Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Julián Rios, Larva: Midsummer Night's Babel (1983)

Julián Rios (1941- ) is a Spanish novelist, but that is also the name of a prolific pornographic actor. I find this extremely appropriate and great, given the concerns here. One of novelist-Rios' other books is called La Vida sexual de las palabras (The Sex Life of Words), which...yup.

This is almost certainly the most abstruce novel I've ever read; it's probably fairly comparable in that regard to Finnegans Wake. The story, insofar as it's possible to make out: the protagonist is known as Milalias ("A thousand aliases"), disguised as Don Juan, at a party/orgy at a decaying mansion in London, in pursuit of a woman named Babelle (probably the wordplay is obvious) disguised as Sleeping Beauty. A lot of other characters, often from far-flung countries and cultures, flit through the text. There are sex, drugs and rock and roll in abundnace. Dreams, hallucinations, the threat of terrorism. The book is structured with the main text (if "main" means anything here) on the right-hand page and footnotes glossing the text on the left; some of these point the reader to one of a series of "Pillow Notes" after the main body of the novel; this is where you're going to find the closest thing to "normal" narrative in the novel, detailing past and current episodes in Milalias' and Babelle's life and providing more detail on the secondary characters (to the extent that such things exist). And--the main thing--the whole thing is an absolute torrent of puns and wordplay; the multiple unreliable meanings of words are reflected in the costume party--everyone wearing masks--and of course there's the inevitable thing where linguistic proliferation and sex are intertwined. Did I say "of course there's the inevitable thing?" God I'm insufferable.

I will say that there is something to be said for surrendering control in a text like this (a thematically-relevant sadomasochistic element?). We have this very strongly-ingrained idea that we need to know what's happening in a book; to feel like we're in control. You will not get very far with that attitude in a text like this, however. On a narrative level...expect very little. But there is definitely a certain pleasure to be had in the verbal drunkenness.

And yet, I'm not wholly satisfied (oh god, that's another sex thing, isn't it?), for reasons that aren't necessarily the book's fault. Reread that little stab at a plot description above, and then go to goodreads and look at any of the reviews of this, and you'll see, at most, some version of that. This is a five-hundred-fifty-page book (not counting the map and series of photographs in the back). There's a lot of here here. And that's really all we can get out of it, plotwise? Yes, yes, in a novel like this the structure is probably more important than the plot per se, but really, they're intertwined. The one doesn't go withotu the other. And I can't help feeling that there's something lazy about just saying "wow, look how crazy and pun-laden this all is, and don't expect to parse it, just revel in the language!" Yeah, okay. But that strikes me as a very surface-level way to approach the text. You'd definitely have to give it multiple close readings to get more out of it, to really evaluate what it's doing and the extent to which it works. But I didn't give it that, and I'm not convinced that anyone has, and that's why this is the first book I've read that I haven't given a semi-arbitrary star rating to on goodreads, and I don't trust any of the people who have, whether positive or negative. The thing about Finnegans Wake is, there's a regular cottage industry devoted to readers' guides thereto, to help you figure out what the deal is. But there sure isn't anything like that for Larva, at least in English. So we're sort of stuck. Has any anglophone reader really "gotten" this? I remain fiercely agnostic.

Well, at least the translation is a marvel. At least, as far as I can tell. I said this about Cabrera Infante's Three Trapped Tigers, and I'll say it again: this does not feel like it's been translated, like there's a certain remove from the text. It must have involved huge amounts of revision and creative thinking, but there it is. If you're gonna translate something like this, you might as well do it in style. it's by the author along with Richard Alan Francis and Suzanne Jill Levine. The latter was one of the translators of Three Trapped Tigers, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised, but I am very impressed (and slightly mystified: Levine is pretty well-known, with a wikipedia page and everything, but Francis: nothin'. A bunch of unrelated Richards Alan Francis If you search for "'richard allan francis' 'translator,'" you'll get references to this and one other Rios book that he worked on. How can someone remain so anonymous?). In one of the back-cover blurbs, no less a writer than Carlos Fuentes asserts that "this adventure in the Spanish language easily translates into English because the creative urge is the same in both, and because Rios is the most cosmopolitan of contemporary writers," a sentiment which strikes me as insane gibberish. I don't think there was anything easy about this.

I don't know if I want to read more of Rios. He has several other books featuring the same characters, which isn't as enticing a prospect as you might hope, and if they're in the same style as this, I might not find them super-edifying. The next one is called Poundemonium, and given that I bounced very hard off Ezra Pound when I had to read him in grad school, I'm not convinced that an experimental tribute to the man would do much for me. Still, never say never. In spite of my mild skepticism, I really do think it's important and valuable for writers to push the limits of narrative as far as they'll go, whether or not the results are always wholly satisfying.


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