Apr/May 2014

Code Unknown

Minna Proctor


In How Literature Saved My Life, David Shields argues for a pastiche, or collage form, in the personal essay. The logic is that a personal essay represents real life, which occurs in bits, pieces, interruptions, associations, contingencies, and the best-laid plans—and so the writing about real life should represent the battle between chaos and order. If that’s a fair argument, then how does it apply to the fiction of pastiche? Fiction is not answerable to real life, and so what is the point, exactly, of mirroring life’s chaos?

Navidad & Matanza, Chilean novelist Carlos Labbé’s first book in English translation, wreaks havoc on narrative rules from the start and keeps doing it pretty much constantly. The chapters are numbered, for example, from one to a hundred, but there are seventy-one chapters missing from the count. The narrator introduces himself in the first chapter: His “password” is Domingo. Then in the second chapter he explains that the whole book is written in code (meaning, among other things, that his password isn’t really Domingo). “Also,” he adds, “I’ll probably insert pieces of pure, hard reality into the story I’m going to tell you. Does that sound okay?” It looks like a shell game but isn’t. It’s a fictional world where the story gets told in bits, pieces, interruptions, associations, and contingencies.

There are at least nine different ways to explain what Navidad & Matanza is about—each version equally accurate and equally inadequate. Here’s one version: The story starts in the middle of a behaviorist experiment. Seven biology students, who also happen to be interested in creative writing, are confined in a subterranean dormitory and dosed with hadón, an anger drug. To pass the time before they either escape or kill each other off, they play a novel-game, which has each one contributing a chapter to a novel by e-mail, exquisite-corpse style: “It involved rolling dice,” Domingo explains, “moving your token to a space with prefigured plotlines and formal constraints, writing a text according to those constraints and, that night, mailing this text to the other participants. Everyone had been assigned a day of the week, except Sunday, a day of rest. It was a game of complex rules and seduction. And the result was out of control.” In this particular battle between chaos and order, we’re challenged to assume that Domingo, as Sunday, is exempted; and to assume that Domingo is the supreme over-narrator; and to consider the possibility that the story we are about to read has several narrators and that Domingo is one of them and that he’s been assigned another day besides Sunday.

The story-within-the-story concerns the disappearance of two wealthy teenagers—a boy and a girl—during a family beach vacation in the Chilean town Navidad. A journalist (apparently named Carlos Labbé) becomes obsessed with the case, because shortly before the disappearance, he’d written a puff profile of the family, who’d made their fortune in video games and held majority stock in the paper he worked for. The scene of the interview at the family’s luxurious home is macabre—sinister at worst, creepy at best. “Only after being in that house and hearing the news of the disappearance of those two children—which didn’t surprise me—can I explain the shudder I experience when I read that the Chilean family is the moral foundation of our country’s ruling class.”

After the children’s disappearance, the boy, Bruno, is spotted occasionally with his uncle Boris Real in Navidad and the neighboring town of Matanza—on beaches, playing towel-stealing pranks on pretty young women. Boris also occasionally appears as a Congolese theremin player, alias Patrice Dounn. Although there are no similar clues about the young girl Alicia’s whereabouts, the journalist realizes that he’d encountered her and the shadowy uncle already, eight years before the disappearance at a children’s violin recital in an amphitheater. The investigation eventually leads the journalist back to the beach where the teenagers first disappeared. And that’s where the mystery of the lost children is solved and a kind of battle for narrative domination begins: Is it a love story, a whodunit about child abuse, science fiction, or a hallucinogenic dystopia novel?

Navidad & Matanza is all of the above, and a game; an extraordinary one, in fact—a short, complex novel of ever-shifting rules and perpetual sleight of hand—that has the suspense of a crime novel and the hungry drive of a romance. The splicing of genres and the subversion of clichés make this not a novel for people who enjoy knowing what’s going on. But the elegant language, precise and haunted, and quite subtly translated into exactly the right naturalistic English by newcomer Will Vanderhyden, is seductive. It teases, embraces, and is entirely convincing, often intimate, even as the story slides away from you. “Literature is a lie,” explains the narrator at a certain point. “Embrace the wind. . . . It is a game. Not a novel. There is no story. Only rules.” These words seem to speak in the idiom of coyness, but are heartbreaking when you realize that the narrator is admitting that the most unsolvable mysteries belong to real life.

Art does not imitate life or vice versa, the journalist explains, “for the same reason that people normally hang mirrors in the bathroom or behind the door and not on the bedroom wall facing the bed.” Art imitates art; it’s a story. And yet, like the mournful theremin music that sounds across the night beach as the novel winds to a close, there is a longing in art, a willful period of confusion, a transcendence, a resolution that purposely doesn’t disturb the chaotic harmonies of the real universe—but provides respite from them. This is Labbé’s landscape, where the reader navigates the mystery of children disappearing, the power of unrequited love and anger, and the constructs—mazes, psychological experiments, novel-games. All of it nicely contained: “We’ll never be allowed to experience a desire we simply cannot handle,” the journalist says about love, the most chaotic of longings. What is a love story, after all, if not a wilderness in a diorama?

Minna Proctor is the editor of the Literary Review and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.

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