Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Leopoldo Marechal, Adam Buenosayres (1948)

Here's an interesting one. This thick Argentine novel, oft compared to Ulysses, was highly regarded and highly influential in Latin American circles—but it was basically unknown in the Anglophere until the Year of Our Lord 2014, when it was finally published in English translation, by the highly-capable Norman Cheadle.

Adam was dead, to begin with. At any rate, the book opens as he's being carried to his funeral. An unnamed narrator tells us that he has several manuscripts by Buenosayres that he wants to publish, but to do that, he's going to need to provide some background on the days leading up to his demise. And from there, we get five books narrating his doings, followed by his putative manuscripts.

So what's it all about, then? Well, this is NOT a plot-heavy novel, to put it mildly. Mostly, Adam—writer, teacher—wanders around with his friends, who, we are told, are caricatures of real Argentine intellectuals of the time (including Jorge Luis Borges, not that you'd be able to figure that out on your own), with whom he has wide-ranging conversations. He pines after a woman he loves but can't have. And...that's about it, really. All of this is depicted with varying levels of realism. My favorite chapter has our heroes wandering around a plain at night, debating Argentine national identity and encountering various ghosts, most notably a glyptodon(!) who sets them straight on the geological formation of the pampas, and a gaucho responsible for the defeat of the legendary Santos Vega, who may or may not also be the devil. Beguiling stuff.

And so it goes: they go to a brothel, a restaurant where they have a mock gauchoesque musical duel, a few chapters detail Adam's past, one written in the second person—and then we get to his manuscripts themselves. Here, Marechal is parodying Dante: the first, “The Blue-Bound Notebook,” is his take on “La Vita Nuova,” in which he describes the progress of his soul's attachment to his beloved, Solveig Amundsen (who, it should be noted, is barely a character in the novel, and has no notable characteristics). To be honest, it's a bit of a slog, but hey, it's short. Finally, then, we have an extended Inferno, which is the longest thing in the novel. This is presented on an interestingly metafictional level; on the one hand, it's sort of a real hell, but on the other, Marechal is very frank about the fact that it's actually just a creation of Adam's friend Schultz, who serves as his Virgil. The whole thing is a big ol' jumble that mixes metaphysical reflections with broadsides against church, state, journalism—the usual things—along with stuff that seemingly just irritated Marechal. So...I suppose not that different than Dante, really, though Marechal obviously takes all this stuff less seriously. At the end there's a long, strange story (entirely non-Kafka-like) about a man who turned into a giant insect, and then the novel kind of abruptly ends. And there you have it!

I think the Ulysses comparisons are a bit off-base. I mean, yes, Marechal did read Ulysses and was consciously influenced by it, and there are clearly thematic similarities between the two books—mostly having to do with national identity and the place of the intellectual within society—but they really don't read remotely similarly; I would argue that Adam Buenosayres is actually much closer to the postmodern novels of the sixties and seventies—a book before its time, perhaps. Certainly, it's not self-consciously Difficult the way Ulysses is.

All due credit should go to the translator, Norman Cheadle. There are a LOT of references, of various levels of allusiveness, to other Argentine literature and culture in general; these are likely to be pretty opaque to most English-language readers, but they are all faithfully glossed by Cheadle. If anything, I might say he goes slightly overboard; there are places where you're drowning in so much annotative material that you lose narrative momentum a bit. Still, better too much than too little, and I find myself more and more interested in Latin American culture.

So the thing is, I would dearly love to proclaim Adam Buenosayres a lost (to English-speakers—I feel like a cultural imperialist if I don't include that disclaimer, but can't it just go without saying?) masterpiece of high modernism--god knows there were parts when I was all ready to do just that. But in the end, I just can't quite bring myself to. Don't get me wrong; there's a lot to recommend it, and I certainly would to people interested in the milieu. But—and I freely admit that I should reread it before pretending to make any definitive statements—I just can't help feeling like it's a bit lightweight. The overall tone is very jokey, which is fine as far as it goes, but in this case, I think thematic density is sacrificed. The novel brings up all these issues, but I don't necessarily get the impression it really does much with them. Also, it must be noted, there is absolutely no sense of pathos in the novel; none of the characters come across as real enough to invoke any such thing, and Marechal doesn't even try. Finally, Marechal's Buenos Aires does not even come close to coming to life the way Joyce's Dublin does—and, given the title, it's pretty easy to tell that this was one of the novel's goals. I certainly don't regret reading it (I always say that about novels, but I'm actually not sure I ever “regret” reading one), but it's not quite all that I had hoped it would be. Now THIS is the Argentine novel I'm REALLY lusting for a translation of. Cheadle?

(The Spanish title is Adán Buenosayres; Cheadle's explanation for why he changed it to Adam—“Adán” isn't a familiar named to most English-speakers, and it lacks associations with the Biblical Adam—are unconvincing, especially that first part—who could possibly care if it's “familiar?”)


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