by Josh Billings
Dalkey Archive Press, 900pp, ISBN 9781628973983, $29.95
Asked in a 1976 television interview what he thought of the contemporary Spanish novel, the Peruvian author and future Nobel Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa responded by mentioning three writers: Juan Benet, Juan Marse, and the younger, less-known Luis Goytisolo, the first volume of whose tetralogy Antagony Vargas Llosa singled out in the hushed tones of a newscaster describing an approaching asteroid:
There is a very interesting novel, by Luis Goytisolo, published in Mexico, which I believe is currently circulating here . . . it is one of the most ambitious recent novels in the Spanish language, a novel of Barcelona, which treats the city as a history, a problematic, a myth. I believe it is a truly, truly ambitious novel.
Vague though it is, Vargas Llosa’s description is also excited in a way that is unusual for an interview about fiction. In fiction, true swings-for-the-fences are rare, and bewildering when they do appear; and yet, as Vargas Llosa’s comments remind us, such sui generis monsters can offer us a unique opportunity to think about judgments and categorisations that we would have otherwise taken for granted. For this reason, the appearance of Antagony in English, almost half a century after its original publication, is good news for readers hoping to expand their definitions of what a novel is and can do. The long delay before any translation of it appeared has as much to do, no doubt, with the blatantly unmagical nature of the reality it examines (life under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco) as with its relentless formal experimentation. Nevertheless, it is a difficult novel, one that treats history as a dream from which one can only awaken by a relentless and ruthless dissection of storytelling itself.
Actually, it is four novels, each of which describes some aspect of the life and work of the tetralogy’s main character, a young Catalonian-Spanish writer named Raul Ferrer Gaminde. The first book, Recounting, focuses on Raul’s childhood and youth, his family’s country estate, and his gradual radicalisation as a member of the communist party in Barcelona. The second, The Greens of May Down to the Sea, is a Rabelaisian romp that shows the unraveling of Raul’s life with his new wife against the backdrop of the dissolute seaside town of Las Rosas. The third, and most straightforward volume in the series, The Wrath of Achilles, is the first-person narrative of Raul’s cousin, Matilde Moret, a magnetic egotist and writer of a novel about partisans in World War II-era France, long sections of which appear here. The fourth volume — the novel Raul himself has been working on for years, which the three preceding sections have hinted is the key to the entire book — fragments into a series of shorter, nesting-doll reflections on the activity of writing, and on the particular meaning and value of the Antagony project as a whole.
Even after a brief summary like this, it should be clear that one of the main points of Antagony is that our descriptions are never as effective as we wish. The vital parts of experience dissolve as soon as words touch them, abandoned, like a just-shed animal skin — which means that, no matter how disappointed we may be by our storytelling techniques, we are always looking for a way to apply them to our experience, even when our understanding of that experience is confused and partial. In the scene that opens Recounting, for example, Goytisolo gives us a situation that is clearly supposed to be dramatic, but which he renders in a way that feels dry and even a little funny:
Ramona wound up the gramophone and put on a record, but Aunt Paquita immediately removed it, making the needle scratch. Once set in motion, the gramophone couldn’t be stopped and the turntable kept on spinning until the spring wound down. They were all there in the front part of the house, in the drawing room, with the shutters half-closed. Whispering, Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. The dining room, by contrast, gave onto the back porch, where there was plenty of light. La Quilda was with her family, downstairs on the first floor, and Felipe said that they had used their mattresses to cover the windows.
The event that this passage is about — an incursion of troops into the Gaminde country estate — is the same kind of backlit trauma that has initiated historical novels since Gone with the Wind. But what makes Goytisolo’s presentation effective is the way that it focuses on the tiny futilities often left out of fictional disasters. It ignores the tossed brick for the splintering glass; but what is shattered here — what comes apart, and tries slowly to reassemble itself — is the life of the community itself. The Spanish Civil War takes place mostly in the background, though its muted representation makes its power over the huddled family feel all the more ominous.
Goytisolo’s technique of narrating around his subject constructing his novel in a way both digressive and accumulative, extends across all four of Antagony’s books. Its ostensible center is Raul himself, whose appearance and psychology are described in passing, as if he were an extra, rather than the hero of the story. In many sections, he doesn’t appear at all, or does so only as an implied observer of the action — a fact that creates room in the narrative for the direct presentation of his artistic process and development. The scene of the novel shifts, moving from the world of events to the constantly-shifting borderland where the real world and the author’s mind meet. So, as it continues, the story of Antagony begins to fork into two stories: a straightforward description of a young man’s life, and an increasingly theory-laced exploration of what it means to turn that life into a story. The two levels complement each other, for even at their most impenetrable, the notebook-like passages about Raul’s work in progress feel like a necessary part of him — in the same way that the fierce, bomb-planting plot of Recounting begins to feel more and more like the inevitable result of Raul’s inner convictions.
