With In Spite of the Dark Silence, Jorge Volpi puts a new spin on a classic tale of obsession, following the fictional narrator who is consumed with his research of actual Mexican poet and chemist, Jorge Cuesta. The fictionalized biography, in its slightly bizarre nature, weaves the narrator’s research of Cuesta with the downward spiral of his personal life, and will quickly envelop its readers, leaving them with memorable lyrical prose and fragmented sentence structures.
Jorge Volpi is one of the founders of the Crack Movement, a literary movement in Mexico that aimed to break from the cynical, superficial, and outdated movements of the past. The members wished to rupture the contemporary literary conventions of Latin America, such as the expected “magical realism,” creating their own style, and encouraging others to do so as well. Their works reflect a sense of disillusionment and disappointment with the progress of civilization and the modern societal systems, which they contrast with the infinite possibilities inherent in fiction. In Spite of Dark Silence is one of the predecessors of this movement.
“His name was Jorge, like mine, and for that his life hurts me twice,” opens Volpi, as the narrator introduces his growing obsession with Jorge Cuesta. Cuesta, an actual Mexican figure, was a member of Los Contemporánoes, a Mexican literary movement in the twentieth century, who eventually committed suicide in a mental ward. His writing is both overtly and subtly woven into Volpi’s narrative as Jorge compulsively researches the poet, diving deeper and deeper into his life and oeuvre, and blurring the boundaries between the two Jorges. Narrator Jorge happens to encounter the story of Cuesta’s self-castration and subsequent suicide, and finds himself inexplicably drawn to the tragic story. Despite his wife’s protests, the narrator’s obsession with Cuesta increases as he strives to replicate his experiments and ideals. Eventually quitting his job and abandoning his marriage, the narrator is doomed to follow in his idol’s footsteps—he admits, “If I could not rescue my own life, at least I would rescue his.”
This novel, as a precursor to the Crack Movement, features a light displacement of syntax, which will later be exaggerated. This effect is in part due to fragmented lines from Cuesta incorporated into the narrative, as well as the inclusion of whole letters and excerpts of his poetry. The disjointed style forces us to share the madness of Jorge, as his life intertwines with Cuesta’s. When Jorge attempts to come to terms with his obsession, Volpi writes,
I prefer my own fragmented history, unserviceable, hypocritical, vain, the futility of my effort, my sad relationship with Alma, my one and unrepeatable Alma, and a destiny that cannot aggrandize me, that in no way resembles Cuesta’s passion, that is as worthless as anyone else’s, but that is enough to cry and finish.
This slightly confusing sentence openly imitates his “fragmented” mind, while directly referencing Cuesta. We’re placed in his shoes, feeling overwhelmed and lost. In addition to the disjointed style, Volpi also presents us with lyrical poetry blended with his prose, writing, “I touched the wet clay, amazed by the eloquence of the revelation: My sight diffused on the space is space itself.” The latter half of this phrase is actually an excerpt from Cuesta’s poetry, demonstrating how Volpi incorporates Cuesta’s writing into his own. With this partially incomprehensible half-prose, half-poetry sentence, we share the narrator’s confusion and his obsession, as Cuesta begins to invade his every thought and feeling.
Olivia Maciel, the translator, adeptly maintains this style indicative of Volpi and the Crack Movement as well as writes an eye-opening Afterword on these subjects. She explains how “Jorge Volpi, along with other members of the Crack literary movement, begins a new conversation with the luminous and ever rare transubstantial world.”
In Spite of the Dark Silence is hauntingly arresting, dragging the reader into the downward spiral of its narrator and subject. At times we’re unsure if we’re reading something from the perspective of Jorge the narrator or Jorge Cuesta, making for a delightfully puzzling read. After being sucked into the quest of the narrator, we can predict how history will repeat itself, while hoping that it will not. In perhaps what could be described as a strange, twisted love story, In Spite of the Dark Silence questions passion, love, relationships, and obsession, illustrating just how far one will go.
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