09 June 2007

Laura Restrepo

I dove back into Cloud Atlas yesterday after taking a break from it (to make it last) and finishing both Laura Restrepo's Delirio (because it was so wonderful) and Mario Mendoza's Satanás (because the movie came out last Friday). I spent an hour compiling my notes on Restrepo's novel, and couldn't stop smiling. It's a truly wonderful book.

Delirio helpfully informs my reading of Cloud Atlas due to its style and narrative structure, which puts the reader in the place of piecing together its timeline. We get Aguilar's view of events, and then a passage of Agustina's from the past will help explain what he's seeing. The story literally unfolds. Memory triggers aspects of Agustina's madness so what occurred in the past affects the present, and then the present is explained via Agustina's own memories in the past.

While I realize that comparing contemporary Latin American writers to modernist authors of yore has been done many (many) times, I couldn't help but think of Faulkner and Woolf as I read Restrepo. I was reminded of The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and The Waves, not only because she shifts backwards and forwards in time, but because the first-person narration of four characters (and the third-person narration of a fifth) lack dialogue punctuation and switch voices and tenses continually--even in midsentence. Not only does the reader have to determine who is speaking and when, she also must figure out to whom. I found these little "mysteries" almost as engaging as the central mystery itself. Restrepo rewards readers willing to engage in such close reading and pay attention to the details of the narrative, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed reading it so much. She truly respects the reader's intelligence and this creates a unique sense of camraderie between the reader and her main characters. I found myself caring about what was happening to them--even the less-than-noble ones (which includes just about everyone). I will most certainly be reading this one again.

Although the structure is rather intricate, it wasn't difficult to read. I was amazed by the effortles fluidity of the prose, the voices and images were so vibrant and immediate. Restrepo puts the music and rhythm of the language to powerful use. I particularly loved the scene where Agustina's mother, Eugenia, has a huge fight on the phone with Aguilar, while Agustina yells, "No quiero hablar con ella porque su voz me enferma" in the background over and over and over again:
Oiga, señora, el problema es sumamente serio, Agustina está mal, está en un estado de agitación incontrolable y usted me viene con que pretende llevársela a hacer meditación zen, Y quién es usted, señor, para decirme a mí qué es lo que le conviene a mi hija, al menos tenga la cortesía de preguntarle a ella si quiere o no quiere, Agustina, pregunta tu madre si quieres ir con ella a unos baños de aguas termales en Virginia, escúchale usted misma, señora, Agustina está diciendo que lo único que quiere es que colguemos ya el teléfono.
This goes on for two pages. Without exclamation marks or descriptive adjectives, Restrepo brings the frenetic urgency of the domestic conflict to life in the reader's mind. (The first few pages of Natasha Wimmer's translation are generously excerpted at Doubleday, for those interested.)

There are so many facets to this novel: Agustina's younger brother, the family scapegoat...the abuse...Aguilar reads Saramago's Memorial del convento (in English as Baltasar and Blimunda) while he's away...her twisted relationship with her father...Agustina "parece sacada de las páginas de Jane Eyre"...her obsession with ceremony, water, and blood...the doorman who died in front of her child eyes, stabbed nine times...her only success as a psychic...she has no true self, no true insight--all is motivated by fear and dread...death and blood irrevocably tied to her developing womanhood...the bizarre love triangle (or square?) between her mother's parents and a young apprentice...her madness is far from simply genetic...Midas' devestatingly accurate take on Pablo Escobar...the bombs (like the one I experienced in Medellín in '92)...the literal "turn of the screw"...memory echoes forwards...how the family was destroyed on a Palm Sunday afternoon..."crónica de un fracaso anunciado"...the cream and avocado for the delicious ajiaco...the secret behind her mother's own particular insanity and repression...Agustina's way of speaking ("like the Pope") that augments her own dissociation, all in capital letters...her grandfather Nicolás' lost sister, like her brother Bichi...how Aguilar finally reveals why he's wound up selling dog food for a living...Kawabata invoked...Eugenia's devestating denials of reality...Nicolás' fascination with "la enigma de la sangre derramada"...the trigger that truly sent her over the edge, from Midas' disbelieving perspective...how his avalanche of words aggravates her state...how Aguilar finally understands how enough lies could drive one mad...and how laughter breaks the evil enchantment..."Que me perdone Voltaire pero esto es un milagro."

Another great moment occurs when Agustina enters a cathedral to light a candle and pray to Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (the founder of Bogotá) for the restoration of her sanity, rather than to a saint. It's a nice tip of the hat to Cervantes, because of the theory that he based the character of Don Quixote on this traveling adventurer.

Needless to say, I loved this novel and was not a little dismayed when I discovered David Ulin's review of Delirio for the LA Times (via SPLALit):
Such a construct has potential, but difficulties arise from the outset, beginning with Restrepo's inability to bring Agustina to life. She is, or so the novel tells us, special, touched with psychic abilities — a kind of healer — but this seems contrived. Rather, she's most memorable as one of those people who drives others crazy: haughty, demanding, mercurial. Wealthy, with a powerful father and deep, if elusive, ties to Colombia's narco-underground, she drifts across the surface of existence, untouched by consequence. Even her madness seems self-indulgent, with no weight, no depth.
I can't help but wonder if he missed the irony of Restrepo's epigraph--Gore Vidal's commendation of Henry James' advice that writers should never make a lunatic the central character of a narrative because since a lunatic cannot be made morally responsible, there can be no real tale to tell.