This is not to say that the world outside the writer’s head loses its vividness as self-reflection seeps into the narrative. On the contrary, in Antagony’s second volume, The Greens of May Down to the Sea, artistic ambition and the dissatisfactions of married life shift Raul’s attention towards the carnivalesque antics of his peers, pushing the book’s language to a grotesque pitch that can be as mesmerising as it is exhausting. In one beautiful section, a mass of coupling party-goers transforms into both a ship and a gigantic human body, dissolving into Fellini-esque shudders:
And then, like a wooden doll, or like that little tin soldier which, fleeing from a rat, is gulped down by a fish and only in its entrails will it return to the fire of lost love, then you find yourself trying to sit up inside the fish’s mouth, crawling, groping on all fours along that moving, palpitating terrain, swept to and fro now and then by sudden surges of water, while your eyes adjust to the faint green light that glows through those venerable barbels, florid with marine vegetation, shelter of phlegmatic mollusks and solitary hermit crabs, and so, though still groping on all fours, you can move forward in search of a safer spot, one less unstable, between the silvery ballooning shoals of small fishes and the calm swaying of the other shipwrecks, under the palate’s dark vault shaped like an inverted keel, using the spasmodic movements of the epiglottis as a reference point and, the throat now behind, continue moving forward, passing through the series of inner spaces, one after another, esophagus, stomach, intestine, evermore blindly, until reaching the comfortable widening of the rectum, waiting to be expelled by a discharge from the sphincter, that diarrhea that you hear rushing from afar like a depth charge and which, like an explosion, surges outward with a violence and velocity comparable only to Attila and his galloping host answering the call of Gudrun in her vengeance, in her anxiety to exterminate that moves her against the traitor Hagen; that empty inner space, that release of dead weight, that purgative phase, purifying, prior condition, inexcusable, of all ascensional process or of one of those trips that start off so carefree — like a creator setting his new world in motion — and which ends so tragically, like the echo of a flute before the cornered, terminal coasts. . .
In its luridness and metastatic flailing, this sentence is a far cry from Antagony’s careful opening. But a similar impulse powers it. It tries to describe everything, while at the same time leaving the main thing undescribed. The you, the addressee — Raul, but also us — hops from fairy tale to natural history to medical tract, searching for a form capable of encompassing such breakneck permutations. Meanwhile the longed-for ‘empty inner space’ slides by like a whale under a boat, terminating in an undefined, but still very real tragedy.
Taking into account both metaphysical despair and the functional disaster of growing up in fascist Spain, Goytisolo arrives at the somewhat paradoxical conclusion that life outside of a story is meaningless, but that the old ways of writing have to be destroyed, if only so that the gesture of bestowing significance on life through writing can be preserved. Narrative truth is not something the writer stumbles over; on the contrary, it’s a process — one that easily takes on monstrous dimensions. As Raul reflects in his notebook:
A work also susceptible of being converted, in the hands of an imprudent author, into an authentic shroud such as Penelope wove, and not so much because he unravels by night what he wrote by day, as much as because, like a Penelope imprisoned by the thread that enwraps and enwraps her as she weaves it, thus, what that unhappy author had proposed as a concrete and delimited goal might well begin to expand and increase in detail, to spread and branch out and split into installments, to the point where very soon in his life the temporary periods will seem to stretch out and the destination points will grow more distant, everything seeming to be just a little further and a little bit later each day, his body progressively immobilized by his own weaving that covers it, the retiarius entangled in the mesh of his own net.
Goytisolo understands that the danger in writing is not that the boundary between life and art will become too impermeable, but that it will disappear completely. Possessed by the youthful urge to say exactly how it is, the sentence will spiral on forever, hoping to get to the heart of the matter when in fact it is descending into the kind of dream that means nothing to anyone, not even to the dreamer himself.
This descent lies at the core of the contrapuntal third volume of Antagony, The Wrath of Achilles, whose first-person narrator, the domineering Matilde Moret, is anchored in her story with a solidity that the cannier Raul never displays. An unashamed aristocrat, Matilde prides herself on telling things like they are, no matter how unflattering her conclusions may be. She epitomises a certain kind of ‘Spanish temper’: a sun-bleached, self-possessed rejection of unnecessary ornament. Her ready emphasis on age, sex, ego, and other recognisably human embarrassments is both refreshing and surprisingly moral-sounding, having been hard-won in a civilisation that would prefer woman to keep their thoughts to themselves). ‘When I was young, or should I say, when I was around twenty years old instead of around forty, I had all kinds of experiences,’ she says. ‘And I’ve never stopped having them ever since. That’s why I can talk the way I do. Because — and not only the first time I lived in Paris — I’ve tried everything.’
