The Realism of the Surreal
There is a great Luisa Valenzuela story that manages to play fair to realism and the fantastic simultaneously, all the while saying something about the nature of desire that has activated many a vampire tale. In 'The Envoy', a plane crashes and most perish but a few survive. They have done so by living off the flesh of their classmates in a tale that clearly stems from the Andes incident of 1972, where members of a Uruguayan rugby team stayed alive by consuming the dead flesh of their colleagues. In Valenzuela's story, one young man returns home and the parents notice that after the initial moment when Pedro and other survivors get back into their routine, returning to their sporting activities, "a gloomy langour came upon them. Not even the most exalted or foreign doctor could understand the insidious symptoms." Yet the father, who narrates the story, feels he understands what is happening to his son and takes a sliver of flesh from inside his own cheek, puts it in brine, and the boy begins to show signs of energy again, swimming a few lengths in the pool, managing a smile several times. It seems the consumption of human flesh had changed the youth's organism: he can only now function healthily with regular meat from his fellow man.
The story works from a factual account that caught everyone's imagination, but Valenzuela runs with what that capturing means. It is one thing to grab the public's interest with the readily ghoulish; another to generate a narrative supposition out of that ghoulishness. The story wonders what it might be like to return and feel less the guilt of the survivor than feel the transformation of one's body that has tasted a very forbidden fruit one can no longer live without. Instead of concentrating on what we could call the realist guilt (evident in numerous interviews, talks etc. that one of the most famous survivors, Roberto Canessa, gave), Valenzuela works from perhaps no more than a small detail. Canessa says, "I told her, 'Mother, we had to eat our dead friends,'" he told People, "and she said, 'That's okay, that's okay, sweetie.' " (Independent). In the same article Canessa is quoted as saying, when he first tasted human flesh, "it was our final goodbye to innocence." Valenzuela manages to both personalise and mythologise the story. The tale is at once a familial account of the love one has for one's family and a mythic narrative of innocence lost as Valenzuela manages to inject a bit more life, so to speak, into magic realist fiction as David Lodge would describe it: "when marvellous and impossible events occur in what otherwise purports to be a realistic narrative." (The Art of Fiction) At one moment in the story we hear how the narrator's wife "was fairly easy to convince; it wasn't much of a sacrifice to her to give her son a little piece from her thigh; she never goes to the beach anyway." Later some of Pedro's friends who survived the crash haven't survived the survival. "Three of Pedro's colleagues have now died, of unknown causes, as if from a sadness that emanates from their bodies and lodges first in their eyes and then gradually gnaws away at their entire body." Pedro's mother wants to help those still alive and so sends them human meat pies; a gesture the narrator thinks will jeopardise their son's well being as she flirts with risk as human concern.
Here Valenzuela tells a story that suggests human selfishness in personal and familial form, taking the tired language of someone doing anything to survive or doing everything for their family, and finding out of a famous cannibalistic incident a means by which to link it to the vampiric. It suggests well what a writer can do when taking a story out of the headlines and putting it on the fictional page. What is it that distinguishes one from the other? We might in this instance say the collapse of the binary opposition: of seeing the people who ate their colleagues as either monsters or repentants. The only way the media can easily countenance the action is by quoting the awful decision they made, and how heavy it was on their conscience. Canessa mentions again and again how terrible he felt, how he prayed to God to help make his decision. We needn't suggest that Canessa was saying this just to please the media; not at all - more that this was what the media needed to hear. The more complicated thought and feeling involved would have little place in a newspaper. Its place is in the realm of the literary.
