Monday, 26 August 2019

Book review: Comemadre, Roque Larraquy (2018)

This refreshingly good novel of ideas was originally published in Spanish in 2010. The author is Argentinian. I think the title translates as “eatmother” but I’m not a Spanish speaker so I’m not sure. Aside from some acid (though possibly ironic) sallies at the expense of the English, I thought this relatively short novel was brilliant. I had a bad reaction to it about three weeks before this review was made and set the book aside, putting my negative review in a slush pile, before picking the book up again and finishing the rest of it in one sitting. My first impression was that it read like a ‘Goon Show’ script and had only one likeable character (the nurse in the first part of the novel, who is named Menendez). On a second visit the thing made more sense.

The novel is cut into two sections that are linked through a character (who appears in the second section) named Sebastian. The first section is dated 1907 and is in the form of a diary and it is focalised through one of the doctors in a medical institution, whose name is Quintana.

The second section is dated 2009. In the beginning of this section we are witnessing the world through the character of an Argentinian artist who is not named. A woman named Lynda is writing a dissertation on him and his work and he is, in the novel, corresponding with her and answering questions that she has asked him, in a way that can furnish material for her study. The artist was a child prodigy and he teamed up with another gifted man, named Lucian, to make artworks that have been exhibited in galleries around the world and that have garnered broad acclaim.

The plot in the first section of the book is equally appealing, in a macabre sort of way, and concerns a plan by a sanatorium’s operators to trick cancer sufferers to donate their bodies to science once the (knowingly ineffectual) serum they had been given, fails. A machine like a guillotine would then be used to take their heads off in order to test the belief that the head of a person thus murdered would retain consciousness for a period of nine seconds once it was separated from the body. Insights into the nature of death could consequently be gleaned from studying the severed heads and by asking them questions before life is entirely extinguished.

Fragments of speech are captured as the heads are removed from the bodies of innocent people, and what they produce in the form of spoken words is recorded as text. These fragments have the sort of allusive hermeticism of tweets captured by a bot to furnish evidence of the intellect and education of their real-life authors. This is thrillingly funny and is typical of the kind of material this book retails in.

You can see, furthermore, how this kind of scenario might be attractive to a contemporary artist. The metatextual narrative detailing the lives of the artists which the author adds on at the end of the account of the medical institution is replete with knowing glances at the authorial process and at the business of sense-making generally. Which is why I think that Larraquy’s snide remarks about the British are more like an attack on Argentinians themselves, a people who still have raw memories of military defeat. Neither of the book’s narrators are anyway entirely reliable.

The thing that is really great about this work of fiction is that it relies entirely on novelistic solutions to the problem of communicating complex ideas. It is however a tantalising work in many respects and it is certainly one that defies attempts by the reader to assign neat meanings to any of its parts. If it is about anything it must be about identity and the self and the way that individuals find meaning in relation to others.

In support of this interpretation there are some examples in the narrative of twinning. In the first half of the book a filmmaker named Mauricio is discussed who has a brother, also called Mauricio. The doctors in the sanatorium comment on the case as an oddity, so it occupies some sections of text. Then there are the two artists in the second half of the book – one the narrator of the latter section of the novel and the one named Lucian – who are both child prodigies and who meet during their childhood before, as adults, partnering to create new works together. But then again, the book seems also to be about history and collective identity and the sense the individual has of belonging to something larger than him- or herself. Though to be honest I am not at all sure what it means. It is so, so many things and they’re all fascinating.

The meaning of the book’s title and the rest of the ontological paraphernalia that sustains it remained for me, once I had finally put the book down, something of a conundrum. But it contains a whole slew of catchy artistic ideas. I can’t wait to read other people’s reviews, because this book seems to me to be something of a puzzle. 

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