Literature: Enter the Euronovel
4 June 2010
Is it possible to write a novel combining the literary atmospheres of several European nations? That is what the young and gifted Argentine Patricio Pron does in El comienzo de la primavera, according to his Spanish counterpart Félix de Azúa.
Every country produces a literary atmosphere of its own. It’s hard to imagine – though such a thing does exist – an Italian novel drenched in rain and cloaked in deepest darkness: that would be an aberration. Any Italian novel worthy of the name has to have mandolins playing in the background, half-naked teenagers cavorting on the beach and, at the climax, the disgrace of a mature woman who has overzealously guarded her virginity. A cold, gloomy Italy whipped by sinister northern winds is confined to the Socialist Milanese school and some antiquated authors from Trieste.
The exhausting socio-geographical diversity of France, which is capable of accommodating Breton hardship, idleness in the Provence and pompous Parisian futility, does not impose a décor, but an insistence on formal refinement. The French novel has to have a high-brow stylistic component demonstrating with the utmost probity that the author is highly intelligent, or at least ingenious, since there is no way to translate the word esprit. The other conditio sine qua non for the author to command any respect is he has to have read Barthes.
Death in the snow surrounded vodka bottles
The English, on the contrary, hate revealing themselves in their writing, which is doubtless why English autobiographies are the most unseemly. After so many years of hiding behind the sceptical detachment of sober and elegant prose, comes a time for exuberant excess. What an English writer dreads most is to be taken for a French intellectual, a race to which he feels even more aversion, if at all possible, than to loud-mouthed southern tourists. In the English novel, it must gradually dawn on us that the character who seemed an imbecile is actually the only intelligent one – though the end of the story generally drags us back to our first impression.
Now there is no denying the existence of the Russian novel replete with a woefully weeping protagonist whose mother is trying desperately to cover him up with a threadbare overcoat from World War II to keep him from freezing to death in the snow (surrounded, of course, by empty vodka bottles). But this is an outmoded genre now giving way to novels about secret agents in the service of five countries (US, China, Italy, Russia and Panama), Georgian mafiosi who turn out to be the real owners of Saint Peter’s at the Vatican, or village comedians who have seen God in the guise of a reindeer wearing a top hat. Which renders the Russian novel virtually indistinguishable from its US counterpart, so we can skip that one.
Martin Amis writes Italian novels
The most absolute, however, the most solid – and how it could be otherwise given its meagre contribution to the genre – is the German novel. It’s so cold there your arteries freeze and the fog is so thick you can’t see past your frostbitten nose, but that goes without saying. The protagonist lives in the midst of seemingly dull, friendly neighbours, but as the plot thickens we find out that one of them is re-assembling the Baader-Meinhof Gang, another used to run the soap racket at Auschwitz, and yet another did his PhD on the mathematical foundations of the famous chocolate cake, the Sachertorte.
Over the past two centuries, European models for prose fiction have been fossilising with the humility of burnt coal, and at the moment there isn’t a single English writer writing English novels (they write Italian novels like those of Martin Amis), or a single Russian writer who isn’t hell bent on writing English novels, the Swedes write like the Swiss and so on and so forth. Everyone except the French, who are still writing French novels.
Spanish novel is so tiresome
And what about the Spanish? you’re probably asking. The fossilised Spanish novel has to have a police superintendent who comes home shouting: "I'm a Francoist pig and this very instant I’m going to subject my wife to gender-based violence!" Or a country schoolmaster telling an adorable little kid: “I’m a republican schoolteacher, so I’m going to show you the virtues of democracy and humanism using the beautiful example of butterflies.” There are variations on this particular paradigm: the cop character can be a neo-con businessman by day who dresses up as an Afro bishop by night, the schoolmaster can be a transsexual from Cadiz who saves a lovable infant from the lustful clutches of the parish priest. The model is well known and in a catatonic state.
It should be stressed, however, that precisely because the history of the Spanish novel is so tiresome, Spanish writers have lately been specialising in the foreign novel and are currently turning out ever-better examples of foreign literature. Which has quite turned the tables on the English writers, who are now doing perfect imitations of English novels written by Spaniards.
Hailing a young master
We could go on and on in this vein, but as you’ve guessed by now, all the above is a hoax. A MacGuffin. An artful subterfuge to keep the reader’s attention with cheap tricks in order to get to the serious part of this article, which is actually a paean to a writer I consider the most outstanding of the up-and-coming novelists (though I have only just realised it). I’m talking about Patricio Pron, whose El comienzo de la primavera (The Beginning of Spring) is a masterpiece. I used a clumsy artifice to extol this dense and perfect novel because I didn’t want to ruin the reading of it for you and I think it could be best summed up as a German novel in the noblest sense. Which, in the Spanish tradition, makes it a hapax.
If I now add that Pron is on a par with the best of Sebald and the first Handke, if I say he’s on a first-name basis with Bernhard or surpasses Jelinek, you won’t believe me, hence the facetious tone of this article: mere cowardice on my part. An excellent sweetener, however, seeing as the story Pron tells is awesome, a highly-wrought plot in which an investigator stalks the elusive figure of a philosopher, a disciple of Heidegger’s, halfway across Germany, till the pursuit of the man becomes the pursuit of the concept itself, and we imperceptibly slide from emotion to reflection on that fragile substance that allows us to believe we are something that others can ever actually know. In the end, however, we’re just an old photograph nobody remembers anymore. There is no greater pleasure than hailing a young master and saying, "Bravo! Now it’s our turn to learn from you." And the second-greatest pleasure is learning from young people.