Postcards from Sad Songs: The Fresán Variations

Argentine writer Rodrigo Fresán.

He was awarded the Roger Caillois prize last November and the Best Translated Book Award in May, and so there are those who have already designated this “the year of Rodrigo Fresán.” And this is being said without counting the publication of two parts of an ambitious trilogy.

While we wait for the third part and while the rest of his books are being translated, here is a tour of some of the themes of his brilliant work.

A while back, in his column for Página/12, Rodrigo Fresán (Buenos Aires, 1963) talked about waiting, as treated in a book by Andrea Köhler titled Passing Time. We have lost the habit, says the Argentinian author, of waiting for the arrival of letters, or the developing of photographs. And perhaps one of the most beautiful moments of anticipation, in the literary world, may be waiting for the appearance of a book. Knowing, and sometimes even having an exact date, of the publication of the newest thing from our favorite authors. Thus, I think about The Remembered Part by Rodrigo Fresán himself. This being the third part of a trilogy made up by The Invented Part (2014) and La parte soñada [The dreamed part] (2017) and which should arrive in bookstores at some point in 2019.  It is a magnificent and ambitious project of immense volumes and a staggering tour through literature.

While that happens, Fresán’s books have become phenomena in translation. A few months ago, The Invented Part (translated by Will Vanderhyden) was honored with the Best Translated Book Award and was placed on the long list for the National Translation Award.  In addition, the recent translation of The Bottom of the Sky (also under Vanderhyden’s charge) led in the lists of favorite books this summer in the northern hemisphere.  To these were added the prestigious Roger Caillois prize, obtained by Fresán at the end of last year.

And so, over time, Rodrigo Fresán has been creating an entire literary galaxy. His constant revision of his work— a somewhat paranoid pleasure for those of us who follow his work closely—are refining even more of those constellations. Thus, the author has been including details and characters from his most recent novels in the re-editions of his previous books, as is the case of Historia argentina [Argentine history] (his first book), published once again in 2017 by Random House (and which already had other reincarnations, as is the case with most of his works), and where Sad Songs now appears for the first time (founded, really, in 1993 in Vidas de santos [Lives of saints]). A mutant city, which is at times named Sad Songs, Carminia Tristia, Chansons Tristes, Nostalgic Ranchera Songs, Dark Hymns, is where I want to begin this tour of Fresán’s works. Works that are like a dislocated nation where the obsessions of this author stroll, or stake their claim: infancy, memory (and with it, memories of films, music, and literature), and death. It is a city to which we sometimes do not arrive because the events take place just “at the outskirts.” It is a place that shelters characters and stories loaded with references to pop culture.

Such stories as the one about an Argentinian who enlists to fight in the Falklands War with the sole objective of surrendering to the enemy, so as to attend a Rolling Stones concert. A man who draws his life as a tracing of the life of the English author J. M. Barry and later becomes a super bestselling author of children’s literature, or else a musician who writes songs based on quotes from In Search of Lost Time by Proust. A pair of models who conceive a monstrous little girl.  A man with a brain tumor that leaves him with only one memory from childhood (the “Combray Syndrome”). A girl who loses her memory when she is struck by the caravan that is pursuing Lady Di. A re-reading of Pedro Páramo in a post-apocalyptic android key, next to an encyclopedia that dissects Mexico City in an unhinged alphabetical order. A female author who reads Wuthering Heights and the novel infects her life; a man who wants to sell his only dream in a world that has stopped dreaming. A boy who had always wanted to be an author transformed forever by reading Dracula (a novel that according to Fresán is also a “writing machine” and a “reading machine”). A saint hunter, a radial presenter who attempts to call God by means of a particular soundtrack.  Two brothers: one who is forever changed by his encounter at a very early age with the movie Fantasia, and the other threatened by the worst of luck. And his daughter, Selene, pursued by an illness from which she wants to run away by hiding behind a Ninja turtle mask.

Oh, the re-reading and the re-writing of the lives of Nabokov, of Fitzgerald, of the Brontë sisters.

Oh, of Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Glenn Gould.

Oh, a beautiful woman who does swimming pool terrorism.

Oh, an author who ends up being goal keeper at the soccer games in a detention camp.

Oh, an author fascinated by shopping centers.

Oh, two cousins obsessed by science fiction novels.

It is about characters that read, take notes, and underline.  Who find photos and mysterious notes in their pockets, or who refer to things that they remember having read somewhere (even though they do not remember exactly where). Who listen to Bob Dylan, to The Beatles, or to the Goldberg Bach Variations. Who watch The Twilight Zone or Citizen Kane. Who want to time travel in order to repair the terrible errors of the past, to return to childhood, to get closer to their favorite authors. Who patiently construct beautiful and terrible memory palaces to store those memories mixed with guilt.  Or who sometimes travel to go die somewhere else.

