Thursday, October 11, 2012

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: La saga/fuga de J.B.

“One day I wrote that the place to the right of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of the Quixote, vacant for many centuries, had been occupied by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, author of La saga/fuga de J.B. I say it again now, I’ll have to repeat it tomorrow, knowing that many and many years will have to pass before a book like this is written again.” So gushed José Saramago in the preface to the French edition. His admiration for this Spanish novelist from Galicia dots his diaries Cadernos de Lanzarote, where I discovered a fabulist as important in his country as he is unknown in rest of the world.

In Portugal, where he’s been amply translated, he was only discovered in the late ‘80s, and it’s neigh impossible to find bookstores stocking his books nowadays. His most famous novel is La saga/fuga de J.B., but it wasn’t even the first to be translated; being the first part of a loose trilogy, it wasn’t even the first volume to be translated. And marketing being the delicate science it is, the first Portuguese edition in 1992 sweetened the deal by using Saramago’s preface to the French since he was Portugal’s bestselling author at the time.

Unwilling to be deterred by denuded bookstores, I bought the book in Spanish. I never studied Spanish in my life and this was the second time I was going to attempt reading a book in Spanish; years before there had been a failed go at Gabriel García Márquez’ Memories of my Melancholy Whores: sometime later when I read it in Portuguese I realized that the problem hadn’t been the Spanish, Memories of my Melancholy Whores is a dull, meretricious novel that does a serious disservice to Gabo’s greatness.

Now, contrary to popular belief, Portuguese and Spanish aren’t that similar; many words are indeed spelled the same way, and many others share only negligible orthographic differences which context bridges; but there are also many false friends. I chose to boot an 800-page novel. Surprisingly, with patience, dictionaries and online resources, I succeeded in understanding most of the novel. In any event, the effort was well worth it.

Written in 1972, La saga/fuga de J.B defies definitions, synopses, encapsulation. It’s long, erudite, meandering, simultaneously plotless and overplotted, and meticulously bizarre. Even the censor who reviewed it thought that it was a confusing: “Of all the gibberish this reader has read in this world, this is the worst. Totally impossible to understand, the action takes place in an imaginary village, Castroforte del Baralla, where there are lampreys, a holy body that appeared from the water, and a series of madmen who speak lots of nonsense. From time to time something sexual, almost always as nonsensical as the rest, and some swearing in line with the current literary tendency.” Remember that by this time Spanish censors had read most of the Latin American Boom production: Borges, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, Fuentes, Donoso, Cabrera Infante, Lezama Lima, Carpentier, Angel Asturias. Nevertheless, La saga/fuga de J.B still elicited so much exasperation: that’s a kind of high praise. The censor concluded: “This book deserves neither condemnation nor approval. Condemnation would find no justification, and approval would be too great an honor for so much stupidity and insensitivity. It is proposed applying ADMINISTRATIVE SILENCE.”

In fairness to the censor, who approved it, his description of the novel is dead on. It starts in media res highlighting events that don’t catch up with the main storyline until the third part of the novel. The reader is immediately plunged into the stealing of a famous holy relic in Castroforte del Baralla, a Galician village. In the second chapter, written as a ballad, it is sung the legend of how the Holy Body of a female saint was rescued from dangerous waters by a sailor called Barallobre, whose descendants would later help shape the history of Castroforte, “the city that dreams itself.” The relic’s recovery is of the utmost importance to the villagers not only because it sustains religious tourism, an important source of revenue, but because without the relic the man-eating lampreys, which live in the village’s rivers and provide another part of the local economy, go away.

José Bastida, the protagonist, is its official historian and the reader’s guide to Castroforte’s historical and supernatural mysteries. José Bastida, an outsider, is an ordinary, weak, unassuming man. “This boy is so ugly he can only be a priest,” his mother said of him. And he failed at that too because the bishop refused to ordain someone so ugly. After a stint in jail because of political activism, this self-styled radical finds a teaching job in Castroforte.

Unloved but eager for affection, watched by the police, despised by the locals, he lives in a pension room where he starves almost to death because of his meagre salary. His only friend is Julia, the pensioner’s daughter, whom he loves. He’s also a poet, although he writes in a personal language he invented in prison. When we first meet him he’s living with four other individuals with the initials J.B., “sustained characters” he calls them, figments of his imagination who radiate the characteristics he admires; they are: Mr. Bastid (Englishman, confidence), M. Bastide (Frenchman, good looks), José Bastideira (Portuguese, romantic), and Joseph Petrovich Bastidoff (Russian, anarchist, man of action). “If I were as elegant as Mr. Bastid, or as refined and romantically attractive as Bastideira; as good looking as M. Bastide or as imposing as Bastidoff, it’s almost certain I’d have conquered her,” J. B. sighs. Later I came to learn that GTB, as he was affectionately called, was a big fan of Fernando Pessoa and his heteronyms. Later I also learned that alliterative names - Palmeirim, Primaleón, Platirwere a common trope in chivalry romances, which GTB was a fan of. As an aside, Saramago’s Balthasar and Blimunda, the English title is a dead giveaway, also plays with this ancient trope by focusing on a trio of characters called Balthasar, Blimunda and Bartolomeu.