As befits an intellectual and ambitious member of her class, ‘everything’ includes writing a novel — one whose lukewarm critical reception is a frequent lament of Matilde’s first-person monologue. ‘My famous unassailable defenses, the excessive camouflage,’ she calls it, reflecting on her disappointment years after the fact with an obsessiveness that any writer will recognise. ‘The work may or may not please, but from a strictly literary point of view my objective is — from my point of view — fully achieved: that the reader end up not conceding any credit whatsoever to Lucia, that when she says something, the reader tends to believe exactly the opposite.’ Matilde’s goal in these recapitulations, then — for all her aristocratic flourishes — is a pragmatic one: to convince and even seduce the reader, as so many other unreliable narrators have done over the course of the 20th century.
In falling prey to her charismatic analyses, it is impossible to ignore the contrast between Matilde’s own reductive ‘objectives’, and the more expansive novel she exists in — a book whose entire point appears to be to deprive its sexually adventurous and curious central character of the very freedom she herself enjoys in The Wrath of Achilles. This is the freedom to be both right and wrong, guilty and innocent, free and doomed: a freedom that, even if it is ultimately illusory, is frequently acknowledged as a critical one in fiction, no matter how we may feel about it in life.
At the end of the day, the view of fiction that Matilde professes in The Wrath of Achilles is nothing less than what we’d expect from an ensconced member of a ruling class, who sees truth as, above all else, an extension of her own will. Her writing looks down on her characters and critics in the same way that her chic apartment balcony looks down on the roofs of the rundown apartments below, investing her fiction, if not her character, with a note of falsehood at odds with the messiness of reality, the portrayal of which demands, Goytisolo’s larger novel suggests, a cession of control over the determinants of meaning in characters’ lives. Letting the story go, we let it be.
It is worth pausing to consider some of the implications that Antagony’s cross-cutting ironies are making about its own genre. The modernist novel has long embraced a writer-as-monk mythology tradition whose foundational virtue was not beauty or even genius, but control. We can see this iron-fist impulse in Flaubert, Joyce, Hemingway, Nabokov, not to mention hundreds of MFA graduates fetishising the well-wrought sentence. In contrast to this impulse, Antagony reminds us constantly that precision often demands indirection — an abandonment of the pretence to mastery for a more frightening and fruitful aesthetics of loss, partiality or exposure. Such a recognition — of the limits of writing, and of the the artist as someone who must necessarily cleave to those limits — is what we begin to come around to by the end of The Wrath of Achilles, the arid perfection of which reveals exactly that is missing from Matilde’s world of masters and mastered. This is the imperfection that all her plotting and psychology and histrionics leaves out: a roomy but very human capacity for contradiction and ambiguity, which saves the novel from becoming a mere game in which the players participate only because they lack the option of walking away.
Matilde’s notion of the novel is a corpse — but what would a living novel look likeAn answer to this question seems to appear final volume, The Theory of Knowledge, which unfolds across two hundred essayistic pages that give the impression of sustained anticlimax, while still fitting solidly into Antagony’s larger framework. After all, if one of the most convincing effects of the narrative thus far has been to shift readers’ attention towards fiction’s more ‘inconsequential’ elements, then it makes sense for the book to end in a kind of dwindling persistence, a shabbiness reminiscent of a ‘making-of’ documentary in which the trail-blazing director realises at last that he does not have enough money to pay his crew:
No: I mean the irrefutable presence of the author in the act of writing the work, subject to the influences that swoop down upon him in this precise moment, to the apparent chance that leads him to introduce new, unforeseen elements into the initial plan, perhaps because the very dynamic of the work demands it, perhaps because of the suggestions that dynamic triggers beneath the levels of awareness — the mischief of our crafty sculptor as he picks away at the stone of the capitals — perhaps as a response to an incitement from the world at large, the world which our author treads in the moment of writing the work, imposition not from the text but from the context.
Reticent though this may be, it is true to the act of writing as it is conceived of in Antagony. It offers us a poetics of contingency that transforms the writer from executor of a pre-approved blueprint to an improviser — one who, to paraphrase Emerson, does not act, but is acted upon. In this way, it reimagines writing and reading as acts that must remain vigilant to avoid collapse into nostalgia, into a longing to see stories as escapism. Antagony’s failures are its successes, and its most lasting effect is to convince us of how much stories can’t do, and how much we must therefore do with them.