Rodrigo Fresán has made literature an amusement park, or an immense forest, where it is a pleasure to go get lost. With vertigo and marvel.  A work that makes the reader a protagonist, where his characters define themselves, above all, by what they read.  And what they read marks, deforms, and invades them.  Yes, because to read Fresán is always to re-read. In his books, the characters are never alone.  Or, not really.  Each comes along with his load of books, his own very personal house of spirits that allows them to read the reality that they have had to live (or, as in La parte soñada: “To re-read is like seeing true ghosts.  Generous ghosts who believe in us”). His characters are readers and they love their books more than their families, perhaps even more than themselves. With a furious love that transforms everything in its path and that is the only thing that appears not to change in a world where everything changes. More than fiction, infection: characters infected by stories, their own and those of others that feel to them as their own. Because upon reading they might discover that someone wrote them better than they had imagined. Because if they learn their favorite novel by heart, perhaps the pain at the end will leave them in peace.

Because to read is to save oneself.

Thus, for example, the main character of Kensington Gardens says: “Fortunate are those who read as a child, because theirs may never be the kingdom of heaven but they’ll be granted access to other people’s heavens, and there they will learn the many ways of escaping their own hell with the nonfictitious strategies of fictional characters.” Or, in another moment in the same novel:

This, I think, is always the function of our favorite books, our bedside books, the books we read to help us sleep, the books we pick up again as soon as we awake: discovering in them that someone’s written us much better than we could ever write ourselves. And knowing that his book—a book that many might have read but that was intended for just one person—is waiting for us somewhere, that all we have to do is go in search of it and find it.

And in the novels where parents always disappear, or die, or are travelling around the world, or are about to abandon their children, the books become a new type of Family.  And a new way also of reading the Family. That Twilight Zone. That defective toy, with illustrious representatives in the tremendous clans such as the Mantras and the Karmas (with their kingdom in another city: Abracadabra).

Julio Ramón Ribeyro says in La tentación del fracaso [The temptation of failure] that “the great admiration a great author inspires is evident not so much in that he imposes on us the reading of his work, but rather the reading of his favorite readings.” And Fresán, in the role of author, is also an immense reader. And his books stretch their tentacles toward his reviews and vice versa.  And we, his readers, want to run and read everything he mentions and what forms part of the framework of his stories. Because perhaps everything is nothing more than a great conversation. A continual counting of favorite books so that they never run out. A universe of reading scenes and pure readers, according to the terms of Ricardo Piglia in The Last Reader (“The addicted reader, the one that cannot stop reading, and the insomniac reader, the one that is always awake, are extreme representations of what it means to read a text (…) I would call them pure readers; for them, reading is not just a practice, rather a way of life”).

And, in the two parts of his trilogy, Fresán introduces us precisely to those two reader/protagonists: Penelope as an addicted reader, and her Brother Writer as the sleepless narrator.  And, in this way of life, books serve as a way of making memory as well as a way of losing it.  In Fresán’s works we are always returning to those regions where memory becomes complicated: childhood (“the only possible homeland”) and death.  Because, in both cases, the ones that remember are the others.  Either the parents, or the living who remain on this side of things (thus, in Mantra “(…) the chronicle of our childhood is in reality written by our parents determined to obtain and capture through it an increasingly more distant reflection of their increasingly more distant past. Thus, almost without realizing it they falsify us, lie about us, invent  us…).

Nevertheless, in these works, what happens and is remembered is as important as that which is not: what is not said, what is not written (in Argentinian History, for example, there abound plans for novels that are never written, letters that are never sent, documentaries that are never filmed), as well as that which is heard incorrectly and which exists as a false remembrance (such as the anecdote from Casablanca, one more of these invited fictions, and the phrase that is spoken by Ingrid Bergman’s character—though most people ascribe it to Humphrey Bogart—“Play it once, Sam,” but which everyone cites it as “Play it again).

Characters who read out loud.  And it doing so, change the world.  Their worlds. Because their voices, and those that remain as phantoms in music, are fundamental. Music and voice as a subterranean and electric current. Bach’s Goldberg Variations interpreted by a brilliant Glenn Gould (who makes various cameo appearances in Fresán’s work), The Beatles’ A Day in the Life (a central mechanism of Kensington Gardens, the songs of Bob Dylan, of The Kinks, of Roy Orbison. And the Fresán’s novels do not just tell. In their best moments, they also sing. Thus, it is possible to think of his books not so much as part of a specific literary genre, but rather as musical variations; hence, let the usual suspects reappear: those characters that are constructed as doubles, as the shadow of an other that, almost always, awaits us in the books, or smiles at us from a photo. Those distant parents, or ones with expiration dates. Those uncles or grandparents who protect.  Those strange and unusual women. All those books. Those songs that are voices that survive in time (that fix it, sometimes, like a photo), dead voices that continue to sing, spectral messages that (dis)order the world. Such as “A Day in the Life”—that song that relentlessly pursues Fresán’s books like a ghost of all Christmases at once.  Thus, we hear it said in Kensington Gardens: “‘A Day in the Life’ is the impossible desire of making all of History fit in one day: a resonant antidote so as to be able to tolerate the disenchantment with the limitations of the mundane by elevating everything to a perfect ephemeris.”