The story also manages to invoke Magic Realism without being a slave to it, and we believe Valenzuela's best stories work within the fantastic without quite falling into the make-believe. Valenzuela is very much seen as a post Boom-writer, that wave of Latin American novelists who included Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Maria Vargas Llosa, while her writer parents were friends with that earlier generation of great Argentinean writers, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sabato and Julio Cortazar. These would be strong influences on anyone, but one way in which she perhaps tried to escape them was by making the fantastic pertinent to her time. One of the disadvantages of a formal approach to literature is that it can generate an overbearing relationship to influence. The more one sees the literary as a given of form over the means of exploring the real, the less the writer can see the point of their own endeavour. We exaggerate our point of course: few writers would see themselves so obviously hidebound by tradition. But rather than rejecting one's forebears, rather than fighting against them, sometimes all one has to do is fight with one's times: to grasp the essence of one's moment. Valenzuela's work coincided with a period in Argentine history that remains symbolically atrocious: the period of the military Junta and the Disappeared. Like the Pinochet regime in Chile this was an historical moment that demanded analysis without falling into opportunism. The writer realises they are on the stage of history and they must navigate a space between speechifying and silence: between the political need to speak and the creative demand that one cannot shout. Other moments do not demand this tension because there is nothing to shout about. To write on France in the seventies, or Britain, would be to accept that one might wishto be political but there is no burden to be so. One would be unlikely to be complicit with a regime by the nature of one's silence. But to stay neutral out of political indifference during Germany in the thirties, or Argentina in the seventies, would be a dereliction of duty that would incorporate what many see as central to literature's first principle: the ethical. When for example Jean-Paul Sartre proposed an engaged literature, we needn't see this as a literature of the political. Sartre and Camus disagreed on many things but they did concur on the notion of writing being an act of freedom. This is not about making political statements in fictional form; it is about retaining the autonomy of a work that is also in the world. As Sartre says, "in short, literature is, in essence, the subjectivity of a society in permanent revolution. In such a society it would go beyond the antinomy of word and action. Certainly in no case would it be regarded as an act; it is false to say that the author acts upon his readers; he merely makes an appeal to their freedom..." (Literature and Existentialism) Camus believed, "Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being." (The Rebel) One writes to produce freedom; if one writes in such a way that one is aiding and abetting unfreedom that would be detrimental to literature. Argentina in the late sixties and seventies would have been an arena of unfreedom, and for most of the period Valenzuela lived elsewhere, living in Barcelona, Paris and Mexico City before moving to the States for a decade.
Perhaps one reason why we insist on the question of freedom over statement, the imagination over the factually-oriented denunciation, isn't only because one suggests the subtle and the other emphatic point, but also that while certain writers have the good fortune to escape the country that oppresses them, many others do not. How to write a literature that is free and yet not complicit; one that manages to attack the principle behind an unfree regime without always feeling obliged to attack directly the government of oppression? There can sometimes be a sense of luxury in criticising a regime at home when one has the material means to escape that environment, and some might claim Valenzuela was one such figure. Her life was far more charmed than her nation's history. Her parents' status gave her access to well-known writers; she worked for a radio station in Paris, returned to Buenos Aires in 1961 and got a journalistic job at La Nacion, frequently taking the opportunity to travel. Of course, a reactionary response might be to say that given her good fortune she should have accepted her lot was better than most and kept her mouth shut. The opposite response would be that anybody of such luck owes it to those less fortunate to speak out. We might be inclined to believe that the latter is much better than the former, yet it is not quite the answer.
"I can describe my sympathies. Of course, my sympathies are to the left..." (Chasqui) she says. But art doesn't come out of a political position; it comes from bigger terms like freedom and oppression - which is exactly what Sartre and Camus propose. They may have been figures of the Left, but it wasn't the left-wing nature of their thinking that would have produced important work. It would have been that they found in there determination to fight for freedom a position that coincided with the Left. If the Left-wing position became more pronounced that the justice out of which it was to be supported, confusions and contradictions would appear. Defending Stalinism and Maoism would leave someone not on the side of the oppressed but of the oppressors, and a work published that was worshipful of either leader would be weak because it would be focusing too much on a concrete manifestation, an ideology and a figure. Equally a book retrospectively very keen to denounce Hitler would probably lack the nuance for art as it finds its moral meaning in a personality synonymous with oppression and the suppression of freedom. Aesthetically a book sympathetic to Hitler which is not at all a Fascist text, would be more interesting. "I like ambiguity. I don't like, again, to be the holder of the truth. I don't have it" (Chasqui) But Valenzuela insists that no one else has it either, and this is partly why the writer must be very careful when it comes to addressing truth in the context of oppression. The danger is that in the face of atrocity one inflates one's truth to cover a terrain far greater than their own portion of truth, or that in acknowledging the smallness of their truth, the personal nature of it, one retreats from addressing the problem at all. How to measure the truth? In this sense we feel that Valenzuela measures it especially well in a number of short stories in Symmetries, like 'The Envoy', as well as 'Journey', 'Desire Makes the Water Rise', 'Tango', and the most obviously political story in the collection, 'The Key', over an ambitious novel like The Lizard's Tail. The latter is a fantastic account of various figures including Juan and Isabel Peron, and his loyal ally for years, Jose Lopez Rega, a right-wing Peronista who many believed all but ran Isabel Peron's government after her husband died. The novel is both clear and obscure: clear about who the main characters in the book are based on, but fantastic and mythological in its take on the events of Argentina in the seventies. It both has a point to make and yet is obfuscatory in its execution. In the novel's second section it explores the material from Valenzuela' point of view. "I, Luisa Valenzuela, swear by these writings that I will try to do something about all this, become involved as much as possible, plunge in head-first..." Both magical realist and metafictional, the book aims at political specificity whilst also the fictionally innovative.
