Javier Calvo's "The Hanging Garden"
Javier Calvo—the author of Wonderful World which was published by HarperCollins a couple years ago—is in the States for a few events, including this one with Edith Grossman that’s taking place on Saturday at McNally Jackson in New York.
To mark this, and to bring attention to an interesting young Spanish author, we got Jesse Barker from SUNY Albany to write up this piece about Javier’s works, mostly focusing on The Hanging Garden his latest novel. (Which has yet to be translated into English.)
Over the last decade a quiet boom has been occurring in Spanish narrative. In an age of conglomerated publishing houses and fascination with new media, the novel is alive and well in Spain, with a host of new authors pushing the boundaries of fictional form to describe the contours of the twenty-first century. One of the most prominent of these writers is Javier Calvo, whose latest work The Hanging Garden (2012) continues his intriguing evolution as a novelist.
Calvo’s first books—the short story collection Canned Laughter (2001) and the novel The Reflecting God (2003)—had a considerable impact in Spain and earned him a reputation as an ultramodern writer, both experimental and highly attuned to pop culture. While the influence of American authors like David Foster Wallace and Chuck Palahniuk (both of whom Calvo himself has translated into Spanish) was evident, it did not overshadow what was from the beginning a unique narrative voice.
The stories in Calvo’s fiction are developed through short and intricately constructed scenes. Brief moments in time are described with striking visual details and metaphors, which accentuate the particularities of his eccentric characters or the absurdity of situations. Take, for example, the following passage from The Hanging Garden, where he describes his protagonist Teo Barbosa at the meeting of a revolutionary left-wing group in a neighborhood church:
Everyone present has that slightly ridiculous look that adults always have when they sit at child-size desks, but in Barbosa’s case—since he’s two or three heads taller than the others—the impression is particularly dramatic. With his extra-long arms and legs protruding grotesquely from the desk, Barbosa looks like he’s gotten himself snared at waist-height in some sort of experimentally designed trap.
[Todos los presentes tienen ese aspecto vagamente ridículo que les queda siempre a los adultos cuando se sientan en pupitres infantiles, pero en el caso de Barbosa, que les saca dos o tres palmos de altura a los demás, la impresión es especialmente dramática. Con los brazos y las piernas larguísimos sobresaliendo grotescamente del pupitre, Barbosa tiene aspecto de haberse quedado atrapado a la altura de la cintura por alguna clase de cepo de diseño experimental] (21).
Just as the ridiculously tall Barbosa is here trapped in his ridiculously small desk, Calvo’s characters seem propelled by innate physical and psychological qualities towards playing certain social roles, carrying out certain extreme behaviors and fulfilling certain (often tragic) destinies. These personalities are revealed through a visual narrative reminiscent of films and comic books, but the narrator’s voice is constantly highlighted through elaborate and fanciful metaphors like the one seen in the quote above.
In contrast to this emphasis on surface images, Calvo’s fictions are also constructed around profound allegorical meanings, often intentionally shrouded in mystery and contradiction. This aspect became more evident in the short story collection The Lost Rivers of London (2005), which revealed a growing interest in myth and pagan magic. Characters are consumed by their obsessions with ancient deities or contemporary pop figures, which act as totems providing access to millennial energies, represented by the lost subterranean rivers of the book’s title. In metafictional asides, the narrators present the stories themselves as magical incantations unleashing powerful forces. The satirical surfaces of this author’s works are thus configured as components of a complex structure aimed at penetrating the depths of cultural and spiritual dynamics.
Calvo’s latest three novels—Wonderful World (2008), Crown of Flowers (2010) and finally The Hanging Garden—show a progressive mastery of these different levels. The stories take place, respectively, in a modern day hyper-consumerist Barcelona, a Dickensish nineteenth-century Barcelona and a 1970s Barcelona immersed in Spain’s transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy. For a dedicated Calvo reader it is fascinating to see how his peculiar narrative lens shifts between such different time periods and yet retains his characteristic style and themes, which are increasingly integrated into a sublime vision of human psychology and society. If the long choral novel Wonderful World (thus far the only one of Calvo’s books available in English) seemed a culmination of his earlier literary exeriments, the others turn his lens onto two important historical periods in Barcelona: the arrival of industrial modernity and the arrival of consumer-driven postmodernity.