And yes, Fresán’s books are about one day in a life.

But the in the life of literature.

Or, as the Costa Rican poet Luis Chaves says: “Beneath this, there is a song.”

That song full of surprises, written by two, with those voices that tell us that they have read the news, that they saw a movie, or that they read a book (“I read the news, today, oh boy”); life always interceded and crossed by fictions. And that also seems to be the way that Fresán’s are constructed, that is the way that his characters learn about life, that is how to assemble and disassemble their days. That is also how they remember by and with all means: they record their voices, or those of the others using odd devices, or they keep a photo in which someone important is missing, or they make a film of a memorable party. (And remembering means passing once again through the heart (re-cordare), but doing so mediated by technologies and devices (REC-ordare)).

Rodrigo Fresán’s literature is an explosive literature, which is read with the speed of an avalanche and which has reached a very high level with his monumental trilogy whose first two parts are already known and which have clever irony, a protagonist who is an author named Penelope. (And now all that is left for us is to wait). And in these two parts, we encounter once more authors (many of them, but above all, two brothers) and great readers. With characters that allow themselves to be invaded, offering an extreme hospitality to certain other works of fiction (specially to Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night in the first part and to Wuthering Heights in the second). And it reminds me of that narrator in Vida de santos, broadcasting from a strange foundation a new end of the world (in Variations Fresán is always ending the world, some world, and with this comes an inevitable and urgent confession): that vampires have to be invited to enter a place and that after that, they can invade again as many times as they want. In fact, literature can be understood as another vampire (“Literature is like that vampire to whom we open the door so that he can tell us his story with the implicit understanding that he will tell it to others who do not know so that—over and over again, in more or less complete versions, it will survive the rigors of his age and the terror of his curse”).

And, one inevitably thinks of those other great hosts of literature such as Mrs. Dalloway or Jay Gatsby.

Or, of those “Signals captured in the heart of a party” in La velocidad de las cosas [The Speed of Things]. Or remembering that in The Invented Part, the first time that we know about Penelope is because her mother, pregnant with her, sings from far away that song (that she will later hate forever). And then, the first time she describes it to her, it is like a house.  To her, the one who is crazy about Wuthering Heights. Another novel that opens its doors to a strange guest (and it opens them, yes, so very wide) so that it narrates itself better.

Rodrigo Fresán has achieved, with these first two installments something immense: a story that carries with it that enormous wave that is literature, film, songs, those variations that make us feel at home, those works of fiction that transform us forever (“A book that was all the books that that book could be.” And also: “The book was about reading and writing. About the ever more disgusting and sickly habits of reading and writing”). And passionate and monstrous reflection about believing and creating; about the eternal reverberation of words in the world. Writing machines and reading.  Everything recounted by an insomniac narrator, the one who stays to tell it, even though it is from a room in a building in flames, and by it offers the possibility of a new life.

And so, although it is true that each time we re-read a book, we find new things, in Fresán’s world this is truly so. Because there are always additions and pocket re-editions (for one work where there are many of these and save treasures) and with this the sensation of reading something alive, something that never stays still, something, yes, mutant. Mutating. And it is time to end this article and it is inevitable to look at all those books and to think, no: to know that some place and at some moment they are going to change again, that perhaps they are already changing. And upon opening a new version—an “augmented and corrected by the author” edition, or even a life in translation with new pages—and sensing the indispensable arrival of that usual happy paranoia: Was it here before?

And may the answer be to enter once again into that, yes, very familiar book and tell it: tell it to me again.

(Play it again, Sam).

María José Navia
Pontifical Catholic University of Chile

Translated by Rosario Drucker Davis

Languages

Number 8

The eighth issue of Latin American Literature pays homage to Nicaraguan writer and politician Sergio Ramírez, winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize and an important voice in a country currently gripped by crisis. We also feature poetry from Octavio Armand, as well as special sections dedicated to four indigenous writers of Mexico and Guatemala, bilingual sci-fi from Worldcon 76, and the poetry of Marosa di Giorgio, Olga Orozco, and Elena Garro. 

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Sergio Ramírez

Dossier: Octavio Armand

Essays

Latin American Science Fiction

Indigenous Literature

Poetry

Fiction

Interviews

Previews

Nota Bene