Spain vs. Australia [World Cup of Literature: First Round]
In the year 2010, seventeen years after I stopped watching soccer, I wrote a paean to Your Face Tomorrow, claiming that “here’s the wonderfully parenthetical operations of a human mind in the 21th century,” a phrase that later became a blurb in Spanish for Your Face Tomorrow, which must have flattered fleetingly me since I’m a frail human desperate for meaning, although the translation from “wonderfully parenthetical” to “maravillosamente parentéticas” must have shorn a few branches from my twig of meaning because I would have been embarrassed if any native Spanish speakers heard me say anything like “maravillosamente parentéticas,” in any case the parenthetical mind of Jacques Deza, the narrator of Your Face Tomorrow, a mind that doesn’t pay much attention to itself because “he’s given up understanding himself,” shares its wonderful operations with us throughout 1,232 pages, during a period in Deza’s life when he was delivering conjectural character reports for the British Secret Intelligence Service and was estranged from his wife Luisa.
Looking back at the passages from Your Face Tomorrow that I transcribed to my sketchbook in preparation for writing my paean to Your Face Tomorrow, I’m not surprised I transcribed so many passages supporting my partisan fervor for digressions—“digression is secular revelation,” Adam Phillips wrote—especially when they were written by a Spaniard who translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish, and out of this abundance of partisan passages there’s one from Volume II that I starred as most significant because, according to me, it summarizes the kind of fiction Javier Marias seems interested in composing, so here’s that starred passage in which Deza’s in the women’s bathroom at a nightclub, searching for the wife of a client:
[I] had lost sight of my mission, it had simply got mixed up with a few other things: lines of poetry, images and inherited memories as well as a story, none of which managed to fill my mind entirely, because none was particularly pressing, but they were all floating around in there, perhaps waiting to be picked up later by idle thought—that is, by thought at its most active—at the end of the day, when I finally went to bed.
Since the year 2010, I’ve often shared in conversation with my so-called friends two passages from Your Face Tomorrow: (1) Luisa telling Jacques please let’s not live together ever again; (2) “[O]ne never experiences genuine self-disgust, and it’s that inability that makes us capable of doing almost anything.”
(1) The anxiety about domestic life deadening human life, an anxiety featured in many pages of Javier Marias’s A Heart So White, often surfaces in conversation among those who are no longer young enough to playact at wanting so-called meaningful relationships, and what I like to share with my so-called friends who are seeking so-called meaningful relationships, as a sort of literary relationship advice, is something like look there’s this 1,232-page novel in which, at the beginning, the narrator is estranged from his wife, and, toward the end, when they reconcile at last (and here I exclude any mention of Deza assaulting Luisa’s new lover with a sword and telling him to get out of town or else), the wife says to the husband please let’s not live together ever again.
(2) Given the vast gap between our imperfections and our expectations of reasonable perfection, the question of how could we have possibly performed Sin A / Sin B, plus the question of how could we have possibly not known we were going to perform Sin A / Sin B, become central questions in (some) of our lives, or at a minimum we retrofit these central questions around our past Sins A / B, and in the case of Your Face Tomorrow (some of) the central questions that Deza contemplates are how could have Deza’s father best friend betrayed Deza’s father? “How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing?” How could I have not known I was going to assault my wife’s lover with a sword so I could get back together with her?
Arbitro ladrón, my high school friends and I would scream at the referee as we watched the Ecuadorian national soccer team miss yet another opportunity to qualify for the World Cup for the first time, arbitro conchaetumadre, heaping our juvenile arsenal of insults on the referee because one of our obvious consolations, the consolation of the often defeated, I suppose, revolved around placing the blame for our loss on the rigged ref.
Will I turn out to be a rigged ref because I come from a small, often defeated country? Does it make a difference that, since I left Ecuador in 1993, the Ecuadorian national soccer team has qualified for the World Cup three times?
If you come across a new genre, do you raise your hand?
Gerald Murnane has invented a new genre: fiction as “remembered imaginings,” mind as place (“The far parts of my mind,” Gerald Murnane wrote in a letter to Teju Cole published in Issue 3 of Music & Literature, a literary journal that publishes more of my favorite artists per page than any other literary journal, “hold for me the same sort of interest that far countries probably hold for travelers”).
