Bookforum, june/july/ aug 2013
Mysteries of life
This novel begins with the apparently senseless killing of Miguel Desvern or Deverne, by a deranged, homeless car parking attendant. Maria Dolz, an editor at a publishing house, remembers Desvern and his wife Luisa as the ‘perfect couple’. Every morning before going to work, she would admire their blissful love from a distance as they breakfasted with her in the same cafe.
The rest of the novel delves into what could have brought a wealthy gentleman with no known enemies to such a gruesome end. Was there a stealthy enemy with a secret motive? How did the dying man feel in his last moments? What could have gone on in the mind of the deranged assailant? The specific incident gives rise to far-reaching speculations. What motivates the perpetrators of acts of violence? How does violence affect the instigator, the victims and bystanders, and change them?
The news of Desvern’s murder soon vanishes from the press. As Maria reflects, “We don’t want to go too deeply into anything or linger too long over any event or story, we need to be given a constantly renewed supply of other people’s misfortunes, as if we need to feel that we, by contrast, are survivors, immortals, so feed us some new atrocities, we’ve worn out yesterday’s already.”
The author does the opposite in this book, making a specific killing the launching point for far-reaching metaphysical and moral speculations. “What happened,” says Diaz-Varela, the self-confessed mastermind behind Desvern’s killing, “is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matter are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events, and to which we pay far more attention.”
However, the first half of the novel is tedious reading. Pages filled with paragraph-long sentences about theoretical speculations can tax the reader’s patience. The author deliberately reinforces this by making the characters mouthpieces for complex ideas, rather than fleshing them out as individuals. The scholarly Rico, the penurious working class Maria Dolz, Luisa the grieving widow, the man-of-the-world Diaz-Varela, all spew forth pages upon pages of identical speculative monologues. Real people rarely think and speak like this, but everyone in this book has their head in the clouds.
Even when Maria and Diaz-Varela begin flirting, they go into prolonged speculations on death; what might have happened to Deverne; Lady Macbeth’s death in Shakespeare’s celebrated tragedy, etc. The setting in a museum, Maria’s physical attraction to Diaz-Varela’s neatly trimmed nails, cleft chin and voluptuous lips, are marginal, barely there. The murdered man is sometimes Deverne, sometimes Desvern. These specifics don’t really matter. The ideas do.
The author avoids firmly pinning the story to a specific time and place, further reinforcing the wider relevance of metaphysical speculations. Except for rare passing mentions of the Internet, contact lenses, MRI scans, cellphones or locations in Madrid, this story could very well be playing out in Edwardian England, Vichy France, or in Russia under the Tsars.
Touches of humour attempt to relieve the monotony of philosophical and moral theorising , which occur more often in reality than in novels. With a self-deprecatory sense of fun, the author allows Maria to dissect publishers and bestselling authors and their book launches.
“Those who earn their living from literature and related activities and who, therefore, have no proper job — and there are quite a few of them, because, contrary to what most people say, there’s money to be made in this business, although mainly by the publishers and the distributors — rarely leave their houses and so all they have to do is go back to their computer or their typewriter — a few madmen still continue to use these with an incomprehensible degree of self-discipline: you have to be slightly abnormal to sit down and work on something without being told to.”
The author even makes fun of his own style, likening the characters’ speculations to “a marked tendency to discourse and expound and digress, (like) many writers, as if it weren’t enough for them to fill pages and pages with their thoughts and stories, which, with few exceptions, are either absurd, pretentious, gruesome or pathetic.” Midway through the book, many a reader will agree with Maria.
It is then that the author rewards the patient and persistent reader with his “grave, somehow inward-turned voice and the often arbitrary syntactic leaps he made, the whole effect seeming sometimes not to emanate from a human being, but from a musical instrument that does not transmit meanings…” From the second half of the novel, we are regaled with a marvelous symphony of quickly succeeding waves of speculations; life, love, death, war, crime, morality, human perversity and cunning. Delightful vistas of endless possibilities, stories and mysteries open up, making this book a rewarding read.
Deccan Herald, June 9, 2013