Julia’s father, known only as the Spiritist, he attends séances and has a Hitler obsession. Believing that Bastida is a medium, he cajoles him into accompanying him to séances because Bastida hopes being deferential to him will grant him special treatment, except the Spiritist firmly believes his medium skills flourish the longer he starves.

Bastida, treated like a freak, nevertheless gets embroiled in the secret activities of some locals. Spending countless hours in the village’s archives reading old newspapers he discovers the history of the Round Table, a secret society that in the past worked to protect Castroforte from its enemies, particularly the rival village Villasanta de la Estrella. Bastida, showing a contagious enthusiasm for Castroforte’s history, becomes the catalyst that sets in motion the restoration of the modern Round Table. As its new configuration takes shape he learns of an ancient conspiracy to erase Castroforte from existence. Castroforte, it turns out, doesn’t exist on maps; buses don’t officially go there. Schoolchildren don’t learn about it. Furthermore, the citizens don’t trust public functionaries, whom they call “Goths”, because they see them as invaders suppressing the village’s ancient autonomy. This mistrust of civil servants causes no end of anguish to the Spiritist: “To the Spiritist, convinced that the Führer hadn’t died and that he was hiding in Spain, he was worried to the point of obsession that he’d show up one day through the door of his inn and take a room in it with a false name. ‘For, in that case, how am I going to denounce him to the police, if the police is completely in on it?’”

Bastida’s investigation unearth many fascinating particularities: for instance, Castroforte has thirteen Zodiac signs instead of twelve, and they’ve been updated for the scientific age. He also discovers that the village levitates when the locals are worried about the same thing at the same time. There’s also a female branch of the Rosicrucians. And a prophecy also states that a J.B. always appears to save the village in times of need. This coincidence, or Jungian synchronicity, sets the Round Table’s sights on him.

In keeping with GTB’s love for chivalric romance references, the Round Table’ members are named after King Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, et cetera. In modern times, however, everyone gives Parsifal a pass. “I don’t think any of us would dare to take his name, because he was chaste,” Bastida says. A Mr. Pink dilemma years before Reservoir Dogs.

“The history of the Round Table, at least as far as I can see it, is a political history and a pornographic history,” Bastida says. The censor was right: this is a sexy, dirty, bawdy novel. One of the members of the old Round Table describes the purpose of the group like this: “Our first obligation, after rescuing the old city from ignorant hands, and aiding the local girls – don Torcuato declared, in private – consists no more no less than liberating our fellow citizens from their ancestral erotic habits. What can one expect from a people that doesn’t know another posture but the normal one, and besides in the dark and with pajamas on?”

Don Torcuato, a 19th-century amateur scientist and man of progress straight out of Comtian positivism, wants to modernize Castroforte and defeat the forces of ignorance and superstition. Putting art at the service of progress, he concocts a didactic poem about the valuable lampreys. However, Barrantes, the group’s poet, disagrees on the form and produces an alternative poem “without didacticism and almost no lampreys:” “His soul is being corrupted by the nefarious doctrine of Art for Art’s sake, which, as very French as it may be, is a reactionary doctrine. Art, either it serves human progress, or it’s useless. Why waste time inventing sufferings of love in verse, if his loves only matter to him? Apart from the fact, my friend, that one of the worst evils you can inflict on future generations is keeping them under the belief that love is an almost divine thing. It’s necessary to desacralize love, and we have to imbue the young with the idea that what we have so far called Love, with a capital L, is nothing but the coerced, when not blocked, display of sexuality, a natural activity which we men have made an effort to mystify through the process of making it difficult or impossible. If you, instead of abstaining from all contact with females in the name of an imaginary fidelity to a woman that doesn’t exist, participated in the methodical, I’d almost say scientific, orgies that we, on fixed dates and with gymnastic synchronicity, offer ourselves to, you’d understand that what you call Love is no other thing but the result of cerebral perturbations caused by the accumulation of semen in Graaf’s vesicles, which, once empty, stop sending poisons into the brain until they’re full again.” (This is almost a metacommentary since in 1972 Spanish writers and critics were divided in two camps, one that valued politically-engaged social realism to the exclusion of the imagination, and another that gave precedence to form and fantastic plotting in detriment of social criticism. GTB was on the fabulist camp.)