Imagine “a far-reaching and varied landscape” that contains memories of characters from books, of imaginary racehorses and racecourses, in other words imagine the contents of Murnane’s mind exiting Murnane’s head and populating a landscape that Murnane then dedicates himself to contemplate through his sentences, a contemplation that thankfully does without psychological insight (because who doesn’t enjoy a break from the murky diagrams of human motivation?), a contemplation that consists of unearthing patterns of images as a way to both architect the landscape and invent meaning, meaning defined here as (to quote Murnane from Issue 3 of Music & Literature) “the discovery of connections between things that previously seemed unconnected,” and now here’s a relevant landscape quote from Barley Patch:
He had always thought of the images in his mind as being arranged somewhat in the way the names of townships were arranged on maps of mostly level countryside and that the images were connected by feelings in the way that the names of townships were connected by lines denoting roads.
Let’s track the progression of one fragment of Murnane’s pattern making in Barley Patch. The chart below, from left to right, tracks the pattern of images that emerges from King-in-the-Lake, the name of an invisible racehorse. Names of racehorses have a peculiar effect on the narrator of Barley Patch:
The sound in his mind of one or another name would often seem to denote not a mere painted toy and not even an actual straining, racing racehorse but a knot of what he might have called compressed mental imagery . . .
The name of the invisible racehorse leads to “an image of a man lying on the bed of a lake of clear water,” which leads to a poem by Matthew Arnold, which leads to the “view that might have appeared to a man lying in the bed of a lake of clear water.” Follow the arrows to the conclusion of the pattern making: an imaginary contest in invisible racecourse.
I will wash my hands, I thought when I heard I was going to judge Marias vs. Murnane, I will let one of my guinea pigs choose for me and I will add a formal constraint to the pig proceedings so as to not appear unserious. Besides. I wouldn’t mind being remembered as the guinea pig critic, or, as my compatriots might say, el crítico de los cuys.
In the year 2014, one year after I started watching soccer again due to my eight-year-old daughter was scoring 3 goals per game for her elementary school soccer team, I decided to reread Your Face Tomorrow for the purposes of this competition, hoping to relive the engrossing experience of reading Your Face Tomorrow in the year 2010.
Writing rhythmic prose is easy, apparently W.G. Sebald said to his writing students, and as I reread Volume I of Your Face Tomorrow I was dismayed to conclude rhythmic prose can be a decent cover for the unfurling of banalities. Deza complains that people like to tell everything, for instance, but instead of just writing hey people like to tell everything, he has to unfurl a banal rhythmic list of everything that people like to tell, “the interesting and the trivial, the private and public, the intimate and the superfluous, what should remain hidden and what one day will inevitably be broadcast, the sorrows and joys and the resentments,” and it goes on, all over Your Face Tomorrow these banal rhythmic lists. I don’t approach fiction like a critic or a financial analyst, assessing the net flow of pluses and minuses per novel. I have a preferred continuum of fiction, and if a novel adds many pages to this continuum, as Your Face Tomorrow has done, I don’t relegate that novel to my kitchen cabinets (I don’t love any one novel by Stanley Elkin, for instance, but I love so many pages of Stanley Elkin). This is a goddamn match, however, not a vague intertextual pseudo-Jungian notion of fiction reading. Judgments must be made.
Who would want to compete against an Australian narrator who, as a boy, moved among the characters of the books he read, devising his own strict rules of narrative interference, unable to alter the course of the narrative but free “to take advantage of the seeming gaps in the narrative”? When one of the characters in one of the books he read abandons his wife, for instance, our Australian narrator knows that, from his “standpoint as a shadowy presence among the characters,” he cannot reverse the character’s decision. “And yet, I was able in some mysterious way to add to whatever remorse he might have felt from time to time . . .” I like to think of myself as a shadowy presence among these 1,771 words, adding to my own remorse for ruling against a writer like Javier Marias who has added so many pages to my so-called continuum, unable to alter the course of this match, however, no matter how much I tried.
Excerpts from Mauro Javier Cardenas’s recently completed first novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, have appeared in Conjunctions, BOMB, Guernica, Antioch Review, and Witness. His interviews and essays on/with László Krasznahorkai, Javier Marias, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Juan Villoro, and Antonio Lobo Antunes have appeared in Music & Literature, San Francisco Chronicle, BOMB, and the Quarterly Conversation.