Friday, 21 August 2015

Valeria Luiselli’s narrative hide-and-seek

Full title: Faces in the Crowd
Author: Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 150 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Granta (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)


“If you dedicate your life to writing novels, you’re dedicating yourself to folding time.”

(Faces in the Crowd)


Things get complicated in Faces in the Crowd every time it comes to spatial and chronological transgressions. The female narrator meets (or thinks she’s met) the Mexican poet Gilberto Owen on the New York subway. Owen himself meets (or thinks he’s met) Ezra Pound, Federico Garcia Lorca, or Joshua Zvorsky. The latter, a made-up character, is an impersonation of Louis Zukovsky (it takes only a few clues to figure it out). Valeria Luiselli plays expertly the game of who’s who in a style that smacks of Borges. This is a style that doesn’t bring any light to the puzzle represented by the text but, on the contrary, complicates every instance of uncertainty. It all goes crazy, until the reader gives up diagramming connections and accepts to play the game only for the pleasure of it. Of course, tracing the relations between characters is not an impossible task. The aha moments, when you recognize Chekhov’s gun before it gets fired, are everywhere. Hence the pleasure that comes with this novel. But the crux of the matter is this: time and space are relative, fictional chronotops allow intermixing of characters and interweaving of narratives.
Identities and settings are, therefore, crucial, as they provide the foundation of the entire story. Not only is the text split in two, with two narrative voices at two different moments in time going their mildly separate ways (one: a female writer/translator in Mexico City somewhere in the late 2000s; two: Gilberto Owen, decades earlier, strolling the streets of Harlem); it also features a nosy reader who keeps upsetting the progression of the narrative – up to a certain point, when he upsets no more. This intruder is the writer/translator’s husband, who has been peering over her shoulder while she’s been writing this novel that we’re reading. The husband comments every time he finds the occasion, picking on details of the story that involve himself or his wife’s amorous adventures. The role of this intruder is to shift the focus of narration and to highlight the artificial aspect of the fiction. He disagrees with certain episodes, questions others, and appears to be influenced in his actions by what he’s reading in his wife’s novel. Because of this character, a further complication of the narrative occurs. There is the level of the actual novel on the one hand, and the time-zero of narration on the other hand. The latter is still a fiction to us, the actual readers, but it acts as a real-life situation to the fictional reader who intervenes in the story.
Valeria Luiselli. Source: Translatable
You see how things get difficult to follow. Or should I say difficult to explain in a few lines? Faces in the Crowd (with a title taken, at least in its English rendition, from Ezra Pound’s poem, “In a Station of the Metro” – so here’s another complication) needs to be followed closely to be truly enjoyed. It’s not the kind of book you hear about and decide you don’t have to read because you’ve got the plot, so why bother. Its intricate intertextuality and the network of relationships and trajectories make it a game worth playing, an exercise in readerly attention.
It’s quite something to follow the way Luiselli twists events like a well-trained puppeteer, giving them a different connotation or a chance to be seen from a new perspective. I’m all for the following example, a fragment where she imagines Ezra Pound at the very moment when he is struck by the image that will produce “In a Station of the Metro.” Note, this is Gilberto Owen (1904-1952) speaking.
“The first thing I do remember is the face of Ezra Pound in the crowd waiting on the platform for the train. Of course it wasn’t really him. The doors opened and there he was on the platform, leaning against a pillar. We looked each other straight in the eye, as if in recognition, although he couldn’t possibly have heard anything about me, a young Irish-Mexican, neither red haired nor good looking, more bastard than poet. I was transfixed – instead of getting off the train, I let the passengers leave and be replaced by others, identically ugly, overheated and ordinary. Pound didn’t board the train. He was lost among the crowd of faces on the platform, faces like the wet petals of his poem.”
For those who don’t remember Pound’s poem, here it is in its entirety:
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;Petals on a wet, black bough.”
The fragment by Luiselli describes a look from the opposite side of a train platform, seeing Pound as he sees the incoming trains. It calls for some good courage only to go there.
What else. Well, this: unreliable narrator. A trick that can look cheap when handled by certain realist authors, is given a major part to play, and to remarkable effects. The female narrator (I hate the fact that she doesn’t have a name, so I have to keep calling here this) makes no secret of the fact that she’s a liar. She’s faked translations of poems by Owen, pretending they’d been done by Zvorsky (a fictional character himself, so another case of lying); she’s also lied to her husband about her sexual encounters; she’s lying through her teeth every time she has the opportunity. And yet she is the one whose story has to be believed. Everything hinges on the issue of truth: of how hard it is to acquire it, of how complicated the most straightforward form of truth could sometimes be. And guess what? The reader does believe her. We believe the story precisely because we know it’s based on lies, illusions, hallucinatory ideation. We believe the story because we know it’s fiction. That’s the greatest achievement of this little debut novel, the reason it has been so excitedly received by critics. That, of course, plus the author’s talent, her proficient handling of literary references, the intricacies of her architectonics, the tricks she plays on us, readers, when she pulls a stint of citation of which we might not be aware.
It’s sometimes nothing but a game, a game of guessing, a game of reading enjoyments. Best described in a passage like the following, where the female narrator, the metanarrative guarantor of the story, insinuates her condition in the form of a childish game:
“We play at hide-and-seek in this enormous house. It’s a different version of the game. I hide and the others have to find me. Sometimes hours go by. I shut myself up in the closet and write long, long paragraphs about another life, a life which is mine but not mine. Until someone remembers that I’m hiding and they find me.”
It’s this constant search for the characters, for their connections and their functions, that gives the novel that special air of a labyrinth (o, Borges, you again!), of an experiment well played. The others in the fragment just quoted – who could they be. Us, of course, the readers. The story is all about us, like it was in Last Year in Marienbad, a film Luiselli quotes, I think (now I can’t be sure but what the hell), so as to throw yet another allusion at us.
Allusion taken.