But when the members of the Round Table aren’t having amorous adventures and misadventures, they’re fighting to preserve the spirit of the village, which isn’t shown on the maps and has been suppressed by the state. Castroforte’s existence has been erased from national consciousness. The Round Table, which was founded in 1865, possibly invented many of the legends and histories of the city, which is always under constant attack from thinkers and historians who want to disprove its historical existence. Although its byzantine history allegedly dates back to the Romans, maybe the historical record is a forgery concocted by the Round Table to compensate for the conspiracy against it, adding to it more history than it actually does.

The novel becomes comically complicated when Bastida narrates many historical episodes about Castroforte which may in fact be counterfeit. The reader never leaves its long first act; it’s all about the set-up: when he thinks Bastida has finally revealed everything there is to know about Castroforte and the second act may finally begin, someone exposes his revelations as lies. As such, the paranoid clouds are never dispelled, the novel deliberately sort of fizzles out, ending on a unsatisfying note as if mocking the excess of expectations raised by the convoluted plotting. Existing in the ebb and flow of solidified myth and its demystification, agitated into movement by the tension between building and demolishing the substance of Castroforte, the novel itself becomes a metaphor for our relationship with storytelling, craving to believe in the reality of something we know to be unreal.

There are also many quirky incidents that make this novel worth reading. Bastida’s alter egos reject the idea that they’re fictional: “The idea of madness is incompatible with the solidity of my personality,” argues Mr. Bastid. There’s Bastida using his made-up dialogue to defend Julia in court. There’s the modern King Arthur’s scientific vision of a universe without women, where reproduction is strictly done in laboratories. This version, however, isn’t as outré as his predecessor, Don Torcuato, whose original theory of how men evolved from monocular to binocular vision segues into a dialogue between cavemen, one a painter, the other a thinker. “Everyone despises high Palaeolithic realism. They say it’s an outdated art,” the caveman painter complains. And there’s time travelling, José Bastida meets the previous JBs.

On a purely inventive level, La saga/fuga de J.B. is a marvel, a mandala, a masterpiece. Just its many narrative disruptions and subversions make it one of the most original novels of the 20th century. On page 225, Bastida advises the reader, if he doesn’t wish to read Don Torcuato’s treatise about binocular vision evolution, to skip 15 pages and continue from 240. But then he’ll miss cavemen musings about high Palaeolithic realistic art. This narratorial advice is not nearly as weird as when Jacinto Barallobre murders his sister and Bastida revises and edits the text to change its outcome.

The narrative is loose, slow, lacks focus deliberately, and Torrente Ballester doesn’t use indented paragraphs if he can help it, preferring to break his chunky paragraphs with diagrams, tables, and poems; but like in the large, loose, baggy Moby Dick we’re in the hands of an excellent narrator so the narrative moves like fire across a prairie.

Knowing that Saramago was a big admirer of Torrente Ballester and this novel, I can’t help noticing the similarities between La saga/fuga de J.B. and some ideas sprinkled throughout Saramago’s oeuvre, like the Passarola from Baltasar and Blimunda and the strange starlings from The Stone Raft. However, La saga/fuga de J.B. belongs rather to the Rabelaisian tradition and its closer kin are other long, bawdy novels from the ‘60s and ‘70s like The Tin Drum, The Sot-Weed Factor, Dom Tanas de Barbatanas, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Terra Nostra. Its scope is comparable to Terra Nostra, with which it shares the concept of cyclical time and the central idea that it takes many lives to make a person, an idea illustrated when all the JBs coalesce into a single individual.

Although the overarching plot about the legendary J. B. who’ll save Castroforte consumes most of the novel, its value lies also on many great individual episodes which are not subordinated to the main architecture but seem to exist solely for the pleasure of distilling weirdness. Here’s a scene wherein the members of the Round Table discuss the oblivion the poet Barrantes has been relegated to in textbooks:

“What could one say about him? Many things actually: that his Viaje subterráneo is similar to Une saison en enfer, of which it is contemporary; that his poem “Uno, dos, tres…” uses the metric and spirit of his Odas particulares coincide with the metric and spirit of the Six grandes odes; that he used the alexandrine like Rubén Darío; that his concept of love coincides with Machado’s: his social and political poems say things similar to what Celaya and Otero did; that in his Canciones al bosque muerto he prefigures La entrada a la Madera. Do you want more? An able critic, with all this, would make of him, not just a great poet, but a great precursor, and this would assure his glory. You know full well that poets nowadays aren’t read, but studied. What did he take and from where? What did he bequeath and to whom? What’s his place in the golden chain of poetry? Was he ahead of his time, was he in harmony with it, was he behind it? And let’s not mention those who ask, before the work of a poet, if it contributed or not to the revolution.”

