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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Gustavo Faveron Patriau - NOVEL - Review

The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faverón Patriau

Few projects in prose these days are as bold as Gustavo Faverón Patriau's El anticuario / The Antiquarian, published by Peisa last October in Lima & Santiago. While the Peruvian's literary & social criticism has made waves in Hispanic circles, his first novel marks a new achievement in the literature of the Americas, finding a way to harmonize narrative traditions from South & North, by stitching together terrifying narrations a violent patch-worked murder plot to produce what, for all intensive purposes, can be called a postmodern gothic thriller.

From the outset we learn that Daniel has killed Juliana, more than three years ago, & has been sent to a sanitarium. Gustavo, Daniel's long-time friend & confidant, is determined to figure out how & why he killed her. The investigation is carried out on both external & internal registers, comprised of conversations & interrogations with conspicuous characters as well as steadfast cerebrations, speculations, proofs, & deductions that are elaborated in the mind of Gustavo.

To bring the literary gothic tradition up to date, Faverón Patriau, while writing in Spanish, shows a clear affinity for Edgar Poe & has innovated the genre by implementing fragmented narrative techniques that are reminiscent of Boom literature. In Faverón Patriau's project of innovating that gothic thread, there is an echo of José Lezama Lima's resuscitation of the Baroque. But here, we have a gripping tale that questions the limits of friendship, fraternity & human pain, where the consolation for struggle is found in the shared pursuit of knowledge.

El anticuario takes place in an unnamed city, a coastal city, a thinly-masked Lima, where night falls as the fog rolls enveloping the metropolis with its saline breath. This is the location for the story of Gustavo, a psycho-linguist whose wife has passed away from cancer before the story begins, & of his close friend, Daniel, a bibliophile whose encyclopedic memory constantly leads him into anecdotal digressions that offer the reader stories within the story. The other protagonists include Sophia, Daniel's sister; Juliana, Daniel's girlfriend; Adela, Daniel & Juliana's maid; Huk, a female mental patient; & then Mireaux, Yanaúma, & Gálvez, co-owners of The Circle, a book store where the rarest of objects & services can be acquired, always for a price. Finally & centrally, there is a character that goes by the name of The Antiquarian, likely the most poetic persona of the drama. We can look to the author for a succinct description of him:

“The Antiquarian is the type of man who cloisters himself in a tower of books and sun-faded bundles of paper, ever a stranger to the world around him. He reads about the life of the deceased in octavo tomes, printed in venerable languages, and he studies both time and space without exposing himself to the inclemency of neither time nor space: a prisoner, surrounded by columns of printed paper, illegible scribbles, oriental characters, each moment of humanity available to him in alphabetical order lining the walls of his room, immune to everything save for his gaze. Thirty years of his life has he consumed in this place, from which he escapes by himself after nightfall. With a book in his hand and a finger saving his page, the Antiquarian most carefully verifies the similarities and differences between the physical world and the world that he knows by memory from the books...”

Faverón Patriau makes literary use of terror, not as theme, not on a decadent whim that elicits an exploration of the grotesque (i.e. not limited to scatology), nor even as a socio-political platform upon which another writer might have espoused a mundane ideology. For Faverón Patriau terror is a vehicle that facilitates a penetrating investigation into the reality of human suffering & camaraderie. In this way & in El anticuario, the same road that leads into the nether regions of the world, where violence reigns in a gruesome depiction of reality, also leads into the Self, where internalized ethical dimensions of being are examined with no less rigor. Such we see in one passage where the Antiquarian practices his lifelong vocation:

“The Antiquarian reads: an elderly man lays down in his bed to slumber and to his surprise awakens in a cubical container of straw and wood, three feet in length on each side, a yard and a half in height, it is dark inside, and there is a tiny hole in each wall, one of which affords a vista into a military encampment, toward a meadow with patches of grass and arid soil. The elderly personage looks through that hole without recognizing anyone, but he hears the metallic clanging of certain artifacts whereupon he comes to the realization: in the meadow there are hundreds of women and girls, prostrate and facing the sky. Their bodies go through an intricate system of pumps and gears, the legendary torture chamber and its rape machine. A voice says kill me, why should I live any longer? [...] He falls back asleep only to awaken again in the cubical container from the night before, enclosed by the walls of the military encampment, but this time he discovers a flashlight on the floor, and directs its cone of sepia toned light toward the meadow where he identifies a portion of the machinery, a metallic chain studded with miniature steel bolts and pulleys that creak as they turn. At the end of a conveyer belt, he sees the trembling body of one woman, one among the many, and sees the face of one killer, one among the many, and he recognizes that face as his own.”

