Berfrois

The Absent Fox Terrier

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by Jessica Sequeira

Palabras ya escritas: Relecturas de La nueva novela de Juan Luis Martínez
[Words Already Written: Rereadings of The New Novel by Juan Luis Martínez]
by Zenaida Suárez 
RIL Editores, 190 pp.

La Nueva Novela [The New Novel] is a challenge starting from its title. Neither new nor a novel—putting it firmly in a line of puzzling Chilean monikers like Isla Negra, a town that is neither black nor an island—the book brings together images and texts in ambiguous ways. Originally published in 1977 in a private edition with limited circulation, it was later re-edited in 1985 by Archivo Ediciones.

Well known as a work that pushes the limits of Chilean literature, The New Novel nudges the written word, forcing it into the world of materiality and the object. At the same time, and complementary to this, it plays games that negate language, making self-conscious reference to an international and especially French and English pantheon of avant-garde, absurdist and surrealist writers, ranging from Jean Tardieu to Edward Lear to Lewis Carroll to André Breton.

Martínez came from a conservative background but found a place as a long-haired poet in the bohemia of Valparaíso, where he befriended many writers and found in life the interreferentiality that became a hallmark of his work. The New Novel was the only book he published in life, and supposedly it took eight years to complete: eight years that he no doubt also spent reading, dreaming, talking, walking, drinking, drawing, doodling and cutting out clips from the newspapers.

In Words Already Written, the Spanish-Chilean academic Zenaida Suárez takes on the difficult project of writing about a book that rejects analysis, and that locates itself within the tradition of black humour and a pataphysical sensibility, with a taste for nonsense that escapes a rational unpicking. How difficult it is to gloss a book that scorns a gloss, that challenges and parodies the logic and structure of lucid thought, that in its tautologies, jokes and self-referentiality makes any such attempt seem not only superfluous but po-faced, solemn, missing the point.

Suárez is aware of this, and in an attempt to avoid it she takes a fanciful and scattershot approach (a “partial, whimsical and eclectic journey”, as she puts it), avoiding arguments or conclusions. Although the design of the book winks to the art object with its footnotes separated out as black boxes, and with its reproduction of dozens of images from Martínez’s text, Suárez avoids the great temptation to create a book of art of her own. Instead, she speaks of “the impossibility of creating my own critical hypermetatext about The New Novel”. She is not trying to be another Martínez, yet this is clearly a book that is in favour of her subject, taking the book on its own terms with a playfulness and lightness of touch. Her reading is more sympathetic than academic, and it gets a thumbs-up from the poet Raúl Zurita, a friend of Martínez and author of the back cover blurb.

What is Suárez trying to do with her “rereadings”, as she announces in her subtitle? For a start, she looks to explore the sources of the quotes that Martínez chose in his decision to be not a creative author of his own texts, but to arrange the words and pictures of others. This might not sound groundbreaking, but as Suárez points out, traditionally Martínez has “been read through the political and cultural prism of Chile during the dictatorship”. Given the political situation of the time, along with Martínez’s references to the neofascist writer Miguel Serrano (also a friend of his), a photo of Hitler with a murdered girl named Tania Savich on the next page, a reproduction of the Chilean flag and dozens of other explicit references to political events, a political reading is a natural one, rich in allegories and connections. It’s not the only reading possible, though, and this stream has perhaps even run a bit dry.

Suárez wants to take a parallel path. Her reading is textual, focusing on the writers and poetic movements that influenced Martínez and examining his images. She includes a list of literary references at the end of her book, and her glosses provide additional background. Suárez doesn’t really make arguments of her own, but this deliberate lack of originality works within the book’s own approach, setting up a labyrinth of referents in which the reader is condemned to wander, posing questions about presence and disappearance in a Chilean key, dangling oneself as a companion of the “dear reader” variety before withdrawing, and meditating on words and silence in a way reminiscent of Maurice Blanchot, explicitly referenced in The New Novel.

Suárez’s rereadings (as opposed to rewritings) make The New Novel more accessible, and provide grounds for a non-theoretical approach. Upon closing her book, however, the enigma of the original lingers. I still don’t understand why Martínez wrote it, or how the texts were gathered; maybe these are eternal mysteries. The distinction between intentional absurdity and the ambiguous motivations of the author is hard to make.

One can come to conclusions about “the impossibility of knowledge” or “the spatial perception of reality” or “postmodern man’s understanding of the world”. One can cite Gérard Genette and Roland Barthes—whose “excitations, associations” and idea of “reading” with one’s head raised from a book hold special relevance—moving on to Julia Kristeva, Marcus Boon, Antoine Compagnon, Patrick Greaney, Frank Leibovici, Alberto Laiseca or Roger Callois, to whom Martínez dedicated The New Novel; the constellation of names invoked by Suárez shares many stars with that of Martínez, although she adds several contemporaries. One can claim that Martínez’s great predecessors are Cortázar’s Rayuela and Cervantes’ Quijote, as the work can be read out of order as a system of linked associations. One can talk about hypotexts and hypertexts. Suárez does all this, and yet The New Novel escapes a reading even as understanding as hers, indeed perhaps because it’s so understanding. The ideology of the book itself is never truly questioned.

What was Martinez trying to do with his constant nullification of words and images, his nonsense or underdetermined quotes, his glosses that confuse and thwart understanding in a distanced and pseudoscientific tone? If language creates reality, then to undermine or alter language is to transform reality. This is the note on which Martínez ends his book. But in what way did he wish to transform it? I’m left with the doubt.

The New Novel reads like a pillaged mausoleum, a collection of gravestones and ideas about art that are dug up and destroyed with aplomb, to new monuments with inscriptions that read precisely the opposite. Everyone talks about the materiality of the book, its daringness as a three-dimensional object—the first edition included little bags of soil—and yet it is hard to grab hold of the thematic object of the work. Martínez is obsessed with the infinite jest of living and dying, and the ease with which meaning can flip inside-out with the flexibility of a glove. He is drawn to scientific explanations that describe another possible existence, or that wrest importance from or otherwise negate the living.

Certain obsessions recur—the sensual gaze (Lewis Carroll’s photographs of young Alice Liddell and her relationship with the man photographing her are approached three times), the enigma of foreign writing (a full page of Chinese calligrams is reproduced as a beautiful expensive insert), the idea of blankness (a white page and transparent plastic rectangle reinforce and disturb the words on surrounding pages), and the mathematical and ontological questioning of existence (a fox terrier that disappears at the corner of Avenida Lobatchewsky and Avenida Gauss is presented as a picture with its “negative”). These themes are unsettling, repetitive, a victory of emptiness over the corporeal, of absence over the flesh.

Who is Martínez? Where is the fox terrier? What happened to little Tania Savich and little Alice Liddell, and why do they appear here? I am grateful for Suárez’s rereadings, which make me better appreciate The New Novel in literary context. They leave me with a sort of weightlessness, however, as I turn over Martínez’s pages, filled with sans-serif upper case titles, minuscule captions and black-and-white images. I want to know more about why the author spent so long constructing this world—one where animal and human bodies are so glibly created and then crossed out, with the ease of writing a word and drawing a line through it.