Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata"
The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew the romanticism found in earlier works. In Revulsion, Eguardo Vega has returned home after living 18 years in Montreal, to attend the funeral of his mother and collect his inheritance. The unnamed narrator of Cabo De Gata leaves his home in Berlin for the warmth of the coast. Both narrators struggle with their new surroundings. Neither experiences personal epiphanies, neither finds love and salvation in exotic climates. Instead, both find that they cannot escape themselves, just as the Egyptian poet C. P. Cavafy early last century, “There’s no new land, my friend, no / New sea; for the city will follow you.”
The main narrative of Revulsion is set in a bar, opening as Vega, a professor of art history in Montreal, welcomes his friend, a fictionalized version of the writer Moya, to the only place he likes in all of San Salvador. Over the course of a single paragraph that spans 83 pages, Vega proceeds to outline in detail and repetition everything about his homeland that he finds repulsive. Starting with the local beer, Vega becomes increasingly disgusted with the country’s politics, religious education, television programs, sports teams, pupusas, his brother, his brother’s children, his sister-in-law, brothels, music, the military, businessmen. Moya remains a silent witness as each new subject causes Vega the most severe revulsion.
It seems that Vega’s chief goal of his audience with Moya, apart from his two daily whiskeys and repeatedly asking the bartender to play Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in B-flat Minor, is to justify his return and seize every moment to demonstrate his superiority to other Salvadorans, even those who have emigrated to Canada as he had done:
I didn’t leave as an exile, not in search of better economic conditions, I left because I never accepted the macabre joke of being destined to be born in this place […] I ran from neither war nor poverty, I didn’t flee for the sake of politics, I simply left because I never accepted the idiocy of being Salvadoran.
This dense wall of words, the repeated phrases and increasingly over the top vitriol of Vega’s anger could become oppressive and off-putting, but Castellanos Moya balances Vega’s apoplectic fits with irony that piles up over the course of the twisting narrative. Vega describes several instances of being disgusted by Salvadorans who do anything to get money, yet he himself states that he has only returned to the country to claim his inheritance by any cost to his personal relationships. He rages at the lack of interest in art and history, yet despite being an art historian, he refuses to stay in San Salvador to become a teacher as his brother suggests. In this, Castellanos Moya has created a perceptive and occasionally sympathetic character who distinctly lacks self awareness. As Vega’s rant unfurls, the distance between Vega and Moya grows despite the latter’s passivity, and so does the distance between Vega and reader. The narrative spirals back and forth on itself until Vega is unknowingly trapped within the cage of his own argument in a final, ironic barb.
As Castellanos Moya notes in the afterward, Revulsion has remained his most enduring, infamous work, despite his prolific career. In earned him death threats and made it impossible for him to return to San Salvador to live. What started out for him as an exercise in style, a simulation of the work of Thomas Bernhard, lead to his own dislocation from the country he gazed at through the lens of satire.
The unnamed narrator of Eugene Ruge’s Cabo De Gata leaves his home in Berlin for all of the clichéd reasons literary ex-pats have been striking out for over a hundred years. His girlfriend has left him, he seeks but fails to secure his father’s respect. The cold, gray winter leaves him listless. He decides to write a novel. He is broke and overwhelmed by the language and aesthetics of commodification, “I walked around among all these people buying and selling, full of resentment, and felt entirely confirmed in making my plans to flee.” He thinks me might be afraid of flying and cannot choose a destination, but he desires warmth, sunlight, solitude.
And so he ends up on a train to Barcelona.
But Barcelona proves to be disappointing, still too much of what he was trying to escape. Looking at a map in the back of a tabloid newspaper while sitting a cafe, the unnamed narrator looks for the warmest patch of weather in the area and soon after finds himself in Cabo de Gata, a small resort town on the Mediterranean coast of Spain where at first there are more dogs than people and so sign of the eponymous cats.
The Mediterranean coast in winter turns out to not be the world of sunshine, of blue bowls of fruit on rough-hewn wood tables in clean, whitewashed rooms the narrator had expected it to be. It is cold, gray, empty. The desolate beaches are strewn with seaweed and garbage brought in on the tide. The residents treat him with and undisguised disdain. The room he is able to rent is small with a dirt floor; he uses candles to heat it in the evening.
Over time, he falls into a schedule, ritualized movements through his days: he has the same breakfast served by the same waitress who ignores him, he has coffee at the same bar, sees the same year-round residents on his walks through town and along the beach. He reads the same edition of a Spanish language newspaper every day at the same time. He writes, or thinks of writing, in the evening. He finds a kind of peace and sense of being in these routines. Occasionally signs of the outside world appear. Some spark his imagination, such as a tower on the beach and metal container he describes as a coffin. Others are momentary interruptions: an English tourist. Then one from the United States. He passes over and dismisses these.
The appearance of the cat is another matter entirely.
The cat refuses to adopt the narrator’s ritualized life, is a constant disruption despite his attempts to make it conform through gifts of food, a warm place to sleep. The more he tries, the more the cat seems to defy his attempts at imposing an order upon it. He finds himself as isolated as he was in Berlin, wanders the town, the beach, recording sights, moments, but his imagination is drained. Things are as they are. There are boats pulled up on the beach. More sunlight. The cat comes and goes. He struggles to find meaning in his relationship with the cat as the days slowly warm. More tourists arrive to disrupt his fragile existence. Eventually Cabo de Gata becomes as unbearable to him as his former city.
The conceit of the book is that the unnamed narrator is writing it fifteen to twenty years after the events while on a plane from Minnesota to Tokyo. It is an act of remembering, and as such Ruge constructs the story around gaps in the narrator’s memory, as when he remembers the smell of coffee:
I remember by surprise at suddenly finding myself there in my kitchen, in exactly that attitude, holding that coffeepot, in the middle of the tiny and probably pointless moment— tack-tack!—that I had carried out in just the same way the morning before (and the morning before the morning before), and for a moment I had the feeling that it was the same morning and I was the same man, a man who, like the undead, was doomed to repeat the same sequence again and again.
These holes in the narrator’s memory form the contour of the story, and the reader is left wondering what is not being revealed. Moments like the scent of coffee and the sight of a ray taking its last breath, forgotten, in the bottom of a fishing boat, take on exaggerated importance to the reader as the narrator denies they hold any meaning at all.
And the cat? The narrator refuses to make a symbol of it, to seek some deeper meaning in his relationship with it, refuses even to end his story with it. Returning to Cavafy, he ends his poem with a question that could be directed toward Eguardo Vega and Ruge’s nameless narrator: “ Ah! don’t you see / Just as you have ruined your life in this / One plot of ground you’ve ruined it’s worth / Everywhere now—over the whole earth?” Revulsion and Cabo De Gata present very different answers, and despite the nameless narrator’s denial, perhaps the patternless movements of the cat make all the difference.