Capital Fictions

Capital Fictions

Compare two snippets of prose. First: “Secluded by the shade of gauze and lace, the warm light of the lamp fell in a circle over the crimson velvet of the tablecloth [and] lit up the three china cups…” Second: “The felt drapery embroidered with gold fell over a sheer curtain, filtering the light absorbed by the deep tone of the furniture’s brocade, the opaque wood of the piano…” Which is the opening of a modernist novel, and which comes from an advertisement for a nineteenth-century luxury goods store? In fact, the second is the advert, and the first is the novel, but it is hard to tell between them because the novel (like the advert) revels in the objects that it is describing, highlighting their interplay of textures in a vaguely mysterious interior space. And the advert (like the novel) gives life to these objects by establishing and narrating the relations between them so as to create, as Ericka Beckman notes in Capital Fictions: The Literature of Latin America’s Export Age, “an ambient effect that is more powerful than any one of its single elements” (64).

It so happens that novel and advertisement alike have the same author: the Colombian José Asunción Silva, who was both “a key proponent of art for art’s sake” and “a tireless promoter of luxury import consumption”; both a novelist and poet and a merchant “selling the most sumptuous goods to an elite enriched by burgeoning coffee exports” (61). But Silva’s business did not prosper. Heavily indebted, ultimately he committed suicide, at the age of thirty-one: beside his body, a wallet containing his last ten-peso note. The novel quoted above, De sobremesa (After-Dinner Conversation), was published only after his death.

For many, this tragic fate of the poet laid low by bankruptcy is understood in terms of a tension if not contradiction between economics and art. Quite the contrary, says Beckman. Silva’s life and death, and his work as writer of literary and economic fictions alike, demonstrate her fundamental point that “the story of literature [. . .] is wrapped up in the story of economics, even–especially–when it claims the contrary” (128). Indeed, it is the assertion of a fundamental breach between art and finance that is the most basic fiction here, providing art with the consoling thought that it is untainted by filthy lucre, and giving finance the equally comforting notion that it is driven by reason alone.

In a final irony, the disavowed collusion between culture and currency becomes visible again when the Bank of Colombia picks none other than Silva to illustrate its five-thousand-peso note in 1996, the hundredth anniversary of his death. The poet’s bearded, slightly wistful visage is featured on the front; on the back, an urn on which his one of his more famous odes, “Nocturno,” is inscribed. “Money and art are separated,” Beckman argues, “so that they might come together in a stabilized relation on the banknote” (156). But this stability is belied not only by the always slippery signifier of the written word, but also by the long and cyclical history of financial speculation and disaster, economic boom and bust, for which Silva’s own suicide provides still further testament.

Beckman’s fine and fascinating book traces the complex complicities between fiction and finance in Latin America’s “export age” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It examines the “export reverie” of texts that preached economic progress, conjuring up “liberal fantasies” that had real effects in “creating the conditions of possibility under which social and natural landscapes might be altered” (20) to bring plantations and railways, mines and music halls to the region. It proceeds with a critique of modernismo and its “import catalogues” whereby European luxury goods are praised for their (supposedly) intrinsic beauty, but mystified as a site of refuge from the ordinary and everyday. Beckman suggests that (ironically enough) a rather prosaic commodity fetishism underlies the modernistas’ claims to poetic autonomy. The book then turns to the stock market fictions that emerge in the wake of financial turbulence and the novels of decadence and bankruptcy that follow on. Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the final one, which comprises a reading of José Eustasio Rivera’s classic La vorágine (The Vortex) as a narrative of resource extraction that tests the limits of aesthetic and economic representation.

Beckman argues for the resonances between the late nineteenth century and the present. We see today for instance “a resurgence of export-elite opulence” premised on booms in commodities such as narcotics and a re-intensified mining and extractive sector. I am not sure that literature has quite the same function these days (though TV and YouTube offer their own, updated import catalogues). Does anyone really believe in liberal versions of progress these days, or is the point that we are told there is simply no alternative? And in fact I wonder how much belief was really at issue even a hundred years ago. But for the most part, Beckman’s insights are convincing, her readings are compelling, and her writing commendably clear.

The Purgatory Press / After the End

John Culbert, The Purgatory Press

Two slim books in one, Vancouver author John Culbert’s first collection of fiction is a small masterpiece, a double A-Side of breath-taking ingenuity and beauty.

The Purgatory Press presents itself as the catalogue of a defunct publishing house. But this is no ordinary catalogue–and no ordinary publisher. Each imaginary book is described at length with a delicate appreciation that aims less to sell us a product than to entice us into another world, a world glimpsed through the act of reading. Appropriately, many of the works described are critical appreciations or biographies of artists and writers who have for some reason been neglected or fallen out of favour after a brief moment in the sun. The critic’s task is to rescue them from what would otherwise be oblivion, from the condescension of ignorance or the judgement that these are merely aesthetic dead ends. Likewise, the catalogue aims to pique our interest in arcane research and lives devoted to perhaps useless erudition. But we know that this task has already failed: the Press is “ceasing operations.” Which leaves its authors and their books in the limbo of the backlist, an afterlife from which they may or may not be redeemed.