Yet we find some of the stories more suggestive and complete. "Either you make a big carpet or you make a smaller one with a smaller pattern." (Chasqui) It is sometimes the smaller pattern that suggests a subtler weave, evident in a tale like 'Desire Makes the Water Rise'. Valenzuela's best stories suggest the enigmatic beyond the real but a reality that is still very much present as she here tells the story of a couple who take their honeymoon in Venice. They get a very expensive room at the Hotel Danieli only to find there is no view of the canal, and the bride cannot countenance making love when the scene doesn't match her romantic ideal. All night the husband tries to coax her into the act but she refuses as his desire becomes frenzied and her bitterness ever more pronounced "She refused to let him touch her. She even refused to get undressed. You're useless, she said sharply, the idea was to have a room overlooking the canal and here we are back in Dona Paula's room like we were on our first dates." This is decidedly not a room with a view as the "room did not overlook the canal, it looked out on a gloomy wall a few yards away." Yet that night there is severe flooding, and when they look out of the window in the morning with the glass shattered on the floor, they see the waters have risen and they now have the view they wished for, no matter if Venice is even more submerged in water than usual. They make love ferociously. The story has a magic realist quality but is based on fact. The story ends with the line "the year was 1966, and they were fucking." That was indeed the year of a famous flood in the city, and we might read the story feeling the dimension of the fantastic, but Valenzuela then concludes it by making clear it is grounded in the historically evident. Like 'The Envoy', the story is written in an indirect style with no dialogue. This can often be a useful way to turn a large carpet into a small rug even if it would be a struggle to turn 'Desire Makes the Water Rise' into a longer piece; while 'The Envoy' could easily be turned into at least a novella. It can give to a work a scenic suggestibility over a scenic exposition. In the latter, the scene is described and made present.
One reason 19th century novels are as long as they are resides in the expectation that the dramatic must take scenic form: someone must arrive in a room, discuss with others in a series of dialogue exchanges and then leave again. But we might ask what is the substance of the scene, what is the essential information that we need to extract from it? Of course, we can acknowledge fiction isn't there to offer essential information. Its purpose is to generate identification, drama and compassion, to make us feel the nature of lives others than our own in fictional form. We wouldn't want to underestimate the importance of such aspects in literature, but doesn't this attention to description so often undermine the force of the tale being told? When someone tells us a story they do not tell us about all the people in the room unless all the individuals are pertinent to the telling. Do we really need to know what type of wood the sideboard is made of, and which paintings were on the wall? Do we need to know what Mr and Mrs Macclesfield were talking about before our hero entered the room? If it is to give the work the feel of verisimilitude perhaps not, or perhaps not anymore. Though direct style is usually praised in numerous workshops and writing manuals, we may wonder whether this is where literature is produced? This is a typical recommendation from a random online outlet. "Probably the easiest way to bring life into a scene is to concentrate on one or all of the five senses. Tell the reader what the character sees or smells. If your scene is set in the middle of a summer rainstorm, mention the smell of wet asphalt and the shimmer of oil in a mud puddle. Instead of merely saying your character walked into a flower shopand leaving the details for the reader to fill inshow us what the character encounters. Tell us about the ring of the bell over the entrance, talk about the splashes of scarlet and yellow, the perfumed air." Is this partly why many contemporary popular novels are so long - that they access the senses, set the scene and describe numerous things within it? An indirect style would seem to be less inclined to visualise let alone sensualise the story, but that would appear to us a misapprehension: that the writer can replace description with detail - a much more metonymic form of visualisation and sensualisation. We see this in both 'The Envoy' and 'Desire Makes the Water Rise'. It is there in the comment about the brine in the former instance; there in the "sea of broken glass lying inside the room which was in turn reflecting back the reflection of that almost limpid water down below" in the latter.