Agustina is no true psychic or "healer," as the story makes clear. She is superstitious from childhood, believing that she has magical powers that can save her younger brother from their father's physical and verbal abuse. As a young woman, she tries to save the life of her unborn child by reading "messages" in the folds of her bedsheets. Any reading that takes her seriously as a clairvoyant will of course see it as "contrived" because it's the role that she's created for herself in order to forestall the pain of reality. Yes, she has one success in this role (which forged her "reputation" in this line), but her childhood belief that she trucks with the forces of the unseen spins a thread that ultimately binds her to the instability that characterizes her adulthood.

And "untouched by consequence"? The violence she witnesses as a child (both inside and outside the home) only contribute to her condition. As a child, she overhears her mother's side of a telephone argument with her father, and becomes fascinated with the heated wire of her mother's hair dryer. She places her tongue inside. Her developing sexuality is warped by her mother's shame and horror on the day she begins mensturating (in a scene that permanently links sexuality to death and blood). As a teenager she learns that the only way she can provoke her father to notice her is by staying out late and having sexual encounters with one man after another. Her world is hermetically sealed by the isolation of privilege and the nearly fascist censure of her parents, and her existence marked by what happens to her younger brother during her 17th year. But it's ultimately the nature of familial betrayal that thwarts her identity and womanhood.
When Restrepo tries to root the novel by invoking the most vehement realities — narco-terrorism, roads and cities rendered unsafe by insurgents, the terrifying presence of Escobar — she doesn't write as if she feels it, as if these are her concerns in any fundamental sense.
Ulin speaks of her casualness in recounting these matters, but I would hazard to guess that he doesn't understand how mundane and normal these situations were in daily life. She recounts the dangers of the road to Sasaima in the same tone as someone from the States would discuss the annoyances of heavy traffic. These realities had been so embedded in the identity of the culture that its strangeness would never be remarked upon. As for Escobar, Midas' retelling of his encounters with the drug lord (and the one-liners that Escobar later became famous for) are related with deep sadness and a stunned shock at the inevitable result of such dealings. I don't see any of this as Restrepo trying "to root the novel by invoking the most vehement realities". The root of the novel is the devastating nature of family secrets and the lies on which we base our lives. The peripheral context is important, but not the main focus of the work.

Ulin also complains,
For Agustina and the other characters, life is oddly distanced; there is nothing here to make us care. "[T]he plain truths keep getting caught in the honeyed ambiguity that smoothes and civilizes everything until there's no substance left," leaving us to experience "Delirium" as if through a scrim of gauze.
I find it particularly telling that Ulin would use a line that intends to decry this form of existence and turn it against the book itself. His views on the matter are clear, but I can't believe that this "gauze" is entirely the fault of the author. A reader is not merely a spectator as with television or film, but an active participant. If that sense of immediacy and clarity isn't there, the reader has to check his or her own limitations of understanding, especially when it comes to a work of translation.

Ultimately, I find it curious that he neglects to mention any stylistic or structural elements at all. I found these to be the main reasons the novel was so engaging and worthwhile. Perhaps they served to distance rather than engage him? Some comment on these aspects of the work would've given this review more credibility.

Related note: Laura Restrepo spoke at the PEN World Voices "Don Quixote at 400" tribute in 2005. She has some wonderful things to say about Quixote's context and the modern world's latent insanity.


Dorothy W. said...

I'm intrigued by your review; this book is now on my TBR list. I attended the "Don Quixote at 400" tribute and saw Restrepo, but, alas, had no idea who she was at the time. (The same is true for Assja Djebar.)

Javier Moreno said...

Ana María, encontré tu blog recientemente y me ha gustado mucho. ¿Por qué no escribes en español? Hacen falta voces como la tuya en la blogdiscusión literaria hispana.

Hablando de eso, quisiera invitarte a participar con ensayos o ficción a Hermano Cerdo. Si tienes alguna cosa que pienses que podría ser publicada en nuestra revista, escríbeme a bluelephant (at) gmail.

Un saludo.

amcorrea said...

Dorothy--Glad to help! I think you'll find it to be a very interesting read.

Javier--La verdad es que por mucho tiempo he pensado de tener algunas cosas aquí en los dos idiomas, pero no he encontrado el tiempo para traducirlas. ¿Tal vez debo hacer más esfuerzo para hacerlo?

Muchísimas gracias por la invitación a Hermano Cerdo y el ánimo que me diste para hacer más en español. Le agradezco.

Javier Moreno said...

Hace algunos años yo escribía en inglés algunas de mis entradas y otras en español. Algunos entenderán unas, otros otras y otros más las dos. Traducir le dará mucho trabajo y sus entradas, por lo que puedo ver, ya son bastante trabajadas. La otra opción es tener dos blogs, pero mantener dos blogs vivos también implica trabajo; es mejor tener la personalidad virtual centralizada, creo. :)

amcorrea said...

Muy buenas ideas--he pensado en los últimos dos, pero no en la primera. Espero que puedo empezar de hacer más de esto durante este mes.

¡Muchísimas gracias, Javier! Su consejo ha sido muy importante.