The aesthetic and intellectual experiments covered by the catalogue provide flashes of mystery and illumination: bizarre endeavours whose secret key may or may not be revealed by the texts that describe them, or which may or may not hide a secret at all.

They include a performance artist who drives cross-country with her “left-turn signal blinking for the entire trip.” We gain only the slightest glimpse of the rationale for this project, in a brief quotation from her book Left Turn (64pp.), which is a Kerouac-esque screed denouncing “’America’ the gluttonous, the insatiable, with endless black tongues of asphalt, every mile another neon sign touting precious ‘vacancy.’ And very minute another good citizen tells me I’m not turning left” (9). Then there is Eric Radiswill’s Masks of the Ceremony (244pp.), the biography of an anthropologist who, studying the potlatch ceremonies of the Northwest Coast, apparently sacrifices his own work in sympathy, making “a concerted effort to eradicate his history among the First Nations” (36). Secure in his tenured professorship, he appears to be nothing more than “academic dead wood, a seeming dilettante and amateur collector of native paintings, carvings, and artifacts.” Could it be that all the while he was lending “his support to the tribes’ covert ceremonies, about which he was sworn to secrecy” (40)? Meanwhile, we are told that Alice Mei Chen’s The Beaten Track (245 pp.) cuts up the prose of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa to produce unsettling poetry in which, for instance, the story of the tracking and shooting of an antelope is transformed into a “childhood diary that recounts the death of a beloved pet” (49); would-be readers are advised that they “may wish to have Hemingway’s original text at hand to best appreciate the perspicacity of Chen’s work of creative citation” (51).

But this is a book in which the “original text” is never at hand. All we have are the traces of imagined books that in turn (we are told) claim no more than to read traces of traces. In their labyrinthine structure, their erudite mixture of fact and confabulation, their philosophical challenges, their interest in the creativity of (mis)reading, and not least in their wry, deadpan humour, these stories are more than a little reminiscent of the work of Jorge Luis Borges. And yet (ironically enough) they do not feel derivative in the slightest. Rather than dry exercises of homage or intellectual dexterity, each story is animated by a delight in the powers of imagination and the paradoxes of language, as well as gentle mockery towards those who set out to pin down meaning and arrest signification.

One story tells of the posthumously-published life’s work of literary scholar Harold Loomis (Legends of Memory; 383 pp.), whose painstaking close readings of Marcel Proust and Victor Hugo, James Joyce and Henry James, reveal in great detail the mundane contexts of these authors’ master texts: “Loomis claimed to know what Joyce has eaten the day he penned the final lines of ‘The Dead’” (46). Ultimately, however, he discovers (it is suggested), buried deep within the literature he is reading, “the figure of a future researcher [. . .] who Loomis recognized, probably too late, as the figure of his own self already contained in the texts he was reading” (47). Likewise, The Purgatory Press provides a mirror to the reader: as we scan its catalogue we imagine ourselves reading the books it describes, but because those books are missing we suddenly realize ourselves alone with only blurb for company.

After the End, the second book packaged within the same covers as The Purgatory Press, continues much of the same preoccupations with reading (and what cannot be read), with finitude (and what follows), and with loss (and what it leaves behind). The title story is suitably enough the penultimate, rather than the last one: there is of course always something to come after the end. So its conclusion should be understood to be provisional, temporary. But it is also quite beautiful:

Chances are, when you pick up a book you’re reading the words of the dead. Maybe that should be enough to strike a person dumb, but from what I gather it caused no trouble to our forbears. [. . .] A book expects no response, only our focus. So we pay close attention, with the result that, on this side of the hecatombs, all meanings have become inverted. We’ve become silent as books, while they chatter on in the face of our impassivity, often about requited love, the end of times, the realms of tranquility. It’s not for us to correct them, but we can at least crack a volume and put our face up to an open page. (144-5)

Culbert’s slim volume is well worth cracking, not so much to find resolution (in the sense of “cracking a case”), as to follow the cracks, the twists and turns of chatter and plot, the promise of meaning and its ironic inversion. This is a truly great book, which teaches us the virtues of close attention and the rewards of quiet focus on the pleasures of the text.

