Clean Sweep

Philip Horne

Klima’s fine, disconsolate novel is scarcely the cliché its blurb makes it out – ‘a moving account of the fate of the dissident artist under an oppressive regime’ – because Klima’s reason for joining a team of Prague street-sweepers is not exactly that he has been forced to do it by the state. ‘I needed to go somewhere in the morning, at least I’d now have a natural objective for a while: set out somewhere, perform whatever kind of activity and listen to whatever kind of talk, just so I don’t have to sit amidst the silence listening to the snapping of threads.’ Dissidence plays a fairly small part in Klima’s preoccupations, which are more existential, both more private and more universal.

The ‘threads’ to which he refers are those of the ‘net’ of relations which he, or his narrator, for ‘none of the characters in this book – and that includes the narrator – is identical with any living person’, regards as attaching every individual to the world. The encroaching consciousness of mortality can only be held at bay by illusions, distractions and an openness to ‘the grace of human contact’. Honesty, anyway, demands that this human condition be confronted; and the impulse to flight from it, which leads the narrator into the passionate adulterous affair with a sculptress that is the central ‘thread’ in the book’s weave of memories, plots and meditations, has to be sacrificed. The last imperative in the novel is to ‘cleanliness’ of ‘soul’, the upshot of a multiplicity of literal delineations and metaphorical interpretations of ‘garbage’.

The narrator actually becomes a sweeper in order to forget the sculptress, Daria, when he has torn himself away from her for the second and final time. Accounts of his new routine and of his assortedly unhappy fellow workers alternate with carefully measured episodes from the affair, and from associated passages of his life, so that we feel a certain suspense even while other interests are being entertained. The point of the tide seems to be that Klima revolts against the easy coming-and-going of modern sexual behaviour, with its readiness to discard people who have served their purpose, just as he revolts against the shortsightedness of a society of consumers indifferently voiding its refuse into a world which can only take so much.

Early on, he recalls an emblematic moment in his time as a hospital cleaner, loading an incinerator with ‘blood-soaked bandages, gauze full of pus and hair, dirty rags smelling of human excrement, and of course masses of paper, empty tins, broken glass and plastic’. For some reason, ‘the rubbish did not burn but the draught in the furnace sucked it up and spewed it out from the high chimney-stack, up towards the sky, and I watched with horror and amazement as all my refuse ... slowly descended to the ground, as it was caught in the branches of the trees, or sailed towards the open windows of the wards.’ The moral of this horrific return, for Klima, is that the waste remains. ‘No matter ever vanishes. It can, at most, change its form. Rubbish is immortal, it pervades the air, swells up in water, dissolves, rots, disintegrates, changes into gas, into smoke, into soot, it travels across the world and gradually engulfs it.’ The human elements in the hospital trash connect with the human beings refused by their fellows: ‘We remove discarded articles to a dump, and these dumps grow sky-high. And so do the dumps of discarded people who, as they grow old, are no longer visited by those dear to them, or by anyone except perhaps others who have themselves been discarded.’ For the narrator there has been a terrible experience which connects love and garbage in his own childhood: his imprisonment in the Nazi fortress ghetto in Prague, and the disposal, from there, of many of those he cared most about. His menial job in the Prague of the present, and the painful pressure he feels to ‘discard’ one of the women he is involved with, his wife or ‘the other woman’, tie him up with ‘that super-sweeper and sacrifice-master of Auschwitz, Hoess’.

Klima’s deadpan method of oblique but charged juxtaposition, whereby an argument is introduced or a psychological association intimated without fanfare, has one of its most shocking effects here. The section on Hoess is preceded by a scene where the narrator goes from the other woman’s pressure on him to leave his wife, ‘an unbearable tension pressing on my lungs so I can hardly breathe’, to a home where his ‘childishly trusting’ wife returns him to ‘a different sphere, where no corrosive flames are flickering’, and where ‘I can breathe freely.’ Immediately after this, Hoess is quoted callously describing the Jews in the gas chambers who ‘shout and gasp for air’, and recorded as building incinerators for the results of the process. If Sylvia Plath takes a liberty in making her ‘Daddy’ a Nazi genocide, Klima’s circumspect approach keeps the association only an echo, applies it to the narrator himself rather than another, and has the factual justification of his having himself nearly lost his life at the hands of the Hoesses.