While initially surprising within Calvo’s trajectory, these historical focuses serve to dig deeper into the demons that have always fueled the author’s work. Crown of Flowers shows a repressive state and economic apparatus that tears down Barcelona’s medieval wall and, along with it, the ancient spirit of the place and its people. Residues of this spirit, however, persist underground in the obsessions of a mad scientist and a violent sect of orphaned children guided by a mysterious leader, both of which maintain ambiguous connections to the very power elites that seek to dominate the city.
The Hanging Garden represents a sharper departure from previous works. First of all, Spain’s conversion into a democratic state—known within the country as the Transition—invokes a more explicitly political subject matter, as this period of Spanish history is inevitably a source of controversy. Some hold up the process as a model political transition, with no bloodshed and a quickly achieved widespread consensus. Others criticize the amnesty and “pact of silence” about the dictatorship’s crimes. In a broader cultural sense, the Transition is an accelerated version of processes occurring throughout the Western world since the end of World War II: globalization, de-industrialization, the loss of ideological certainty and the ascendance of media-driven consumerism. Thus Spain’s celebration of new political and social freedoms was quickly tainted by the social fragmentation that characterizes contemporary society.
The Hanging Garden addresses both political and cultural aspects of the Transition. On one level it is a political thriller centered on the struggle between the government and a fictional revolutionary group, complete with terrorist acts, double agents and espionage romance. The novel portrays the transition between a security apparatus dominated by the dictatorship’s army to the more subtle and pervasive secret service working behind the scenes of modern democracies. It also exposes the gaps between the priority of maintaining power that guides democratic governments and their stated goal of serving the interests of the people.
On another level the novel represents the societal upheaval of Spain’s Transition and functions as a chilling allegory of the cultural order inaugurated in the era. A meteorite fallen in the Catalonian countryside shortly before the beginning of the story covers Barcelona in dust and causes extreme weather patterns. Teo Barbosa maintains ambivalent relationships with both the left wing extremists and the secret service, too skeptical and sarcastic to fit comfortably on either side. His only sincere passion seems to lie with Sara Arta, the fellow revolutionary with whom he shares long nights at the “Bar Texas” and her studio apartment, filled with sex, drugs, alcohol and the pre-punk wailings of Patty Smith. It is impossible to know where Barbosa’s true feelings lie, however, both for the reader and ultimately for himself. His intellectual and existential disorientation is indicative of a society where the real is disintegrating. Sara Arta’s aesthetic transformation from pale-faced, dark-eyeshadow art student to nihilist punk is also representative of the times. As the narrator declares more than once, in 1977 Spain the past is quickly fading and, consequently, so is the future.
On the other side of the equation is Arístedes Lao, the mathematical genius that works for the secret service and is apparently devoid of human feelings. Instantly repulsive to all who meet him, Lao has a gift for analyzing the human psyche and complex social dynamics. Like many of Calvo’s characters, Lao begins as a comic caricature but acquires a profound symbolic importance in the novel. His computer-like mind engineers the different pieces of the human jigsaw in the story, producing an apocalyptic ending that reduces the potentially subversive elements to impotence and desperation.
Words like allegory and representation fall short of describing The Hanging Garden_’s depiction of reality. While the specific subject of the novel may be the Spanish Transition, the reader is taken along a journey, both mythical and ironic, to the heart of a global cultural/political/economic order that appeared invincible until recent financial meltdowns and protest movements. _The Hanging Garden is a brilliant and captivating novel that confirms Javier Calvo’s enormous talent.
Although The Hanging Garden isn’t yet available in English, you can buy Wonderful World which is now available in paperback from HarperCollins and translated by Mara Lethem. And with a little luck, we’ll have a full review of this up by the end of next week.