domingo, 15 de diciembre de 2013

El sueño de los héroes


El sueño de los héroes (Alianza Editorial/Emecé, 1984)
by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Argentina, 1954

A lo largo de tres días y de tres noches del carnaval de 1927 la vida de Emilio Gauna logró su primera y misteriosa culminación.  Que alguien haya previsto el terrible término acordado y, desde lejos, haya alterado el fluir de los acontecimientos, es un punto difícil de resolver.  Por cierto, una solución que señalara a un oscuro demiurgo como autor de los hechos que la pobre y presurosa inteligencia humana vagamente atribuye al destino, más que una luz nueva añadiría un problema nuevo.  Lo que Gauna entrevió hacia el final de la tercera noche llegó a ser para él como un ansiado objeto mágico, obtenido y perdido en una prodigiosa aventura.  Indagar esa experiencia, recuperarla, fue en los años inmediatos la conversada tarea que tanto lo desacreditó ante los amigos.
(El sueño de los héroes, 7)

[During the three days and nights of the carnival of 1927 the life of Emilio Gauna reached its first mysterious climax.  It is difficult to decide whether someone had foreseen the terrible end decreed and had altered the chain of events from afar.  Of course to claim that an obscure demiurge was responsible for events which our poor human intelligence in its haste vaguely attributes to destiny, would add a new problem without shedding new light.  What Gauna glimpsed toward the end of the third night became for him like a magic possession he longed to regain, won and lost in a marvelous adventure.  In the years immediately following he became obsessed with trying to investigate and recall that experience.  This constant topic of conversation greatly discredited him in the eyes of his friends.]
(The Dream of Heroes, translated from the Spanish by Diana Thorold,* 1)
 
