Valeria Luiselli, Faces in the crowd (Review)

Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the crowd was, as regular readers here might remember, one of my two Bah Humbook virtual gifts from Stu of Winston’s Dad. I ordered it on Christmas Day for my Kindle – after all, it was a Christmas present – and have now read it. Wow, what a read, but how to write about it?

Perhaps I’ll start by quoting something near the end of the novel:

There are people who are capable of recounting their lives as a sequence of events that lead to a destiny. If you give them a pen they write you a horribly boring novel in which each line is there for an ultimate reason: everything links up, there are no loose ends.

This is not such a novel. Things don’t link up, there are loose ends, and it’s both chronological and not. It is in fact a metafictional work. It has the old story-within-a story-within-a-story structure, the self-consciousness about fiction versus reality, all of which could be a bit old hat, except it isn’t. The first person narrator is a somewhat frustrated novelist in Mexico City. She has two children – the boy and the baby – and a husband. To make her novel, an autobiographical one, interesting, she has her husband leave her. (Wish fulfilment? we wonder.) Reading over her shoulder, he says:

Why have you banished me from the novel? What? You wrote that I’d gone to Philadelphia. Why? So something happens.

This fictional husband sometimes takes up the story, telling of his life in Philadelphia and of missing his children. Our narrator reminds us that “it’s only a novel, none of it exists” and says she is writing “A horizontal novel, told vertically”, and then “A vertical novel told horizontally”, and still later “Or a horizontal novel, told vertically. A horizontal vertigo”. Word play, you see! I can imagine the fun the translator had with this – and from what I can tell, she seems to have made a good fist of it because there’s a lot of humour here, humour that is linguistic, verbal, and that requires you to keep your wits about you.

Meanwhile, interspersed with telling the story of her current life in Mexico City and the “fictional” life of her husband in Philadelphia, she tells of her past when she worked in New York City “as a reader and translator in a small publishing house dedicated to rescuing ‘foreign gems'”. There are a few “digs” at Americans in the book and one follows this statement, when she continues, “Noone bought them, though, because in such an insular culture translation is viewed with suspicion!” I can see why Stu, with his love of translated literature, related to this work! This story, the one about her time in NYC, is full of unusual but colourful characters flitting into and out of each other’s lives, houses and beds, all told through little, sometimes interconnecting, vignettes which mostly serve to illustrate the contrariness of existence.

There’s Moby, for example, who “forged and sold rare books that he himself produced on a homemade printing press”. “My husband reads some of this”, our narrator writes, “and asks who Moby is. Nobody I say. Moby is a character.” Is he? Your guess is as good as mine. Suffice it to say that Luiselli plays these games with us from beginning to end, all the while challenging us to consider what is fiction, what is real. Is any of it real, she seems to be asking? She writes, “Writing this is coarse. But reality is even more so.” There are ghosts, blindness, and shadows; people and objects suddenly slip from being substantial to being insubstantial. And gradually our narrator, herself, seems to merge with the obscure Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen, about whom she is writing, while running into (or does she?) other poetic luminaries like Federico Garcia Lorca, William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound.

There’s a fantastical element to the story, but it’s not the same as Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s magical realism. It’s more slippery, if that makes any sense at all. While Gabriel Garcia Marquez expects us to comprehend “the magical” as part of it all, Luiselli seems to be saying the opposite, suggesting that perhaps “nothing is”.

This all might sound rather depressing, but it’s not. It is in fact a fun read. And while the novel is, I think, about the challenge of living an artistic life in which the things of the real world threaten to overwhelm the imagination, the final word is positive – albeit ironically so. You’ll have to read it yourself though to find out what that is.

Valeria Luiselli
Faces in the crowd
Translated by Christina MacSweeney
London: Granta Books, 2012
ISBN: 9781847085580 (Kindle ed.)

Mario Vargas Llosa, The feast of the Goat

Mario Vargas Llosa, signing books

Mario Vargas Llosa signing books in 2010 (Courtesty: Daniele Devoti, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-2.0)

If Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa‘s The feast of the goat had been a traditional historical novel, chances are it would have started with the assassins concocting their plan and then worked chronologically to its logical conclusion. But, it is not a traditional historical novel, as is reflected in the structure Vargas Llosa has chosen to tell his story.

