Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading, reviewed Quim Monzo’s The Enormity of the Tragedy in the Philadelphia Inquirer, hitting upon the fascinating way Monzo takes the setup for a lewd joke (the main character has a permanent erection that’s actually a symptom of a disease leaving him with seven weeks to live) but creates something more interesting:
A priapic protagonist virtually begs for bawdy, Rabelaisian humor, but The Enormity of the Tragedy is actually quite restrained. The book is full of subtly funny lines, and often they have nothing to do with Ramon-Maria’s tumescence. At one point, for instance, Anna-Francesca reflects somewhat foolishly on a 17-year-old she almost went all the way with: “Unlike other older youths she’d met . . . he didn’t spurn her because she was too young.” In other words, he was the only boy slimy enough to try to take advantage of an underage girl. Throughout, Monzó has a lot of fun condemning his protagonists’ innocence and self-involvement by presenting similarly ironic thoughts. At times this borders on excessive, but for the most part Monzó mocks without seeming cruel.
Adding a healthy dose of Thanatos to the book’s Eros, Anna-Francesca fantasizes about killing Ramon-Maria. Eventually she gets around to doing some research, the fruits of which Monzó lays out in an amazing, seven-page-long list. Fascinating and deadening, the list makes murder both titillating and banal.
Monzo is one of Catalan’s most honored contemporary writers. He gave the opening address at the Frankfurt Book Fair last October, and is extremely funny, sharp, and playful. In addition to this novel, there was one book of stories published in the States back in the ’80s called O’ Clock. His stories remind me of a cross between Cortazar and Coover, if that makes any sense.
As you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of his work, and actually, Open Letter is going to be publishing his novel Gasoline (as translated by Peter Bush) next spring. And hopefully many more of his books . . .
Quim Monzo is a great name for a writer (and maybe a baseball player), and our latest review is of his novel The Enormity of the Tragedy, which is about a man with a constant erection. (Insert male stereotype joke here.)
As described in the jacket copy, the plot of The Enormity of the Tragedy reads like a start to a dirty joke: Ramon-Maria, an aging trumpet player, wakes up with an indefatigable erection. Hilarity ensues. But actually it doesn’t. Not to say the book isn’t funny, or that the set-up couldn’t be treated as such, but that’s not what Monzo’s up to here. Parallel to Ramon-Maria’s story—which isn’t all sexual fun and games, since as it turns out, his erection is a symptom of a rare disease leaving him less than two months to live—is the story of his stepdaughter, Anna-Francesca, who steals from him and is plotting his murder. (And—spoiler alert—does eventually push him off the roof of their decaying mansion.)
Monzo treats all of this—Ramon-Maria’s sex and death situations, Anna-Francesca’s affair with a teacher and quest for revenge—in a very straightforward, fairly believable fashion. Ramon-Maria goes for a second opinion, which eventually confirms the first. He takes out a mortgage so as to “live large” for the last few weeks of his life and to provide his stepdaughter (to whom he never speaks) with cash at least. Anna-Francesca stresses about sex, about boys, about flirting with her friend’s lover. Under the surface, crazy shit is going on though, both in terms of the plot and in the emotional lives of the characters.
It’s Monzo’s understated humor and naturalistic approach to the subject, which, to me, is the most intriguing facet of the book. A lesser author could’ve relied upon one-liner after one-liner, exploiting the enormity of the absurd situation, whereas Monzo focuses on the tragedy. (It’s no wonder the book opens with an epigraph from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.) This book is much more about the inability of humans to connect than it is about penis jokes. Sex plays a role in this—women are sort of overwhelmed by Ramon-Maria, his stepdaughter is afraid of “going all the way”—but the loneliness of the characters is exacerbated by the fact that they don’t even bother to try and connect with others. Several times it’s referenced that Ramon-Maria and Anna-Francesca don’t mind living together too much, since they can go weeks without seeing each other. Neither have any relatives, close friends, etc., and when Ramon-Maria dies, no one really cares. The ending lines kind of sum up the Monzo universe:
Outside a molossus mastiff was observing a whisky-coloured cat. The cat started to run. The dog chased it. The cat tried to get away but found itself trapped in the cul-de-sac with no escape route and walls too high to climb. It turned around, fur bristling. The mastiff stopped. They both looked at each other, motionless. In the distance, a gate squeaked. The cat moved almost imperceptibly, jumped, legs outstretched, and scratched the dog’s cheek striping it in blood. It tried to take advantage of the mastiff’s disarray to make an escape, but the dog jumped nimbly, pounced on the cat, opened its jaws and tore it apart.
My biggest problem with the book is the fact that it feels like the publisher really rushed this. Peter Bush is a top notch translator, and for the most part the book reads really well. It’s riddled with typos though, and one more pass through would’ve made a huge difference. (That and—on a selfish note—Peter Owen should sell the rights to his books to an American publisher instead of distributing them via Dufour. Peter Owen books aren’t really available through stores in this country, and this one, a 222 page paperback retails for $29.95!!)
That said, I hope more Monzo books are translated into English. He’s so well known and respected for his short stories that I feel like we’re only getting a partial picture of a major European writer.
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