Zapatos en las piedras

Zapatos en las piedras poster

Raúl Gatica (ed.), Zapatos en las piedras: Seis narradoras(es) latinos en Canadá / Shoes on the Rocks: Six Latin American Storytellers in Canada (Oaxaca: 1450, 2013)

Reading a bilingual book can make for an odd experience. There is something both excessive and strangely tantalizing about it, depending in part on your own linguistic expertise. If, after all, you can read both languages, the doubled text can seem surplus to requirements, leaving you with a slight conundrum: which version to read? But if you are able to read only one of the two, some frustration or doubt may ensue: does the translation match the “original”? Are you really reading the same text as others are? By trying to be inclusive, to appeal to as many potential readers as possible, bilingualism also necessarily introduces divisions and questions about the limits of inclusiveness, the price to be paid for any such gesture.

It is appropriate, then, that such issues arise in a book by migrant writers: in this instance, Latin Americans in Canada. For migration and exile also always give rise to queries about limits and boundaries, dilemmas and choices, translation and inclusion. There is something unsettling about an acknowledgement that borders are not fixed, and that the same object, the same text, can look very different depending on where we are coming from. And though it is true that none of the stories in this thought-provoking collection are directly about the “Latino-Canadian experience” (whatever that may be), it is interesting that they are often concerned with the paradoxes of excess and insufficiency, too much and too little, and with the problem of (mis)matches.

For instance, the collection’s opening story, an excellent little parable by Dafne Blanco, traces the disconcerting effects of what is at first a very slight disturbance: somehow, people’s “socks were disappearing, that is, only one from each pair” (25). Everyone, then, is forced to go about with unmatched footwear. Reactions vary: the Justice of the Peace avoids the topic; others “walk around unabashed as in a ridiculous parade” (26); the narrator forces his children to wear boots; a black market in matching socks provides the rich with a “symbol of social status” (27); the pharmacist creates an illusion of symmetry with paint and adhesive tape; and the beggars on the church steps wear “plastic bags of matching hues covering their lower extremities” (29). Ultimately, the mystery is perhaps resolved in the person of Doña Jacinta, the local coffee vendor who is seen wandering off with “an enormous sack, seemingly full of little rags, which never leaves her sight.” Doña Jacinta is also known for serving watered-down coffee that gives the story its title: “Agua de Calcetín”; “Sock Extract.” Is a diluted drink too much (water) or too little (coffee)? It is both at the same time. But rather than complaining, the narrator praises the variety and unpredictability that results: it “tastes a little different every day, it is always so flavourful; what is your secret?” (29).

Other stories contain other tales of mismatch: unrequited or excessive love or desire, for instance, in Mónica Paz’s “La catadora” (“The Taster”) or Raúl Gatica’s “Al revés” (“Upside Down”). Heinz Avendaño’s “Donde hay cenizas, fuego queda” (“Where There is Ash, Fire Remains”) features a lover who literally ingests his beloved, as though to thereby eliminate the drastic distance that has come between them. Two tales revolve around surprises thrown up by gender ambiguity or transsexuality: in Avendaño’s “Alejandra e Ignacio” (“Alejandro and Ignacio”), a dinner date brings a twist to the friendship between old schoolmates; in Rosas Rojas’s “Mujeres” (“Women”), a couple fight when a secret is revealed. Indeed, consistently these stories of disparity and difference (too much or too little, or both) revolve around secrets of some kind. The collection is permeated with a vague sense of uncertainty and unsettlement, with an ever-present feeling of potential transformation or dislocation. What becomes important is how people react to and live with such uncertainty, how they become open to difference or try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

There is nothing wrong with a little uncertainty. Indeed, many of the contributions to this collection encourage the notion that any event can and should have a multiplicity of perspectives and interpretations. One of my favourite stories is also perhaps the darkest: Dafne Blanco’s “Juicio sumario” (“Summary Trial”) revolves around two deaths. A mother has died, and her demise brings her now grown-up children together–but also sets them apart–as they are prompted to think back to their father’s death from suicide, some eighteen years previously. He had killed himself in peculiarly unnecessary (“corny” [80]) and spectacular fashion: hanging in his bathrobe from the chandelier in the library. He had left a note, “peeking out of his pocket,” not fully contained by his clothing, but by contrast this was too little: it said “Yes, I did it,” without explaining what “it” may have been (77). Each child therefore imagines his or her own take on the mystery, the source of their father’s guilt, none of which quite matches. And though ultimately we seem to be given the “right” answer, this is not to say that the others are wrong, because each is an insight to some aspect of the patriarch’s character. Their excessiveness is somehow appropriate, though even so they are all somehow insufficient, for we can never know exactly what someone else feels or thinks. The best we can manage is one attempt after another to interpret and understand, in as many languages as we can.

In sum, this is a fine and well-written (and well-translated) collection of stories. It is varied and inclusive enough to satisfy different moods or allow diverse approaches to similar themes and preoccupations. But it is short enough to leave us wanting more.