Before we get to that though, the plot. The central story revolves around the dying (literally) days of the 30-year Trujillo (“the Goat”, “the Benefactor”, “the devil”) regime in the Dominican Republic. This means the main action takes place in 1961. However, overlaying this is the perspective of Urania, the daughter of one of Trujillo’s head honchos. She’d left the country days before the regime ended and cut herself completely off from her father – for thirty-five years, until her sudden return at the novel’s start. The novel is told from these two time perspectives – 1960/61 and 1996 – and from multiple points-of-view*, the main ones being:

  • Urania
  • Trujillo
  • The conspirators/assassins

But this isn’t all there is to this novel’s structure and narrative style. I’m not quite sure how Vargas Llosa gets away with it, but he has written a book that is very accessible (once you get across the intricacies of Latin American names) and yet also rather complex. This complexity is found, primarily, in the structure. The book can, essentially, be divided into two parts. Chapters 1-16 proceed pretty systematically, cycling through, in turn, the stories of Urania, Trujillo (usually with one of his offsiders), and the Conspirators (usually focusing on one of them in particular). By Chapter 16 the two major crises of the book have occurred or been introduced. The last 8 chapters continue to cycle through different points-of-view but not in the same systematic order. In other words, the narrative structure becomes erratic and the rhythm more urgent, as chaos and uncertainty take over.

And yet, there’s more. For example, the novel is told primarily in third person, with the point-of-view changing chapter to chapter. But, every now and then, for just a sentence or two, or maybe a paragraph, the voice lapses into second person. This happens most often with Urania and conveys the sense that there has been some trauma that she hasn’t been able to fully integrate/recover from. We discover the origins of this trauma in Chapter 16, but it is not fully revealed until the last chapter.

… You were still a girl, when being a girl meant being totally innocent about certain things that had to do with desire, instincts, power, and the infinite excesses and bestialities that a combination of those things could mean in a country shaped by Trujillo. She was a bright girl … (Chapter 16)

This little slip into second person in Urania’s story is telling.

Okay, so this is the architecture, the behind-the-scenes technical stuff, but why write it this way? Well, the reasons are intellectual and emotional. Intellectual in that the multiple alternating points-of-view enable us to get a number of “stories” first hand. Through the eyes of the perpetrators and the disaffected, we explore the regime, and how, as happens so often with dictatorships, the early benefits are gradually (but surely) overshadowed by the corruption and violence perpetrated to maintain power, and how this leads to the assassination conspiracy. And emotional in that the constant shifting in perspective, particularly from people we can trust to those we can’t (to the best of our knowledge), and back again, unsettles and discomforts us … just as those who lived through the regime were kept on edge.

It’s impossible, without writing a thesis, to cover all the angles in this book, so I’m just going to look at one more – the characterisation of Trujillo himself. A historical novelist (rather like a biographer) has to choose what to include and what to exclude when describing a person. Vargas Llosa was lucky, really, that Trujillo had some traits that made this choice rather easy, traits that work on both the literal level and the ironic and metaphoric. Fairly early in the novel is this description of Trujillo

…that master manipulator of innocents, fools, and imbeciles, that astute exploiter of men’s vanity, greed and stupidity.

Fairly typical, wouldn’t you say, of a dictator? But, Trujillo was also fastidious about cleanliness and appearance, believing that

Appearance is the mirror of the soul.

If that’s so, then Trujillo’s “soul” is a very superficial thing because his disdain for the rights and feelings of others is palpable. Throughout the novel, Vargas Llosa sets Trujillo’s obsession with personal care (“the man who did not sweat, did not sleep, never had a wrinkle on his uniform, his tuxedo, or his street clothes”) against the coldness of his mind. That his mind is cold is made perfectly clear through his attitude to his offsiders (whom he liked to scare – “it cheered him to imagine the sizzling questions, suppositions, fears, suspicions he put into the head of that asshole who was the Minister of the Armed Forces”) and to women. This regime values machismo above all: it’s brutal to those those less powerful, and has careless disregard for the innocent. Women, of course, bear the brunt:

Again the memory of the girl at Mahogany House crossed his mind. An unpleasant episode. Would it have been better to shoot her on the spot, while she was looking at him with those eyes? Nonsense. He had never fired a gun gratuitously, least of all for things in bed. Only when there was no alternative, when it was absolutely necessary to move this country forward, or to wash away an insult.

Trujillo was nothing if not a master of self-justification.

How it all falls out, what happens after Chapter 16, is both expected and unexpected as those involved do or don’t do what they’d committed to. The end result is a devastating portrayal of how the political becomes the personal! Not a new message, perhaps, but The feast of the Goat is a compelling read that engaged my heart and mind. I recommend it.

Mario Vargas Llosa
(Trans. by Edith Grossman)
The feast of the goat
London: Faber and Faber, 2002
ISBN: 9780571207763

* As in most historical fiction, the novel is peopled with historical characters and fictional ones. Most, in fact, are historical but Urania and her father, though based, I understand, on real people, are fictional.