Uruguayan writer Ida Vitale’s Byobu was my reading group’s second book of the year. Originally published in Spanish in 2018, with the English translation released in 2021, Byobu is Vitale’s first book of prose to be translated into English. Few, if any of us, had heard of her – and yet, this now 98-year-old woman was, in 2019, named by the BBC as one of the 100 most influential women of the year. The things we don’t know!
Anyhow, Byobu is a curious book. It has no clear narrative, and only one character, the eponymous Byobu. It’s just 85 pages, and comprises 34 “chapters”. It is replete with allusions to a diverse range of writers, thinkers, musicians. In other words, it’s one of those books you can struggle with, if you don’t come up with a way of reading it. For me, this was to jettison preconceptions about what a novel is and go with the flow to see what fell out. And what fell out was a mind-opening, and sometimes witty, series of thoughts and observations about life and living. I can’t say I understood all of it, but I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience.
The best way I can encapsulate Byobu is to describe it as a sort of modern Everyman story, the story of an individual in a world that can be confusing, if not sometimes downright hostile. The overall theme seems to me to be: How do you live in this world?
Before I explore this more, some basics. Byobu is set in Uruguay, and although there’s no plot per se, there is some structure. (I’d probably find more structure had I time to read it a few times). The opening chapter introduces the idea of “story” – and clues us into the idea that we are going to be unsettled:
a story’s existence, even if not well defined or well assigned, even if only in its formative stage, just barely latent, emits vague but urgent emanations. (“A story”)
The next few chapters introduce us to Byobu, conveying a general sense of who he is. These are followed by chapters that consider bigger issues in contemporary life.
However, although we are introduced to Byobu, he remains somewhat shadowy. We don’t know how old he is, but one member of my reading group suggested he was old, like his author, and that he encompasses an old person’s thoughts about life. I can accept that. Regardless, besides not knowing how old he is, we don’t know whether he is (or has been) married, has a family, is working, and so on. A family home is mentioned, and there are references to daily activities including attending a conference. All this vagueness supports the idea of him as an Everyman (albeit, possibly, an old one!)
We do, though, learn some things about the sort of person Byobu is. He can be indecisive. He has “an intractable inclination to complicate things”, and hates change. He’s not a good storyteller, but he likes nature and enjoys minutiae. Unfortunately, though,
often distracted by some minutia captivating him at a particular moment, he misses fragments of conversations that later turn out to be important. (“On anodyne things”)
I found him very human and engaging, to the degree I could, given his shadowiness.
I fear though that I’m not selling the book, so I’ll try now to share some of its joys and intellect. I’ll start by talking a little about the style. Many of the “chapters”, and I put them in quotation marks because some are only a paragraph long, start with what you could call truisms, but they don’t read as cliches, like:
Everything important lies below the surface. (“Terrestrial labours”)
Byobu concludes that he must begin by ending. (“Knots”)
Byobu has heard it said that ‘every mile has its rough patch’. (“Epiphanies”)
Byobu is not always able to predict how the situations he gets involved in will end. (“Dangerous misunderstandings”)
How can you be sure that the avenue, boulevard, or ordinary road you’re facing is not actually a blind alley? (“Crossroads”)
Just look at that sentence, “Byobu concludes that he must begin by ending”. So terse, so clever. “Knots”, in fact, is one of those one-paragraph chapters. It concerns Byobu’s realisation that if he doesn’t end his “trepidations” and “tepid transactions”, if he doesn’t “lay limbos aside” and “ignore everything initiated by the iniquitous” – he will have to “accustom himself” to “the cage”. But, can he recreate himself?
“Crossroads” addresses another recurrent idea in the book, the importance of the imagination, of mystery, over the mundane. Opposing mystery and imagination are “straight lines” which also recur, starting in the second chapter, “Life is not a straight line”. In “Knots”, Byobu learns that straightness “lays snares” and in “Against the Argive Way”, he is aware that “The world loves conversations in straight lines and single-minded strides. Intersections divert. Labyrinths confound.”
A few chapters in, then, it dawned on me that Byobu was about more than a man muddling through life, that it’s a commentary on modern life. Byobu pleads for the imagination, for not going in straight lines. It critiques conformity, power and authority, commercialisation, urbanisation, inhumanity, and resistance to change. “Internal coherence” explores resisting social pressure. It is “immoral”, it suggests, to accept a world “governed by the boorish authorities who rule during these evil times we inhabit”. Yet, Vitale realises resistance is not easy, so her Byobu “resists on the inside, while staying quiet and feigning surrender”.
In the penultimate “chapter”, “Byobu and the traffic light”, traffic lights are a metaphor for “supervision and compliance”. Here “the defiant … recognise the bad example of a behaviour that is a silent hymn to obedience to all authority”. Vitale goes on to suggest that traffic lights should, in fact, “innervate the pedestrians” (who are “increasingly incongruent elements in the city”) to “assume their role as essential antagonists”. This chapter is a call to defy, to rebel.
Lest this all sound rather bleak, let me say there’s beauty here too. There are, for example, some lovely descriptions of nature:
In the garden, jasmines reign supreme. At night the star jasmine is a vertical Milky Way, delirious with aroma. (“Seasons”)
And, there is quite a bit of humour. Much is of the quiet, understated sort, but it made me laugh. “It’s true”, thinks Byobu, “there were three Wise Men; not quite a battalion” or “They’d better not count on him. He’s not an abacus”.
I hate leaving this book, but of course I must, so, I will leave you with two ideas. The first comes from one of the two epigraphs. Neither were translated, but the second is by Henri Michaux, and it roughly translates as “In case of danger, joke”! Joking is part of this book, but it is also deadly serious. Speaking of “story”, the opening chapter exhorts Byobu (our Everyman) not to “underestimate its flexible, disordered density”. And neither should we, because this novel has much to offer those willing to go with its flow.
Translated from the Spanish by Sean Manning
Edinburgh: Charco Press, 2021 (Orig. Pub. 2018)