Monday, January 29, 2018

Macedonio Fernández, The Museum of Eterna's Novel (the first good novel)

Here's a novel by an Argentine writer (1874-1952). He was apparently kind of a local capital-C Character; literarily, he was more admired locally than internationally, even in the Hispanophone world. That's my understanding, anyway. But, he was admired by various Argentine writers, including Borges (to whose work his influence was apparently vital). This--which, like most of his work, was published postumously, under the editorship of his son; he was writing it, on and off, for the last twenty-seven years of his life--is his only work to have been translated into English thusfar, by Open Letter Books, a cool publisher whose mission is to publish ten interesting literary translations a year. Worth keeping an eye on!

When describing this novel, the first thing everyone will tell you--because, obviously, it's the unique thing about it--is that it begins with fifty-eight prologues, making up slightly more than half of the total novel. These are about all manner of things: his novel-writing philosophy (he's very keen on making prominent the artificiality of the novel); someone fervid philosophizing on the relationship between text, reader, and writer; stories about characters who were rejected for the novel or who rejected it themselves; evaluations of the "performances" of characters--one inevitably thinks of At Swim-Two-Birds, which was written broadly contemporaneously to this. They can be a bit sloppy and self-indulgent (oh, who are we kidding: hella self-indulgent), but by and large, they're kind of a hoot, and they definitely get one revved up for the novel proper. If one can call it that in a book like this. There's nothing proper about it!

Well, but then it begins, and man...I kind of wasn't totally feeling it. Inasmuch as one can say it's about anything, it's about the lives of various characters living in an estancia called--yup--"La Novela." I mean, that's fine with me; I can dig it. But the way it's less interesting to me than I might have hoped. It basically continues with the themes that the prologues started, but it was hard to be super-interested, perhaps because the characters are neither very characterized nor interesting, and no one ever really does anything. They have names like Maybegenius and The Lover and Sweetheart, which seems like it could lead somewhere interesting, but does it? Does it really? I was mostly unmoved. The most interesting thing, really, is the way the novel tries to make the reader into a character of sorts in the novel, but it's kind of an underdeveloped theme, and I just was not swept away. Please forgive me.

God knows I'm glad to see books like this translated. That's what I like about being a native English-speaker. Maybe it's selfish of me, because it is, yes yes I know, an imperialist language, but it really is a great first language to have for someone who likes reading. You have all the great works written natively in it--which is a lot--and you also have a huge translation culture. Obviously, there are works that aren't translated that you wish would be--see here--but I still feel pretty good about it. However, it's sometimes the case that a heralded translation of a long-untranslated book doesn't quite end up living up to the hype, and I think that's the case here. There are other, better-known Latin American writers who probably really deserve my attention more than this, which, let's face it, I read more out of my craving for novelty than anything else.


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