Similar side-stories also come from the mouth of Daniel who can only quell his own nervous, jabbering anxiety by recounting stories, histories & tales that he has learned from books. What is remarkable of these seeming deviations is that, through the course of the novel, they acquire essential & symbolic meanings. Moreover, we often do not hear these stories directly from him, but from other people, like his business partner, Gálvez, for example,  as we read in Chapter 11:

“In the Chinese province of Changzhou, said Daniel, there is a town called Jiangso, where a boy was born toward the end of the sixteenth century and was named Feng Menlong. Barely a young man, Feng Menlong became a traveling poet and writer of fantastic tales that he published in 1604 under the title Yushing Mingyang, that is, Illustrious Words to Instruct the World. In 1615, he had a child with a strong-minded and insolent vagabond, who who lived with him until one day in 1617, when, after confirming that their child was crippled and would never surpass forty centimeters in height, Fen Menlong killed her with a blade used to slaughter rams. He left her curled up, her back resting on a tree, at the intersection of two roads in the outskirts of Jiangso, so that the ravens would devour her. Concern for the fate of his son, Feng Menlong in his house built a rectangular room with bamboo corners, reinforced with chestnut and walls made of ash and eucalyptus planks. He locked the boy in there and twice a year put him to sleep with a beverage that he purchased at the neighboring village, in order to work by night and tear down the room only to build it again, subtracting half a foot in height from each wall, each baseboard, each edge of the ceiling, so that when the boy awoke the following morning, he would feel that he had astonishingly grown a half foot in height in just one night. Since he himself was the only point of reference capable of giving away the story, Feng Menlong forbade his son from seeing him, a prisoner in that room without any doors or windows or other openings than the slot through which twice daily his meals were served to him and the septic well where he would urinate and defecate, which was cleaned by the father himself only when each remodeling project was being carried. When Feng Menlong died, since no one in Jiangso suspected the existence of that son whom everyone believed to have disappeared with his mother, the child remained locked up in that personal world that his father had constructed for him, which by then was barely an isomorphic cube measuring half a meter on each side: the coffin he would rest in months later when they carried him off for burial.”

What we have before us “is undoubtedly a cerebral work saturated with recherche references, where reading and criticism are fundamental practices,” writes Luis Hernán Castañeda is his review, “Un puente entre las islas del terror” (A Bridge between the Isles of Terror), published in La Mula, “however El anticuario is not a cold text, but a tour de force, as intellectual as it is visceral, as cosmopolitan as it is deeply rooted in Peru.” This psychological thriller invites the reader to flex the intellect & experience a rare & admirable emotional charge by playing the role of the detective.

The story of Gustavo's unbridled search for the truth is interjected by narrations of past encounters with Daniel. The significance of these anecdotes & vignettes, at times, may seem dubious, but, as one finds out in the latter chapters of the book, Daniel's seeming blither is in fact quite meaningful – perhaps one could go so far as to say that it is even too meaningful. As the investigation continues & Gustavo is no longer permitted to visit Daniel face to face in the sanitarium, the lead investigator, Vicario, grants him the opportunity to interview other patients whom Daniel has come to know during his lengthy internment.

These interviews are all carried out in the presence of Vicario, & Gustavo, psycho-linguist that he is, records the verbal interactions so that he can study the language of the patients after the fact, in search of a clue that may shed light on Daniel's motives & unravel the mystery of the heinous crime(s). One of the patients, writes Faverón Patriau, was a man who “must have been around 50 years of age; he was wearing a rather dirty blue and threadbare suit, and on his neck there danced the greasy tassel of his bangs which he combed over his forehead to disguise his baldness.” This man, supposedly sent by Daniel to communicate to Gustavo essential information, offers this:

“That's what Daniel told me: in a certain place there's a man and three women, that's what there is, nothing else, that night and every night. You've got to reduce the factors; don't get distracted, reduce. That's what Daniel suggested. So in a certain place there's a man and three women, and that's it. A man and a triad, a trinity, a triumvirate, a triacle, a tripod, a triplane, a tricycle, a triplet, a trio of women. Does that ring a bell? That's what Daniel asked me. And this is what he said: in a certain place there's a man and three women. They have a history. I was just a kid, a calf, a colt and I had three women...”

Confused & frustrated, Gustavo reflects, “The rest of my questions obtained the same response. I listened to the recording closely, scouring it for some difference that might express the poor man's desire to alter his speech; but there was none: only the same words in the same sequence, with identical pauses, a prison that he had constructed around himself and would not think of escaping.” Gustavo's responsibility to decipher such messages, codes & signs is, at once, passed on to the reader, who, as when reading Poe's The Purloined Letter, is tasked with piecing together the facts of a seemingly incongruous reality.

El anticuario reminds us that artificial or synthetic writing still has its place in literature today, when implemented strategically & in good measure. It is a story that sends the reader into the far corners of the world that is contained in the mind & the soul of its characters whose frustrated search for meaning is in concert with one's own. This is one of the book's great achievements: it demands tenacious speculation of the reader; for, even though Faverón Patriau writes & the reader of this book will certainly feel, “some winding roads don't lead anywhere, & some strait roads don't lead anywhere either”, venturing down those roads is an illuminating experience.

Joseph Mulligan
New Paltz, NY
Copies of El Anticuario can be purchased here. Faverón Patriau is the author of Rebeldes: Sublevaciones indígenas y naciones emergentes en Hispanoamérica en el siglo XVIII, Toda la sangre. Antología de cuentos peruanos sobre la violencia política & coauthor of Bolaño salvaje. El escritor ante la crítica. Faverón Patriau is author of one of the most widely read blogs of contemporary Peruvian writers, Puente Aéreo. He is an Assistant Professor of Romance Languages at Bowdoin College in Maine.

Joseph Mulligan is a poet & translator of César Vallejo, Oliverio Girondo, Jorge Eduardo Eielson, Alejandra Pizarnik, Pierre Joris & Gustavo Faverón Patriau. He recently published the first English translation of Against Professional Secrets / Contra el secreto profesional by César Vallejo. He posts regularly on his blog The Smelting Process.

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