The roots of creativity are located by the novel in resistance to this genocide. Klima’s narrator records early in the book how, as a child, in the profound depression and traumatic illness he suffered after the end of the war, he discovered ‘the amazing power of literature and of the human imagination generally’ as an antidote to the universe of death which had been revealed to him. He recognises literature as having the power ‘to make the dead live and to stop the living from dying. I was seized by wonder at this miracle, at the strange power of the author, and there began to spring up within me a longing to achieve something similar. That longing took hold of me and began to carry off the faces of my dead.’ Even if this sounds rather adolescent and grandiose, Klima’s style manifests what his now-eminent associate Vaclav Havel has called ‘a distinctive Central European scepticism’. This involves, Havel says, ‘a deepened sense of irony and self-irony, together with humour and black humour, and perhaps most important in this context, an intense fear of exaggerating our own dignity unintentionally to a comic degree, a fear of pathos and sentimentality, of overstatement and of what Kundera calls the lyric relation to the world’. The painful, tender, qualified account of the death of the narrator’s father near the end, framed by doubts and anxieties, justifies the child’s sense of a calling; it touchingly ‘makes the dead live’, only, of course, often, to have them again die.

Daria, the hippyish sculptress (‘she could hear a tree groaning when it was cut down’), issues magical, ‘lyric’ statements about love and the world in which the narrator’s scepticism is read as repression and cowardice, a refusal to take risks and abandon the known. But without denying the real responsibility his involvement with her incurs for him, the narrator does not entirely accept her version of the state of play, ‘accusations ... which apply one yardstick to herself and another to everyone else’. He sees her demand for an exclusive sexual relation, at the expense of the still-loved wife, as a threat to the generous, general humanity he prizes, the integrity that must not be relinquished.

The exemplary figure throughout the book is that of another Czech Jew haunted by death and loneliness: ‘Kafka’s soul was pure’; ‘Kafka rediscovered the mysterious’; ‘writing to him was prayer.’ In the latest novel by the writer currently engaged in trying to become President of Peru, Kafka is again a crucial figure for a narrating Jewish protagonist, though here not the main narrator (a version of Llosa himself, much as in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1984)), but the ‘storyteller’ of the title, Saul Zuratas. The Kafka Saul is involved with is really the author, though, only of one story, ‘Metamorphosis’.

Saul is a red-haired, hideously birthmarked student friend of the narrator in the Fifties who becomes obsessed with the remote Machiguenga tribe in the Amazon basin. He becomes a good Kurtz, going native out of conviction that the tribal ways are wiser than those of ‘civilisation’, and apparently disappears into the forest to be transformed into one of the peripatetic habladores who have a special place among the Machiguenga. Half the book is his storytelling, imagined by the narrator, and leading to the retelling by him, in the carefully established terms of the native culture, of the story of ‘Gregor-Tasurinchi’ (all Machiguenga men have the same name – Tasurinchi – and migrant souls). The chief metamorphosis in the novel is that of Saul into the storyteller; it is witnessed by the Vargas Llosa figure, who like the real author has run and presented (in the early Eighties) a Peruvian equivalent of the South Bank Show. This Latin Bragg, recalling it all from Florence, makes a chatty but obsessive Marlow, a novelist rather than mariner, who is himself drawn to the ‘storytellers’ because they seem to reveal the origins of his own literary vocation with such intensity.

He is obsessed by the ritual passion of the teller’s audience: ‘Their eyes avid, their mouths agape, not one pause, not a single inflection of what the man said was lost on them.’ And the book’s true concern emerges in Vargas Llosa’s choice of the moment when the most mysterious transformation happens: not when Zuratas gains entrance to the tribe, but the moment when ‘I became a storyteller after being what you are at this moment: listeners.’ That is, in spite of the book’s genuine concern about the Indians’ exposure to ‘the irreversible disruptive mechanism of this contradictory civilisation’, a topic of legitimate general interest, its emotional core is (necessarily, one might say) ‘subjective’. The narrator tells Saul in the Fifties that the Machiguenga storytellers are ‘a tangible proof that storytelling can be something more than mere entertainment ... something primordial.’