Buenos Aires, 1927.  Having just won a thousand pesos at the track, the twenty-one year old Emilio Gauna invites a group of his friends to help him spend the money during the last three nights of the carnival.  "Ya sobrará tiempo para ahorrar y sacrificarse" ["There'll be plenty of time later to save and scrape"], says Gauna.  "Esta vez nos divertiremos todos" ["This time we're all going to enjoy ourselves" (9, 3 in translation).  After a three night bender indulged in by all, Gauna wakes up alone on the jetty of the lake in Palermo without knowing how he'd arrived there and with only some vague recollections having to do with an enchanting masked woman, found and then lost during the tumult of the carnival revelry, and of a knife fight waged under the light of the moon, "entre árboles, rodeado por gente" ["among trees, surrounded by people"] (23, 19 in translation), pitting him against his not entirely trustworthy friend Dr. Valerga.  Had the young man merely dreamed all this in an alcoholic haze?  Three years later, now married to a girl named Clara but still immaturely obsessed with what he refers to as "la aventura de los lagos" ["the adventure of the lakes"] or "el misterio de los lagos" ["the mystery of the lakes"] (26 & 30, 23 & 30 in translation), Gauna fixates on the carnival of 1930 to see if, by retracing his steps in the company of his drinking companions, he'll somehow be able to repeat the experience of the 1927 carnival and summon up the mysterious masked woman who had so captivated him and recall all he had forgotten about that presumably magical last night that had haunted him ever since.  Not the sort of premise I usually go for but one that Adolfo Bioy Casares seizes on to deliver a stone cold sucker punch of a novel that just clobbered me with its soulfulness and its invention.  Truth be told, El sueño de los héroes has a little of everything that you could possibly want in a "carnival novel"--moments of high intensity writing; an unpredictable plotline; a moving love story; meditations on time and fate on a par with Borges' "El sur"; a modern reworking of the quest romance with some unexpectedly fine scenes dedicated to the friendship between Gauna and his roommate Larsen; and this being "old" Buenos Aires, lots of knife fights and unsavory underworld scenes--all delivered by an avuncular but altogether slippery narrator whose identity is itself unknown.  What more could you want?  To give you an example of the high wire risks Bioy Casares is willing to take on in the service of his story, he introduces a potentially ridiculous character named the Brujo Taboada whom the Dream of Heroes translator Diana Thorold refers to as the Sorcerer Taboada.  Although neither Gauna nor his companions profess to believe in the Sorcerer's powers, they pay him a visit anyway, half out of boredom and half on a dare.  Kind of silly?  That's what I feared at first until I read Taboada telling Gauna this: "En el futuro corre, como un río, nuestro destino, según lo dibujamos aquí abajo.  En el futuro está todo, porque todo es posible.  Allí usted murió la semana pasada y allí está viviendo para siempre.  Allí usted se ha convertido en un hombre razonable y también se ha convertido en Valerga" ["Our destiny flows into the future like a river; that's how we imagine it down here.  In the future everything exists because everything is possible.  There you died last week and there you are alive for ever.  There you have become a reasonable man and there you have become Valerga"] (35, 37 in translation).  "There you died last week"?  That got my attention.  As it turns out, Gauna's future wife Clara just happens to be Taboada's daughter, and Taboada eventually tells her that he'd interrupted Gauna's destiny.  When Taboada himself dies and our hero's preoccupation with the carnival of 1927 begins to complicate his relationship with his wife, the narrator intrudes into the story jongleur-like to pass along the following personal opinion to his audience: "El destino es una útil invención de los hombres.  ¿Qué habría pasado si algunos hechos hubieran sido distintos?  Ocurrió lo que debía ocurrir; esta modesta enseñanza resplandece con luz humilde, pero diáfana, en la historia que les refiero.  Sin embargo, yo sigo creyendo que la suerte de Gauna y de Clara sería otra si el Brujo no hubiese muerto" ["The concept of destiny is a useful invention by man.  What would have happened if certain events had been different?  What happened is what had to happen--a modest lesson that shines with a humble but diaphanous light in the story I am now telling you.  Nevertheless, I still believe that the fate of Gauna and Clara would have been different if the Sorcerer had not died"] (116, 133 in translation).  This tension between the predetermined, the unavoidable and the alterable parts of one's destiny is maintained with admirable subtlety up until the very end of the novel.  The problem with all this?  Even Gauna eventually learns that "el presente es único" ["there can only be one present"] (151, 176 in translation).  A banality?  Perhaps.  Or at least that seems like it might be the case until the moment when the third nights of the carnivals in 1927 and 1930 finally manage to merge before our eyes in a feat of exemplary storytelling.  Although I won't say any more about how the novel resolves Gauna's attempt to return to his past, a quest that our poor hero will find entails more than its fair share of sordidness and brutality directed at men and women, children and beasts--"Él miro los ojos del caballo tendido en el suelo.  Por ese dolor, por esa tristeza, manifestaba su partipación en la vida" ["He looked at the eyes of the horse stretched out on the ground.  By the pain and sadness expressed in those eyes, the animal showed that it was still clinging avidly to life"] (144, 167-168 in translation)--I'd be remiss if I didn't share one more example of the novelist's bag of narrative tricks.  This is how the narrator opens one of the concluding chapters: "Ahora hay que andar despacio, muy cuidadosamente.  Lo que de contar es tan extraño, que si no explico todo con claridad no me entenderán ni me creerán.  Ahora empieza la parte mágica de este relato; o tal vez todo él fuera mágico y sólo nosotros no hayamos advertido su verdadera naturaleza.  El tono de Buenos Aires, descreído y vulgar, tal vez nos engaño" [I must now proceed slowly and very carefully.  What I have to tell is so strange that if I do not explain it all clearly no one will understand or believe me.  Now begins the magical part of this story, or perhaps it has all been magical, only we have failed to perceive its true nature.  We may have been misled by the atmosphere of Buenos Aires, sceptical and vulgar" (161, 189 in translation).  Not much to add to that other than, whether magical or sceptical and vulgar or all of the above, I completely fell for this book and fell hard unexpectedly.  No complaints from here.



Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914-1999)

*I read the embarrassingly ugly 1984 Argentinean and Spanish edition of El sueño de los héroes pictured at the top of this post.  To give you a smoother translation experience for a change, I borrowed all quotes in English from the almost equally ugly British edition of The Dream of Heroes translated by Diana Thorold for Quartet Books in 1987.

14 comentarios:

  1. Great review.

    I am kind of sucker for a mystical and mysterious plot such as this. When it goes hand in hand with what seems like literary prowess it is even more appealing. I might read this one.

