Burgundy Gelatin

Juan Emar, trans. Megan McDowell, Yesterday

Peirene Press, 144pp, £12.00, ISBN 9781908670656

reviewed by Jessica Sequeira

Do you remember what you did yesterday? At first there’s a blank, a slight panic. Then you let your mind relax. All is fog, but little by little, things start to come back. Not in order. A call with S in the afternoon, a flurry of WhatsApps with R. A quick lunch of rice and broad bean salad with fresh parsley and garlic. Some scattered reading in the morning — a few pages of a book, an article posted by an acquaintance — then in the evening, wine and a Simone Signoret flick, Ship of Fools. Like a paint-by-numbers, the details go filling in.

But of course, these are just events. You also felt different ways throughout the day — bored, frustrated, melancholy, happy, sexy, irritable, exhausted. Different moments seemed to move faster and slower. For ten minutes you looked at the roof tiles across the way, your mind wandering off into the black cracks and the lives of insects and cats and rats darting around the chimneys. For a couple of hours you hung out with B. For 30 minutes you punched and kicked along with an intense Brazilian exercise video. For three hours you stared at a screen, zonked out, thinking absolutely nothing that you can remember.

What else? For 20 minutes you scanned the news, your pulse racing as you looked at images of atrocities. For two hours you thought about M and her poet’s life in the last century, which you’re writing about, her rhymes — so unfashionable, no one uses those now — jiggering your brain into different rhythms. There’s no steady advancing time, even for those with a relatively uneventful lifestyle. Time is more like a painting, with different textures and areas of density.

This heady premise is behind the Chilean writer Juan Emar’s short novel Yesterday, originally published in 1935 and now available in an English translation from Peirene Press, which until now has only focused on books from Europe. Is the publisher expanding its notion of Europe to Latin America, or getting rid of the ‘Europe’ definition, so troublesome and unpindownable these days? The answer isn’t clear, but whatever the case, the move is welcome.

The year that Emar published Yesterday was a prolific one for him in Paris, where he was living; he also published the short novels Miltín 1935 and Un año, and his daughter was born. Juan (or Jean) Emar himself, née Álvaro Yáñez Bianchi, famously took his pseudonym from the French expression J’en ai marre, I’m fed up. He was an artist and art critic as well as a writer; for him, these activities formed an inseparable part of the same creative enterprise. As a critic Emar wrote with panache, about his contemporaries’ artistic practices, mingling lyricism with satire. He was also a founder of the Grupo Montparnasse, a modernist collective of Chilean artists living in Paris, openly against academic and naturalist painting and in favour of imaginative ideas in dialogue with the European avant-gardes.

Emar’s paintings and drawings in Paris feature colourful, theatrical, grotesque, cartoonish designs, with unidentifiable animals and unusual architectures. Metamorphoses are constant: in one drawing, a creature with a man’s torso and a beast’s body shoots four arrows from its head toward a sun, cloud, group of pelicans, and machine that spits out musical notes and letters of the alphabet. In another series, a gentleman has first two hats, then an excessively large nose. In yet another, lovers’ bodies merge into one other. In Yesterday, Emar uses techniques that parallel those in his art, reworking and transforming images from daily life into creations of the imagination, and overlapping, reordering and framing his anecdotes.

A few anecdotes are at the heart of Yesterday, which the narrator helpfully sums up:

I had begun with the guillotine, the guillotine which led to the zoo, which led to lunch, which led to Rubén de Loa’s studio, which led to the waiting room and the square, which led to dinner, which led to my family’s house, which led to the tavern, which led to the pisser, which led to the hole and the fly that tore time in two and illuminated everything.

After witnessing a criminal’s execution in the morning, the narrator goes about his day. But things aren’t as clear as a linear chronology would suggest. The day itself becomes a work of art, with the tiniest details taking on overblown significance, and events of greater violence narrated in a deadpan tone. Proportions apply to time just as they do to painterly colours. Violence can be kept in place if highly stylised, with the right quantities and measurements. If not ordered in this way, it risks breaking out from theory, to become a chaotic and real possibility. This is true for both the public square and the canvas:

I should explain. Rubén de Loa’s theory on complements is doubtless very true; that is to say, in order for balance to be maintained and, consequently, for that which exists to exist, there must be — limiting ourselves to the case in point — for every amount of green produced, an equal amount of red, and vice versa, for every amount of red, an equal amount of green. And so on for all the domains of nature and the universe, since, were it otherwise, as we have said, all would be chaos. But let us keep within the limits we have set.

The narrator warns his artist friend that he’s at risk of coordinating the colours in his canvas with the bloodshed of the real world. Rubén de Loa himself confirms that this might happen, with his rant against the bourgeoisie: ‘I will crush them, grind them up, tear their insides to pieces so as to extract and expel all the reds of their blood.’ But this kind of mixing is precisely the opposite of what Emar’s narrator, a good bourgeois going about town with his wife, wishes to do. He doesn’t want to conflate art and life; he wants to keep his art within a frame, an outline.