This discussion about Cain and Abel taking a turn into semiotics is also high on my list of the novel’s funniest moments:

“Do you know where your sister is?” And Jacinto: “Am I my sister’s keeper?” Don Acisclo jumped, startled. “Did you kill her?” “But, man of God, you’re crazy! Why would I have killed her?” “You answered me like Cain to the Lord!” “But, unfortunately, neither are you the Lord nor am I Cain!” “Nevertheless, that’s what that reply always means!...” Barallobre interrupted him with a flowery gesture. “Don’t go on, I beg you. The meaning of a phrase doesn’t depend on the sum of the meanings of its words, but on endless coincidental circumstances whose enumeration is not the most opportune moment.” Don Acisclo, rather upset, jumped backwards: “What? You dare to relativize a text from the Bible?” “May God spare me from doing it in front of you! My defeat would be certain. Nevertheless, since you’ve mentioned it, that text can serve very well as a starting point, since it’s been in your mind and in mine, and, without wanting to, both of us used it as a reference, or as the linguists say, a model. Let’s consider the situation: Cain has just killed his brother Abel, and the Lord asks for him. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ replies the fratricide. But is that, exactly, what he means? Let’s examine it carefully and free of prejudices. The Lord is omniscient, and Cain knows it. The Lord, however, asks. With such a reply, Cain intends to tell the Lord, more or less: ‘You know fully well I’ve killed him, because I couldn’t stand him, because he was too perfect, because he was your favorite, because the wind didn’t darken the smoke column of his sacrifices, because his wife gave birth to children peacefully, and mine died, because his livestock multiplied and mine were destroyed by hunger and thirst…’ You understand me: no one, not even Cain, dares to tell the Lord things like this in his face: so he replies with an absurd question. Now, you come and ask me a question similar to the one God asked Cain, and I answer with the same words. There’s an initial difference: the Lord knew where Abel was and you don’t know where my sister is. The Lord’s question was tricky, and yours naïve. My answer, then, enters a system of distinct meanings, and, for my part, lends it some inconsistency (the sentence results from an involuntary association) and a bit of irony (the sentence is disproportionate to the occasion). However you receive it, not in its literal sense, not even in its real sense, but as a reference to the model, and you reason this more or less:

If Jacinto Barallobre replies to me with the same words Cain used, that means he did the same,

from which arises your second question. Well now: if Cain hadn’t interpreted with rectitude the reach of the Lord’s question, that is, if it were hypothetically possible for the Lord to ignore the murder, doesn’t it seem more logical to have answered: ‘What do I know? He’s around. I haven’t seen him for two or three days.” Or shrug his shoulders. Since I didn’t kill my sister I can use with complete innocence the same words Cain did, even without suspecting, of course, that you’d mix, as you did, the semantic and linguistic levels, which one must never do, under the risk of mixing things up and incurring in the pathetic confusion you’ve incurred in.”

In its rhythm of impasse it reminds one of Franz Kafka’s The Castle. There are revelations and counter-revelations, and counter-counter-revelations. This sense of impasse is intensified by a disorderly chronology, by incidents in the present being left in suspension while something in the past is better explain or reexplained, and then jumping forward in time. Frustration is weaved into the novel’s fabric. So besides a metaphor for reading it also looks like a metaphor for make-believe: GTB invents a village in painstaking detail, a thoroughly-realized fictional place with its own history, geography, customs; and then the demiurge unravels his creation.

Keeping close to pre-realist fiction and myths, GTB gives Castroforte a cyclical time. Castroforte is in fact the nodal point of a pattern repeating itself with subtle permutations. “In La saga/fuga de J.B., everything, in the literal sense of the word, is connected to everything, exactly as if it were a living body, a biological system, the skeleton connected to the blood vessels, the brain to the spine, the digestive chemistry to the chemistry of assimilation, the heart to the lungs, act to thought,” wrote Saramago. There is always a poet in the Round Table (Bastida is the new one), a J.B. always dies in the Ides of March, the King Arthur is always a scientist. One such pattern is the duels that Castroforte has with the Goths, the outsiders. There’s the legendary duel between lampreys and the foreign starlings who mysteriously appear out of nowhere, culminating in an unprecedented aero-naval battle. There’s a duel of parrots. There’s a Rabelaisian duel between the Castrofortinos and the Goths to see how many words for penis and vagina they discover. For the Castrofortinos it’s a matter of honor that they have more words for vagina. This is a very strange, hilarious novel.

I’m not sure if Saramago was right in saying that Torrente Ballester sits to the right of Cervantes, but La saga/fuga de J.B. is unlike any other novel I’ve ever read, a torrent of comedy, imagination, heart and subtlety organized into a tightly-planned structure.

Updated in September, 2021.