In a deliberately ambivalent essay 'Beyond the Novel', E. M. Cioran says "page after page, for pages and pages, the accumulation of inconsequence..." but what will allow the fictional to become once again the consequential? We suggest it rests in ignoring the writing manuals and the importance of description, for the possibilities available in the detail. This has nothing to do with length, just an acceptance that the nineteenth-century fascination with scene-setting shouldn't still be an obligation in the 21st. There ought to be a place for indirect style and we can find it in the shortest of stories by Borges, and in the longest of novels, Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Indirectness doesn't so much insist on brevity; it demands conciseness. When Proust offers numerous scenic examinations in his novel, this is quite different from a typical nineteenth-century work; what fascinates Proust is the extraction more than the description - the important detail that can open up time, whether it is the Madeline, the paving stone or the steeple of Combray. In this sense the pressure upon the novelist becomes much more pronounced: can they really justify detail over many pages if description is so often merely a pastiche of nineteenth-century form? Proust, of course, could, but like Hermann Broch, Robert Musil and to some degree Thomas Mann withThe Magic Mountain, the novelists draw on Proust's problem of time as detail, over space as description, to explore new possibilities in the novel.
Perhaps we are saying that Valenzuela couldn't do this in The Lizard's Tail, but could achieve it in the short story. Both 'The Envoy' and 'Desire Makes the Water Rise' create expansive possibilities in the form, rather than exhausting them with the novel. This expansive aspect is also present in both 'Symmetries' and 'Tango'. In both there is dialogue, but not quite the exteriority of the scene. In 'Symmetries', the story offers two time frames and two incidents. In the first in 1947, a colonel kills an ape after his wife would regularly visit the zoo. "She merely looks, but she puts her whole life into that gaze, her whole soul, she stretches out a long, long tentacle that reaches the silky fur of the ape and strokes it." In 1977 a woman is being tortured as the military try and find out various secrets; sometimes demands something more. "On the table, which is, in reality, a high couch covered with a metal sheet, on the rough cement floor, against the walls encrusted with blood, he makes love to the woman....and the smell of sex mingles with the other sickly smells of those who passed through there before and stayed there, forever spattered on the floor, the ceilings, the walls, the torture table." Valenzuela wonders through the character of Hector Bravo what draws the two historical moments together and sees it in control and impotence. Bravo is the narrative consciousness who functions as the narrative conscience, believing that "these two deaths help to tie up two loose ends in the myth, they close the circle." And what is this circle? "The ape and the woman on the now familiar table - as a result of having been so deeply loved, all they ever found was death", as "even the noblest feeling, Hector Bravo says to himself, can be transmuted and thus lose all nobility."
Is Argentinian politics incapable of respecting love; do successive governments destroy it? But isn't Argentina the country with the most loved political figure in modern history, Eva Peron, who plays a role in The Lizard's Tail, and where 2,500,000 attended her funeral. Valenzuela says "one mustn't forget that "Evita is alive in the souls of all Argentines" and that they've buried her thirty meters under to prevent fanatics from disinterring the body and carrying it off." (Review of Contemporary Fiction) Eva Peron was loved but in the same crazy way that the loved ones in 'Symmetries' are loved. This is not a love that would seem politically useful.
In 'Tango', love is sublimated into music - into Argentina's national dance. It seems people's personalities are submerged too. Each person melts into another's body as the music speaks for them and through them. The central character goes often but appears under a pseudonym, preferring to be called Sonia rather than Sandra: she feels the former is less romantic. The men have power in this environment, as they would seem to have in most areas of life in Argentina; indeed perhaps the tango is a personification of it. While Sandra hears "the stupid comments from men in the street, so obvious when compared to the obliqueness of the tango", in the dance hall she accepts the more formalised machismo as "the prevailing ethics don't allow me to back off" even though after a man asks her to dance "she like him less, he's older than I thought and rather offhand." "I stand up, he leads me to a rather remote corner of the dance floor, and he then actually speaks to me!" The woman knows her place but there would seem to be a comfort in subservience, perhaps an understanding that in this environment a man has power but at least the woman isn't unsafe. Instead of feeling scared there is a good chance she will feel rejected. The flip side of fearful powerlessness but powerlessness nevertheless. By the end of the stor, it looks like she might go home with him. But where? He is a widower living with two children who doesn't have much money. "I used to be able to afford to take a lady out for a meal in a restaurant and then back to the motel. Now all I can do is ask the lady is she has a flat somewhere central because I can just about afford chicken and a bottle of wine." She says she hasn't got a flat but lives in a boarding house in a nice area and, when she suggests white wine, he responds by saying he doesn't like it. There the dance ends and the story concludes.