Throughout Yesterday, the bourgeois ability to step away and leave the scene if it gets out of hand is of key importance. Each anecdote ends with the narrator saying to his wife: ‘Let’s go.’ And off they scoot, to the next adventure or lucuma fruit with cream dessert. The bourgeois can trace outlines, mark off and delimit without being restricted by context. This ability to see from the outside is what allows for criticism, literature and art to exist, while those stuck within the scene become objects or pawns.

Yesterday can thus be read as a tongue-in-cheek defence of the artistic bourgeoisie, to which Emar himself belonged. Today, such an angle makes for provocative reading. But even if one does have the luxury and the nerve to lark about in blithe disregard of social politics, there’s one anguish that can’t so easily be walked away from — the mind. In this novel, Emar beautifully dissociates the ‘I’ from the moments in time perceived by the self. Time is treated as a kind of body. Just as the surrealists played at viewing objects in an estranged way, Emar applies this to memory, not some distant Proustian time, but just the day before. What happened yesterday has as many angles, and can be just as weird, as a fur teacup or sickly childhood.

Enter the gelatinous and burgundy-coloured. The narrator suffers from a recurring anguish about these qualities, about a wobbly material of life lacking firm shape and being. The narrator can’t bear even to look behind a sofa in his family home, since: ‘I could find no definitive argument proving it was impossible for there to be something gelatinous, burgundy-coloured and well supplied with legs behind that sofa.’ In the studio he had spoken of ‘invisible greens’ on the canvas; now unseen possibilities lurk in the space of reality, mysterious and unstable. In a panic later, the author calls for his wife and asks her to draw his body, shutting its burgundy gelatin into an outline.

The same applies to time. A moment of anxious ecstasy arrives as the narrator pisses into a urinal, in a circle. When a fly lands, he realises that he must choose either to continue pissing in an orderly circle, or kill the insect. The knowledge of such diverging timelines challenges his clear sense of self and chronology. In this moment of ‘glory’, everything in his mind gets jumbled into a cosmic horror of infinite courses of action. Faced with excess information, the mind tends toward over-analysis. The only way to control it is to draw a shape that bounds it, to create an outline for the past that contains it — in other words, to write a book called Yesterday.

Notably, the book ends with sleep, the moment when the mind embarks on amnesia, starting upon the necessary process of selective forgetting. Every 24 hours, we reset. Any genuine pain would persist beyond a single day, of course, and extremely painful episodes are burnt into the memory. But most surface events, even cruelty and violence if they are performed against others rather than oneself, can be forgotten. And here, perhaps, is Emar’s internal critique — as a bourgeois — of the bourgeoisie. They are happy to live lightly and on the surface as amnesiacs, and enjoy cruelty in art, literature and life so long as it doesn’t get too close to them.

Yesterday is introduced by Alejandro Zambra, the most well-known contemporary exponent of middle class Chilean fiction, and the ideal interlocutor with Emar’s artistic bourgeois tradition. Zambra reflects on the fascination that Emar held for him and his generation at university, without necessarily reflecting on why this might have been so. The danger with Emar’s writing is to present him as a whimsical, eccentric, avant-gardist overlooking the darkness, danger and sinister elements of his work. Zambra nearly does so when he dismisses Pablo Neruda’s comparison of Emar to Kafka as ‘pretty haphazard’; while comparisons are always random to an extent, Neruda was attempting to signal this aspect of the work. Further discussion of Emar’s artistic work and context would also have been welcome, since resurrecting classics from the past, across languages, can be needlessly disorientating. As it stands, though, Zambra’s less historical and more personal take, thoughtful and engaging, serves as a very helpful way into the book from today’s perspective.

To start on the novel would be more daunting without it, since the prose of the work itself not only belongs to ‘yesterday’, but also replicates the overthinking narrator’s lengthy clauses upon clauses. Translating dead authors into the contemporary context requires a double carrying across, in both time and language. That the book reads as deftly as it does, with such suppleness, is in large part thanks to translator Megan McDowell. She preserves the slight formality and dated language of the period, which give events their strangeness, but underneath it is the vital current of her and Emar’s combined inventiveness. I hope that we can read more work by Emar in her words, in coming years.

It occurs to me, too, that the way Emar sketches perceptions of the world as vague, foggy and gelatinous, before they are transformed into art, is remarkably similar to the way that doing a translation  often works — an initial fog of words passes from one language to another, which then sharpens and grows more precise as it is edited, rewritten and solidified into new form. Overall, Emar’s notion that senses, feelings, affections, fantasies, intuitions and other forms of experiential knowledge precede the reason and imagination that process such sense data is a fascinating one. This cumulus of attitudes toward writing could well drift into the vector of our own time.

The great project of Emar’s own last days was Umbral, or Threshold, a giant work of some six or seven thousand pages. To fully enter into the work would itself be a profound crossing over, requiring one to leave daily existence and strike out into a different reality. I wonder whether this project was the opposite of the bourgeois art-making and amnesia portrayed in Yesterday, and if so, whether Emar aimed not to forget or not to be forgotten. Whatever the case, its proliferation and sprawl is the opposite of a neat outline. In Emar’s early drawings, men and animals fuse; by the end of his life, the author’s works had begun their own deliquescence, melting away into art, death and gelatinous time, which will perhaps set into the literature of tomorrow.

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and literary translator. Her books include A Luminous History of the Palm, A Furious Oyster and Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age.