It is open to us, perhaps, to respond to this as the impatient Saul does, with disappointment: ‘Oh, I see. It’s the literary side that interests you.’ But for Vargas Llosa a literary understanding, or at least an understanding of the transforming effects of the human imagination, is an essential part of wisdom, with which, as a writer, he has only a more professional involvement than most. (He has asserted that such an understanding, with the sceptical, analytical perspective it applies, is vital also in politics.) His narrator finds in the Machiguenga storyteller an ancestor and a lingering creative model from the Fifties to the present: ‘a great stimulus for my own work, a source of inspiration and an example I would have liked to emulate’. This ‘curious emotional link’ is as much the subject of the book as the Amazon issue; and Vargas Llosa would maybe claim that a novel which did not thus acknowledge the fictionality of its own constructions could never escape falsity.

It may be that Vargas Llosa has based The Storyteller entirely on actual experiences of his; that nothing in it lacks its corresponding reality. Yet unlike many autobiographers who report, decades after the event, pages of speech as if verbatim, the narrator here, harking back to the Fifties, reconstructs an exchange he had with Saul and straight away turns to doubt his own accuracy: ‘Is that what he said? Could one at least infer something of the sort from what he was saying? I’m not sure. Perhaps this is pure invention on my part after the event.’ The narrator himself is by the nature of his role telling a story, and the shaping requirements of his form, the personal and cultural imperatives which govern our idea of narrative, deserve a measure of recognition. He wonders elsewhere if he has distorted his memory of his final encounters with Saul in their college days to fit in with the trajectory he is hypothesising into the jungle and the tribal function. ‘Perhaps he went on being the same smiling, talkative Mascarita whom I knew in 1953, and my imagination has changed him so as to make him conform more closely to the other one, the one of future years whom I did not know, whom I must invent, since I have given in to the cursed temptation of writing about him.’

There is, however, an even more striking possibility here than simply the narrator’s imaginative filling-in of gaps in a true story: that Saul Zuratas hasn’t disappeared into the bush and become a hablador, but has disappeared from view to do something much less extraordinary. The evidence the narrator produces is circumstantial, to say the least, and he has not seen Saul again in the jungle. He starts the novel with his accidental discovery in Florence of a photographic exhibition devoted to pictures of the Machiguenga, including one of a storyteller. At the end he admits the wilful element in his identification:

I have decided that it is [Saul] who is the storyteller in Malfatti’s photograph. A personal decision, since objectively I have no way of knowing. It’s true that the face of the figure standing is the most heavily shadowed – on the right side, where his birthmark was. This might be a key to identifying him. But at that distance the impression might be misleading ...

A reliable-seeming missionary living among the Machiguenga, who has no reason to lie, tells the narrator in 1981 about an ‘albino’ storyteller with red hair and a huge birthmark. Otherwise all the supporting evidence is negative.

We may therefore feel justified in reading the story as in some degree a projection on the part of the narrator (and, no doubt, on the part of Vargas Llosa himself). The terrific saturation in Machiguenga language and concepts to whose results we are exposed – the detailed and internally consistent myths and taboos which overwhelm us in the ‘storyteller’ sections – show us a primitive, original culture in whose rituals the creator of fiction enjoys a privileged position. The function of this figure is to unite the scattered tribe by providing a comprehensive discourse into which members of the audience are systematically absorbed. The chief mode of the Machiguenga myth is metamorphosis – hence the Kafka connection – and for Vargas Llosa the appeal of the subject, as in The War of the End of the World, seems to be the chance to represent a self-contained cultural system operating under extreme stress and telling itself self-evidently compensatory stories to make subsistence bearable, transposing its appalling realities of oppression and hopelessness into patterns of significance and dignity. What is remarkable in such a context, a tribute to Vargas Llosa’s imagination, is that the Machiguenga, in The Storyteller, emerge for the reader as such a poignant reality.

Alejo Carpentier’s powerful, oppressive, bewildering novella The Chase, published in Spanish in 1956 and now translated, is elaborately hailed on the back by Carlos Fuentes as the work of the inventor of ‘magical realism’, ‘our father’. It certainly has, like Fuentes’s own 1965 Aura, a seriously ‘literary side’. Its highly-worked, modernistic formal experiments – there seem to be architectural and musical and Greek-tragical structures and motifs running through it – make a fair job, in the manner, and almost the syntax, of Faulkner, of keeping down and vague the thriller plot of revolutionaries, torture, betrayal and punishment.