What we find in many Valenzuela stories is love affiliated with power, and power abused in various ways by the presence of love or love abused by the presence of power. The parents in 'The Envoy' love their son but will kill others to return him to vitality. In 'Desire Makes the Water Rise', the bride refuses the groom: he has failed to get the hotel suite with a view she seeks and will thus withhold her body from him. In 'Symmetries' a man kills an ape out of what he would see as a love for his wife; he cannot countenance a suitor in any form. In 'Tango' the woman is a weak figure in an environment where a woman seeks affection and the man can easily instead offer rejection. In each, we sense power at play rather than love manifest, even in the fable-like 'Desire Makes the Water Rise'. Perhaps one reason why Valenzuela was drawn like Angela Carter to reimagining fairy tales (or what she calls Firytales) was to see power dynamics at work. In 'This is Life, I'm Red Riding Hood', 'You Can't Stop Progress' and '4 Princes 4', the tales are explored for their power dynamics. "This prince is practising the kiss that awakens. He knows this ability is unique and he would like to hone it to perfection He does not enjoy complete success. It doesn't matter: he's young and extremely good-looking, he has time." In 'If This is Life, I'm Red Riding Hood', the story concludes "I recognise her, I recognise him, I recognise me. And the mouth swallows and at last we are one. All nice and warm."
If Valenzuela's work is of interest it rests on managing to marry a Freudian interest in the Oedipal and the Id's unconscious drives, with a Foucauldian idea of power manifesting itself through the specifics of Argentina. In the most Freudian story, we have a variation of Oedipus: in 'Knife and Mother' the daughter notices her mother's beauty. "The child must have noticed many times before how beautiful her mother is, but this time she seems to notice with more intensity. And it hurts her." When arguing with her daughter, the mother reckons that her offspring wants to kill her: for the jewellery, for the house, or some other motive, and the daughter in time realises it is true: "she must have wanted to kill her then, when she was five years old, holding the symbolic knife in her hand..." But we also have an ongoing interest in the nature of power as a supposition rather than a given. Paul Rabinow comments on Foucault's interest in Nietzsche, utilising the German philosopher's claim that knowledge is "not an appropriation of universals, but an invention that masks the basest instincts, interests, desires and fears. There is no preestablished harmony of these drives and the world - just the contingent, temporary and malicious products of deceitful wills, striving for advantage, fighting for survival and engaged in a ceaseless effort to forcefully impose their will on each other." (Ethics)
We should not see political leaders as some kind of elect, nor adore them for the power they have over us. The idea of loving one's leader is rarely a good idea, and if many are resistant to the notion now of dictatorships after Hitler and Stalin, few are willing to allow the last residue of its manifestation - charisma - to go away. A politician must be charismatic, it is so often said, but there is no reason why: shouldn't they be there to implement policy decisions with effectiveness? Shouldn't they be more middle-management than Gods in chariots? Little seems to have been gained by Argentina's love of Eva Peron as politicians from Menem to the Kirschners have been caught in various scandals, and the idea of a military intervention often threatened and sometimes adopted, as in the sixties and again, horribly, in the seventies. Fellow Argentinian novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares reckoned according to an obituary writer that "his life was about fantasy because in a country where politics had everything to do with personal whim, fantasy was the only reality." (The Independent). Valenzuela, however, would insist that she is more logical than fantastic, or surrealist. "I think I am an absolutely logical writer," (Chasqui) Yet we have seen the achievement in stories like 'The Envoy' and 'Desire Makes the Water Rise' it is the blend of the realistic and the fantastic that makes her work interesting. It is this attempt to marry a logical, and at the same time left-wing, political position interested in power in various manifestations, with the surreal that make the stories in Symmetries both familiar and distinctive. She is clearly a figure writing out of the Boom, but the sound is not quite the same.
© Tony McKibbin