman,” although he prefers the possibility of a trickster. “It may be, although not necessarily, an insatiable trickster, someone who invents a problem without apparent solution to amuse himself, but who induces certain people to search it: someone who, for years, carries out a very minute operation destined almost exclusively to professors of Literature.” But GTB, in case you don’t know, is also an aficionado of Fernando Pessoa, the poet who multiplied himself into different poets, and Mendoza suggests a Pessoan-esque theory too: the trickster may be “one of those people who urgently need to become others, who can only subsist being others. Thus, this nameless man does the same Alonso Quijano did: he inhabits characters, tries to be them. He finds himself as Uxío Preto, as Nestor Pereyra, as Froilán Fiz, although these last two are already second degree invocations, multiplications of the first one. That is: X invents Uxío Preto, this one the others. And we don’t know if he does it in earnest or jokingly. I interpret the existence of Melitón Losada, not like a botch, or an excess, but like a warning that the unfolding can continue towards infinity, but also that each invented personality can keep whatever class of relationship with the one it proceeds from, that they can engender one another in theoretically endless series and always on poor terms.” In this sense, the personalities would be heteronyms that overwhelmed their maker. “I don’t discard the hypothesis that at least three of those imaginary characters imposed themselves more forcefully than the others and demanded to be realized in a manner distinct from the narrative word.”

So is it a joker or a madman, “a necessary enigma of existence, like one of those unknown stars which are talked about because of their influence on the visible stars?” Well, I’ve collated the evidence and this is what I think. We can start with what Ivonne tells the woman who was not Leticia: “Has it occurred to you, miss Portabales, that both you and me are obeying the orders Uxío Preto sends us from beyond the grave? Or in any event from nothing more than a bunch of words.” Whoever designed this mystery clearly likes games; the fact that he adds “alphabet soups” to the Autobiography alludes to that ludic side of the investigation. And in another book by GTB, a collection of essays edited by Miguel Viqueira (Sobre literatura y el arte de la novela), he asks, “Is it so hard to admit that this writing thing is nothing but a game?” So we have a writer who publicly treats literature like a game. Well, isn’t what Uxío Preto is doing, directing his sleuths beyond nothing more than a bunch of words, what every writer does with his readers? We’re all at the mercy of the author, going where he wants us to go. This novel is an allegory for the act of reading a novel. It’s not a good solution but it’s what I’ve got. Others may arrive at better interpretations. I’m not sure they’ll be substantially more rewarding. The novel’s penultimate sentence is “good luck.” I don’t think it’s written ironically.

This is my final contribution for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.


  1. This sounds like an ambitious but ultimately frustrating read, Miguel, so I'll leave it till well after I try another of GTB's books first. By the way, I'm glad you mentioned his fondness for Pessoa since all the fake (?) authors integrally associated with the plot you mentioned made me think of Pessoa's many heteronyms. Obrigado for contributing so many posts to Spanish Lit Month!

    1. Richard, frustrating, yes, but only because it had so much potential to be better and more interesting. That famous Iberian sentimentality didn't do this novel any favours, I fear.

      Regarding Pessoa, GTB is obsessed with protagonists who possess several personalities within, although they tend to be marginal preoccupations; here they finally came to the fore.

      It was a pleasure joining SLM!

  2. Between the parts that sound like Pynchon and the parts that sound like Borges, I am even more surprised none of this has been translated into poor old English. There is probably a story, a horrible story. Possibly a curse.

    1. Yeah, it's bizarre. Perhaps he didn't meet the right people; perhaps he told the wrong jokes at those cocktail parties college professors go to, I don't know. It's so sad he's not world famous as I believe he should be.

      I don't know the Pynchon parts, since I never read him, save a few excerpts here and there, but he was very Borgesian, although in this case I think it's his love for Pessoa that shines most brilliantly.