Carpentier, like Vargas Llosa in his first novel Time of the Hero, plays a game in which the reader doesn’t always know whose point of view (of two characters’) is being offered. He does not aspire to Vargas Llosa’s clarity, however, and though progressively one of the two main male characters seems to predominate, what may be an awkward translation at the end of the second part left this reader unclear whether one of them dies twice.

Although the tormented hero, on the run in Havana at night from the comrades, some of whom he has fatally betrayed under threat of castration, keeps passing and overhearing an open-air production of Aeschylus (‘The curses are being fulfilled,’ and so on), the Conrad of The Secret Agent, the Malraux of La Condition Humaine, and the Joyce of the ‘Nighttown’ portion of Ulysses, are some of the closest non-Latin parallels that come to mind. As in his splendid anti-Homeric short story ‘Like the Night’, Carpentier pungently conveys the squalor and melancholy of grand, violent projects which go off the boil: the failed, guilt-crushed revolutionary recalls unconvincingly that ‘everything had been just, heroic, and sublime in the beginning.’ In the other story the soldier going off to the Trojan War, who began with the proud consciousness that ‘the greatest adventure of all time was now unfolding like an epic,’ ends with ‘an intolerable sense of disgust, of inner emptiness’.

The Chase establishes its own peculiar spell, and its architecturally-loaded descriptions of the city at night lovingly work towards something that is not merely ‘atmosphere’. The modern debasements of a purer classical order, as in the Trojan story, evoke a nostalgia for a condition which may never have been that great. Certain Havana streets represent a tumultuously parodic relation to the past: ‘These were colonnaded streets, avenues, galleries, roads of columns, as bright as day; so numerous were the columns that no city had such a stock, with a disorder of orders that mismatched Doric at the axes of a façade with the volutes and acanthus leaves of solemn Corinthians, pompously erected half a block down, between the clothes-lines of a laundry whose broken-nosed caryatids supported wooden architraves.’ As in Cabrera Infante’s View of Dawn in the Tropics of 1974, also concerned with Cuba’s bloody recent history, the reticence about identification – the namelessness and reduction to function of the protagonists – gives a bleakly timeless quality to this work, which is, in its unpleasant way, a minor masterpiece.

A masterpiece seems to be what Fuentes takes Aura for, and certainly it carefully paces its Gothic progression towards the disorienting revelation of its literally preposterous premise, a double metamorphosis. The story runs to a mere 48 pages, but the book is made up by a remarkable document, an essay of 1988, written in English, called ‘How I wrote Aura’, in which Fuentes charts the many inspirations of the story. Sex with a young Mexican girl in Paris, Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, James’s The Aspern Papers, Dickens’s Miss Havisham, Quevedo, Buñuel’s conversation and his The Exterminating Angel, Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari and various other Japanese forms of the story, Callas’s performance in La Traviata in Mexico City in 1951, and The Lady of the Camellias by Dumas fils: all these are brought into relation with the tale of an ancient woman, Señora Consuelo, who entices a young scholar, Felipe, to live in her house on the pretext that he should edit her long-dead husband’s memoirs. In fact she wants him to become her late husband, a general, while she herself will blend with her attractive niece Aura so that the old passion can be renewed in young bodies. We ourselves, the readers, are to become the young man, for the precious, creepy tale is narrated in the ‘second person singular, the You that structures desire’.

Fuentes, giving himself auras, does not seem to share the Czech sceptics’ ‘intense fear of exaggerating our own dignity unintentionally’; unless he is doing it intentionally, of course. The author in his essay is a man of the world, well-travelled, well-read, well-connected (he had dinner with Callas six days before she died). Klima’s street-sweeping and intimately-grounded anxieties, rendered in a form where autobiography and fiction challenge and give edge to each other, are a long way from this seigneurial complacency; as, indeed, is Vargas Llosa’s obsessive and uncomfortable preoccupation with his actual, visitable form of the Other.