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    1. Thanks, Brian--that post was a struggle, and I finally gave up on it. Glad it's readable at least! I think this story might be right up your alley given some other things you've said you liked. It's not my usual cup of tea in terms of the premise, but it was extraordinarily well-written in terms of its construction and juiciness.

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  2. Forgive me, but I can't get out of my head the image of Kim Novak pointing to the rings of the redwood tree in Vertigo and intoning, "Here I was born…and here I died." This is not the first time I've been led to want to read Casares, but your review is likely to make me take the plunge. Sounds like a winner.

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    1. Scott, I've read short stories by Bioy that were structurally "impressive" but still left me kind of cold (kind of like Borges' work at times). This novel was a knockout, though--easily one of the best things I've read all year. I should re-watch Vertigo (and some other Hitchcock) this winter break--can't remember the line you mention, but it fits in well with the Dreams of Heroes atmosphere for sure.

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  3. A few years ago I was on an ABC binge reading and read this one too. Personally I found it a bit dull, too slow. You also mention feeling cold at some of his stories, yes, I'd use that adjective for this novel too. But the intricacy of the plot, especially the way it converges towards that amazing conclusion, has always made he keep a lasting respect for it.

    Have you read his second novel, Plan for Escape? I think that's his best novel, perhaps one of the best novels of my life.

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    1. Miguel, I particularly appreciate you weighing in here because, this being my first Bioy Casares novel completed, I could use your input. Already own La invención de Morel (started but only partially read in the past), of course, and Diario de la guerra del cerdo (which I just bought on Friday last week) but will definitely keep Plan for Escape in mind. As far as this novel, I'm curious if you read it in Spanish or in translation--i.e. was the language flat or just the story overall somewhat dull to you in spite of the intricacy you appreciated? I thought it was quite lively on both counts. In any event, I have a feeling I might have an ABC binge of my own coming up in 2014--how could I not after your words in support of Plan for Escape?

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    2. Sorry for the late reply, I read it in Portuguese, like all my ABCs. My impression of him is that he started strong, with The Invention of Morel, then peaked with Plan for Escape, and then a slow decline ensued with Dream of Heroes, Diary of the War of the Pig, and Asleep in the Sun, where I stopped. Next time I read him it'll probably be in Spanish, to widen my choices.

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    3. No worries about the "late reply," Miguel! I was curious about the language you read it in, though, because even though the translation I borrowed from for my post was serviceable, it lacked the zip of Bioy Casares' Spanish (probably through no fault of the translator). Anyway, if The Dream of Heroes really represents the beginning of "a slow decline," that makes Bioy Casares' earlier stuff sound even more mouth-watering. Exciting news!

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  4. I´ve only read "La invención de Morel", It would be great to read another magical book of Bioy Casares. :)

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    1. Andrómeda, I agree! Of course, maybe I should go back and finish La invención de Morel before long. ¡Saludos!

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  5. I have "La invención de Morel" on my shelf, which will be my first Bioy Casares - I'm really looking forward to it now!
    also, just a quick note to say that I might be joining you for "Yo el Supremo" in May - I've had some issues commenting on Blogspot blogs lately, so I haven't been able to comment on the original post. I hope this works now...

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    1. Bettina, thanks so much for the visit despite the comments issues (have had the same problems of late elsewhere, sometimes due to IE acting up on various blogs and/or computers). Would love to have you join us for Yo el Supremo if the planetary forces align! I've had La invención de Morel at hand for years now and somehow never managed to get beyond the first 20-30 pages or so. Am very excited about reading that and other Bioy Casares stuff in 2014 now that I've seen how rich El sueño de héroes is for myself. Cheers!

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  6. Intriguing post. I certainly intend reading an ABC next year after reading it and the comments.

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    1. Séamus, I was surprised by just how much I liked this novel although perhaps I shouldn't have been since it's on Ignacio Echevarría's list of the essential books in Spanish language literature since the 1950s. I think it's a worthy companion to Onetti's A Brief Life and Rulfo's Pedro Páramo, not that it resembles them in anything except quality. Cheers!

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