Let’s say you’re in a car accident. It’s not a bad one. You rear-end someone on a busy highway where traffic is crawling. And let’s say the person you hit happens to be a wealthy woman who leaps from her vehicle and berates you in language unfit for the ears of small children. What would you do?
Javier, the supposed name of the protagonist of Lorenzo Silva’s novel The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, finds himself in this exact scenario and consequently decides to spend his summer playing pranks on this woman, Sonsoles, though the word “prank” hardly describes what he does. For amusement, Javier calls the woman’s home, lying in a variety of ways, all of which inflict psychological stress on Sonsoles and her family.
What kind of sick individual does such a thing? Javier is no prince, but he suffers in ways we can all, to some extent, relate to, which makes the story palatable. His job pays well, but traps him in a rat race that leaves him feeling like his soul is “a dead weight down there, just below my nut sack.” He’s alone, average-looking, and his mother died years ago. There’s no mention of his having family or friends. In our first encounter with Javier, Sonsoles treats him like trash. By the end of chapter one, Javier has decided to make Sonsoles suffer, and all this reviewer could feel is schadenfreude.
As Javier stalks Sonsoles, he sees and falls in love with her teenage sister, Rosana. He begins to lie his way into her (Rosana’s) life. Javier and Rosana meet, chat, and meet again, and eventually they find their way to a swimming pool, where Javier has something akin to a religious experience when he sees her in her bikini. Finally, when Javier decides the pranks have gone far enough, he takes Rosana to a quiet place where he’s about to break off their strange, illicit relationship, when something happens (I won’t spoil it for you) that turns Javier’s experience from revenge-as-amusement to life-altering-shitstorm.
In this short novel, Javier, who speaks to us as a first person narrator, is aware of his shortcomings, though he doesn’t present them as evidence of his innocence. He knows he’s guilty and accepts his punishment without any apparent joy or sadness. His sense of right and wrong is, in a strange way, what guides him, even when he chooses what’s wrong. In choosing revenge, he seeks balance to Sonsoles’ cruelty, though he miscalculates and tips the scales the other way. Indeed, plotting revenge requires two graves,.
The title, The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, refers to Javier. The novel attempts to establish a parallel between Javier and one imaginary Bolshevik who, before killing a beautiful Russian grand duchess, falls in love with her. “What a tender moment,” Javier tells us, “when the Bolshevik turns against himself and the Revolution to admit his already necessarily despairing love for the Grand Duchess.”
Which brings us to the class issue. Javier is well-paid, but needs to work long days to stay that way. Sonsoles’s life will be a long road paved with money and comfort. The contrast is clear: Javier is the Bolshevik, Rosana the Dutchess. It makes one wonder: Would Javier have launched his revenge quest without feeling some sort of class resentment (subconscious or otherwise)? He certainly has his views of morality and wealth/poverty (“A conscience isn’t a basic commodity, just a whim of people with full stomachs”). It’s a question that lingers. The way Javier feels about himself certainly has something to do with what his job—and, by extension, the economy as a whole—has done to him.
Money, overall, seems to hover in the background, while the emptiness at the core of Javier’s life takes center stage. As readers, we hope he fills it with the love he seems to need. In the end, though, we are left pondering Javier’s final thoughts, as well as bits of wisdom he offered throughout the book, including this little nugget: “There is no more interesting believer than the one who changes faith.”
A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .
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. . .
In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship. . .
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .