|The third revolution in|
Saturday, 9 August 2014
Open Door by Iosi Havilio
I am ashamed to admit it but I know next to nothing about Borges. I know the names of his books. I know he crops up almost without fail when conversations include literature from South America. I know his words book-end so many novels that I have that habitual proving-my-bold-assertion-mind-blankness which means my brain knows it to be true and won't humour your scepticism with an example*. And I know it's likely the biggest single lacuna in my entire reading history**.
So you may imagine my lack of surprise, on finishing this novel and reading the afterword by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, and author of works on the history and politics of Latin America, that Borges pops up, within three lines of text. Three lines! He wastes no time does Oscar. Of course, my shame bristled and I was ready to adopt the usual casual hostility to something of which I was ignorant. But straight away, I understood what he was saying. I have often considered that monster movies are most effective when the monster is merely described by its environment and the effects is has thereon. Fiction, by approaching a subject, a truth, beauty, head-on, attempting to name and describe such directly, is doomed to fail, indeed, Guardiola-Rivera suggests it ends in nightmare. Borges, to borrow the author's metaphors, advocated a circling approach, a peeling of the onion nearing a hard kernel of truth which isn't there; a candle in a dark room, the tiny circle of light revealing fragments of the whole; blind men feeling an elephant.
What am I trying to say exactly?
The position Guardiola-Rivera takes is that Havilio, despite explicitly telling the reader (in a cover note on the original Spanish edition sadly missing from the quite simple but lovely And Other Stories edition) that the monster in the novel is capitalism and 'every man for himself', still manages to skirt it, to avoid it, and in skillful, minimalist prose describing effects not causes, leaves our monster as an elephant in the room, an oppressive yet invisible force which the blind men can't even find to get a good feel of. I agree, with both of them; our monsters lack faces, their presence indicated by an omnipresent sense of dread which pervades everything.
The narrator, who herself is never given a name, loses her partner and on a whim moves to the country, a town called Open Door named after the open asylum situated there, the first of its kind in Argentina. She shacks up with an aged and taciturn ranch owner whilst also allowing herself to be toyed with by a local girl with nothing on her hands but time and curiosity but very little empathy, or rather, compassion. A bleakness permeates everything, and the action, what there is, is almost without cause or thought. Eloisa, the girl, does what she wants whenever she wants, with no thought to the consequence. The narrator is passive almost to the point of nihilism, eating plaster torn from the walls rather than getting up to buy food, regardless of the life growing in her belly. Indeed, she thrills at the thought of discarding her own compassion in order to go with Eloisa's flow.
Sounds dreadful, I know. But that's because it's me trying to describe the essential truth of the book, when the book itself chooses not to do so. And, if you're looking for some hope, then the epilogue has what someone might consider to be a relatively happy ending, with the narrator experiencing a strange and unfamiliar sense of contentment.
It's not a difficult read, the translation is excellent and the language is used simply, to create a visual landscape which shifts under your feet, which you can't trust and need to consider carefully in different ways. A friend mentioned Samuel Beckett in passing the other day and the way in which he pared everything down to the essential. It stuck as I read this, and a Beckett comparison, whilst gratuitous, seems apt. But it also has a vagueness, a smokiness at the edges that hints at many levels as yet unexplored. For such a simple book, it holds some serious profundity, and I can add it to the pile of books that will forever hold me to account when I pick up a pen for myself.
*Wait, I've thought of a great example, serendipitously reviewed within these very pages, which begins with the quote, "No-one realised that the book and the labyrinth were the same thing."
**If you conveniently disregard all of Dickens, most classical Greek texts, any female writers, Goethe, 'philosophy' and all of the great French writers. And the Romans, of course.