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"Op Oloop" by Juan Filloy [BTBA 2010 Fiction Longlist]

Over the next nine days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.

Op Oloop by Juan Filloy. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman. (Argentina, Dalkey Archive)

I waited years for this book to come out. Years. Back in the early 2000s I went on an editors trip to Germany that was organized by the wonderful Riky Stock and included stops in Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt. During one of these visits (my memory! I assume now that I’ve been in publishing for 10 years, I can start forgetting some details, right?) I met with the guys from Tropen Verlag, who not only were super-cool, but told me that rather than pimp any of their German authors, the one person I needed to pay attention to was a semi-obscure Argentine author named Juan Filloy.

Once I got back to the States, I started looking into Filloy and this handful of facts convinced me that no matter what, we (re: Dalkey Archive) had to publish him:

  • He lived in three centuries—born in the nineteenth, and passing away in 2000 at the age of 106;
  • Julio Cortazar loved him, and references Filloy’s Caterva in chapter 108 of Hopscotch;
  • Freud was a fan of Op Oloop, which led to a personal correspondence between the two;
  • Filloy was a lover of palindromes and wrote over 6,000;
  • and, not to be overlooked, almost all fifty-plus of his novels and collections of poems have seven-letter titles. (Op Oloop, Caterva, Vil y Vil, so on and so forth.)

The plot of Op Oloop is pretty simple: it chronicles the final day and night in the life of its titular character, Op Oloop, a Finnish transplant in Buenos Aires who is recently engaged to Franziska, the Finnish consul’s niece. As he likes to state, Op Oloop is a “man of method,” a statistician who lives his life in a very orderly, pre-arranged way.

Thus, Op Oloop was convinced yet again that it was simply impossible for him to act contrary to his nature. “SUNDAY: WRITING, BETWEEN 7:00 AND 10:00 A.M.” That was the rule. When life is as ordered as a mathematical equation, you can’t just skip a digit whenever you feel like it. Op Oloop was entirely incapable of any impromptu act that might violate the pre-established norms of his routine; even such a trivial, graphical set such as addressing an envelope he’d already begun while still within the allotted time.

It’s clear from the start that Op Oloop isn’t all there—his speech to the employees at his local spa about the need to unite on tipping and form a “Gratuity International” is proof enough—but on this particular day, things go from bad to worse, as Op’s “method” is thwarted and he can’t regain his sense of order.

Filloy’s protagonist is a step beyond eccentric, and Lisa Dillman’s ability to capture his peculiar speech, wordplay, and insanity is quite impressive. This is especially true in the lengthy section detailing Op Oloop’s special dinner with his friends (in preparation for him to sleep with his 1,000th prostitute—a situation that doesn’t go according to plan and is the final nail that breaks Op’s mind). This dinner is the section of the book that seems most Cortazar-like (Hopscotch is filthy with groups of characters bantering and making statements about Argentina and its people), although Filloy’s not quite as tight and witty and fluid as Cortazar (who is?).

“In Hollywood, everyone knows the caloric value of everything. Just as they all aspire unanimously to stardom, they’re all equally fanatical about being tres mince rather than overweight. Truly, there’s a veritable obsession with fat. Dieting forces them all to undertake endless calculations and combinations. All portions are measured on a basis of one-hundred-calorie units. For example, one hundred calories equals: a tablespoon of honey, or two mandarin oranges, or four dates, or twenty asparagus tips, or a quarter-inch thick steak measuring five inches long and two and a half inches wide . . .”

“So you must’ve gone round with tape measures, eyedroppers, and scales . . .”

“It’s not a joke. You know, I’ve noticed that Argentines in general tend to be quite sarcastic, yet they’re entirely lacking in humor deep down. They make fun of everything in particular, and yet as a nation are all unanimously dull. It’s truly incongruous!”

As the novel lurches from scene to scene, Filloy creates an interesting account of one man’s mental breakdown. With the exception of what happens at the whorehouse, most of the underlying motivations for his breakdown are mysterious, summed up by the idea that he’s “method personified.” A more conventional book would delve into this issue, maybe explain how the hell he ended up with Franziska in the first place, etc., etc., but this isn’t a conventional book. Which is why it’s on the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist . . .



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